On Nostalgia

Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.

Don Draper "The Wheel" Mad Men

Like a lot of writers, I suspect, many of the things I write come from memory. Not memories, per se--but from memory, using bits and pieces of things I've seen and heard and lived to create whole new places that, I hope, are just as real.

And I've discovered, recently, that there are things I shouldn't do in order to preserve my memory. Like, for example, Facebook. Don't get me wrong--I'm on Facebook, and I've reconnected with people from my past and all that--but there are people who I don't look up, because they have become fantasies. And there are questions I don't ask of the people who I have reconnected with because I've already made up the answers. And when I go home, there are streets I don't drive down because they are the settings of stories. If I lived entirely in the real world, seeing things as they are now instead of as they were then (even if "then" was just two weeks ago) then I wouldn't be a writer. I wouldn't have anything to write about.

Mark Blankenship wrote a post about something like this, recently, when he talked about how Midnight Cowboy makes him sad. There are some things, in fact, that you can't go back to because to go back is to ruin it.* In his entry he gives a specific example of something that could only be ruined by looking back:

But here’s the thing: As long as I don’t see The Care Bears Movie again, the wonder I felt about it is still intact, and I don’t want to screw that up, you know? Why clutter the memory with an adult perspective that grasps what a crappy movie it is?

And that's the question, right? If you have something wonderful about your past or your childhood, why go back to it? Sometimes, of course, going back is inevitable -- I can't stop people from friending me on Facebook**-- but sometimes, particularly in the case of cultural artifacts, like Mark's Care Bears Movie, it's not, and we might be better served by sticking to memory, which leaves us with something to love, and gives us something to imagine.


* The clearest example of this I can think of in my own life is my experience of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. One evening in the late spring, I happened to catch an episode of PHC on NPR. In it, Keillor did a monologue about Lake Woebegone (as he usually does) and talked about the kids graduating from high school, standing in their gowns, the graduation ceremony, the parents in their driveways taking photos...and it was so...perfect, so amazing, that I have never listened to another episode of the show again. Ever. No kidding. I haven't even tried to find out which episode of the show I heard, because if it heard it again, I might notice a mistake, a flaw, and my perfect memory would be ruined.

** Nor do I really want to, unless you were a jerk to me, in which case, why would you even think to friend me? Are you high?


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