Stories are timeless but minds are time: Randomly editing journals

Stories are how we pull our experiences out of time. Stories are how we carry experience forward. Stories are how we get experiences out of time.

Of course, there’s memory, too, for carrying forward experience (though without communicating it), and stories, too, are a form of memory–efficient memory. If I’ve made a story from or out of a momentary experience, then that story sometimes replaces (or almost replaces) the sensory memory. When I talk about the 1998 earthquake experience I had–“cat going left, house going right,” that’s the key line in my story–I only vaguely recall that moment of the earthquake, as I was half-asleep, just waking up. Now I can also recall the light fixture hanging from ceiling doing the penduluming for minutes after, and perhaps recalling the story helps recall the pendulum image-memory, but that’s a snippet at best, a couple seconds of seeing a light fixture, whose shape I don’t recall and though it was in a dining room next to the room I slept in, I don’t recall much else of context of the walls or house, etc.

I have these memories, and memory works associatively– there’s no index of memories, but one might help recall another. Associative memory makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: if you find yourself in a new situation, or in any particular situation, you’ll probably think of past experiences of being in similar situations, and what worked then might work now. And the more situations I’ve been in, the more I can call from–once I lost my dad, I felt I could then relate better to other grieving people.

Story is useful when it carries experience forward–when it plucks experience out of the particular and abstracts it into words. And yet, there’s also a sense that we carry these experiences forward and they shape how we have new experiences (like the heads-up display on the Army helicopter I looked into a couple days ago at Dixon veterans’ park), and to an extent, this stories-up view/perspective of new experience can be useful–reminding myself to stay out of deep grass because ticks might be there. But it also might be limiting. I might look only for particular things on my walk–Where’s the road edge? Are cars coming? Look out for other dogs or critters my dog might want to chase–and I don’t really notice the sky. No, it’s not efficient for my mind to record everything. But I also don’t want to have a mind that merely sees and spits out prior experiences.

I’m thinking of how many allusions I make, and how I noticed this in recent weeks when talking to neighborhood kids, realizing that those young people don’t know what I know. So an allusive writer like Tom Eliot is both a pinnacle of education and also kind of a dead end–he knows a lot; he knows too much to look anew. Not to pick on Tommy Stearns Eliot–lots of media is referential or cliché, (another form of mind-trapped-by-experience, not “trapped,” but “boxed in,” because escape is possible–so I want to assert).

Some stories (such as fairy tales) are traditional in their structure, and some other stories are nontraditional–they don’t make a direct characterization or draw obvious lessons but show moments and let readers draw the conclusions about characters or moral statements about the world. But with my random editing of journals, I’m not really doing either. With the random-selection process, I have not chosen pieces so as to present evidence about character or worldview–I mean, partly I imply this–that what I said on one day may not be what I say on another day, though surely some beliefs or character traits might seem to carry over across time.

In a way, it’s nice or at least OK that I don’t have journals from my childhood–it prevents the attempt to connect childhood tendencies or experiences to adult perspectives, as if we were shaped entirely by our young years. We’re shaped all life long by experiences! The phrase “formative years,” meaning childhood and adolescence, implies that we’re fully formed as adults–but I have kept learning. I don’t deny, of course, that some early experiences are perhaps of disproportionate influence–building the foundations of my mind, of my mind’s heads-up way of seeing and getting by/operating in the world–but I’m hardly “formed” by age 22 or 30 or 45.

Lately I’ve thought of my journal writings as me writing to myself, not to others, and I’ve thought of them as me working out/analyzing, brainstorming–trying to understand my own life and experiences.

Sometimes it can be entertaining just to see how a certain mind will react–like wanting to know person X’s take on event H. Comedians–Robin Williams, say, it’s fun to see what he would do with an idea, or Chris Rock, or, of course, Steve Colbert and Seth Meyers, they have reactions to news every weeknight. My wife, M, says she likes that I still surprise her, and I like her funny comments, too. That is part of liking a person, liking spending time with a person, no? You like hearing what their reactions are; you like listening to how their minds work.

Is there an M style in everything she does? Well, yes and no: no, in that it’s not like she’s peculiar (having traits or habits a comedic impressionist might use) in everything she does, but what she does, she does as M, as herself. She’s gotta use the body and mind she’s got in order to do whatever given task. We do whatever we do as (while being) the people that we are at that time.

My earlier idea was that there’s traditional stories, nontraditional stories, and then my random journal bits. But what are those random bits of journal? They’re not telling an important (because to write or tell a story is to assert its importance/value) story, as trad stories do, and the journals are not merely pointing out possibilities in story structure, as nontrad/experimental stories do, though the journal random edits build on these both. I have been taking anecdotes and complete statements from the randomly selected pages, but there’s been no overall, overarching message, and maybe that’s the key: maybe what my random edit technique asserts is that there is no overarching meaning. There’s no plan or structure to life (beyond what one creates, anyway).

When I’m looking at a whole book of comic strips (like Calvin and Hobbes) or poems (the Collected Poetry of [Anybody]), it seems a bit intimidating–and there’s a sense of one after another, an endless procession of days. And so I don’t usually try to read all of a poems book–that ain’t the point! The point is to be woken up. It’s OK to sample, start anywhere, end anywhere. Each piece of the larger collection is self-contained.

With long stories, you learn (and/or are trapped) in the larger structure– the world of the longer story (fiction or nonfiction), and these longer stories must be fashioned–they can’t be written all at once, so they must be planned out, outlined–and that’s not how anyone lives, and it’s not how ideas really appear/occur. Ideas appear in my mind all-at-once, whole images or sentences, and my journal writings reflect that.

There’s an idea that there’s value in longer texts because they force one (as a writer) to organize one’s thinking. There could be a bias in the culture toward organized thought–it’s simpler for readers to swallow. When I’m mind-tired, I don’t want to wrestle with unfamiliar (experimental-structure) texts. On other hand, short is good, too, when I’m tired.

So what I’m doing is figuring out my experiences each journaling session. My journal is about figuring out my recent experiences, processing them, perhaps learning from them, and so a journal reflects (maybe doesn’t fully capture, but at least reflects) my mind, the current level of training of my mind each day. “Training” there is used broadly–whatever media I took in yesterday may be a kind of training, well, a small part of the training. I guess the way I’m using “training” here is similar to how I’ve used the term “sensibility” before–the current status of one’s mind, the way in which you’d respond to the world today, how you’d create today, even as I have created this journal text today and continue to create it at this moment.

Each new idea is born whole and born of my mind at its current training. A mind is new all the time. I’m a different mind later today than I am now. Hell, I’m a different mind now than I was when I started this day’s journal. What journals allow us to do is see the mind at various changes/states/shapes/versions, different versions of the mind. Each moment is whole but/and unique, like snapshots of a kaleidoscope.

Time is consciousness. A moment of time is (or might as well be considered) an idea–it’s only by changing thoughts that I know time is changing. A story allows one to condense time and preserve a version of an experience across time, pulling ideas out of time. This makes stories seem timeless–which allows us to see the common human experience Iliad characters have — how their experiences weren’t so different from ours 3,000 years later.

But no one can live in a timeless story (as I once kinda thought I could) because we live in time! We also are not aligned in our daily living with plots and themes. We live not just key scenes but we live all the conscious moments of a day! And that’s what the journals (written in real time for a portion, not a whole, of each day) reflect.

[Edited from Friday, 28 June 2019 journal.]

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