Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Our Written Words Are Objects of the Present

The discussion after my last post got me thinking about where it is our writing comes from, and it struck me that our words are always objects of the present. This is an almost inescapable fact, though there are many ways in which the 'present' can shape and reveal itself.

A writer can simply write about the present, of course, about current events, about the world they see around them. But they can also choose to write about something different. They can write about the past, the future, or something that has never existed, and likely never will.

Yet these are always filtered through the present. Indeed, they are filtered through the writer's consciousness, and this is ultimately a creation of the present moment. Words come from a specific mind, and a specific moment in the history of that mind, and that particularity in time is very important. A word written down yesterday might still seem right, still seem like you... at least most of them. Already, though, you start to wonder: why did I choose that word? That doesn't seem right...

And words chosen a year ago? A decade ago? They might seem utterly unfamiliar, with only a vague sense of deja vu connecting you to these oddities. You shake your head, you wonder about different words, better words... words of the mind's inescapable present.

It does not always matter what you write about. You can write about ancient history, but in some sense you're always writing about the present, writing from the present. These times are seen through the lens of now.

Sometimes this is obvious, with stories full of modern characters dressed in period costumes. And, obviously, deeper imaginative connections can be attempted, to see into a distant world, to sincerely feel and experience the possibility of such a life, such an existence. But we can never completely escape who we are--creatures of the present. The actual experiences of those people are gone, vanishing into that vast, opaque river that is time. We can research, we can delve for fact, for the right words, for accuracy... and yet our understanding of people is always a little anachronistic. Our understanding of people will always come partly from our own experience, from the people we've seen, the people we know, the people we've observed. We are endlessly filtering and transforming the world around us. Sometimes the transformations are small, and sometimes the transformations are large, visions of a seemingly new world. But, beneath the surface, there are always tethers to the present. We cannot escape our own subjectivity.

Indeed, why are such historical and futuristic subjects chosen? Likely because there is some element of conflict, of theme, with a deep connection to the writer's present, to the world around them, to the immediate sensations of their own psyche. There's a need. Something being sought, or desired, or felt. And this can impel exploration, and may send the mind racing backward, or forward, or into the fantastical unknown.

Or, of course, we can simply choose to write about the world around us, as we know it and see it. The need, here, is very immediate. Something is seen, or experienced, and it impels a question that needs some answer, with the written words as an attempt at just such an answer. And sometimes the answer isn't found, or the answer is a poor one. But there's no necessity for good writing. Everyone can't write brilliantly, and the quality of the expression of that answer will usually mean much more to an audience than to a writer (and great writing is usually going to be about the law of averages - to have one great piece of writing on a subject, many people will likely have to attempt it). To the writer, perhaps, all that really matters is the attempt. To answer the question, or to satisfy that strange need.

Perhaps the writing will be great. Odds are it won't. But the writing itself is important, the present act. Memoir, I think, is the clearest example of this. It is the present mind's attempt to answer questions about its own past, to bridge the gap between then and now, but the story is always filtered through the immediate consciousness in the now. Only that present mind exists (for the merest of instants), and its job is to try and excavate the past, piecing together something that no longer exists, a personal experiment in human paleontology.

14 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

I struggle a bit, at times, with how to comment when you've written something this profound.

I could go funny, but that doesn't seem appropriate.

D.G. Hudson said...

Perceptive, Bryan, you are.

It's usually easier to see the effects of the past when viewed through the lens of the present. Distance creates its own interpretation. As you say, that particular moment is gone, and we can only see it as we remember it, faulty though it may be.

Most writers are intense thinkers, as evidenced by you, Bryan, in this post. We analyze, we create, we analyze, and change what we create. But at least we try, and some of us will succeed.

This could start a deep discussion, but then we'd all need to meet in a coffeeshop and act like the Lost Generation.

A great post!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Thanks, Matt.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

D.G., if somebody pays for my plane ticket, I'm there...

Paul Joseph said...

Brilliant post, Bryan. I'm coming back to read this again tonight, when I hope to give it my undivided attention.

Marsha Sigman said...

You make me thing too hard. But maybe that's a good thing.

