Recently I attended the SCBWI-Western Washington Novel Retreat at Dumas Bay in Federal Way. There were crisp skies and sea smells and autumn leaves and all the good things a retreat entails. I blogged here about the kindness of book people at the retreat. In one presentation, Andrew Karre asked as to consider what was in our Wonder Cupboard. What have we as creative people secreted away for inspiration, for solace, for nourishment, for stories?
A small group of retreat participants and I (who call ourselves the mudflat heathens for reasons I can’t divulge) decided to start this occasional series, in which we open up our Wonder Cupboards. Today’s post is from Brent Swartz:
Why I Write, and the Wonder-Cupboard Run Down
They say the only pure moment of memory is the instant of an experience. Everything that follows is painted and altered by memory bias, expectation, and cognitive physiology. As each memory drifts deeper into the past it is further muddled by how it fits into the broader experience, how the broader experience fits into the bigger picture of your life, and finally, it is completely jumbled as we attach meaning. It is a process of distortion because, being human, we are not a catalogue of events. We are rather a catalogue of poignant moments which we hang meaning upon like overburdened hooks and hangers. We use our imagination to envision our own history, a process akin to writing, where we imagine memories that make up a story.
I did not arrange my wonder-cupboard with any particular theme in mind and I have no idea who put in the those tacky, chevron shelf-liners, but if they are tied together it’s that they represent the most intriguing stories I don’t know.
The Ship in my Living Room, sails tattered and drifting among the ice-flows and an otherworldly sky, makes me want to scream, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ Although I don’t have a precise understanding of ‘teeth gnashing’, I like to think of myself as gnashing teeth as I scream this.
The Calaveras of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican folk artist, are a satire of wealth, elegance, and life itself. His art is both hopeful and sobering, and a reminder that life is fleeting.
The lyrics of Carmina Burana (you know the tune) capture a certain intensity to the waxing and waning of love, the seasons, and fortune… ‘O Fortune, empress of all’ (spoiler alert: Fortune’s a real bitch.)
If you’ve ever flown into the Denver International Airport, then you may be familiar with the Devil Horse From Denver, the blue mustang whose devilish, red eyes follow you as you drive by. What you may not know is that this sculpture killed it’s own creator, a tragic if not parabolic story of intensity and art.
As with Cemeteries, an epilogue never feels like the continuation of a story. At their best cemeteries and epilogues are sorts of echoes. After spending Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico I have a new appreciation for cemeteries and the act of remembering the dead and their stories. Dying is a drag and a lonely affair, and the tradition of Dia De Los Muertos is the kindest thing people can do for the living; a coat against the chill of loneliness.
Don Quijote is the original maniac, and his character honestly helps me to understand mental illness, the wild type that lands you in jail or the emergency department, where I come across these souls.
Now for Ducks: Wildflowers, birds of paradise, lake symphonies of croaking frogs, and dung beetles competing for mates by rolling up the biggest ball of shit. If it has to do with sex, it’s probably awesome. But when it comes to love, there’s nothing like a duck. Remarkable little creatures who travel on the wind, the water, and the ground, crossing entire continents just to get laid.
Finally Tidal Zones, places I’ve always been infatuated with, made fucking magical by the mudflat heathens.
As the moments of our lives fall from the present they fall further into something like fiction. For the life of me, I cannot remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but on August 25th, 2013, I had pie and milk. The historian and data analyst in me simply notates the dates and the facts of my life and they sink into a sea of forgetfulness.
But the storyteller knows what to hold on to, what is indelible. Where time dispenses with the facts of life the storyteller is collecting the pieces, looking them over, and either setting them back adrift or burning them into memory. What sticks and what drifts? I don’t think it even matters why, but this question is what compels me to write and something that gives life a sense of mystery, constantly asking yourself: am I going to remember this? And if so, how… and why?