Last week I enjoyed an exchange of Thanksgiving memories from 1967 and 1968, on and near military posts. As for many of my generation, the Vietnam War significantly shaped my life. Years afterward, a young adult told me, “Oh, yes, Vietnam. We studied that in my history class in high school.”
What happens when experience becomes history? It’s not just the passage of time, like when a babysitter calls your record albums a great set of oldies. The Vietnam era as presented in history textbooks seems only distantly related to my experience. That’s not to say the textbooks got it wrong. Texts portray the big picture: causes, turning points, effects on national politics or international relations.
Lived experience is mostly small picture. Stationed in eastern Africa, how do you explain to the furniture maker why you need an eating table by the fourth Thursday in November? What do you do when your spouse gets reassigned to Southeast Asia the week after you confirm a pregnancy?
In May 1970, four students in Kent, Ohio, were shot dead by National Guardsmen during a protest of the invasion of Cambodia. I was in nearby Oberlin for a three-day visit to line up student housing for fall. Joining a vigil, babe in arms, I fretted about how to find housing fast when the entire campus had closed in response to the news from Kent. Friends who lived in Kent at the time describe frantically trying to cross town to get their children from day care, when protests made the streets impassible.
Mundane matters like housing, day care, or a Thanksgiving table fall outside the purview of most histories. To sense what it was like to be there, you’ll learn more from diaries, letters, memoir, or well researched historical fiction.
Human memory is selective. Depending on what we choose to forget, some idealize earlier times while others trumpet the inevitability of progress. Tension between these worldviews is nothing new. Dickens, a firm believer in progress, mocked the perennial desire to return to a better past. I find these excerpts from his fiction delicious:
. . . they united therefore to resist all change, except such change as would restore those good old English customs, by which they would stand or fall. After illustrating the wisdom of going backward, by reference to that sagacious fish, the crab, and the not unfrequent practice of the mule and the donkey, he described their general objects . . .
- Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1841
“The good old times, the grand old times, the great old times! Those were the times for a bold peasantry, and all that sort of thing. Those were the times for every sort of thing, in fact. There is nothing now-a-days. Ah!” sighed the red-faced gentleman. “The good old times, the good old times!”
The gentleman didn’t specify what particular times he alluded to; nor did he say whether he objected to the present times, from a distinguished consciousness that they had done nothing very remarkable in producing himself.
- Charles Dickens, The Chimes, 1844
Where do you do your creative work? What features of a space best support your creativity? Moving house last week gave me the luxury of arranging my new home office, where a bay window juts out into the garden and another window faces the woods.
Writing takes very little space. Depending on availability and taste, writers ply their trade in basements, attics, garden sheds, coffee shops, and kitchen corners. Some swear by a dedicated space with a door that closes. I like a room that both nurtures my spirit and shelters me from internal and external distractions.
Some find nurture in fine art or shelves overflowing with books. Others prefer a bare wall. I’m struck by how many photos of authors at their desks show a window looking out into nature.
Shelter from distraction depends on what distracts you. A closable door is handy if your housemates feel free to interrupt when they see you gaze into space. Writing in a café would distract me with noise and overheard conversations, but it helps others to get away from the distractions of bills and laundry.
As for my new home office, I initially planned to put my desk in the bay window. How lovely to look up from work into the nurture of outdoor greenery! Then I realized that the view of the garden will set my mind churning with landscaping possibilities. Instead the desk is by the window with the forest view. If a deer leaps through the trees, I can delight in it for a moment and then refocus on the task at hand.
How has a certain book, poem, or speech changed how you view yourself or the world? My answer doesn’t come readily. Yet tens of thousands of children and youth each year offer their responses in the form of a letter to the author, living or dead. Many letters are perceptive and moving.
Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest sponsored by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. Students in fourth grade through high school submit letters about “books that burrow down deep into your consciousness and stay there, festering,” in the words of one of last year’s honor award winners. Some letters describe how books helped students through personal experiences of loss, bullying, difference, stereotypes, and incarceration. This is not your traditional book report.
Who would I write to? I might thank Laura Ingalls Wilder or any of countless others for making me curious about how perspective shifts with culture, time, and place. I might thank A. A. Milne for helping make me a Universalist with his poem “King John’s Christmas,” which models wishing people happiness without regard to merit.
Student entries are judged at state and national levels. Entries for grades 9-12 must be postmarked by Dec. 2 and grades 4-6 and 7-8 by Jan. 9. Click here for guidelines and entry coupon.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.