The world I saw ten years ago is not the same world I see today. The words I chose then were mine but it was a different version of me that I will never be able to recapture.

M.A.Leslie said...

I always feel like saying wow when I read from your blog. So I will stick with what works, wow.

Taryn Tyler said...

I've experienced this before when I read old manuscripts I had planned on editing one day and find there is nothing I can do to change them. Not because they are perfect (definatley not because they are perfect) or because they are unsalvagable, but because the me who wrote them is so different than the me now. Even with my more developed (hopefully) sense of plot and stronger (hopefully) prose I can't alter the work without destroying some of what made it work. And so I return to present works full of new words and let the old ones collect dust. That's not necisarily a bad thing though. As you have said, much more expertly, the present is where we experience.

JM Leotti said...

I am struck by thinking about the fleeting moment of now, and how the past can only be filtered through that perspective. Maybe all words are of the now, but maybe they have a certain resonance with the past? I was thinking about your Japan post, as well, and about your important question about where our writing comes from. I think one reason writers write is to form a bridge of human experience over time. As you said, we probably cannot know intimately the minds of people who came before us, and I believe this to be true. In some ways, this bothers me a little, because I want to know! I think I remember reading somewhere that in the film Shakespeare in Love, ‘a woman on the stage’ would probably never happen then because it just wasn’t in the mind set of the time. Yet, I don’t know this for a fact. Would Viola have been considered insane if this had been a factual report? Would a woman of that time even consider the possibility? (My own thought is “possibly, yes” because throughout history there seems to always be someone who comes along and thinks outside the box. Most often the result is progress.)

It seems what we end up knowing is what might be called the essence of human truth. This is why when we read certain writers who give us that “a ha!” moment, an epiphany, we shiver. We get excited. We have connected to a person who lived far away from us in time. And I think this is why the writer (of any time) is important (getting back to your Japan post). Writers build bridges over the expanse of time. We might only be able to experience life moment by moment, but what we find when we read a writer who connects is that he or she was/is similar to us. They have gotten to the core of truth. The rest falls away like dry husks, and we are left with the shared essence of what it’s like to be human.

And we will have to be satisfied with that. The Zen masters have the best perspective on the moment by moment thing. Being a writer, I find it frustrating to not be able to get into the mind of, let’s say, a Medieval woman, and know truly what she experienced.

Great post, Bryan. I love using my little gray cells!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

JM, that reminds me of this great quotation I stumbled across the other day:

Everything I learned about human natuer I learned from me.

- Anton Chekhov

I love that line, and I think there's a lot of truth to it. Because, in the end, everything we write is filtered through our own consciousness. In the end we're always writing about people, and in some senses we're always writing about ourselves, about what we've observed in the world, and about how the two meet.

And yet, if we do it well, we can touch, and perhaps grab hold of, a little of that human truth, something that we can all share and understand.

JM Leotti said...

Thanks for the quote Bryan, brilliant! We exist alone/together, and I think the closest thing we have to truly sharing this experience on earth is through art in some form or another, in the here and now, as you said.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I should also mention, you know, that Chekhov actually knew how to spell "nature" properly. Most of the time. None of us is perfect. Next time I see him, I'll tell him about his little spelling faux pas.

JM Leotti said...

Ha! What a slacker. ;)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Today, I sent my niece a journal for her sixteenth birthday. I wrote her a note about how I wish I had kept a journal when I was a girl, so I could look back at the words and see the threads of the woman I would become, just beginning to gather. I encouraged her to use it, as a present to her future self.

I love Taryn's observation about needing to leave the old MS alone, as evidence of her prior self. That speaks to me, and not just because I have a book I may have to rewrite as well! :)

This idea of having all things filtered through our present consciousness reminded me of an idea in McKee's book (I'm quoting him a lot today), about having a carefully chosen reveal in a story that will cause the reader to rewind all the way through the story, to see all the hints dropped like gumdrops throughout the book. This rewinding and tying together is a very emotionally satisfying experience.

I think this is what writers naturally want to do: rewind, tie together, bring it forward into one satisfying moment in the present where it all has meaning.

Lovely post! :)