If Time Should Make History of Us
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Life in the Third Degree.
It’s the last day of school for Shannon’s freshman year of high school, and she pays me the most amazing compliment: “Someday,” she says, “they’ll write history books about you.”
That’s a little scary, I think. I’m not sure I want other people writing about my life and my thoughts. No one else is qualified to do that, and I’m most afraid that my historians would be adversaries, much like Thomas Paine’s worst enemy writing a scathing biography of him and insisting he renounced everything he believed in on his deathbed upon supposedly seeing the fires of hell.
When I was in college, studying English Lit in my senior and graduate classes, I found that reading the opinions of various critics always annoyed me. One the best things a professor ever had me do was an annotated bibliography of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The story itself was boring as hell to me until the last page or two, but maybe that was the point. The mundane life of a married couple and a wife with a secret passion so long buried that she herself felt dead. That even after all these years, a single memory of a boy’s passion could touch her so deeply when nothing else could. Even at 19, I saw the ending as a punch in the gut, but at 43, I have come to live it and understand it in ways I never thought possible.
My assignment was to read the story and then research various scholarly articles that had been written about the work, create a bibliography of the sources, and examine each opinion to see if it was worthwhile. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t so easy to see your own words—or the words of idiots—in print as it is now on the Internet, and it seemed that whatever made it into print must be unquestionable and right. Even though I was told not to believe everything I read, seeing it in print still lent a huge amount of credibility to an opinion.
As with most term papers, this mid-term project for my advanced level Modern Short Story class turned into a treasure hunt. I spent many a night at the college library in those pre-Internet days, looking up article titles and then thumbing through countless hard-bound collections of similar articles, reading them, analyzing them on the spot, getting caught up in the excitement of the find, and then walking back to my apartment after midnight with a fearful glance over my shoulder and a bear-claw of keys in my fist in case I was attacked on the way home. I’m glad my daughters will be able to conduct the same lit searches from the safety of home and in a tenth of the time, thanks to modern technology.
But the lesson for me was far more than just the meaning of the hounds baying in the story or Gabriel’s observation of the quiet fire. Critics wrote of what Joyce meant to say. They took miniscule crumbs of the story and interpreted them according to their own lives, each time insisting that Joyce got the idea from a certain source or meant to say something in particular. After reading the first 30 critical essays on Joyce’s work, it struck me that none of them really knew what Joyce wanted to say. In some cases, it seemed fairly obvious that Joyce was using a well-known and well-documented past experience as background. In other cases, the critic had taken a single word out of context and built an undocumented, imaginary experience out of it. Sometimes, when a writer puts a butterfly in a story, flitting past the nose of the protagonist, it’s just a butterfly. Not a symbol of transformation or fleeting beauty or an old lover. It’s just a butterfly and nothing more.
Yet the experience of analyzing other people’s opinions of this story has always affected me as a writer. Would people read my story and see some minor object as a symbol of what they thought was going through my head at the time, even if the object mean absolutely nothing but what it was in the story? What kind of interpretations would people place on my words when they didn’t know me? Maybe at times, it’s cause for me to over-explain myself, but there’s too much going on in my head to get it all down and to be understood fully.
In the stories I write, I do often use private jokes. My closest friends and family may realize exactly where an idea came from or recognize it as something in my life, like the little girl being given recycled paper with classified information on the back that I used in Top Secret Affair. My ex finally, almost a decade after I wrote it, finally read Access and wanted to know about the balloon rides I’d taken with another man many years ago that I hadn’t taken at all. He couldn’t discern the fact from the fiction, and so anything romantic in the book that he hadn’t experienced with me must have been from my adventures with other men. But like Joyce’s critics, he interpreted the words according to his own will and not mine.
So what if my daughter’s right? What if they do put me in history books one day? Who’ll represent my thoughts and beliefs? People who think like me? People who want to burn me at the stake—literally? My ex?
It’s not until later that I think of what my daughter has said and realize that I have no doubts that the things I will do in my life will be worthy of history books. Except that I have to write down these things myself so that I will be understood and the truth of my reality will be captured. Because it has nothing to do with me or who I am or having my own name known to the masses. It has to do only with the experiences that have been given to me and how to share the knowledge I have.