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Memory and Distance in Writing: How Is It For You?


goldenlangur
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goldenlangur

Memory and Distance in Writing: How Is It For You?

 

In one of the greatest works of the 20th century, Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, the narrator steps back in time and recreates the sights, sounds, smells and landscape of his childhood. Indeed this work has given rise to the literary concept of 'Proustian moment', which is an intense reliving of the past in the present. It is not a detached moment of recall or even a conscious attempt to remember the past. It also comes with a sense of freedom from the constraints of time and space.

 

Here is the passage in the book, which describes such a 'Proustian moment':

 

‘… one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petite madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised my to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin, And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. …Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sense that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed be of the same nature. …

 

 

 

The stepping back in time through a protagonist also called Marcel highlights the other strand in the book - an exploration of identity.

 

The English writer, John Cowper Powys (1872 – 1963) recreated the landscapes of his native Somerset – Dorset in his novels with a similar intensity and immersion as if he too stepped back in time through his protagonists. The significance of Powys’ recreation lies in that he was on a lecturing circuit in America when he wrote his great West Country novels (Wolf Solent, Weymouth Sands, The Glastonbury Romance).

 

In her essays about writing, Alison Uttley (1884 – 1976), the famous creator of the Grey Rabbit series, says:

 

… I knew I wanted to write of the country as I saw it with all its beauty and serenity, from within.

 

Once I sat with pencil and paper in the bedroom at my old home, determined to write the feelings that flooded my mind before I went away. I could not do it. I was too near the subject of my desire.

 

Not until I went away from home and brought before my inner eye the vision of the pack road and the shaggy wood could I capture it in writing. …

 

 

 

 

 

Is your writing inspired by similar 'Proustian moments' of stepping back in time?

 

Or have you had such 'Proustian moments' of trigger for your writing?

 

Do you use familiar landscapes with which you are no longer in daily contact?

 

Is the inner eye more powerful than the external eye in the creation of landscapes and themes in your writing?

 

Are there any familiar landscapes or themes that you return to time and again in your writing?

 

Any other ideas that you might like to add.

 

 

Please discuss:)

goldenlangur

 

 

Even a single enemy is too many and a thousand friends too few - Bhutanese saying.

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Thought provoking posting gl. It would be interesting to know your experience and thoughts on the questions you pose. My childhood writing is essentially fiction since my memory of that period is poor due to medication. Besides I essentially write in persona for empathy rather than confessional/autobiographical writing.

 

badge

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Very interesting topic, golden. Ted Kooser in his "The Poetry Home Repair Manual" has a chapter "Writing from the memory", talking about writing from distant memory, from events long past. And there is a subtitle in the chapter called "The Use of Anecdote" in writing poems. So I think memory must play a great deal in writing.

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Another absorbing topic, Goldenlangur. :) I'll answer the questions first. Then I'll expand a little along the same lines.

 

Is your writing inspired by similar 'Proustian moments' of stepping back in time? Or have you had such 'Proustian moments' of trigger for your writing?

Only in a very general sense. I'll explain after the other questions.

 

Do you use familiar landscapes with which you are no longer in daily contact?

Yes and no. I've noticed that many writers write primarily about their environs. For me, it has never been like that, because I have never considered my own surroundings to be interesting or exciting enough to write about. Usually I find other places -- even places that may be similar in many ways to my own! -- to be more exotic.

 

Is the inner eye more powerful than the external eye in the creation of landscapes and themes in your writing?

I would have to say yes. Though on the few occasions when I have actually made a conscious endeavor to write about something close to home, the effort has been worthwhile. That is, the product has turned out better than I expected.

 

Are there any familiar landscapes or themes that you return to time and again in your writing?

I think so, but for me the experience has been closer to (though not quite the same as) the one described in the Alison Uttley quote you cited. Before I answer, I'll elaborate a bit.

 

Robert Frost said something similar to what Uttley said in the quote. Though Frost lived in several places including New Hampshire, Vermont, Michigan, and England, he is most often thought of as a "New England" poet. In Robert Frost -- a Life, on page 236, biographer :) Jay Parini says the same thing about Frost:

 

"What remains interesting, however, is Frost's consistent use of imagery from rural New England; even living in Ann Arbor (Michigan) did not distract him from his regional preoccupation. If anything, being away from New England stimulated his memory and spurred his imagination of that region. 'I never write about a place in New England, if I am there,' he said. 'I always write about it when I am away. In Michigan I shall be composing poetry about New Hampshire and Vermont with longing and homesickness better than I would if I were there, just as in England.'"

 

Interestingly, one of my favor poems by Frost, "Acquainted with the Night" (post #5), was composed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Frost lived for some time. The poem's setting is not rural New England; it is urban, that of Ann Arbor and its suburbs.

 

To answer the question, I find that, till now, most of my works are set, strangely and longingly, in places where I am not. In my case, it's not for the homesickness described by Uttley and Frost, rather for some other yet to be understood reason. But I suspect that part of it is a "metaphorical homesickness."

 

 

As promised at the beginning of my reply, I'll expand a bit more on my encounter with a Proustian moment. :) I think the closest I have gotten to a "Proustian Moment" has been immersing myself in the poem which started it all for me, James Wright's "Twilights." Though I can't thoroughly explain it, the poem is, for me, a blend of past and present. I'll cite the last lines of this short poem and attempt to explain:

 

 

The arbors of the cities are withered.

Far off, the shopping centers empty and darken.

 

A red shadow of steel mills.

 

 

There's just something about these lines which takes me to some particular moments in my childhood. They're only fragmentary moments, but lucid ones just the same. I can remember being with my parents in our car at twilight, almost dark, traveling on a Saturday or Sunday on the Jamaicaway in Boston, Massachusetts, about an hour from where we lived. I remember the "arbors." Though they were of similar species to what we had at home, they were nevertheless different, "withered." It amazed me that there were trees in the city, and I wondered why they weren't younger, fresher looking like the ones at home. Still, they were there, large and probably old.

