Tag Archives: aging

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

Poems From My High School Days

In the name of being thorough and keeping myself humble, here are some poems I wrote when I was in high school, 20+ years ago:

Ode to Writing a Poem

poetry can be full of Imagery

but it also can be a place for

things that don’t go in Prose

Ode to the Quadratic Formula

i wish i

knew it last week,

about friday

Ode to Writing in the Margins of Notebook Paper

this one



Ode to Cool Stuff

the shoe tree at Boot Hill

an acid trip to the battery store

why not?

Elephants Eating Cotton Candy Through Straws with their Toes (written sometime in the fall of 1990)

my dad got the paper last sunday morning

i read it sunday night

i was going to bring it to school monday

but i forgot it monday

so now it’s tuesday

and I’m going to write a poem now.

Iraq, recession fears push economy to edge

Budget crisis over; Bush to sign bill

How local abortion foes size up election

I think I’ll go do something else now


if i knew what antithesis meant

i might say that this poem was

the antithesis of good poetry.

it’s a good thing

I don’t know what antithesis means.

So: I’m not claiming these poems are as good — as interesting — as poems I’ve written in more recent years. Then why put these out for public view?  I mean, there are many other poems from this same binder (poems written and compiled during a creative writing course) that were far too embarrassing to share; these are perhaps the few that I felt were worth commenting on, the few that seem interesting to me now as a 38-year-old, but a 38-year-old who also remembers, incompletely, being the 16-year-old who wrote them.  I can see that I made some grammar errors  — errors I now despair when I see them in my students’ writing — but which errors I have learned to correct, and this reminds me that my students may one day learn this as well.

I can see a rather absurdist, perhaps smugly clever, perhaps preemptively self-criticizing, sense of humor here, in the Quadratic Formula, Margins of Notepaper, and Antithesis poems. I like that I had a sense of humor. I still like to point out things I find humorous, but I find it all too easy to make things that are merely clever. Much as I enjoy reading clever things for entertainment — The Onion, say — merely clever things don’t feel interesting enough (they’re too often merely reactive, not original enough, not surprising enough) to be art I want to be engaged in making. And then there’s the aspect of cleverness that is smug, that rhetorically positions itself as smarter than the object of ridicule. It’s kinda tedious; it’s not open and honest.

I find here also a sense of self-righteousness in my ideas of what poetry could be, in the Writing a Poem and Elephants Eating Cotton Candy poems. This sense of wanting to write poems that my writing teacher, who seemed to have a traditionalist sensibility, would not appreciate may have been inspired in part by my reading of Richard Brautigan‘s poems in The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster. It strikes me now as odd that I encountered that book as a teenager; I got it from my mom’s bookshelves, which had a lot of books but few by avant-garde writers.  But that book wouldn’t have influenced me had it not resonated with something in me ready to take in those ideas, those modes of expression. Cool Stuff and Elephants Eating now strike me as poems clearly influenced by my reading of Brautigan; perhaps I was even aware of wanting to write in a voice like Brautigan’s, a whimsical-yet-melancholy voice. When I’ve read Brautigan in recent months, I still enjoy the looseness I find there, his willingness to publish unconventional works, but I also sense he was somehow limited in his conception of what his poems should/could be. I don’t sense that he was trying to go beyond his early conceptions.

But my criticisms of Brautigan aren’t the point, except to show how I have, as maybe we all do have, a flexible, perhaps ongoing, relationship with those artists whose work influenced us at an early age. I can see my high-school writing self as precocious — as a teacher of 16-year-olds now, I see few who are interested in similar things. But I was still a young person with a limited sense of what was possible. I see myself as being a bit too clever, as not being willing to let things work out, to become who I was to become. But then, what young person wants to wait to find him/herself?  We want to know some of these things. And we don’t even know the process by which we will find ourselves — I seem to recall thinking that I had to will some of these things.

And in fact, I liked the idea of poetry better than actual poetry, for a lot of years. I thought I should be A Writer, but I didn’t know what kind of writer, or what I should be writing. I picked up other influences through college and after — Kerouac’s On the Road, Gary Snyder’s poems, David Foster Wallace’s essays, Wendell Berry’s essays, James Carse’s essays, and other influences I’m sure I’ve forgotten or wasn’t even fully aware of. Part of me now thinks, who would I have become if I hadn’t had these influences, and if I hadn’t had the other experiences (jobs, etc.)  that led me to being who I now am? But not only is that unknowable, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all too easy, of course, to create a narrative that seems to lead to now. (I’m imagining that scene where Bugs Bunny falls asleep — or is drugged — and somehow the world colludes to provide him with safe passage back to his bunny-lair: things rise up for Bugs to step on; water delivers Bugs back to bed, etc.)

And maybe this post likewise has been leading me to say the following, which following thing I didn’t even know I wanted to say when I started this post: that when I look back  at my old poems, I see things I remember vaguely, and through the memories of these poems, I construct an image of myself as a writer at that time, which image is also tempered by the judgment of my adult perspective. I feel pride at what I see (it’s better than I remember), but also some shame (what I then thought was good, I now don’t). I’m thinking now of some lesson learned, some summary thesis, but I don’t know if there is one. Perhaps the most I can say here is that our past works, our past selves, are things we must come to terms with, things we must try to understand and try to live with, as we try to understand and to get along with everything and everyone else we encounter in life.

As a writing teacher, I’m often reminded that the poems my high school students write are not as likely to surprise and amuse me (though they sometimes do) as are poems written by other adults — adult writers are, let’s say, more in control of their craft, and/or, adults are more likely to withhold poems they write that don’t meet a certain standard. Maybe adults are also more aware of being more accessible, in some ways, to their readers. Maybe as a teen, I was more eager to write poems that annoyed adults and peers because I wanted to provoke and/or exclude those readers. This prompts the thought that poems written by younger poets might be so different from adults’ poems as to be a different genre, to be considered differently. One thing I’m pretty sure that I did not consider as a teen poet was the sound of my poems. I remember thinking that poems were pretty much just different from prose, as Writing a Poem above says pretty literally. That was more or less a pissy manifesto I wrote in answer to the prodding by my teacher to write fewer three-line “odes” — those titles themselves were an intentionally mock-artsy step. I was aware enough to be clever, as some of the bright students I’ve had are, but I was not wise enough to be open. I wanted to assert my freedom from the traditional English-teacher sensibility, and I wanted to ally myself with Brautigan anti-traditional types. And I suspect I would be annoyed, as a 16-year-old, to be analyzed by a 38-year-old.

Post-Script: One of the things that still amuses and amazes me about looking at writing I did 20 years, or even that of 20 minutes ago, is that it came out as well as it did. I have a sense of having been an idiot at every moment in my life up until this current moment. That’ s a ridiculous thought (of the type not uncommon to us obsessives), and yet maybe it’s related to a feeling that I’m in control now and I may not have been fully aware of what I was doing then — which, clearly I was aware enough to pass my classes and otherwise do what needed to be done to survive to the age of 38. Of course, the corollary is that I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing at any moment in life — how much I get by on instinct, on luck, on acting on imperfect knowledge, etc.