Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Passage of Time, the Leaves of a Journal

When I think about the passage of time, I do so only very superficially. I realize today that I am older than I've ever been and I am, at the same time, the youngest I will ever be. I don't spent too much time on this. These late weeks and especially these late days, now the first of June, 2010 mark several anniversaries in my life. At the same time, this is a very exciting part of life for me, and I just can't wait to move forward. In a way I feel like Janus, cursed to look back and forward at the same time.
Today, as I think about the passage of time, I recollect a few pages in Richard Brautigan's So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. It was the last book he published in his lifetime. The book, published in 1982, has one narrator split in time, 1979 and 1948. I suppose the book is essentially about reconciling the past, and clearly it took this narrator almost 30 years to do it. My favorite part of the book is when the old (1979) narrator returns to the reeds and weeds around the young (1948) narrator's catfish pond. Together they hear a couple's discussion of lost friends. This old couple returns to the catfish pond every night, they unload a sofa, lamps, a coffee table, the man fishes and the woman cooks hamburgers. When the man tires of fishing he reads The National Geographic magazines he brings along for that purpose. Now, it isn't this typical tableau of American life or the surreal depiction of it on the side of the catfish pond that I find so appealing. The truly profound part of the whole scene is when the old narrator (1979) says: “Those were in the beautiful days of America when Americans made their own adventures before the television came and took it all away.” What a wonderful aside. And in 1982, what do you think Brautigan was trying to tell us?
We read the passage of time in Alan Lightman's 1993 book Einstein's Dreams in a much different way than Brautigan's portrayal. Lightman's book reads almost like pieces of dreams. Each “chapter” title is a date in 1905 leading up to the release Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Although Alan Lightman is a physicist his novel is easy to read for the non-scientist and the general bent is time and the way it passes. We can all relate to that. When Lightman investigates a world without memory he introduces the “book of life.” This concept within the confines of a world where people have no memory from one day to the next is a concept close to home for me. After all, in his or her book of life, Lightman has people who frantically fill pages about the day's events. Over time, the book becomes too large to read in it's entirety. Does this sound normal to you? When a person's book of life is so large that they must read only a portion of it to understand themselves, or know themselves, what a tremendous choice that must be. It is the choice of how to spent the time, I suppose.
I bring up these two books today, of all days, because they deal with the passage of time. I'm thinking about it today because today is the first of June, 2010. As I sat down to write in my journal this morning I just stared at the date heading. My life as a writer began many years ago. However, when I was younger I did not keep a journal. I figured in my young life there was no need for it. I guess I didn't have any real valuable experiences worth exploiting. I began writing a journal on June 1, 1990. For some strange reason I chose to write about Christmas time on that first day of journal keeping. As my friends and family can attest, I do not like Christmas (nor have I ever), which really baffles me even now. I neglected to mention how hot the day was, or if that had any influence on my choice of subject. I doubt I had any really longing for the Christmas to come. By the time Christmas rolled around in 1990, I was enjoying the stylings of Sgt. Kernan's “The Night Before Christmas” while completely terrified in my sleeping bag on the eve of Desert Storm.
I have not kept with it everyday of the last 20 years, but I do write in it almost daily. These journals are a different thing entirely to the composition notebook I regularly mention. Think of it like this: the composition notebook is where I write for others and the journal only belongs to me.
As I look over older journals, I am amazed at how well I recorded everything: travels, relationships, jobs, thoughts, vistas, residences, what I've read, what I've composed, my part in the war, disasters, triumphs, dreams, people I cannot remember, places that have been lost, airline flight numbers. In short, I have written everything down. Talk about the book of life getting too large.
I always recommend everyone I know to keep a journal. I'm sure there are plenty of psychological reasons, or therapeutic reasons, but I don't really know what they are. I believe the journal and the act of keeping one is healthy for everyone, not just writers. For writers, however, I think the journal is absolutely critical. I use mine as a preamble to the day's tasks. I say preamble because it is exactly that: it is my opportunity to unload my mind, write poorly or cryptically or whatever. As I said, the journal is not for sharing. As I spend ten to fifteen minutes on it before my writing hours begin, I hope to free myself from my own confines. Without divulging my journal entries, I can say this: when I sit down to write fiction, what I write does not resemble a journal entry in any way.
As an editor, and journal keeper, I can spot a journal entry mascaraing as a short story. This is frightening to me on so many levels. Granted some stories have to be told as a journal: Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes come to mind. These novels rely on that voice. Incidentally, there is such a tremendous shift in the narrator's voice in both of these books that the writers would not be able to capture it in any other way. However, for most writers, keep the journal as a journal is the best rule. Many of the nonfiction submissions we read at Umbrella Factory Magazine are strange mixtures of memoir and journal. Often times, they are painful to read.
Back to June 1, 2010. In the twenty years I've kept a journal I don't think I've got any real wisdom for humanity. But a few words at the beginning or the day and the passage of time becomes easily traced. As the entries build, there is a record to reflect upon, or a relief of burden easily buried in the leaves of a journal.

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