 

I can also remember being in another city (one nearer to home), again with my parents, at the same time of day, at a shopping mall. I remember how empty the mall was on that evening and at that time. I remember thinking of home and of how far home seemed. Not that I wanted to be home in that moment, I just thought of home. Later, when we finally were home, I thought of the shopping mall and how near but far it seemed. And the image of the steel mills makes me think of the passing of various eras in my country.

 

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a Proustian moment. I experience the moment when I read the poem, though I didn't write the poem. Perhaps my account itself is the Proustian moment? :) Thanks for another fabulous topic.

 

Tony

Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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goldenlangur

Hi badge,

 

Thank you for dropping by and posting your thoughts.

 

... I essentially write in persona for empathy rather than confessional/autobiographical writing.

 

badge

 

Your remark here has set me thinking about the link between confessional and autobiographical writing. I would love to know a little more if writing in empathy is predominantly premised on being in the now rather than an intense sense of something that might have happened in the past? I hope you will elaborate a little more on this. :)

 

I'm so sorry that your childhood was marked by medication. It must have had quite an impact on you much later. I say this because when I was about 4 there were quite a few deaths in the family and a large part of my early memories is about the elaborate death rites (49 days) and the Buddhist concept and rituals of the death bardo ( a liminal stage between death and rebirth) and this still plays a huge part in my writings.

 

You're right. It is only fair that i should share something of how it is for me too ;). I have had several moments when a certain way the light slants through the trees or shows up the dust motes on a staircase or the way the flames catch a log or the mists hang over the valley trigger an incontrolable immersion in another time and place. You can imagine my relief when I read Proust and found that such things happened to others, even great writers!

 

 

Also, I tend to write more about my ancestral valley when I am away from it. This is a place to which I return time and again in my writings.

goldenlangur

 

 

Even a single enemy is too many and a thousand friends too few - Bhutanese saying.

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goldenlangur

Hi Lake,

 

Thank you for this information about Ted Kooser:

 

Very interesting topic, golden. Ted Kooser in his "The Poetry Home Repair Manual" has a chapter "Writing from the memory", talking about writing from distant memory, from events long past. And there is a subtitle in the chapter called "The Use of Anecdote" in writing poems. So I think memory must play a great deal in writing.

 

One of the great things about this forum is through exchanges here I discover new poets, books and facts :)

 

 

Memory, it seems, is a rich source of inspiration.

 

Do you too write from memory? Do share. :D

goldenlangur

 

 

Even a single enemy is too many and a thousand friends too few - Bhutanese saying.

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goldenlangur

Hi Tony,

 

 

Thank you for such a great response.

 

 

I will be back with more thoughts. :)

goldenlangur

 

 

Even a single enemy is too many and a thousand friends too few - Bhutanese saying.

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  • 1 month later...
Larsen M. Callirhoe

very toxic subject to be engaging in goldenlanguar i love this subject i might revise my poem daytona beach to add the senses in better because i indulged in writing about a past moment in that poem and added my feelings in it.

 

 

i believe in this subject pofusely.

 

victor

 

write more in 2 days. will be without net for in few hours until thursday morning.

Larsen M. Callirhoe

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I have never had 'Proustian moments' in my poems, perhaps because I am not Proust or I may be biased as such belonging to more voluminous genres. But the idea is interesting and, perhaps a challenge to poets.

 

To me, poems triggered by memory come from emotionally overwhelming experiences rarely if ever involving landscapes. However, I do this when writing essays, but the landscapes are more of the backdrop type.

 

For me, the inner eye is always stronger in poems but the outer eye is not totally absent, for without it even the backdrop would be falsified.

 

So far, I have not returned to any place or moment, for I have had too many moments that I'd love to recapture.

 

badge mentions writing in persona which to me means doing more of a dramatic monologue, and I wonder if that is the best avenue for poetry, because it is not doable, at least by me, because I prefer the relatively shorter poem, and I believe that poetry, as writing in verse--opposed to writing in prose, is stronger more sharable, condensing all images, thoughts and ideas as much as is possible.

Edited by waxwings
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  • 1 month later...

This is very beautiful topic, goldenlangur. I enjoyed reading all entries, from each member.

 

 

Is your writing inspired by similar 'Proustian moments' of stepping back in time?

 

I step back in time often, because I almost always long for something in the past, or thinking on the pain that comes from the past and affects me in the present. So while I am in the mood of some sadness, loneliness I find myself writing a poem.

 

Do you use familiar landscapes with which you are no longer in daily contact?

 

Not really, because the biggest inspiration that comes from landscapes is right there, while I am in a contact with that landscape, and I write down and been done with it :). I always write when the inspiration comes, I never leave for later, because later all is gone, doesn't mater where I am I take out my pen and write down on a piece of paper.

As for example: Where the Roots Have Not Rotted ( written under old tree in a village )

 

Is the inner eye more powerful than the external eye in the creation of landscapes and themes in your writing?

Always. When I watch the landscape I start to think about it. My inner eye makes it even more beautiful and I connect with the soul of the landscape. My inner eye is much different than the external one. Always much more powerful.

 

Are there any familiar landscapes or themes that you return to time and again in your writing?

 

I must say yes. Very often I'm inspired from my country, the past and pain of my nation. Also I find myself sometimes even monotone, when I try to express my mood, which can be same for a long time, and there is me writing sad poems. :).

 

It was exciting to write on such a beautiful and interesting subject.

 

Aleksandra

The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth - Jean Cocteau

History of Macedonia

 

 

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