Tag Archives: memory

‘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.

Disenchanting Santa

An Illinois winter

An Illinois winter

As I was writing the previous post, it started becoming this post, and it seemed best to separate them. But this post does build on the idea of outgrowing the belief in magic that fiction may require.

As I’ve grown up, I don’t really feel a need to believe in magic — I don’t often feel enchanted, and I don’t feel like the loss of magic is a bad thing. I read something this week that said children pass through a developmental stage of thinking magically, and I’ve been pondering this idea as I’ve been thinking about Christmas and how much the stories around Christmas (the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, but also the stories of Santa, Frosty, the Grinch, etc.) require magic. I don’t know, I guess, why we need to believe in magic. I don’t want to disillusion the children I know — perhaps I’m a little bitter about having been disillusioned about the holiday years ago.

In my memory, there’s this connection: The Christmas Eve I was 9, as I was carrying the garbage to our farm’s burn barrel (I was trying to be good so that I deserved our family’s holiday celebration), I got the idea that I should ask for a Bible for Christmas. Somehow I was going to become A Good Person by asking for a Bible and living by it (whatever that actually meant, I’m not sure, and I probably wasn’t sure at the time. My family wasn’t particularly religious, and maybe I just had an impulse toward purity or self-control or something. I was 9 — what did I know?). I somehow made this into a test of the Divine: my last-minute request would be fulfilled, if Santa, and by extension, God, were real enough to read my mind, as they must be able to, if indeed they are Santa and God. But I didn’t get a Bible. Unwrapped under the tree the next day — the first Christmas in the apartment we had moved into after my parents’ divorce — were a baseball bat and helmet that I recognized as having come from a store’s going-out-of-business sale months earlier. I knew right away that these things couldn’t have come from Santa, but I questioned my mother about this later that day (even then, I was intense — obsessive — enough to need an answer. I have never been one to privately hold a doubt that could be shared publicly.) My poor mother, who was trying to do the best she could that first Christmas, on a reduced income and without parenting help, admitted that she was the source of the gifts from Santa.

I believe she also said that Santa may not be an actually existing person, but that I could think of Santa as the spirit of generosity. It’s a nice thought as far as it goes, but it’s hard to be satisfied with an abstraction substituted for a being of simple magic.

And I don’t even know why I have held onto this story for, well, 30 years now. Was I really that devastated — I mean, was this the single biggest moment of disillusionment in my life? I admit that I’ve led a pretty lucky life, if finding out about Santa is my biggest let-down. Am I trotting out this story as an explanation for why I still don’t feel I can trust in magic or, for that matter, God? I seldom find that such facile tales can be a complete explanation.

And yet, just now as I write this, I’m realizing what I couldn’t have understood at age 9 — that maybe finding out that Santa wasn’t real only months after finding out that my stable family life wasn’t real, either, was just a bit too much for me to take.

I have never really thought about this in this way before. My parents’ divorce was amicable, was relatively easy, and there was never any abuse or loud fighting — there was no need to be upset. Yet maybe I was upset but couldn’t quite admit it.

Of course, I was a weird kid at that age — I started reading “1984” the next year, because the next year was THE 1984, and I must’ve heard about Orwell’s book in the news or from a teacher or something, and wanted to prove that I could read such an adult book. (I didn’t read more than about a hundred pages, which is probably for the best — I didn’t need to find out about rat-torture when I was 10.) But with the divorce, and the move, and the new school, new friends, and then new world-without-Santa that year, I was probably under a lot of what I would now call stress and then didn’t know what to call it at all.

And again, I hesitate to pinpoint one moment in my past, one story, as determinative, mostly because to do so is bullshit. (One of my high school students, having recently read my blog piece about the Grinch, said she liked the Grinch’s backstory that’s in the Jim Carrey movie but not in the Seuss original. I generally find “backstory” worthless — let’s not oversimplify every character’s  action to a simple cause-and-effect from a childhood trauma.) There are many reasons — or no reasons at all — why a person is who he is and does what he does: biology, genetics, social influences, unconscious learning, etc.

But for some reason, I have been thinking a lot lately about this finding-out-about-Santa moment, and the part of who I am that I have access to is my past, and this past (faulty though I know memory to be) is something I can and do re-evaluate and continue to learn from over time. I don’t tell the story above to be maudlin, though I acknowledge that it may strike some readers that way. I guess I want to explain to myself why I’m not keen on Santa or on “Christmas magic,” and maybe this explanation above does hold insight.

Most of the year, of course, I don’t think too much about magic. I dismiss magic or Divine Will — these are not useful explanations. When others tell ghost stories, I remind myself that identifying something as a ghost is merely a subjective jump-to-conclusion after some unverifiable experience. I prefer evidence and reason and even non-answers (open questions) to bullshit answers.

Maybe my lack of faith is connected to my lack of desire to read fiction. Maybe not. Most of the time, I don’t value either faith or fiction. And even an explanation about my past is itself just a story, perhaps useful and perhaps not. But I feel a need to summarize at this point in the post — or, rather, I feel a need to reach out to some higher truth, some insight that feels right. Maybe none is forthcoming now. Perhaps later.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

Links: 32 January 2013

(By the way, I know most people don’t live with a 32-day January, but I like to super-size my January, thus reducing the preposterity that is the bob-tailed month of February.)

1. An exercise I’ve used with my creative writing students, the 6-word story, is often credited to Hemingway, apparently wrongly.

2. Andrei Codrescu’s comment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” this week:

You probably haven’t heard me in a while because I haven’t heard myself in a while. You’ve heard the sage advice to keep your thoughts to yourself. But I decided to go a step farther and tell my thoughts to keep themselves to themselves, so that not even I – the host of these unknown thoughts – would have an inkling as to what they are. It’s a wonderful discipline. It’s like the silence of a silent monk, times two.

I don’t miss my thoughts. Whatever they are thinking in there, hidden from my awareness, don’t harm me and no one else – far as I can tell.

3. Danny Defoe’s 18th C. media awareness.

4. An AVClub piece critical of intentional mediocrity in mass-market movies.

5. Stanley Fish makes a point about critical distance.

6. On sleep and memory.

7. In defense of the lecture.

8. Memorizing poems has value, this post reminds us.

9. E-book sales not so hot anymore; paper books may survive after all the hype that said they wouldn’t.

10. A Thomas Gray poem, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”

11. On the portrayal of nerds in popular culture.

Links: Broken-art museum, Vonnegut, et al

1. A museum of art works that have been “totaled” — broken but insured. An interesting way to think about what art is.

2. More Vonnegut letters’ discussion.

3. Photos and memory.

Thanks again to The Dish.

Links: Wither diaries?

The New York Times Room for Debate feature discusses the role/value of diaries in the age of social media. I don’t personally use the word “diary,” for some reason, though my journals contain diary-stuff sometimes. Through there, I also enjoyed this link to a Morgan library diary exhibit overview.

Other links, via The Dish: death, memory, and writers as not-regular-people.