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July’s End 2020

On Nostalgia


Nostalgia is, in a literary sense, the longing and wistful yearning for the irrevocable past to somehow return anew, to the present. When used well, the sense of the irrecoverable past — does comes to life in the present — because the writer has successfully resolved his very immediate sense of grief from those private moments. He can, once again, take hold of the emotions and the thoughts from that time-that-is-no-more. He can then create, in a masterfully restrained and exquisite way, that uniquely touching time. If done for the purpose of ennobling the days and nights of d’antan, those souvenirs become magnificently immortalized through the art of fiction.


When mis-used by the writer, nostalgia becomes a distancing device of mawkish sentiment. The sense of nostalgia shrouds the feelings of that pain-filled past, wrapping them in mushy cushions of sensations that prevent the writer — and, thus, the reader — from ever completely coming to grips with the grievous sensations that pushed the creative impetus to the fore of the wordsmith’s mind.


This use of nostalgia as a device for distancing allows the author to hide from the real-life experience that he has not come to terms with; but, somehow, he feels that writing about that mood scene will help him to come to terms with an emotional event. It’s a selfish, and lazy, use of nostalgia, the picturing on the page of scenery from the personal past without fully drawing the outlines of that past and filling in the telling details.

Because the author has not effectively, and affectively, distanced himself from an experience that bored a hole into his memory, if not within his heart, the reader is therefore left all on his own to try to decipher and decide just what the heck the point of view is, and what it’s saying. The true feelings of the protagonist are veiled through the use of nostalgia. Most often, a theme song, a tinny piano, plays somewhere in the background of the fictional scene, trying to make up for the lack of presence of the protagonist and the absence of any decisiveness as to what those moments meant to him.


Oh, the past is so much better than the present! I miss it so much, for the way we were!


But the way they were is a film-reel of images that play only for the memories of themselves. There is little wisdom or insight gained from going to where They were headed, and looking back — without an explanation of what was lost, and what was gained.

The big message, the entire message, the only message is: It was better back then.


Sorry, Charlie, but I am not going to buy into your yearning for the past until I am convinced that the present, as well as the future, are better off, for having been born of that mystical elegiac yesterday, the place and time that you still mourn so much that you selfishly expect the reader to either cry with you, or, worse, do your crying for you.


If a lost love, or an abandoned hope, or a dream stripped away from you, can hope to have any solid meaning to the World, any universal truth, any relevance to a Someone out there, in the dark, then you, as a fictional writer, must provide the meaning of the Experience — in enlightened light of Then and Now, as well as through the lens of Tomorrow.


Simply spilling your memory guts onto the paper does not create a scene of unforgettable prose and passion. If the Author wishes to convey a cathartic hour or two of her life, after which she was never the same, then she has to, at a minimum, explain why and how, even when, she moved from Point A of the cataclysmic encounter to Point Q (we do not even get to the end of the alphabet, Z). Memory-dialing those maturing moments through the Me-phone of sappy pining provides only a tacky trip for the reader who ought to feel ripped-off. The Author, unknowingly or not, has just cheated the reader of precious ticks of the clock that are needed to render a touching scene — touching!

There may, indeed, be readers who enjoy trying to piece together the ways in which the Protagonist put behind him a part of his past that changed him forever, but, in my experience as a reader and as a writer, such an encounter on the printed page is shallow and insulting. Nostalgia is a mood, not a tool. It is a grace note within the melody of a love story. An obsession with longing and wistfulness and the tear-jerking tugs at old lang syne, all those elements of nostalgia are forms of evasion.


A dear friend of mine once suggested to me that there is more than the choice of Fight or Flight: There is dodge.


“No,” I countered. “Dodge is a form of flight.”


And the distancing device of nostalgia is a dodge. It’s a way to not deal with the heart of the matter that still exists somewhere in the heart of the writer. Drenching water-colored memories of yore in sentimental melodrama, to depict the year when She met Him, the author effectively refuses to go for the jugular of why They parted. Instead, the story becomes Why She Will Never Forget Him. Why should the reader care where They were, if he does not get to find out where They ended up?

