Tuesday, March 30, 2010

NonfictioNow 2010

I'm excited about this conference. Alison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman are the keynote speakers. I'm especially pleased to see Wideman there, as I think he's somewhat undervalued/heralded as a nonfiction writer. Brothers and Keepers is a tough, difficult, maddening, great book.

Monday, March 29, 2010


I’m digitizing my parents’ many boxes of family photos. I use the comfortable, hopeful, and ultimately deceiving present-continuous here because I’m not digitizing my parents’ many boxes of family photos. They’re stacked by my desk, warily eyeing the scanner. I announced my intentions to become the family archivist at the dinner table over Christmas in a (semi-drunken) spirit of nostalgia, responsibility, and purpose. We lugged home the first several boxes, and now I’m not so sure.
I genuinely thought that I’d dive into the digital domain when I got home, but I haven’t opened the boxes. I had hoped that the project would be, in addition to an act of preservation, an interesting immersion in photo theory.

A kind of experiment: let me intellectualize the intimacies of the family realm, try my Gaston Bachelard out on the suburban home. But my hesitation is due both to the vastness of the project (I gotta find time), and with the burden of keepsaking, of becoming a memory preserver. I’m a little scared of what I’ll find rummaging through these. I won’t appear in the pics for several boxes (I’m the fifth of six kids) but my ghost will, and my imagination will search out all of the places that my body will soon enough occupy. The littleness of my brothers’ and sister’s faces. The poignant mid-century decorating. The hallways behind my parents’ bodies disappearing into darkness.

The smell of furniture polish. Diane Arbus nails what I fear: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Sometimes simply overhearing innocent conversations from that nostalgic (read: invented) past can be traumatic enough. The sense of loss will, of course, feel enormous and, in retrospect, will have been painfully predictable. And yet I’m not prepared for the intensity of the noise of voices and childish yelps and parental complications I’ll overhear in gazing at each photo. I can’t open the boxes yet. The cool clinical assurances of the HP Photosmart C4180 All-In-One aren’t convincing enough.

Friday, March 26, 2010


I've been thinking about maps and memory, specifically, how Google maps and digital documenting are affecting nostalgia. Nostos: homecoming + pain. That's about it. When before we relied on imagination and conjuring to re-walk the streets and along the suburban fenced yards of our past, we can abet that now with hyper-accurate rendering—photographs—of those places, without having to (literally) visit. Internet maps now offer 3D imaging; when I look at aerial shots of the neighborhood in which I was raised (in Wheaton, Maryland) and drag the image a block this way, a block that, the image's perspective will change subtly (sometimes not so subtly) and so will the date at which the image was taken—and leaves suddenly are in bloom on trees that were brown and barren a moment ago; a scraggly field when clicked is now dug out and given the foundations for future town homes. All very surreal, and nearly poetic.

And if your neighborhood or farm or city block hasn't changed all that much over the years, digital mapping gives you the sometimes heartbreaking opportunity to reclaim territory whose sole province had been memory and imagination, and the loving ways they recreate and burnish the past. Look: your town is so...ordinary. Myth is made of all this? But then Melville says, "It is not down in any map; true places never are," and he's right, of course, somewhere between cartography and the thought of a place.

And try this: find Billboard magazines from when you were 13, 14, and page through the Top 100 charts. That might map your adolescence.


Essays and essaying, rock & roll and art, looking and listening, teaching and learning. Synonyms for memory. Synonyms for thinking about memory. The distance between bygones and bitrates. Books and CDs, chapbooks and vinyl, 45 and 33 1/3 and 320.

Thoughts. Arguments. High low in between.