Living consciously and deliberately is the most radical thing we can do to have time. As I noted at the conclusion of last week’s blog on writing the elusive self:
We are bodies in time and those bodies in time develop fuller perceptions of life the more we shape our lives as abundant in narrative and memory.
Living the memories
It follows that the more we remember, the more we ‘are’. But in an era when memory is increasingly outsourced, what does this mean for identity? Thinking about photography, Italo Calvino noted:
The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.
This was before Facebook or Instagram existed. How does our memory fare now, and our sense of self with it, when technologies that are much more ephemeral and fast than photography are ubiquitous? And how does it fare when ‘selfies’ make the self more a more an object rather than a subject doing the experiencing? To quote Susan Sontag:
When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.
In Felt Time Marc Wittmann advises that experiences that we make deep emotional connections with are those that persist and form us. For Wittmann, longevity is not the number of years lived, but the depth and range of felt experience.
As writers, memory is crucial to narrative and the writing life requires an ability to connect with a range of experiences. But finding the elusive self in the writing is not only about living in the moment. Savouring the present slows down time, but living only for now can make us impulsive, just as living only for the future an make us so frenetically busy that we miss the beauty of the current experience. Finding the equilibrium between the moment and the quest allows us to be rich in memory and narrative whilst on the path.
Making up the narrative
In The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks explores the cases of people with extreme perceptions of identity. One man, unable to remember not only others but also himself, took refuge in a complex fantasy life. He made his life up to an exceptional degree, yet all of us do this in some way.
We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a “narrative” and that this narrative is us, our identities. […] constructed, continually, unconsciously, … through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations.
Story is at the heart of identity, which is why narrative and writing are so powerful, which is why self-reflection through journaling can be such an effective tool for a writer. It is why so many writers in every age and culture keep diaries or journals, not for ego (or not always) and not only to confront our sense of mortality, but for the construction of the narrative. We can’t write down everything we do; we have to choose, and in doing so we make new relationships with time and story in ways that will inform who we are as writers.
A journal is a way of marking hope for the future. It is a way of paying attention. And a way of living deliberately, as Sarah Manguso puts it in Ongoingness:
I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.
Of course the journal is an editorial act, a way of narrativising that must be held lightly, which is why we also need to move beyond our own stories …
Beyond our boundaries
We are body, space, consciousness and time Wittmann tells us in another book, Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self. And, perhaps because it is connection and not isolation that is at the root of identity, it is in experiences that take us ‘out of ourself’ or ‘beyond ourself’ that are often not only most epiphanic, but also most ecstatic. As Borges puts it:
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.
And if delight comes when we lose the pre-occupation with self and flow into our creativity or the natural world or another person, the opposite ocurs when we are only occupied with the self. Wittmann notes:
Boredom actually means that we find ourselves boring. It’s the intensive self-reference: we are bored with ourselves. […] In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness.
Whilst experience and memory enrich our writing lives, too much ‘being oneself’ to the detriment of connecting, makes time and experience not plentiful but heavy, even unbearable. The best self we can be is not one in isolation, but one that is also part of a common narrative and sense of being. It might be one found in altered states of consciousness such as meditation, mystical or near-death experiences, or one found in sleep. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about this in ‘The Haunted Mind’:
What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! […] You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath.
Jung would call this the collective unconscious and, whatever our paradigm, the theme of connection is once again strong. To return to a John Muir quote:
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
We are narrative and memory, but not only our own. As Wittmann notes when discussing the liminal space/time between sleep and waking we are also
the mere feeling of being.
And we have this in common. The self is a mysterious and elusive thing. It is memory and narrative. We experience it and we make it up. And it is less boundaried than we often imagine. Writing, story, narrative, are vital because in writing the elusive self we also find the common threads and deep connections.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Setting Out, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself. And while you’re there, please take a look at an exciting new project and resource for writers from Down Deep Books. There are lots of extra gifts for everyone who gets involved.