A litany of voices from bygone days, interspersed with flashbacks of the diner where you met each Tuesday, precisely at six of the clock; and weepy sketches, with elaborate and exquisite detail, of kisses in the sunlight; and whispers of the promises spoken and unspoken: all of that pain-staking work is for naught if you, as a writer, cannot look at the Person of Yesterday and understand who he was then, and how he got to who he is today, writing with an adult memory about the younger memory.


If you’ve not come to grips with the You of Yesteryear, and you focus extensively, exclusively on Your Memory of Yesteryear, then you’ve abandoned your own protagonist in his own past! Things Remembered went bankrupt for all the right reasons!

Talking about the Emotional Earthquake Event, via the words of a narrator, does double-damage to the reader. The voice of the Protagonist is teary, and the voice of the narrator is in some maudlin minor key. Neither bell rings true because each is hiding the truth from the other!


The melody of an emotion is not the emotion itself. If the writer has artistically used nostalgia to weave the mists of time into his remembrance of the Event, and into his matured understanding of the long ago, then the reader can take into his consciousness, and his heart, the full and complex layers of meaning that any Moment of Significance needs to bring to the reader. The evasive use of nostalgia is like a monotonous melody that drones through the distance of the past and never quite reaches the present moment. It’s a fictional magic trick that is, in reality, an emotional sleight-of-hand: the Author is writing a true-confession disguised as a story.


Why does the author use nostalgia as a mechanism to evade the reality of his fiction, instead of inventing the true feelings of the protagonist?

I really can’t say. At best, this kind of writing is an artistic form of self-help therapy, writing that belongs best in a Writer’s Journal. At worst, the cribbing of personal souvenirs from old times, to use for story-time, without the underpinning of wisdom that was gained from those souvenirs — that composition is self-indulgent, petty and bourgeois — and insulting to the use of just about every literary device known to writing homo sapiens.


The mature point of view of any character used in flashback, whether from five years ago or fifty years ago, demands the Author distance himself through deepened awareness of the Then, as contrasted with the Now. If you still need to understand what happened, do not write about whatever it was that happened. Spend more time pondering it, playing with the possibilities of what it was, and was not, what never could have been, but maybe what you hoped would be, and never shall be.

If you, as the Writer, are unwilling to face the truths about that endless pool of possibilities and probabilities called the past, then do not go down, or up, the road of nostalgia. Mere use of icons from the 1950s or the 1880s or, gah, the 1970s, will not infuśe your dialogue with deeper meaning. Those nuts and bolts of the long ago and far away cannot compensate for a solid lack of depth perception in writing.


A memory comes to life on the printed page only because it has never died, and it never died because the owner of that memory was able to nurture it throughout those years intervening between Past and Present by feeding it through introspection, and with the acumen that comes from learning from the trials and tribulations that came along the way . . . since that day. Any other treatment of a memory for fictional use allows it to limp along, trying to run, with arms open, to the reader who sits, with eyes bleary and weary, trying to see the picture you did not draw.

You cannot let go of someone, or something, until you have fully held it, and bid her adieu.


Living in the past is not the way to create fiction, or characters, from that era. The Creature from the Past Lagoon comes off as less human, less capable of the intensity that is passion when he is placed back there, in Yesteryear, without the voice of maturity. He needs to flower with the full bloom of that budding rose, the ripened fruit that harkens back to the seedling and knows, without a doubt, that the savor of today is all because of the sorrow of yesterday.


You must show how that rich wine mellowed. Do not give that cup of worldly wisdom to the reader until you, the Author, are ready to pour that full-bodied wine, enriched by the tears of your own dearly earned discernment. Such a chalice will hold a treasure trove of imagination and luminosity.

In the blunt but gutsy words of the late but immortal actress Shelley Winters:


“Art is exposure. When you've developed a degree of maturity to handle that knowledge, you are revealing what other people keep hidden.”


“Sometimes in comedy you can make the audience feel poignancy stronger than you can with tears or anguish.”


“Every now and then, when you're on stage, you hear the best sound a player can hear. It's a sound you can't get in movies or in television. It is the sound of a wonderful, deep silence that means you've hit them where they live.”


I say: Write fiction, using nostalgia, so that you hit them where they live.