Sunday, April 30, 2017

Meeting our earlier selves

One strategy I have often enjoyed to get started writing is to find an intriguing quotation and react to it. I think of many of these posts as responses to a sentence or two; they are exercises in adding to the ongoing body of inherited ideas, planting a borrowed idea and seeing how it will flourish in my own soil.

I don't see total originality as a possible goal for me as a writer because I know I am indebted to all I have read and absorbed and to which I must contribute.

Today, thanks to Maria Popova, I found an arresting statement by Joan Didion: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

She is referring, I believe, to reviewing regularly her diary or journal entries from decades past and seeing what she was then thinking.

Didion's statement raises numerous questions for me. Can we in fact connect with the people we used to be? And: How much do we really change in a decade or two?

I don't have extensive journals in the confessional sense but a literary-spiritual journal that extends from 1980 to the start of this blog, and I am often surprised what I read there. The surprises are of two kinds: pleasant and unpleasant.

On the negative side, I am easily ashamed of the style of my earlier writing or at a na├»ve notion that I have recorded; I tell myself that my present self would never have written that. But the positive side is seeing how much I have learned, changed and developed over the years.  I have often been taken aback by a good insight I recorded in my journal, occasioned by an experience I have long forgotten.

The underlying question is: is the self I meet in earlier writing (or old photos) the same self as I am now?   My body over the years, including the brain, has changed radically, so in a very real sense I can say that I am not the same person I once was.

No wonder I shun school reunions since classmates of 40 or more years ago are not the same people I remember from our school days. You might say their inner or true self (or soul) is unchanged and unchangeable, but it is unlikely for anyone at a party or reunion to see each other's souls.

So I'm not sure I agree with Didion. I rarely review my old self except in the memories that are colored by my present apprehension of them.  Why should I revisit my struggles and insights of thirty years ago unless I want to remind myself of my progress since then--or the brilliance of a few of my former insights?

The main thing for me is that a quote like this becomes, for a writer, a great tool for exploring a new topic and discussing it with others. If you who are reading this have a reaction to Didion's statement, perhaps you could share it in the Comments section.  Thanks.

As a writing teacher, I know how useless it is for writers to think they must develop insights or stories out of thin air; no, we are always indebted to the vast web of insights recorded by others we can build on: hence the value of reading.

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