Writing and Nostalgia

by Lucian Childs

Cross-posted from 49 Writers.

"He says, narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. He says, the violence in the Odyssey is a story told afterwards, in a cave."
—Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

I find it difficult to write about the present day.

Specifically, it’s been hard for me to write about my life in Alaska, a place I’ve lived in for over twenty five years. My childhood in Dallas, sure. My young adult years in North Carolina, Austin, and San Francisco, no problem. But of my time in Alaska, barely a word.

Recently, there seems to be hope. I’m finishing an Alaska story now and have two coming out next month in the anthology I’ve edited with Martha Amore, Building Fires in the Snow. (More on that later.)

Still, why has it been so hard to describe what has been in front of my face for so long?

Because, I’ve come to believe, writing for me is a nostalgic act. Nostalgia, from the Greek álgos, meaning pain and nóstos, the word Homer used to describe Odysseus’s yearning for and difficult journey home.

For the past eight years, I’ve had two homes, going back and forth between Anchorage and Toronto. It’s been thrilling to have two apartments, two sets of friends, two great cities to work and play in.

There’s a hitch, though. When I’m in one place, it’s not long before I begin to miss the other. I feel in-between. It’s a tough place. Like the old comedy line says, “How can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywhere at all?”

Psychologists call this “liminality” from limen, Latin for “threshold.” It’s thrilling, yes, but also terrifying. On the doorsill of a paradigm shift, we are in the place of pure potentiality, where the rituals and realities that once buoyed us are no longer meaningful and where anything goes.

Turns out, as unsettling as this intermediate place can be, it is also the perfect place for the artist. From the vantage point of the threshold, we writers have a kind of double vision, contemplating our present (and the presents yet to come) using the only reference we have, our past.

“To tell a story,” Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist writes in The Days of Abandonment, “you need first of all a measuring stick, a calendar, you have to calculate how much time has passed between you and the facts...”

Calculating this temporal distance in order to plumb its depths brings on another kind of double vision, the simultaneous experience of joy and sorrow. Like Marcel Proust taking the first bite of the madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, there is a palpable joy in a remembered life, along with a sorrow for being irrevocably displaced from it.

Brazilians have a word for this that defies proper translation: saudade. The Portuguese mariners who discovered that country must have felt it when they set sail from Lisbon, knowing they would almost surely never return. And homesick and stranded on the shore of their new world, they longed to feel the past’s visceral presence.

As that obsessive chronicler of his past, Karl Ove Knausgård, says in A Time for Everything, “in reality there is only one time…. One single second, one single landscape, in which what happens activates and deactivates what has already happened in endless chain reactions.…” Proust eats a little cake dipped in tea and, as if it were a magical potion, the long-forgotten city of his childhood rises up like a stage set where In Search of Lost Time will be performed.

We writers use every magic potion at our disposal; chiefly, we string words together in order to return to the places in our past. “That is what writing is about,” Knausgård says in his epic work, My Struggle. “Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim.”

In order to return “there,” I’ve been cannibalizing my past to create fiction. My personal stories are cobbled together and refracted in these fictions I tell of Dallas, Austin, and San Francisco. Why? It’s what I know, of course. But also there is a joy in creating an impression of return. Not to the past itself; that’s unattainable. For as Proust reminds us, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Yet painful as this remembrance might be, like the Portuguese mariner who yearns for the home he’ll never see again, I long to go back. I write stories.