Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing out of Time
Created | Updated Sep 23, 2012
Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing out of Time
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time. . .
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 'A Psalm of Life'
We write so much ephemera these days. We write emails, and blog posts, and online comments, and journal entries, and stuff, stuff, stuff for the weekly Post: all about what's happening here, and now, durn it, now, what's 'trending', what's 'going on', what everybody wants to hear about. If it's 11 September, why, talk about New York, and the World Trade Center, and commemoration, you'll get a lot of hits, if it's Oscar Week, let's all be interested in film. . . You see what I mean.
What if – just what if – you wanted to think about something else? What if you wanted to write about something else, something somebody might want to know about in a hundred years' time?
Longfellow's poem used to confuse me. I wondered about those 'footprints on the sands of time'. Weren't footprints in sand easily erased? Oh, sure, if they were Neil Armstrong's, they'd be there on the Moon for the ages. But normally? The wind would blow them away, surely. Or they'd be footprints on the beach, washed away by the tide.
Why be concerned about this poem? Well, it used to be canon in the US. In fact, I well remember a dinner I enjoyed about 30 years ago, with my mother and father and my father's work superior, all since passed away. My dad's boss had flown in from out of town for business, and since they were also friends, my dad had invited him for a home-cooked meal and conversation. Mr H and my dad came from similar backgrounds – Southern hill country farms – and enjoyed reminiscing together. After the fried chicken and biscuits had been consumed, the talk turned to childhood and the one-room schools they were educated in.
Mr H knew I was a 'literature guy', so he dredged up a memory. 'We used to memorise poetry,' he said. He pronounced it 'PO-try'. 'I still know this one.' And he recited 'A Psalm of Life' from memory. I complimented him on his delivery.
If you can remember a poem half a century after learning it, I'd say it made an impact.
Longfellow's poem isn't about what's happening now. Do you have a clue what he was doing at the time? What the hot topics of the day were? Who the most popular singer in town was? No, of course you don't. And you don't care. Those ideas speak to you, anyway.
Can we still do that? Frankly, I'm not sure.
'Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.' – Ecclesiastes 7:10 (Authorised Version)
Nostalgia is a bad word. Apparently, it was a bad word 3,000 years ago. Take that, Jack Finney, who decided in Time and Again that a man from 1970 would much rather live in 1882. Not wise, perhaps. But interesting for the reader. No, the former days weren't really better – oh, maybe in some ways, but in others, and for others, the less privileged, they probably sucked. Either look at it all in a balanced way, or else give it up. Sure. But do they have things to teach us?
The actor Frank Langella has recently published a memoir with the title Dropped Names. I've read it, it's beautiful, and makes me hope he'll write more. He's a good writer. We knew he was a good actor. You may not have heard much about him, because he's not a big movie star, but he's an award-winning stage actor. In the UK, he'd have a title by now.
Langella's book is a true memoir, not an autobiography. It's an account of people he knew, most of whom are dead now. The book begins with a glimpse he got of Marilyn Monroe when he was fifteen, and moves quickly on to the very surprising day he spent as a young man at a New England beach. It's a startling story: Langella was working in summer theatre and his good friend invited him out to 'have lunch at her mother's'. What Langella didn't realise, because his friend didn't tell him, was that her mother was Bunny Mellon, wife of one of the richest men in the world, and that the other luncheon guests were President Kennedy and his wife (who arrived by helicopter), and Noel Coward.
Sure, the story has historical gossip value: who were these people? Why were they 'important'? But the situation Langella found himself in is as old as human civilisation. Thackeray could have told it. Shakespeare would have understood it: a young, talented, and (let's admit) ambitious man meets royalty, drinks it all in, sees another world, etc. Langella realised at that moment that he was rather far from his origins in plebeian Bayonne, New Jersey. Even if you have no connection to the place or time, you'll understand Langella's stories. And you can learn from them.
So, are there ways to 'write out of time'? I think there are. Not all involve nostalgia, or even its opposite, the sometimes vengeful, often rueful cursing of the past. True, the past is another country. So is the future, one you may make up for yourself. Or parallel reality. (A lot of us live there more or less permanently.) As Henry David Thoreau said, 'I have travelled much in Concord.' Do you know where Walden Pond was? A fairly short walk from his family home. Thoreau didn't need to go far to find his 'wilderness'. And, well, neither do we.
So, turn your back to the clock, at least once a day. Try to imagine that person coming after you along the beach. Quick, leave some footprints. Maybe they'll catch a glimpse of something you left – before the tide washes everything away.
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