Carl Wilson has written an essay, My So-Called Adulthood for The New York Times, which explores the anti-nostalgic set of Generation X (those who came of age in the 90s versus the 80s).
Despite what Wilson says, Xers actually displayed an early appetite for nostalgia; however, the plethora of bad remakes (Smurfs, for one, and now talk of Dirty Dancing) has taken most of the fun out of remembering. Ugh.
The essay was published on August 4, and the Arts Journal fittingly titled their link to it Smells Like Middle-Aged Spirit. Here is an excerpt, which resonated with me as it distinguishes between nostalgia and memoir.
“There’s a model here for nostalgia that doesn’t wish away the distance between past and present; doesn’t romanticize the past as tragic and heroic, and doesn’t simply trivialize it (as so much 1980s nostalgia did) as trite and silly. Instead, it highlights our compulsion to interrogate our ghosts in search of meaning — and the inexorable way they slip our grasp.
That seems like one way for the ’90s rewind to amount to more than a mess of pastel scrunchies and rock-rap reunions. As we know from remix culture, zombie movies, and Heraclitus, what’s revived is never truly faithful to the original; it consists of the productive distortion the present permits. But it can remind us that memory is material and nostalgia is never transparent; the past doesn’t truly come back, and the future never really arrives.”
As I return to memoir writing and the exploration of my own past, I find several ghosts in need of interrogation. There are even more that need edifying. These ghosts are not dead but still gone. They are me at five and 13; 29 and 21. They have stories to tell, and I have begun once again to listen to them.
Why do you tell your stories?
Why do we write memoirs or autobiographies? Why must we share our ghosts’ secrets?
In my early 30s I taught a college class, Writing Your Life Story. I recently dug out the books I used in that class and started exploring answers to these questions. Here are a five reasons to tell your stories — too interrogate and edify your ghosts, via wisdom from those texts. (Nostalgia be damned.)
Reason 1: To free ourselves and in so doing become happier and greater
From If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland:
“Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self. And why find it? Because it is, I think your immortal soul and the life of the Spirit, and if we can only free it and respect it and not run it down, and let it move and work, it is the way to be happier and greater.”
Reason 2: To face the truth in a way you can never lie about it again, and become stronger for it.
From Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
“In writing class painful things come up — the death of a husband, throwing the ashes of a baby into a river, a woman going blind…writing is the aim. It is an opportunity to take the emotions we have felt many times and give them light, color, and a story. We can transform anger into steaming red tulips and sorrow into an old alley full of squirrels in the half light of November…I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.”
Reason 3: To discover what has driven our lives.
From Old Friend From Faraway by Natalie Goldberg
“Memoir is not a declaration of the American success story, one undeviating road, the conquering of one mountaintop after another…Whatever your life, it is urging you to record it — to embrace the crumbs with the cake. It’s why so many of us want to write memoir. We know the particulars, but what really went on? We want the emotional truths under the surface that drove our life…”
Reason 4: To share what we know
From Henry Thoreau
“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
Reason 5: To bear witness to a time and a place
From Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
“Most good memoir turns out not to be about the memoirist at all. Survival in Auschwitz cannot be said to be primarily about Primo Levi, though it is his memory and experience that brings light dark days. Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa is certainly more about colonialism than about Dinesen. Then there are the hard cases: Is a A Moveable Feast about Hemingway or the people he dishes? Sound memoir is more about place than person…”