Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Nostalgia Trap

I’ve caught the nostalgia bug. I didn’t mean to catch it. The bug snuck up on me. It started during the run-up to David Letterman’s last Late Night show on May 20. A fan of Letterman since his daytime show aired in the early 1980s, I watched clips from the waning episodes as his faithful guests said their goodbyes to Dave. I saw the last episode (twice) and it made me feel sad–and old. Having grown up with Johnny Carson, I realized I was old enough to see the heirs to his throne (Jay Leno and Letterman) retire. 

That blue feeling lingered for a while and just as I began to shake it, I attended a mini high school reunion in early June. It was a wonderful evening, swapping old stories with classmates and even hearing a few new ones. The spirit of cameraderie spilled over into the parking lot as we continued the conversation there. Nobody wanted to leave.

In the ensuing days, I found myself reflecting on my youth: successes failures, missed opportunities, songs I liked, girls I liked, parties I attended. It all came back. And that is how nostalgia becomes a trap. I dwelled on the past. If only I had done this and not that. If ony I had asked this girl out and not gotten cold feet. If only I had studied harder. If only I knew then what I know now, things sure would have turned out differently–but possibly not better. Who can ever know?

That’s why I called this post, The Nostalgia Trap. It’s fun to relive the past. The past is so much rosier today than it was when we were going through it (apologies for the shift to second person). We cherry-pick and embellish our memories. And we magnify our mistakes. That’s human nature. That’s not why nostalgia is a trap, though. Here’s why it’s a trap: by living in the past, we cheat the present.

 I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only  change your present and your future.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you’re wondering what in the world any of this talk of nostalgia has to do with fiction writing. As Ellen DeGeneres would say, “Here’s my point–and I do have one.” In works of fiction, the back story takes place in the past. Some writers go back as far as the period when they were alive. Some who write historical fiction set their stories in times when none of us were alive. To write authentic characters, writers tap into the deep wellspring of the past. They plumb their deepest emotions, their darkest periods, the pain they’ve buried in their subsconscious.

During the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference last November, presenter Meg Rosoff gave a presentation focused on a critical skill: the need for writers to tap into their subconscious, to get in touch with their deepest fears and their most profound pain. The lesson was not lost on the writers who attended. Meg challenged us by asking us to write down the answers to a series of questions about our past. It worked. Many of us had profound revelations that day. During the session we talked about emotions long locked away. Brave writers bared their souls to their colleagues. It was liberating and it added to our toolkit as writers.

Nostalgia can benefit a writer. Looking back and accessing those feelings, hopes, dreams, and disappointments will lend emotional depth to characters in a writer’s work. I just don’t advise living life in the past.

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Book Review: “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s 2011 debut novel, “Swamplandia!” is a dark, hilarious thrill ride that chronicles the disintegration of a pseudo-Native American family and a plucky, precocious 13-year-old girl’s bizarre journey to save them and herself.

Swamplandia! is a tawdry amusement park on an unspoiled island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The main attraction is Hilola Bigtree. Tourists fill the amphitheater to witness her daring dives from a platform into alligator-infested waters. Bathed in a spotlight, Hilola each night swims through the gators  to safety on a small stage suspended over the gator pit. The alligators never get Hilola, but cancer does, claiming her life at the age of 37. Her death and the emergence of a mega amusement park on the mainland called The World of Darkness send the Bigtree family into a spiral of debt and despair.

Chief Bigtree leaves for the mainland on a vague mission to raise money to reboot the park with a “Carnival Darwinism” theme. He leaves Ava Bigtree, the main character, on the island with her older sister, Osceola “Ossie” Bigtree, 16, and her older brother, Kiwi, 18. They are left to fend for themselves. Then Kiwi leaves to take a job at the rival World of Darkness, a sort of dystopian Disney World. 

Readers of Carl Hiaasen’s satirical takedowns of Florida will recognize the same currents running through Russsell’s work: corporate and government plundering of the environment and the spoiling of the splendiforous natural beauty of the Sunshine State. But that’s not the real story here. The bigger story here is Ava’s incredible journey–a loss of innocence made more suspenseful by Ossie’s sudden infatuation with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman who died in the 1930s.

When Ossie disappears along with a dredge barge the two sisters had discovered earlier, Ava knows where she is headed: the land of Ten Thousand Islands, where the underworld is located. There, Ava hopes to not only find her sister and her ghost groom, but she convinces herself that her mother is there as well. Ava has no way to reach the underworld, until a mysterious figure called the Bird Man shows up on the island and offers to take her there.

This is where the story’s fragile grip on reality seems to slip away, but Ava’s sense of wonder and a sharp turn back to reality save it from devolving into paranormal nonsense.

What also saves this story is Russell’s scintillating portrayal of Ava as both self-aware and acutely tuned in to the world around her. Passages like this one left me wanting to applaud: “I was thirteen years old when the end of Swamplandia! began in earnest, although at first I was oblivious of the dangers we now faced–mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another–bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.” 

Some readers may find this book too outlandish. It worked for me because I put trust in Russell’s ability as a writer to take me on a magical ride and bring me back to dry land. 

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