Marc Zimmerman: Why I Write What I Write
In the final years of my academic career as a professor of Comparative Literature and Latin American and Latino Cultural Studies, I felt the increasing urge to return to my first love of creative writing which I had left behind in the ruins of nervous breakdowns and troubled, ultimately broken marriages in the 1960s and 70s. I knew I wanted to tell stories; and an initial sampler I published of my best early and recent work, Stores of Winter (LACASA 2006) told me that even as I’d grown older now, I perhaps still might have the passion and “juice” to do so. However, the fact is I didn’t want to tell just any stories that might come to my mind, but ones that had to do with different moments and people that had been parts of my life. In effect, wavering between the desire to write fiction and do the typical old-age thing of writing my memoirs, I decided to develop a series of books that would depict different phases and aspects of my life from birth to as close to death as I could possibly accomplish before I could accomplish no more. I then drafted and published several volumes, with the books going their own thematic ways, including some that extend from the early to more recent years in my life (Cycle I, in progress), and others--Genesis, Two Ways West, No Light from Heaven, Black Brown and White on the Border, and Managua Mon Amour (Nevermore) coming together to narrate my first forty-two years of life experience from 1939 to my Chicago beginnings in the 1980 (Cycle II, now completed), and with a final group covering 1980 to my near-demise or incapacitation (Cycle III, in its earliest stages of drafting). All this comes to tell not only my life and times, but of the many I came to know, and the world in which we all lived, and for some time has borne the overall title of Illusions of Memory. John Beverley has suggested I change the title to A Memory of Illusions, and he certainly has a point. But whatever the real title should be, the question of whether I will be able to complete Cycle I or do all or much of Cycle III and deal well with the rest of my years, is one which only time will answer.
Three major projects haunt my modest effort: Marcel Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu, Karl Uve Knausgaard’s recent six-volume series with the overly explosive title, Min Kamp and now the auto-biographical but also socio-historical series of books by Annie Ernaux.
Obviously, Proust’s masterwork is centered on the upper classes of French society, and what we have most in common perhaps is a kind of Bergsonian psychology or philosophy of time and memory—as well as some few shared aspects of Jewish sensitivity and insights into the psychology of love. As for Knausgaard, his six volumes about a writer writing a six-volume book is a brilliant river of words with many wonderful passages and incidents, but without any will to aesthetic cloture along the way. This is not a criticism; it is simply to mark a difference. I have often felt the need for such cloture so that many chapters and incidents in my life read like short stories; and thus far, only No Light from Heaven and Managua Mon Amour (Nevermore) feel most fully like novels. Ernaux’s work increasingly pressures me to make social connections between my experience and the wider world, to try to consider female and feminist perspectives in relation to what I write; born only one year after me, she also reminds me that time is passing and that perhaps I should write My Years, taking me to their end, since it is quite probable that my those years may be through with me before I am through with them.
Of course, I cannot claim that my projected three-cycle series can in any way compare with these monumental efforts, but they are what I have been about, they are what I am still intent on doing. So be it. Amen. This said, I should note that many objects in my work (a sculpture, a smile, a locket, a wig) function like Proust’s madeleine, bringing me memories which then go through a variety of transformations leading to the fusion of memoir and fiction which it is my fortune and curse to have as my underlying focus as a writer and my overall struggle against death. Proust is said to have attributed to Ruskin the idea that “art can recapture the lost and thus save it from destruction.” I guess that’s what drives me as a writer and keeps me cooking into my eighties.
But why should anyone be interested in reading books about different stages of an individual life so marked by bad decisions, compulsive behavior and, yes, to be honest, frustrations and failures? As an admittedly minor social theorist, and as someone supposedly committed to collective visions and actions, why is it that I feel compelled to write endless pages on each twist and turn of my bourgeois individualist identity?
Why do I write memoir or autofiction and not memory or autobiography or testimonio? And what possible importance or interest can any perspective of mine have in relation to what’s important in the lives of my possible or probable readers or in the world as a whole?
Many of my friends have been surprised by all the stories I’ve thus far had to tell. Somehow, I see myself as not having witnessed or done so much, of missing boat after boat. But the reason I've had so much to write about is that I've lived failure after failure. I'm amazed at my life choices and alienations. It all goes back to Tolstoy's words on happy families (or marriages) being all alike, while unhappy
ones are unhappy each in their own way. And my unhappy relationships and experiences have happily provided the bases for the many stories I’ve had to tell. So I’ve written many love stories, but that’s because they’re mostly based on a series of countless first dates that never went any further.
Still, to magnify my experience, it has ever so often become inevitable and yes desirable to diverge from what happened or what I dreamed to project other possibilities that only have come to me as I sit at my computer pounding out memories and, yes, changing them, enriching and varying them as I go—ever with the Aristotelean formula that history tells what happened, but poetry or in my case prose can tell us what should or at least might happen.
The half-lives I’ve almost lived, the roads I’ve begun to go down only to end up someplace else, things I’ve almost done as well as the ones explored in a certain depth have given me a base of experiences that I have mined and re-imagined to make my work go beyond me. Perhaps this is my version of the negative capability which Keats attributed to Shakespeare—an ability to identify completely with his characters and thereby live lives other than his own, an ability also to break through any rigid scheme to find… whatever might be found.
Let me be clear. No Bard am I, but an ungentlemanly “songster off on a spree doomed from here to eternity.” I’ve no gift of expression, no lyric spark, no capacity to describe or evoke a tree, a leaf, a teacup; I can recognize these qualities in others but it is my great frustration that I lack them. However, what I may have is a kind of negative capability that involves some ability to project the lives and words of others, so I can sometimes catch fire from them. I believe I can get inside at least some characters and even represent figures who are more intelligent, imaginative and articulate than I. That is the magic one can find in our illusions or delusions of memory.
It is out of my bourgeois, ego-centered self that I am able at least at times to reach out to understand and evoke other people and perhaps a significant part of the world I’ve known. That I can do this at least sometimes perhaps speaks to the possibility that others locked into their class formation and epistemologies can rise through but then above their original positionality to go beyond producing some postmodern selfie, to evoke or point to worlds beyond themselves, towards other worlds they themselves may not experience but can imagine, learn from and maybe even enjoy.
At least this is my hope as I spin my own web even as the lights dim and my own personal end draws ever near.