Last week in my MFA creative nonfiction workshop, the issue of nostalgia in memoir came up, and we explored the question of how a memoirist can deal in nostalgia without becoming nostalgic. Hmm. . . that may at first sound like a goofy question to chase around the workshop table, but please bear with me.
The word, nostalgia, has its roots in the Ancient Greek word for “a return home.” We define it now as a longing for home or familiar surroundings; a homesickness; a yearning for things of the past.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all writers of memoir deal with the things of the past; all memoirists, then, are in some way returning “home.” This journey carries with it a certain degree of risk. Memoir goes sour quickly, its falseness showing through, once it’s clear that the writer’s impulse is to celebrate, to romanticize, to indulge in sentimentality.
Such is sometimes the case in the dreams I often have of the farm in southeastern Illinois where I spent my early years with my mother and father. In those dreams, the house, which is now in ruins, has been rebuilt. My parents’ youth and health have been restored. The grass is green, the birds are singing, and happiness reigns. You get the idea: everything is peachy-keen. But that’s only one part of the lives we all lived in that farmhouse; my dreams conveniently edit out the struggles, the yearning, the anger, the suffering, the embarrassment of people who loved one another but who often fell short of that love. Apparently, there’s no room in my dreams for those truths. Maybe that’s because I’ve made a place for them in the memoirs I’ve written.
To deal in nostalgia without becoming nostalgic, a writer has to be honest, has to see the entire palette of the experience, both the bright colors and the dark ones. As is the case with almost any craft issue connected to a piece of writing, help comes in the form of this question: What was the impulse that first brought the writer to the page? In memoir, that impulse can’t be a nostalgic one, can’t be an intent to romanticize; a memoirist’s intention must be to see the self and the other people in his or her world with a clear eye, one meant for the honest exploration of the multiple layers of human experience.
Which brings me to Ted Kooser’s essay, “Small Rooms in Time.” This is an essay about a murder that takes place in a house where Kooser and his family lived before the divorce that sent them in different directions. Kooser says of the murder:
It’s taken me a long time to try to set down my feelings about this incident. At the time, it felt as if somebody had punched me in the stomach, and in ways it has taken me until now to get my breath back. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t the boy’s death that so disturbed me, but the fact that it happened in a place where my family and I had once been safe.
Notice how the essay bravely wades into nostalgia (“a place where my family and I had once been safe”), but it does so with a point of emphasis on uncomfortable honesty (“I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t the boy’s death that so disturbed me”), thereby signalling the unflinching eye that will guide us through this return home.
At one point in the essay, Kooser talks about how since the murder that house has become permanently clear to him:
Since the murder I have often peered into those little rooms where things went good for us at times and bad at times. I have looked into the miniature house and seen us there as a young couple, coming and going, carrying groceries in and out, hats on, hats off, happy and sad.
It’s the honest admission of the bad times in concert with the good, the sad with the happy, that earns Kooser the right to remember in loving detail the facts of the life he lived in that house; it allows him to deal in nostalgia without becoming nostalgic. His intention isn’t to romanticize but to deal honestly with the circumstances and the effect, years later, that the murder has wrought on his memory of the past and his notion of himself in the present. Because he admits the sometimes unhappiness of his young family, we believe what he says thereafter. Of the house, he says,
The murder brought it forward and made me hold it under the light again. Of course I hadn’t really forgotten, nor could I ever forget how it feels to be a young father, frightened by an enormous and threatening world, wondering what might become of him, what might become of his wife and son.
The lesson for those of us who write memoir? Admit it all, every aspect of whatever “home” we’re revisiting, and then state the details, present the objects that furnished our rooms, simply and plainly without commentary. The resonance of the rugs, the sofas, the paintings, the draperies, the empty chairs, will come from the fact that we attach nothing to them except the truth that we were, even in that place and time, imperfect.