What’s a reader or writer of history and fiction to do with advice to stay fully present in the here and now? When I’m most deeply engrossed these days, my head’s in the eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century. Last year it was southern France and northern Italy in the 1580s. Where I am fully present, here and now, is there and then.
What do we do with guidance to bring awareness to all the feelings, thoughts, and sensations of the present moment? Granted, that form of mindfulness has its place (as does the here and now). But during a conversation, the more I’m aware of trucks rumbling on the highway, the less I’m taking in what you’re telling me. When I read a book, the more I notice my itchy mosquito bite, the less I remember what I just read. To give full attention to one thing is to withdraw attention from others.
Feel free to tell me I’m misinterpreting these ideas – and if you do, please offer a more useful way to think of them. In the meantime, here’s what seems to work for me. Sometimes give high focus to one activity or idea, near or far, shutting out everything else. Other times let the mind drift freely, soak in the atmosphere, listen to the birds or invent a story or feel the breeze. Acknowledge my emotions and then choose whether to wallow in them; escapism is not the same as denial. Minimize multitasking. Be where I am, doing what I’m doing, even if that’s thousands of miles away and centuries ago.
Lack of evidence: limit or opportunity? It depends whether you’re a documentary or feature film maker, a biographer or a novelist. The mystery of Mozart’s death, at age 35 after a two-week illness, has long intrigued writers of fact and fiction as well as physicians and epidemiologists.
I recently read Mozart’s Last Aria by novelist Matt Rees. When Mozart dies after telling his wife he’s been poisoned, his sister Nannerl travels to Vienna to see if there’s any basis for his suspicions. It’s 1791, and the French Revolution has monarchs everywhere running scared. Nannerl’s quest gets dangerously entangled with the secrets of Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, and traditional aristocrats before she can solve the mystery of her brother’s final days.
The blend of fact and fiction in historical novels takes many forms: fictional people affected by real events, fictional events in the lives of real people, or a totally made-up story in a distinctive historical setting. Rees explores a real historical mystery. Was Mozart murdered, or did he die of rheumatic fever, trichinosis, or accidental mercury poisoning? We’ll never know. That leaves lots of opportunity for imagination to play.
One reader of my post on journaling told of notes written long after the fact, where journal blurs into memoir. I’ve never written a memoir longer than a few pages (“Of Choices and Trade-Offs: Reflections on a Twisted Path”), but I’ve read some that moved me deeply. They tell a unique personal narrative in a way that touches on shared human experience.
Autobiography was more common half a century ago: often by famous people, often with ghostwriters, meticulously researched, chronological from birth, focused on the facts. Over the years, memoir has grown in popularity. More subjective, more tied to recollection and emotion, most memoir revolves around a particular theme or time period in the author’s life. It’s literary nonfiction that reads almost like a novel, drawing readers into the intimate details of the story. The author’s fame doesn’t matter if the theme is distinctive and the writing is good enough.
While it’s bad form to play fast and loose with the facts, memoirs are less meticulous about precise detail than a straight autobiography. One reason is their literary quality. Like novelists, memoirists “show, don’t tell”—but who has a photographic memory? They recount dialogue, but who always carries a tape recorder?
Another reason is the nature of memory. Although a judge may instruct a jury to favor witnesses who recall events vividly, neurologists tell us that false memories are common. You reconstruct a memory from clues every time you pull it up. It may be vivid and filled with emotion, but that doesn’t prove it’s accurate. The memories that are hardest to check against external sources—deeply personal experiences and the feelings that went with them—are the ones most likely to keep us reading.
It was a dark and stormy night, or at least a cold and rainy summer. The young people vacationing by the lake had were stuck indoors more than they’d hoped. After reading a series of ghost stories, they agreed each to write one. Three got ideas quickly but the fourth tossed and turned late into the night, wondering what to write. At last the image came to her of a student, kneeling beside a creature assembled from cast-off human parts, horrified by his own success in bringing it to life.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley began composing Frankenstein 200 years ago this summer. That was the heyday of gothic novels; Mary’s father had written two, and one of her fellow vacationers started a new sub-genre with his ghost story The Vampyre. Today it might require a power outage in a vacation spot with no cell phone signal, along with the bad weather, to inspire such a flurry of creativity.
The anonymous publication of Frankenstein in early 1818 brought mixed response. Sir Walter Scott praised it. The British Critic, on the other hand, concluded, “We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime . . . The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
Of course not, at least not in detail. Every circumstance is unique. Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union—with similar talk in other member states—wasn’t the fall of the Roman Empire, the breakup of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires after World War I, or the collapse of the U.S.S.R. or Yugoslavia. But certain broad patterns seem to recur. Larger and larger territorial units fracture into smaller ones. Then the process reverses.
Economic and military advantages sustain a multi-ethnic empire or union for a time, but increasing diversity makes it hard to garner loyalty and a sense of belonging. Cultural unity in a small national state feels good until lack of resources starts to bite; then adjoining states find ways to join together. Another problem with cultural unity as a basis for statehood, besides creating states too small to go it alone, is the fact that ethnic groups live intermixed. Trying to draw neat borders between them can breed disaster; just ask the people of India and Pakistan in 1947, or Bosnia in 1992-95, or Palestine for decades.
History won’t repeat itself precisely, whether we learn from it or not. But its patterns are worth noticing as we chart a course through the tensions of globalization and reaction. We can acknowledge the human craving for a sense of belonging and shared culture. We can understand that this sense won’t come from building walls to maintain an imagined cultural purity. In the U.S. in this heated political season, I hope we can promote the values, symbols, and traditions that cut across boundaries of ancestry or religion to support a sense of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.