Saturday, December 31, 2016

Nostalgia and Writing

The Chattanooga Writers' Guild has a Facebook page that often has links to wonderful helps, such as this one about why the movie A Christmas Story is so attractive to so many people.

The core reason is nostalgia.  Nostalgia, the writer claims, quoting a line from Mad Men, is "the pain from an old wound."  Since neuralgia means nerve pain, and analgesic is a medicine against pain, it appears that alge is a Greek root for pain.  So nostalgia originally had pain involved in it. 

The article says nostalgia is one of the three reasons the movie is so popular, along with humor and the payoff of a disaster.  It's worth reading if you like the movie, or even if you don't.  It's ok by me; it's not a Christmas necessity (A Christmas Carol is that), but it is a piece of Americana, perhaps more that for me than nostalgia.

This idea, however, that nostalgia involves memory of pain is fascinating to me.  Nostalgia for childhood comes from remembering a time when we were fairly powerless and vulnerable.  Was that a time we would return to?  No, not if we are emotionally healthy as adults, yet we cherish some memories of that time.  Christmas was largely a time of strife and uncertainty in my childhood, although my parents tried to make it fun for us three kids (my youngest brother is intellectually disabled and has no memories to share with me).  We had a tree and cookies and presents and the like, but sometimes my father would go on a drunk, which was upsetting to Mom and tainted it all.  I was an easily frightened and sensitive kid.  I cherish that we were together; we are not now.  Only my brother and I are left, and he lives 600 miles or more away.

We feel nostalgia for our youth, friends and young love, but there is pain there because our hearts were broken and we lost those friends over time.  So why does nostalgia have a pull for us if it is the uncovering of pain?  Perhaps because we lived through it and are still here to say we did.  Perhaps because we went through it with loved ones who aren't with us any more.  Perhaps the pain is not in the memory, which could have been fun, but that the memory didn't become a permanent reality.  Memory is a tricky thing, anyway.  I journal and blog because I do not trust my memory.

Nostalgia, then, is not just remembering a fun memory.  That is something different. Ralphie's experiences in the movie are not all that pleasant from a child's perspective; they are bizarre, disappointing, a little shaming, and yes, the neighborhood dogs eating the turkey is funny but to a child would not have been since a child would have internalized that somehow he was responsible (because we are the center of the world).  A child would not understand that a leg is not a lampstand.  Adulthood gives a perspective that sees these things as funny that would not have been funny at the time. 

Perhaps that is the difference between nostalgia and just bitter memories.   I can't look back and find humor in those Christmases when my parents would be at odds or other things would happen; to me they symbolized something existentially sad. My upbringing was not filled with quirky characters or anyone I could make seem quirky on paper. 

So, I find myself wondering if I could write nostalgia of that sort and concluding I would have to do a lot of digging.  Perhaps something else would be my strength.  To Kill A Mockingbird is about childhood stories but not for a time in history that would be good to return to.  I lean more to that vein.

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