Getting Some Distance

There’s an old aphorism that in order to write about love, you can’t be in love. That is to say that you must have lost love, and be removed from it, before you have the perspective to write about it. You may have encountered this is your own writing, in a different way. Have you ever been told–or told someone–that you were too close to your own story?

What’s that about? Is there any merit to the idea that by putting a work aside, and forcing some emotional distance between you and it, that you can gain a sense of perspective?

Maybe we can answer that by looking at a different kind of love–love of a place.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short-stories set in Dublin, Ireland in the early twentieth century. Critics at the time hailed the work as capturing the essence of living in a modern Ireland. And since it’s publication in 1914, it has been held up as the epitome of capturing a time and a place in fiction. But while Joyce had most definitely lived in Dublin–he was born there and lived in and around Dublin for 22 years–he wrote Dubliners while living in Zurich and Trieste. In fact, in letters he wrote that he used the stories to remind himself about why he missed Dublin, as well as reminding him of why he left.

The reason that putting some space in between you and you own fiction can, sometimes, be helpful, is that the absence of something from your life–and from your daily consciousness–has a tendency to distill your memories of that thing–that place, that person, that story–down to most memorable aspects.

I have been divorced for nine years now. When I look back on the years I knew my wife the things that stand out to me are the very best and worst of the relationship. I remember, with great fondness our trip to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games–it was probably the best vacation of my life. And, equally, I remember coming to terms with infertility, and the growing stretches of time we spent apart, until ultimately we were no longer a couple. But I have to work to remember the little joys and trials of daily life with her. I’m sure we had favorite restaurants we frequented, or television shows we watched together, but I can’t recall any of these.

Time has distilled the entire relationship down to the truly memorable things–the good and the bad. The trivial things–that matter immensely to day to day life–get smoothed out and pushed to the background.

Likewise, after some time away from a story, the things that stick in your head, are those characters, those scenes, those lines of prose, that captured your attention and boiled in your subconscious. Those are things that made you have to write the story. And the little things, the scenes you wrote just to get the reader to the next good part, the flat character who serves merely as a distraction, and the clunky prose that you always meant to make better but never did, those things get forgotten. And once you reread your work, they stand out like headlights in the desert. As you reacquaint yourself with the story and characters, what you love and hate about it will rise to the surface.

You can write your story, and you can write it with love…but maybe the two of you just need a little distance.

The Lingering Romance of Time and Distance

When I was 17, my family and I moved from California to Wisconsin, where I would be starting college. Though part of me felt at the time that my mom, step-dad, and siblings were following me across the country for the obnoxious reason of keeping tabs on me, I begrudgingly acknowledged another, more reasonable, purpose for their move. My mom had grown up in Milwaukee, and just as I was beginning a new chapter in my life (college, dorm living, new friends), she was returning to her roots for the support and the closeness of her family.

We drove cross-country with two cars and two babies: my sister was nearing three years old, and my brother was not yet one. It was not a quick cross-country drive. Our pace was set, in part, by the needs of the babies, and the interior mood of the car was determined by their crying, sleeping, eating, and fidgeting.

For me, at 17, all of it was torture. Since my mom was driving, I had to be navigator and babysitter. I kept an eye on the map, and I fed, played with, and tended to my siblings. What I wanted was to be left alone to read (The Mists of Avalon) and to journal. That summer, before leaving California, I had met a boy who I was desperately in love with. I was sure, against all sense and logic, that I had found the person I would be with for the rest of my life. And this move, though I wanted it, though I looked forward to college, was tearing us, literally and figuratively, apart. My heart was breaking with each additional mile. And this is what I wrote about.

Time and distance were my themes. The distance became a character; it had substance—it was malicious.  Being pulled and stretched were common images that appeared in my journals of that time. I wrote poetry, I wrote prose, I wrote creative nonfiction (and yes, it was creative, since I re-imagined the relationship I had just had—all two weeks of it—and turned the both of us mythical, iconic.) Everything that took place within the space of that car, during that drive, served as backdrop for my own sadness. I really got into metaphors and similes. The features of the landscape filtered into my writing. Desert and greenery meant more alongside my moods. When the babies cried, it was because they sensed my own suffering; when they laughed, they mocked it. When my mom and I fought, I felt determined in my love. The splintered relationship, as I saw it, between my mom and me only served to clarify how deep and strong this other relationship was. I could handle the bickering, the crying babies, the interminable miles cast against the hyperbolic idea of my great love.

After we reached Milwaukee, and I started my first semester, I would sit in my classes, watch the clock tick sluggishly, and will the hours to pass. Time was heavy. I felt mired in it. It was like breathing, walking, talking through molasses. I was sluggish. I remember in one of my communication classes, I was writing a poem about time—something about rope and knots and pulling—and my tablemate reached out and grabbed my notebook, demanding to know what I was writing. She began to read, and I pulled the page out of her eyesight. I made some comment about it being a poem, and not ready to be seen by others. That was partly true. The other part was, at that moment, I believed myself to be the only one who could understand this heartache and the way time was working for me. I remember distinctly her mannish hands as she tugged the notebook, and her tightly cinched ponytail—both somehow further indicating that she could not possibly understand my mood. Or, for that matter, the depth of what I was writing.

Now, at 34, I find that time and distance are still things I write about. I think because of that big move at 17, and because of other moves from childhood onward, distance is something I think about a lot. The way time changes with distance and new sights is also something I think about. Self-imposed distance, in particular, is interesting to me. I chose to move to Milwaukee at 17. I chose that distance. I chose to wait a full year before visiting California again, that boy I loved having moved on by then. And since then I have made other choices that have inserted a physical distance between myself and familiar things. I moved to South Korea for a year, for example. There is a certain tension that comes from this, a certain challenge. Life just can’t be boring inside that challenge. That’s something I learned at 17. My emotions were taut, exposed, hyper-charged, and within that there was so much to write about. So, maybe that’s why I move so much—not just for the challenge and the thrill, but for the material. I imagine that when I’m 68, double my age now, I’ll still write about time and distance. Those themes will be just as fresh, most likely because I’ll have moved again and have a new distance to contemplate and pine over.