The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) by Charles Dickens
When you're learning how to write, and you want to write, one of the best activities you can think of is to keep a journal. I'm not talking about a diary, I'm talking about writing anything that pops into your mind. The last journal entry I made was this: How come death is never a she? I could be wrong about that. It's entirely possible somone's referred to death with a feminine pronoun, I just can't think of one off the top of my head. No matter.
I've always lamented the fact I didn't keep a journal in Vietnam; there was certainly plenty of downtime, much time spent sitting on bridges where nothing happened, where I once bought a fifth of whiskey from a Vietnamese villager and got very drunk, then was very remorseful, then was grateful I didn't go blind or die. It never occurred to me then to keep a journal, and I wish I'd cateloged those names and places. I wrote some lame romantic letters to a girl I was in love with, but I never considered one day that I might want to refer to my experience, or just simply remember where I'd been, which I often cannot.
It's obvious to me now how immature I was, how much I lacked a sense of purpose, so much so that I lived every moment wishing I could return home, and not knowing what I'd do once I got there. And I'm absolutely sure my journal entries may have been just as trivial, unless of course, I wrote something honest. Being a writer wasn't on my radar, let alone starting a PhD program when I was 40 and getting my first teaching job at a small college in Colorado at age 46.
When I speak of writing something honest, I'm not necessarily talking about writing the factual (Just the facts, Mam); instead, I'd rather talk to the issue of what might have come from a journal had I kept one, which may have led me to understand something about youthful folly, about being a pawn in the Military Industrial Complex, about my personal morals, my code of conduct, my acquiesence to authority and control, how I gave up my freedom when I let myself be drafted (prison or exile--pick your poison). Naturally, I came to understand aspects of all these concepts, but it took a lot longer to see into the heart of things, and that's what matters, looking straight into the heart of my experience and coming to conclusions I didn't find comforting. Writing is often said to be a process of discovery, and what I discovered wasn't particulary pleasant. But if you're going to write, you must consider the varacity of your fictional idea. John Gardner said that fiction is a continuous and vivid dream. Without revealing a specific truth in your stories, you may have nothing more than an idea, and that is never dramatic. The idea is telling readers what to think, but the drama reveals it as it happens.
Now I understand why Sgt. Curtis read so much; he read on the side of a trail; he read when he pulled guard duty; he read when we stood down on a firebase or on the beach at Da Nang, and the books he read were big ones, like David Copperfield; he read them because they allowed him to escape into drama, to divorce himself from the tedium and fear that was Vietnam, that was a far cry from the moments of terror that mostly lasted less than ten minutes. He wrapped Copperfield in plastic and kept him dry in an empty ammo can, like a best friend--before I knew books could be your best friends.
Or so it seems. . . Here's the truth. I'm aging and so are my contemporaries, which I'm reminded every time I open Facebook. My mind is full of memories--many of which often elude me, often fade in and out. It's all part of the process I'm told. The short term doesn't work as well, but the long term keeps on giving, and sometimes in remarkable detail. There have been countless times I've said to myself: "I'll never forget this moment." But I do and I have. I like to remind my students that I've probably forgotten more experiences than they've had simply because I've seen more, done more, and lived longer.
In the past I've given students a writing assignment: Write about a memorable experience, I ask of them, and what I get are car wrecks, dying grandparents, divorces, other memorable events that are predominantly tragic. Rarely does anyone write about a positive experience, a joyous moment, something that changed a life beyond simply writing about loss. Perhaps we're all a bit guilty this way. The older we become the more we know and understand that everyone's life is tragic to a degree and that suffering cannot be measured.
See that boy in the photograph? The one in the striped shirt? His name is Rick. He had his share of tragedy, abused by a stepbrother, a soul lost in Vietnam, alcoholism, homelessness, esophgeal cancer and then a brain tumor. Finally in hospice care and then his death a few months back. I didn't know him well the last couple years of his life. We were estranged by his alcoholism and by distance.
But when I look at this photo, I don't think about those things. I don't want to. What I want to think about is the time we were chased out of a field by a German Shepard, how we leapt over a barbed wire fence, tearing our trousers. I want to think about how we laughed about it, how we told the story over and over. We were twelve and ten. He was younger. I want to remember a time in Bay Port, Michigan, when the water in Wildfowl Bay was so shallow one year we nearly walked to North Island, about three miles off shore. How we just kept walking to see how far we could get before we'd have to swim, and the carp that swam passed, startling us, making us wish we had spears or bow and arrows. I want to remember all the times we went fishing, and how I made Rick laugh when I threw my nightcrawler into the lake and said, "You're free to go." Because everything is funny when you're a boy.
As someone who tries to write, these are the experiences in my real life I want to remember, but I think I'll share the tragedy in fiction, where it belongs. I think I'll put it there because there's so much of it and I'm tire of thinking about it.