This must be valuable because it lingered: On Writing “Into the Fable”

September 20, 2011 § 3 Comments


Joe Bonomo meditates on memory, experience, and the uncertain impulse behind his Brevity 37 essay “Into the Fable.”

“We store in memory only images of value,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories.  “The value may be lost over the passage of time…but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to.”

Like many smart observations about the nature of autobiography, Hampl’s has as much to do with what it means to be a human as with what it means to be a writer. Like all provocations, it invites argument and skepticism.  I’ve been silently quarreling with Hampl for years; I want to believe that she’s correct, that when I scroll the mental files and land on that one image repeatedly, it’s meaningful beyond me, that it’s personal, not merely private.  But I can’t be sure.  Even images that have lived in me for decades — a sibling’s facial expression, a friend’s walk, a girl’s eyes, that tree stump, those buildings in a row — may be, from the writer’s perspective, meaningless.

But part of me needs to believe Hampl’s assertion.  Writing “Into The Fable,” I trusted an instinct very close to hers: this must be valuable because it lingered.  Is John D.’s image saying something to me, in a language that I don’t know, or have lost?  And is that something valuable, or inessential? I like to believe that when an image tattoos us, the ink stain is a kind of Rorschach test: its mystery may at first be untranslatable, but with time and curiosity, and plenty of side-glances away, it’s articulated, saying something that, if I’m lucky, broaches epiphany. Have I successfully translated John D. in “Into The Fable”?  An image sometimes struggles with MSL issues: Memory as a Second Language.  I think I get the gist of him.  But Walter Benjamin writes, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.”  When you’re converting a memory-image — that soundless .gif file — you’re working at an even greater disadvantage, paraphrasing music, interpreting moving but noiseless mouths, the transmitted information received as intuition, or as guesses.  You stake your belief on the value of the image when it may be memory’s equivalent of a found photo: intriguing, mysterious, ghostly-narrative, vaguely urgent, but ultimately pointless.

Annie Dillard says, “Fiction makes sense of imagined experience; nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.”  But of course actual experience is reimagined every second, even, arguably, as it’s happening.  Why distinguish between imagined and actual experience?  (Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie” is maybe ninety-eight percent fiction — that is, imagined — and all the more wrenching because of that.)  Plagued by a recurring image of a school friend, I’m tempted to fill in the blanks, to imagine, as a fiction writer might, the surrounding narrative details and context, the back story that brought John D. to that trivial spot in time.  Instead I write about what isn’t there, trusting in actual experience, however limited and partially-known.  The image says, if I’m hearing it right through the static, this is all you need.

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§ 3 Responses to This must be valuable because it lingered: On Writing “Into the Fable”

  • Melissa Cronin says:

    “Trusting in actual experience.” That phrase resonates with me, for when recalling a long ago event, it’s all too easy to doubt ourselves: “Maybe I’m crazy … maybe I’m just making up something that never happened in the first place. Then again, it’s all about our truth, our reality of what happened. We just need to trust our imaginations – not always an easy thing to do.

  • shirleyhs says:

    I had this very problem today as I drafted a passage about my first memory. I know it involves coming down the open staircase at age three and that my brother and mother just came home from the hospital after his birth. I know I got a new tricycle from one set of grandparents. Were the other grandparents there also? Was the dress pink? Does it matter to the reader? Is this “memory” merely a story my mother told me about my brother’s arrival? Does it matter? Especially why should the reader care?

  • Joe says:

    Meliisa: we need to trust our imaginations, yeah, but when we’re led to the murky place full of Shirley’s great questions, things get tough. Flaubert says that writers don’t choose their subjects, writers submit to them—but this urgency to/of subject might lead simply, overwroughtly, to a blind alley. No one believes that everything he experiences must be artfully rendered. Shirley’s questions might open up to more questions (and maybe even answers) and that Q-A dialogue might become part of the essay/piece—which now starts to sound like interesting writing that could be valuable.

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