Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Self-Consciousness

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

The book of laughter and forgetting

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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie makes a confession that might strike those of us who haven’t written more than sixty novels as rather strange:

Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when, or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.

Christie says the same thing about a novel that followed two years later: “Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on me that I cannot even remember writing it.” In On Writing, Stephen King makes a similar admission: “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.” To be fair, Christie and King were monstrously prolific, and in both cases, there may have been other factors involved—Christie had suffered from a “fugue state” several years earlier in which she disappeared for ten days without explanation, while King was drinking heavily and using drugs. But even novelists with more mundane lifestyles have reported a similar kind of amnesia. On rereading her novel The Autograph Man, which she bought on an impulse at an airport, Zadie Smith recounts: “The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognize, didn’t remember writing.”

I find these testimonials oddly reassuring, because they tell me that I’m not alone. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I came up with one of the most important characters in the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief. If I tried, I could probably reconstruct it, and I’ve even written a whole author’s commentary devoted to preserving this kind of information. But it’s still troubling. I’ve published only three novels, the most recent of which appeared less than four years ago, but I don’t think I could tell you much about them today. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t like reading my old work: in the essay that I quoted above, Smith refers to the “nausea” that overcomes her when she looks back at her books, as well as “a feeling of fraudulence,” and I think most authors can relate to that revulsion. Yet it doesn’t entirely account for how little I remember. In the moment, writing a novel feels unbelievably hard, and it consists of so many discrete choices that I’ve even used it as an argument in favor of the existence of free will—but afterward, it seems to evaporate completely. Which just means that it’s like everything else in life, except that it leaves a more tangible trace of itself behind. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike writes:

That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world—it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives.

Not only can’t I recall much about writing The Icon Thief, but when I look at pictures of my daughter as a baby, from just two or three years ago, I can barely seem to remember that, either. I’d laugh about it, but it also makes me very sad.

And I suspect that a lot of parents would report the same phenomenon. Part of this is because we tend to have children at an age when time already seems to pass more quickly, but there’s also something else involved. It’s generally agreed that forgetting plays an important role in memory. In a paper first published in 1970, the psychologist Robert A. Bjork argued that forgetting is a way of minimizing interference between old and new experiences:

When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information. In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting. If one views the human cognitive apparatus as an ongoing information-handling system, it is clear that some mechanism to update the system, to keep the system current, is crucial…The positive function of any such forgetting mechanism is to prevent information no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information.

Bjork went on to provide an example that seems more resonant the more I think about it:

Consider the information processing task faced by the typical short-order cook. He must process one by one…a series of orders that have high interorder similarity. Once he is through with “scramble two, crisp bacon, and an English,” his later processing of similar but not identical orders can only suffer to the degree that he has not, in effect, discarded “scrambled two, crisp bacon, and an English.”

The crucial phrase here, I think, is “interorder similarity.” It’s the everyday things that we tend to forget first. I have trouble reconstructing my daily routine from earlier periods in my life, like what I ate for breakfast in my twenties, but exceptional events, like travel to foreign countries, remain relatively vivid. There’s nothing odd about the idea that unusual or striking memories would persist more strongly, but you could also turn that argument on its head: the days that were more or less the same as the ones that followed are more likely to be discarded because they interfere with surrounding information. This allows us to focus on the problems of each day without distraction, but over time, it can turn entire years into a blur. That’s certainly true of writing novels, in which the sameness of each day’s work allows for those rare moments in which inspiration takes place. (It’s noteworthy that both Christie and King were genre novelists who reworked the same conventions over the course of many books. You could also say the same thing about many “literary” authors like Updike, whose novels tend to blend together. And I’d be curious to know if a writer whose style and themes change radically between novels, like David Mitchell or Mark Helprin, would have a different perspective.) Writing a novel, like raising a baby, can also be unpleasant, and perhaps this selective amnesia is what fools us into trying it again. Smith writes of The Autograph Man: “Between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.” Sometimes you have to make a similar kind of truce with the past to go on living, and forgetfulness is where it begins. As Hercule Poirot would say, it’s a matter of little grey cells, and we can’t expect to hold onto them forever.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

Looking forward, looking back

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The Scythian Trilogy

If you ask a man how many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.”

—Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century

Every now and then, I’ll go over to the bookshelf, pull down a copy of one of my own novels, and idly leaf through the pages. Whenever I do, my first thought is usually, Hey, this isn’t bad. But I can’t say that I’m all that tempted to read them over again. Finished works are like the old girlfriends or boyfriends of the writing life: they’ve left you with some lasting memories and some regrets, but now that it’s all over and done, you don’t necessarily want to go poking around to see what might be there today. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t written a novel can understand the ambivalence with which a writer regards a story that used to be a living, growing entity, and now is something closer to a dead thing, with its mistakes and typos still intact. I like my novels; they were always books that I wanted to read myself. But going back to revisit them again now feels a little like digging around into matters that shouldn’t be disturbed. As the members of Spinal Tap say about their first drummer, who died in a bizarre gardening accident: “The authorities said it was best to leave it unsolved.”

John Updike says somewhere in Self-Consciousness that it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of death, since we’ve all successively taken on and given up a series of selves that might as well be other people entirely. I have a feeling that he was pushed into that insight by his work as a novelist, which superimposes a second layer of reinvention on the changes that we all undergo. A writer is never quite the same person he was while writing a particular novel: you immerse yourself for a year or so in a web of lives that feel very real in the moment, but they’re diminished the second you turn to the next story. I’ve always said that a draft of any novel amounts to a message from my past self to the future, and that’s doubly true of everything that ended up in print. I vaguely remember the months of work that each book required, and certain moments in the creative process are indelibly vivid, but a lot of it has faded into a kind of creative haze. Keeping focused on the work at hand is hard enough; if you want to give the current story everything you have, you need to kill all those old darlings.

The Scythian Trilogy

But that can be its own kind of trap. I’ve often thought that the secret to living a fulfilling life, not that I’ve managed to do this myself, is less about transforming into something better than about fully integrating all the old selves that we’ve left behind. If we could face each day as the sum of our experiences from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, with all those strange byways and fleeting obsessions and forgotten loves and hates organized into one person, we’d emerge as beings of incredible complexity, no matter how mundane the individual pieces might be. In practice, that’s not how we approach life: we’re more concerned with the little dilemmas that confront us every morning than with finding a shape for the whole. (Say what you will about psychoanalysis, but its underlying project—to understand the present in terms of the past—is hugely important, and it’s no surprise that it can require a lifetime of talk just to process what has already happened.) That’s true of writing, too. You do a better job of solving the problems in front of you if you have some sense of where you’ve been before, which means fighting against the amnesia that descends once you’ve moved on from an old story.

That’s a big part of the reason why I’ve spent so much time on the writer’s commentaries on The Icon Thief and City of Exiles. Like a lot of features on this blog, they’re really something I do for myself, even if I’d like to think that other readers—even those who haven’t picked up any of the novels—might get something out of it as well. They’re an excuse to confront old pages, gleaning any lessons I can from whatever I find there, while always remaining honest about their shortcomings: otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a point. Sometimes I’m a little confused by my own conclusions; I still can’t decide if City of Exiles is the strongest novel in the series or the weakest. But even that confusion has its place. Next week, I’m going to start the process all over again for Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, and the one that I probably know the least well. If it inspires you to purchase a copy, that’s fantastic, but selling books was never really the point here. It’s more a way of setting down certain impressions for my own edification before time and distance erase them all. That may seem like a lot to put on three books that were never intended to be much more than smart, diverting thrillers. But that’s how it always feels when you look up an old flame.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

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