Friday, October 14, 2005

connecting the dots

I take back what I said about Nabokov, about having felt that Liz Phair's lyrics -- and even, at one point, a bumper sticker I saw that read What If The Hokey-Pokey Really Is What It's All About? -- have more resonance and relevance than his writing. This week I had a revelation about my writing, all writing, while I was sitting in my literature class discussing his memoir, Speak, Memory. In it, I think, he tells us that the way in which we examine a novel, looking for themes and metaphors, is also the way in which we should examine our lives. A life does not just happen haphazardly; you must look at it in order for themes and patterns to emerge, and for it to be rich and wonderful. That we cannot just live it but must also remember it and that one of the methods of redeeming our short lives is by making art. ART. (I capitalize the word to further differentiate its meaning from that of most entertainment, like, say, reality television and all the glossy voyeuristic magazines that I love.)
"I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past."

In writing my thesis, I have been working on a collection of essays based upon events of my life between the ages of 16 and 24, more or less what I refer to as "lost years". They include accounts of having worked as a grocery store sacker when I was in high school, being on the beach in Thailand during last year's tsunami, an affair I had with my employer in Costa Rica, and a could-have-turned-into-something-so-much-more-horrible flirtation over a four-year period with the father of my best childhood friend. The writing, throughout much of it, is funny and sad and sharp, all the things, I'd like to think, that draw me to books in the Oxfam used bookstore downstairs. When people ask me what I write, I tell them that I want to write the sort of thing that hold people's attention on a crowded bus. I had a teacher last year tell me that in my writing, I am a ditzier Carole Lombard, I am all foot-in-mouth clumsy elbows and embarrassing disasters. As recently as two days ago, I told my current workshop teacher that these are all stories about the repercussions of not having any real direction.

"That's not enough," she said. "You need to look for over-arching themes and ask yourself about how these stories, if these stories, are really part of one larger collection."

One thing that Nabokov accomplishes repeatedly is taking two things that would appear to have nothing in common and connecting them. Towards the beginning of Speak, Memory, he recounts an event from his childhood in which a friend of his father's laid out matches in a straight line, end to end, and said, "This is like the sea in calm weather." Then the man rearranged them so that they formed zig-zag shapes and said, "This is a stormy sea." And then the two of them were interrupted by someone who, Nabokov later discovered, informed the man, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, that his presence was needed elsewhere. Years later, Nabokov's father was approached while crossing a bridge in St. Petersburg by a bearded man in tattered clothing who requested a match for his cigarette. His father recognized the fallen general.
I summarize this passage because it captures so profoundly the purpose of following themes instead of mere chronology. The brilliance of this writing is not the events themselves but his focusing on the matches. At the end of this long paragraph, Nabokov writes, "The following of thematic designs should be...the true purpose of autobiography."

I love blogs for the opposite reason, the same reason that people are transfixed by The Real World and soap operas, and I buy Hello! magazine -- there is no prospection or much retrospection (excepting sidebars about the women Tom Cruise was formerly married to). They capture life unfolding in the present and, as such, they don't require much more than a finger to flip the pages or press buttons on the remote control.

Sometimes, when we don't have the attention span or energy to really focus, fluff feels like enough. But, here is my revelation -- there's a reason people don't usually eat ice cream for dinner. It fills you up, yes, and (especially carrot cake flavor) is delicious, but afterwards, it doesn't feel as good as a real dinner. Too much chick lit makes you sick.

3 Comments:

Blogger Unsane said...

Chick lit aside, blogs CAN be sociologically revealing -- It just depends on how you read 'em!

5:48 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Unsane, you are absolutely right. Sometimes I get into the habit of not challenging myself, letting my attention wander off the page every few minutes. I keep having to remind myself that there is value in doing the work of making myself stay focused. Nabokov is only one example of where it pays off.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous camille said...

This one really rang true for me. I guess these are the words I was looking for yesterday when talking about how Benjamin felt that I was "looking for too much meaning in things/getting bogged down in mysticism." A life DOES NOT happen haphazardly. There is meaning all around.

9:30 AM  

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