Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writing as nostalgia: on the origins of fiction


It starts small, as something inchoate.  You don't know why you're drawn to a topic, a setting, a subject.  There's just something compelling--a magnetic field that pulls at you as you begin to type.  Much of my work starts with this kind of magnetism.  As the subject begins to come together, the streets turn into New York City in the 1980s, or Grossinger's hotel in the 1940s.  While the plotting process is careful left brain activity - a engineering styled construction, the themes, the plots, the characters that inhabit my fiction tend to be driven by instinct and nostalgia.  Something in me wants to explore the pain, the correspondences, the connections.  The whole process of writing, fiction and poetry at least, for me has an undercurrent of nostalgia that is becoming ever clearer as I move deeper into my third novel, an exploration of creative, love, loss and time travel through the DNA wormhole that links the 1940s and 2012. 

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this is a motivating force for many authors, not just myself.  We need to find a place in our lives where something has been left behind, to explore a notion that bugs us, and then, like a grain of sand in an oyster, to pearlise it and create something that is no longer personal and lost, but universal and found.  I've been exploring this notion, not only in my own work as I aim my fingers into the past, but in the work of others as I traverse literary landscapes that work best when they invoke a similar nostalgia in me.  The sense of loss that motivates the characters is familiar and current to the modern reader regardless of whether the book is set in Victorian England or a mythical planet in the constellation of Kasterborous.

Reflecting on the past, and responding to that reflection by exploring its meaning to the present and that disassociative, uncomfortable sensation of not being able to ever get back to that point, creates a visceral sensation that is empathetic and powerful.  There's something there that you have to pick at.  Something Proustian in the taste of those Madeleines, or the smell of that long forgotten perfume. 

It's suprisingly painful, both as reader and as writer, to go to that place, and explore the sensations, knowing that this is all we have left of the past.  Bringing it back to life, at the same time as we distance ourselves from it through irony and new found understanding, creates a very post-modern type of novel.  Noticing and loving this sensation, however uncomfortable, in modern literature, is a most pleasurable experience that connects writing with reading. 

How does nostalgia inform your own work, both as reader and writer?  

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com


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6 comments:

  1. Maggie, if something bugs me in real life, I can revisit it in poetry or fiction. Perhaps make it better, change the outcome, voice my feelings. Names of old friends and relatives show up in my fiction. Their quirks may be assigned to a character or two. If it haunts me, I can consign it to the page and hope it will leave me alone.

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    1. I feel exactly the same way Peggy. Writing is cathartic and healing.

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  2. Maggie, how true. I think nostalgia can motivate us to write. I love certain time periods for either the way of life, the value system, or other. This was part of the reason I wrote Walking Through Walls.

    And, Peggy, it is great as a writer to be able to 'revisit' and change a 'real' outcome or revive something we've lost.

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  3. You make me laugh, Magdalena. I find it kind of sad that we can't just stick with instinct. That we have to go back and work on that structure and all the other little things that make people turn the pages of a novel they're reading. (-:

    And yes, nostalgia gets me. I even have a nostalgia bulletin board on Pinterest. (http://pinterest.com/chowardjohnson). And, some of my other boards are also sprinkled with nostalgia. I just can't get away from it.


    Best,
    Carolyn

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  4. I love nostalgia! A tidbit of family history has led me to write four books!!

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  5. I think our lives finds it's way in our writing, even if it is only indirectly.

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