We’re all supposed to be living in the now, awakening to a fresh new day, every day, full of exciting possibilities, new thoughts, new feelings, always developing and changing, and certainly not letting ourselves be held hostage, so to speak, by the past. The past is full of highlights and lowlights, the best times, the worst times, and we should be aware that these memories, and those of others, have been shaded and carefully coloured over the years to be viewed in a certain contrived light of our very own making. Psychologist, Russ Harris, says in his book, The Happiness Trap, that ‘the bias of a film director is nothing compared to the bias of our thinking self. Out of an entire lifetime of experience, literally hundreds of thousands of hours of archival film footage, our thinking self selects a few dramatic moments, edits them together with some related judgments and opinions, and turns them in to a powerful documentary entitled This Is Who I Am’.
Now I don’t want to you to think of yourself doing this necessarily, because as creatively-inclined people we have plenty to focus on in the present, haven’t we? Be it writing, painting, composing or crafting, we are probably brimming with ideas that one lifetime will not allow us to express in its entirety, so I’m hoping we creatives, by and large, are fine living in the now. Instead, I want you to think of older retired people you know, aging friends or relatives. They may be succumbing to short-term memory loss with a form of dementia waiting in the wings, or they be living alone and could easily said to be ‘living in the past’, with their working life behind them and living on a good pension, with perhaps not enough social interaction. And when you go to visit them, the past is what you get – over and over, they tell the same stories, they don’t seem to mind if you remind them you’ve heard this one before, they carry on telling you anyway, they are stuck in their telling and sometimes it takes my breath away as to how rigid they can be in this. They relate their edited highlights and lowlights (and I’m going to sound harsh now) as if you are a sponge sitting there, nodding away, only to happy to absorb their personal stories and descriptions of people in their pasts you haven’t even met, to become so saturated with their past that you feel like walking out, no matter how sweet they may be, no matter how fond of them you are, no matter how well meaning you intended to be at the beginning of your visit, you end up feeling held hostage by their past, which can build to the point where you feel like screaming at them to ‘shut up’. And in the end you just know that it doesn’t really matter who you are, you are simply ‘someone’ to tell their stories to. I have experienced this in my volunteering, where I am patient because that is required by my role, but with my own elderly relatives my tolerance soon wears thin. But can we look at what this scenario can mean for writers? Can we learn from this in any way and apply it to our own writing? Are their benefits to writers if we become a sponge for a wee while?
I’ve also asked myself whether I will harp on about the past when I am their age, shaking my head in disbelief, and vowing I will always live in the present as long as there are creative things to do with my time. And I certainly don’t intend to watch daytime quiz shows and do crosswords, like they do in residential homes or indeed in their own homes. I told an older friend who I visited this week this vow of mine. She happens to be pretty good at living in the present. But she said to me – ‘Good luck with that one, lady!’ She told me she’d thought about why older people do it, and the reasons she gave are sound enough. They take on retirement as not a time to challenge themselves, but rather to ‘take it easy’. They’ve been waiting for this time. They see their working life as over, and that may be where they derived their life purpose, and there isn’t really anything wrong with that, is there? But that working life of theirs is something that they now feel defined by. They saw it through to the end, or they relished it on the way to accomplishing their current life of ease. But all too often their present may be beset by health problems and of course they talk about these too. My older friend, a bubbly person with her own health troubles which she tries hard not to focus on, says she gets sick and tired of hearing about her friends’ health problems. But such is human nature – that need to share the trials. Then there’s being along too much, where their minds flit back to the past, because nothing seems to be happening of interest to them in the present. They may be trying to make sense of their lives, so they go back there and end up mulling over past slights and injustices, wishing they replay them, or they put a high sheen gloss on the good times.
In this article questioning whether old people really do live in the past, Carol Holland says:
‘elderly people who have lost their independence simply prefer to talk about early experiences, because their present lives are relatively uneventful (Psychology, vol 82, p 29).
The psychologists compared how two groups of elderly volunteers of equivalent
age and general intelligence recalled events in their lives. Members of one group lived in residential care, while the others led independent lives. Holland and Rabbit found that people in residential care recalled more memories from their early lives than from their recent lives. They found the opposite in the independent elderly.
The psychologists suggest that the people in care spend more time rehearsing
earlier events. The ‘independent’ group reported rehearsing early memories
less often than recent memories. In contrast, people in residential care
generally rehearsed early memories more often.’
I have to say when I was younger I was very tolerant indeed, I can even say I enjoyed listening to tales of long ago and I loved looking at old photographs asking about the relatives in them, trying to imagine them living and breathing. But when you creep into your 50s, life is further behind you than ahead and you feel you’ve got a lot more to do and experience yet, so when you are around older people talking about their pasts, it can have a dragging feeling – so perhaps my intolerance is a defence mechanism.
But let’s look at the positives, for writers in particular, that may be gleaned from listening to older people telling their repeating stories.
1.Sometimes you can find out some amazing facts about what life was like in a different era. For example in the novel I’m currently writing, there is some back-story set in the 1950s, and although I’ve done plenty of research, talking to an older friend of mine and my mother about the lives of working/married women in the 50s, has helped give my research insights more clarity and gravitas. It gave me a confidence in the writing that I might not have otherwise had.
2.You can get plot ideas from stories you hear. Characters may begin to knock at your creative door, and you may have some aging enigmatic tattered photographs to flesh these characters out with.
3.You can use the fact of older people focusing on their memories, even being obsessed by them, in your fictional elderly characters to lend them true life characteristics that the reader can identify with. They know elderly people exactly like that!
4.The nature of memories being biased or skewed can also be helpful in plots where two characters have very different versions of supposedly the same life. Like two brothers seeing their parents very differently or remembering different versions of their childhood. This can be great for family secrets as well, where stories are created and passed down to cover up the past.
5.You can focus upon the psychological need for this story telling and search for where it may be coming from. Is that person living a life of regrets, or are they seeing it with a Pollyanna glow? Look at how they will show you photographs of their grandchildren, and maybe tell you how well their children are doing in their respective jobs. You tend to hear about the successes, not the problems, and therefore it has the flavour of not being real life. But it’s here that a certain sadness may dwell, because they obviously need to believe that their lives have been worth it, bringing up a wonderful family who love them very much, and that everyone is doing so well. And if you feel this sadness coming upon you, it may make you more tolerant. After all, who are you to burst their bubble? And hopefully you can take you leave feeling you have done something generous with the time you’ve spent listening to them, that the awareness it has brought you can enhance your writing, and that you know deep inside you that living in the present is a cultivated gift to yourself of freedom.
(pic courtesy of pixabay)