For moderns - for us - there is something illicit, it seems, about wasted time, the empty hours of contemplation when a thought unfurls, figures of speech budding and blossoming, articulation drifting like spent petals onto the dark table we all once gathered around to talk and talk, letting time get the better of us. _Just taking our time_, as we say. That is, letting time take us. "Can you say, " I once inquired of a sixty-year old cloistered nun who had lived (vibrantly, it seemed) from teh age of nineteen in her monastery cell, "what the core of contemplative life is?" "Leisure, " she said, without hesitation, her china blue eyes cheerfully steady on me. I suppose I expected her to say, "Prayer." Or maybe "The search for God." Or "Inner peace." Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality. She saw I didn't see. "It takes time to do this, " she said finally. Her "this" being the kind of work that requires abdication from time's industrial purpose (doing things, getting things). By choosing leisure she had bid farewell to the fevered enterprise of getting-and-spending whereby, as the poet said, we lay waste our powers.
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History, as it was purveyed to us, was not so much a narrative, not even the detached observation of the rise and fall of fortunes and cultures. It was the litany of loss, attended by the inevitable sympathy for the vanquished side. The past was always the underdog, and we sensed it was only right to be on its side against the bully future. We were left with the impression that our own grip was loosening on some essential pediment as one empire after another was swallowed up, and the centuries collapsed into our own.
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To speak, to write , without charm is to make utterances without reference to a reality outside oneself. It is an act devoid of the playfulness of art, without the attractive humility of one who know absolutely that others exist and therefore feels drawn to please them, because to give them an instant of pleasure is to acknowledge their existence.
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Time, we like to say, cures all. But maybe the old saying doesn't mean time heals. Time cures a secret in its brine, keeping it and finally, paradoxically, destroying it. Nothing is left in that salt solution but the pain or rage, the biting shame that lodged it there. Even they are diluted or denied.
Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be.
Memoir is trustworthy and its truth assured when it seeks the relation of self to time, the piecing of the shards of personal experience into the starscape of history's night. The materials of memoir are humble, fugitive, a cottage knitting industry seeking narrative truth across the crevasse of time as autobiography folds itself into the vast, fluid essay that is history. A single voice singing its aria in a corner of the crowded world.
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In description we hear and feel the absorption of the author in the material. We sense the presence of the creator of the scene. .. This personal absorption is what we mean by 'style.' It is strange that we would choose so oddly surfacey a word - style - for this most soulful aspect of writing. We could, perhaps more exactly, call this relation between consciousness and its subject 'integrity.' What else is the articulation of perception?
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Memoirists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to 'tell a story.' They want to tell it all - the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself. That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought ... Memoirists wish to tell their mind. Not their story.
If nobody talks about books, if they are not discussed or somehow contended with, literature ceases to be a conversation, ceases to be dynamic. Most of all, it ceases to be intimate. It degenerates into a monologue or a mutter. An unreviewed book is a struck bell that gives no resonance. Without reviews, literature would be oddly mute in spite of all those words on all those pages of all those books. Reviewing makes of reading a participant sport, not a spectator sport.
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The paradox: there can be no pilgrimage without a destination, but the destination is also not the real point of the endeavor. Not the destination, but the willingness to wander in pursuit characterizes pilgrimage. Willingness: to hear the tales along the way, to make the casual choices of travel, to acquiesce even to boredom. That's pilgrimage -- a mind full of journey.
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Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past. Psychotherapy, that widespread method for promoting mental health, relies heavily on memory and on the ability to retrieve and organize images and events from the personal pastIf we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us""to write the first draft and then return for the second draft""we are doing the work of memory.
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