Personal Historical Present
I am in a state. My 20th high school reunion is racing toward me, as in it’s happening this coming weekend, as in right now. And here I am without my Reunion Pants. Predictably, my reaction to this (extremely unsurprising) news goes a bit something like this:
The last reunion I chose to attend was my 10th, a huge disappointment because everyone, for the most part, looked, acted, dressed, and smelled exactly the same as they had during our senior year of high school. Being a writer (and a drama queen), I wanted more. I craved the newly-bald heads and potbellies that come with decades of life on the outside, and instead of rehashing the same old catalog of memory, I wanted fresh, juicy gossip and falling-outs. Damn it! I wanted healthy doses of high school comeuppance; or at the very least a John Cusack movie.
This desire for a narrative arc should come as no surprise. As an adult, I've chosen to conduct my business along the spectrum of adolescence; Young Adult fiction is my stock and trade. This isn't to say that I don’t write a video game from time to time, or dabble in middle-grade novels and screenplays when I feel like straying; but whenever I wander too far, I suddenly feel the need to circle back to my teenage years to find my next story, and to tell it through a mouthpiece of experience, distorted as that may be.
While reading a recent New Yorker article about the writer/director Richard Linklater, I came across a passage that addressed an artist’s strange desire to keep revisiting the past. The excerpt deals with in Linklater’s “narrative angle” on his subject matter, particularly those stories that are clearly inspired by his own coming-of-age experiences. The writer, Nathan Heller, refers to this point of view as “personal historical present,” a concept that I find incredibly compelling:
There’s a strange reassurance in the idea that any of us know where all of this leads, that a narrator will or has already survived the events in question. It’s a soothing subtext of “everything is going to be okay,” or “I made it through, and so can you.” It’s literature’s contribution to an It Gets Better. YA novels, by nature, often present their characters with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These challenges are often universal—and always have been—but that doesn't matter in the span of the moment; in that cold, bleak empty, the world feels absolutely hopeless. That is why survivors matter. They occupy a future where you've arrived farther along in time and now have the luxury of reflection.
People always ask if my books are autobiographical. It’s a favorite question, one of the oldies. I can’t blame readers for asking this question, because it’s usually the first thing I ask other writers when I’m a fan of their work, or when an element of their stories lodges like a splinter in my brain. “Where did this come from?” It’s instinct. Every book is a patchwork of accounts—fictional and true—that assemble in unexpected ways to form a hybrid recollection, a Frankenstein’s monster that eventually rises from the operating table and lumbers off to enjoy a life of its very own without the creator (mine usually end up in South Beach). Sometimes, the past is a place to start, while other times it’s simply the best (and deepest) well of ideas.
When I return to the scenes of the crime, and examine my own books, I discover that my stories bleed memory. Funny Little Monkey, my first novel, features numerous events and locations that are ripped directly from my high school years in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Freak Magnet, a dysfunctional romance set in and around Washington, D.C. was created as a deliberate attempt to capture the lightning in a bottle that was the courtship of my wife, back in my early twenties; it was such a blatant piece of nostalgia that the book includes an Afterword in which I discuss it in detail. Even the teenage characters in Commencement, one of my new novels, spend their last 24 hours of high school zooming around the city in a knockoff of our family’s old Chevy Good Times van, a character unto itself. I am everywhere in these stories, just never in the foreground.
But is it nostalgia we're chasing? Are these tales nothing more than attempts to comfort our adult selves, and to surrender to our 20/20 hindsight? I really don’t think so. In reference to the concept of personal historical present and how it applies to his work, Linklater replies, “I was trying to make a pretty anti-nostalgic piece. The view of that movie (Dazed and Confused) is that the times they’re living in suck.” In short, the past hasn't gotten better with time; oh no, it’s probably gotten worse.
So why do I write these stories if they suck so much? Easy. I have no choice. Like so many YA authors, and others, I’m caught in a time-loop, and only through the repetitive reexamination of my adolescence will I ever be able to make any damn sense of it. In Heller’s words, “the world always exists relative to an off-screen future.” Relativity is everything. What comes before only gains greater meaning when viewed alongside what came after. Every angle reveals a new perspective, and with it, if we’re lucky, we discover something useful for the ongoing march forward. That's where we're all headed, anyway: the future. It's the one inevitability we share.
The question isn't whether or not my works (and the works of others) are autobiographical, or why we continue to revisit our youths for the stories and characters that define us. It’s even simpler: what have we learned from all of these repeat visits? In my opinion, it’s our responsibility as artists to keep mining our lives for insight.
And there’s no better time than the present. And the past is now.