17 November 2006

Down The Memory Hole

Here's something I've been puzzling about: in the course of going through my old writings, I've found some very interesting things, some very boring things, and some extremely embarrassing things. The question is: when I encounter something I wrote many years ago (or yesterday, for that matter) that is just plain painful to look at, do I just toss it out? Or should I hang onto it for one or more of the following reasons: a) as a reminder of just how wrong I can be; b) because maybe I'm wrong now and will eventually come to appreciate the value of the currently loathed piece of writing; c) for its possible historical value; d) so that people will have the opportunity to know the whole me rather than just the (hopefully) flattering bits I choose to show them?

As it happens, I've already thrown away quite a bit of junk writing, and I don't use the word "junk" loosely. Would you, for example, want people finding evidence that as a callow teen or 20-something, you were guilty of poetry? Love poetry in particular? I didn't think so. The same goes for some of my airy-fairy, hippie-dippie musings from the dawning of the New Age/Me Decade, some of which, unfortunately, I continued developing, albeit with a more substantive vocabulary, well into the 1990s.

Most of my earliest and worst excrescences were never published, so no one will be the wiser if they end up in the shredder or the dumpster. But what about some of my more flamingly ridiculous rhetoric that appeared in Lookout or MRR? When I retype those articles to keep for myself or to display on my website (yes, still coming one of these days), do I have the right to make corrections, or edit out the stupidest bits? Well, of course I have the right, but is it fair? Is it more important to display a true picture of how at least one rabble rouser was thinking in the 1980s or 90s, or to put out something containing at least a modicum of common sense?

It's probably a bit late to be asking this; I've already made some corrections to my old MRR columns, mostly along the lines of fixing typos or misspellings (yes, believe it or not, there were one or two), but in a few instances, I removed whole sentences or paragraphs where I seemed to banging on ad nauseam about the blindingly obvious. I tried not to change the sense of the piece, not always easy when it sometimes made little or no sense to begin with, and I think in most cases I succeeded in making it more readable. But is it honest to label it as "MRR column from January 1988" if it's a bit different from what actually appeared in MRR in January of '88?

Thinking about MRR reminded me of Tim Yohannan, who as first among equals (editor/publisher by any other name, but he refused to acknowledge himself as such), used to comb through columns and scene reports looking for items that ran counter to MRR dogma. It didn't happen all that often, but occasionally I'd be reading my own column only to discover that I'd said something rather different to what I thought I had. For instance, I might have mentioned such-and-such band from DC as exemplifying an especially pernicious brand of suckitude, only to find that in the published version, I'd praised them as being important contributors to the scene. Or if I'd carelessly used the name of one of those individuals ("unpersons," I believe they were called in 1984), it would have neatly and seamlessly disappeared. A couple of times I mentioned this to Tim, stating that it seemed a bit reminiscent of the Orwellian device of the "memory hole," into which all inconvenient facts and realities could be made to disappear, but he professed not to know what I was talking about. "I figured you'd appreciate me correcting your mistakes before they got into print," he'd say in not quite those exact words.

So I don't feel so bad about polishing up those MRR pieces a bit, knowing as I do that if Tim were still alive and had the ability to do so, he'd be doing everything he could to rewrite them his way. But what about this one: I just found a handwritten letter from 1967. It's one of the oldest examples of my writing apart from some articles published in my high school newspaper in the early 60s. It's a love letter of sorts, and speaking of which, it's curious how so many of these old love letters ended up back in my possession. Though considering how mawkish and tawdry they tend to be, I'm glad to know they're not in someone else's hands.

This particular one is fairly pedestrian; what I found shocking, and the reason that I'm inclined to destroy it, is how terribly dishonest it is. Not the sentiments themselves; I actually did care for the person involved, or at least believed I did. But what I wrote about myself was just plain embarrassing. It was as though I was writing a novel about myself, and not an especially plausible one at that. I portrayed myself as some sort of Dead End Kid who "had to fight his way to school" every day, so brutalized and shell-shocked by my harsh life that it was simply a miracle I could experience feelings at all, let alone nurture a budding love.

While it's true that I did run around with a pretty thuggish gang in my teenage years, my neighborhood was not exactly the South Bronx. In fact, it was completely ordinary, and tediously quiet lower middle class/working class suburb, where the chief danger to be found in walking the streets was terminal ennui. There was trouble to be found if someone was, like myself, determined enough to look for it, but that was almost entirely a matter of choice. I imagine most of the kids who grew up around me would not even begin to recognize the picture I painted of my allegedly deprived and brutal youth.

That was the most glaring instance, but the letter was replete with other examples of my bigging myself up in a most egregious (and I would think transparent, since the object of my affections grew up in an almost identical suburb on the other side of 8 Mile) fashion. Anyway, on reading these tackily constructed lies, my first impulse was to crumple up these seven pages of self-serving verbiage and deposit them in the trash. Something stayed my hand, though, just as I was about to let them fall: would I regret no longer having this reminder of what, after all, had been my first love? Perhaps one day my biographers would struggle in vain for evidence of what I was up to between 1966 and and 1968? Did I need a reminder of why it was better to be scrupulously truthful in any future declarations of my affections? Or would I be better simply noting the lesson and discarding the sordid evidence?

Well, there the question sits, and so does the offending letter, on the counter next to the garbage, gradually accumulating food and coffee stains and crying out for action of some sort. Sooner or later it will go either into the files or down the memory hole, and it probably barely matters which. Unless, of course, somebody apart from myself ever happens to read it, in which case my embarrassment and humiliation will be only slightly lessened by having confessed to my crime in advance.

1 comment:

Ted said...


You are too hard on your writing. I liked your self-proclaimed "airy-fairy, hippie-dippie" writing and reflections (e.g.- the Book of Changes) that I recall from issues #39 & #40 of Lookout.

It's possible to foresee future scholars researching the arts & letters of yourself, Joe King, Ben Foster, Dr. Frank, etc.)like they have been doing on the Beats all these years.

Is every bit of "never before published" Kerouac profound? No, but the writing (or interview response) is usually somewhat interesting, it's human and sometimes one more tangible piece reflecting the intangible in a "recondite" way.