When Memory Has an Agenda

Y.Z. Chin’s “January 27,” published in the Summer issue of Flashquake, is a story of the limits of words. In spite of the power of incantations, words cannot reform the world to match our own desires.

Calling what has changed by its old name will not bring it back, Mike. It only distorts it, damaging not only what it is now but also reaching back to smear what it once was.

I have, at times, been prey to painful nostalgia, and have gone to great lengths to resurrect the past, returning to places, and people, that were best left alone. Always, I talked myself into this with words, and tried to catch other people in their spell, trying to get myself and those around me to believe, for example, that I never went away, and had been right beside them all along.

Words are dangerous when used this way, for exactly the reason Chin describes. Once it’s clear that words can’t retrieve everything I wish for from the past, the memories I once treasured turn out to have been sullied by my attempts. I can’t remember the perfect mood to my high-school romance in the same way, after having tried and failed so many times to resurrect it. The memory gets left in a Frankenstein’s-monster state, scarred by botched galvanization.

Considering the dangers of nostalgia, how does a writer handle looking into the past? How can the words be prevented from turning traitorous? To me, it’s a matter of being exact. I know the difference between remembering the way I want to remember and remembering with full detail.

For example: I want, sometimes, to go back to the time just before I returned to college, when I studied ancient Greek all the time, took road trips to Savannah, constantly worked on my novel, and copied quotes from old French serialized novels into a little flowered notebook.

But, to be exact, I often sat then on the porch, smoking out of loneliness. I was so nervous, I stayed up until all hours. I didn’t manage to make it through The Man in the Iron Mask, and I was spending all my savings.

As the two paragraphs show, it was both a lovely time and a miserable time. Truth is difficult. It’s so hard to avoid landing on one side or the other, especially if I use memory with an agenda. For this reason, I must take care with words.

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