I asked my friend Pat Prather, a talented photographer for 8 Eyes Photography and a brilliant artist, to create a memory board that I could mount in my kitchen. It would be a place to put precious photographs and mementos so that I could see them every day.
Pat created not just a work of art, but a story told through the steampunk sculpture that surrounds the handcrafted frame, a story about a fairy who breaks time so that the memories can remain alive forever. (You can read about his process here.)
I’m nostalgic, increasingly so as I get older. I often think back fondly to people I’ve loved, places I’ve called home, adventures and conversations that have had an impact on me. I’m grateful for them, really grateful for these experiences. They are treasures, and even as I look forward to the future, I am gratitude for everything and everyone who has brought me to this point.
“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
― Milan Kundera, Ignorance
I wanted the memory board to be a place to mount those sentimental treasures, and they are frozen there, snapshots into important moments. I’m slowly printing out photographs to affix to the board. Some are obvious choices: the dearest of family and friends. Others inspire, challenge or remind me, like the photograph of Gene Wolfe and me that I added last week.
On May 7th, I met Gene for lunch to celebrate his 82nd birthday. Each time we meet, we chat about our lives and works in progress. I always enjoy Gene’s stories about writers he’s known, places he’s traveled, stories he’s read–so many memories, so much history. On the drive back to Chicago, I’m often lost in some Gene-inspired reverie or creative provocation.
This time, Gene mentioned an exercise attributed to Benjamin Franklin called “Imitating the Style of the Spectator.” The idea is that a writer should choose a piece of writing by an author he/she admires. After reading it over many times, the writer should hide the original text away and attempt to write the story from memory. Once it’s completed, the writer should refer back to the original and note the differences: the places where he or she forgot a detail, or did not capture the same mood or character, or had trouble with dialogue, and so on.
Gene did the exercise early on in his writing career with one of his favorite Lord Dunsany stories, The Assignation. He explained that there is much to be learned by studying the craft of the masters.
He’s right, of course. Gene Wolfe is a Master. This weekend,Gene Wolfe will be honored by the SFWA with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for his contribution to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I am grateful for lessons I’ve learned not just from his writing, but from his friendship.
Just below the photo of Gene and me is a photograph taken from last year’s Fuller Awards to honor Gene Wolfe. That one has a group of people who are both dear and an inspiration. They each inspire me in their own way: to keep writing, to strive for excellence, to learn from the examples of the past, to connect with others. That night was one of those important moments in my life, a night to remember.
Unlike Pat’s fairy, we cannot break time (except in stories). Time will continue with or without us.
But I find that nostalgia can work like a touchstone. Memory and nostalgia motivate me to reach for the stars, to step into the chaos of creativity, knowing that I am grounded in the past and am part of a continuum that stretches backward and forward in time. Just like Gene’s exercise about writing from memory, there’s much to be learned from the intersection of what is and what is remembered.