Lost in the Past

I’ve been writing a novel set in 1969. There’s no mystery about why: I’m stuck in that era; always have been. The music I listen to, the philosophies I believe in, the major discoveries I’ve made, the clothes I wear (I’m wearing an army jacket right now), my whole entire sense of self is rooted in the 1960s, and I do believe that the tragedy of my life — a thing that has haunted me from that day to this — is that I was just a little too young (and maybe a bit too scared) to be the hippie I wanted to be. So this novel I’m writing is nothing less than an emotional memoir, a wish-fulfilling journey down a path I might have walked. From time to time as I write it, I get very close to something I call “the bottom ache,” which, for me, is where the writer’s true emotions live. When I can get a bit of the bottom ache out of my heart and out of my head and onto the page with all its authentic sour sweetness, I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with my work.

But there are unintended consequences of living in the past as I am. Melancholy frequently sweeps over me as I measure the distance between where I was and where I am. Rue slips in — damn, why didn’t I take the road not taken? Frustration dogs me, for even when I successfully catch a snapshot of the ’60s, I know it’s only a snapshot, a dim reflection, not at all the real deal. And when I miss — when my details are lame and my dialogue flat — when I try to convey real emotion and real event on the page, and know that I’m not coming close, I’m not only burdened by the time gone by but also by the time I’m burning through now, trying and failing, trying and failing again.

Well, it’s what writers do, one of the many things we do: We try; we fail; we try again. And when we succeed, we set harder targets for ourselves. That’s part of the paradigm, and I understand it well. Writing is a “have more, need more” condition. No matter what goals we reach, real writers always need new goals and tougher ones. In this novel, my goal is to go deep and go back. In my dark days I fear I’m missing on both counts.

But I soldier on, because that’s what real writers do, too. I feel like I’m participating in an experiment of a sort: how much melancholy can I stand to feel? At this moment, living in 2011 and trying so hard to live in 1969, I’m feeling it all, every single bit. I’m lost in the past. I put myself there, and now there’s no way out of it except through it.

More later, -jv

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