Saturday, January 14, 2006

On writing, age and memory

I’ve always thought about writing as a way to record rather than forget. That is, until listening to an interview with Roger Angell—currently on the New Yorker website. Angell, who has written for the magazine since 1944 and is the stepson of E.B. White and son of Katherine White (former New Yorker editor) talks about the element of sadness involved in putting your memories on paper. Because as soon as you see them in print, all of a sudden they’re gone. That is, they’re not really in your head anymore.

I suppose this is true, in the sense that the memory becomes something apart from you. But I don’t know that I would agree that it leaves you entirely. Takes new shape, perhaps, but don’t memories change each time you recall them—regardless of whether or not you write them down?

The actual piece in the magazine got me thinking about the constraints and freedom of writing—or rather, on writing certain types of things. Angell is 85, and I wonder how much age gives liberty to deal with certain topics. The article follows his journey through graveyards, copying down epitaphs from the tombs of family members that died in the 17 and 1800s—noting the architecture, nearby suburbs and foliage as he goes. A trip to the cemetery with future plots for him and his wife and graves of closest family members gets him thinking about his mother and how he remembers her. Despite the fact that former New Yorker editor William Maxwell once told Angell that one of the greatest mercies humans are provided with is that a few months after someone close to us has died the vision of him in sickness or great age is replaced with a much younger memory of that same parent or husband or friend at his youthful best Angell remembers his mother in her later years. He pictures her at the dining table and presents us with a flowing list of worries she would have had about people, jobs, events, chores…. He offers us certain details about peoples’ lives that I don’t think I could do at 25. I’m sure this has to do, in part, with the fact that many of the people he mentions are dead, and therefore will never read what he has revealed to the magazine’s audience (while, of course, most of the people I have ever known are still around—knock on wood—and would have every opportunity to raise an eyebrow). But there’s also a way that the writing of young people—and of course not just young people—is stymied by fear of stunting their professional aspirations. There are inevitably millions of amazing ideas for books and article boiling in peoples’ heads that might not find their way to paper until it’s “safe enough.” Clearly I’m writing about this because I have an idea of my own—to write something about being a graduate student at an elite institution—about the experiences of learning, but especially teaching. I would hope to emulate Adam Gopnik—since his book Paris to the Moon is my favorite piece of creative non-fiction. There are observations and moments of self-realization that are hilarious without being self-consciously so. And there are infinite beautiful—but always subtly beautiful—passages about his environment—the city of Paris. And I think there’s a market for the book—from the people who go to college and send their kids to college, wanting to know something about who the people who teach their children really are.

But for the moment I’ll keep my notes about my experiences in my journal. Maybe until I’m 85. Or at least until I have tenure.

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