Sunday, June 30, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Being There. Or Not.

For years, I thought our family was waiting to change planes at D/FW airport on the day John F. Kennedy was shot.

We were not. I had conflated a couple of different family stories and tied them together with general historical knowledge to come up with a single coherent narrative more interesting than reality.

Because that's what I do. Only on this occasion I had no idea I was doing it and was accidentally lying to people, which is never my intention. I was also being sort of precognitive, as I was in fact waiting to change planes in D/FW the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

A lot of history has happened during my life, and I'm seldom there for it. It happened again this week - I could have been in the gallery at midnight shouting behind Wendy Davis, but I wasn't. I could be in Austin on Monday, rallying again, and have the feeling I ought to be - but the world spun around my head a little this morning and I bet I don't. I sometimes feel bad for not being a history-making sort of person, even in the mass-movement background sense. If I can support a cause by clicking links, signing petitions, and occasionally donating money, I will; but my attempts to hit the streets always fizzle. Moving with large groups of people - I can't do it. But that's not the point of an Idea Garage Sale, and the point is this:

We are all alive in history. We don't have any long perspective on it, and many of us who are interested in history find current events annoying and exhausting. That's because we can't get closure on it, and because so many people who are into current events, particularly the kinds of people who start petitions and lead rallies, are pretty annoying and exhausting, themselves. (Well, they have to be, don't they?) But current events become history more quickly than we guess; and we begin unconsciously making story of them long before they are suitable for "historical novel" treatment.

What happens if you stop being unconscious about this process?

I have done this once, in Switching Well. The concept didn't work if I didn't anchor both ends of the story firmly in a specific place and time; and the only possible way for me to anchor the "modern" end properly was to set it during the time I was writing it. But that time hurried away at time's usual relentless pace, so I had to diarize intensely, observe things I would normally have noted in passing, follow the news, and generally pay attention to things I otherwise would not have, in ways I otherwise would not have. Even by the time Switching Well was published, its "present" was two years in the past; and now, twenty years - twenty years! - after its first publication, it is the story of two girls swapping places from one point in the past to another point in the past.

And this is a strength because, even though I came across causes worth fighting for in the course of writing that book, I didn't fight for those causes in the book. Ada and Amber weren't in position to reform the child welfare systems they got caught in. They could only deal with them, and do a good turn to one or two other people. Which is all most of us ever manage. If people who read the book internalize some awareness of the perpetual inadequacy of child welfare systems in the United States along with the rhythms and textures of daily life in 1891 and 1991, good. It will be because I told the truth as plain as I could tell it and they did the rest.

You can tell the truth, too. Look back in your life. What bits of it rise up and become history, and what were you doing then? What's happening now that will become history by the time you can finish writing a book? How is that history working away to change your life even as you ignore most of it?

What literary capital can you make out of that, setting passions and causes aside, and viewing it from four feet above street level, where a child protagonist's eyes are?

Stop trying so hard to be universal, for a minute, or a book. You will only ever achieve the universal through the particular, so sort through your life. What are your particular parts of history? What happened to you in the cracks between the big events?

What could have happened?

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