The Blog

Can We Change the Past? (Part one)

Can we change the past by understanding it differently?

The Sense of an Ending is a nugget of a novel by Julian Barnes that won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Only 163 pages, it is easily readable in a day, perhaps in a single sitting. The premise of the novel is about how we make stories of our lives. The narrator, Tony Webster, is an older man who recollects how, nearly half a century earlier, his brilliant best friend from school ended up dating Webster’s first girlfriend. The young Webster is wounded by this and carries an image of himself as having been wronged by the girlfriend whom he considers to have been unstable.

We are all, inevitably, authors of the stories of our lives. These stories aren’t really fictitious. Curiously enough, these stories also may not be factual. Yet these are the foundations on which our identities are built. As T. S. Eliot says in The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

The novel is such a good read with a strong spicing of mystery that I don’t want to give away too much of what happens. What interests me is whether we can, in fact, change the past by changing our understanding of what took place.

In a future blog post, I’ll discuss an experience from my childhood, and how my recollection of it ultimately possessed the power to transform the past.

 

July 31, 2012 0 Comments
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One Hundred Readers

Numbers these days have added zeros in incomprehensible fashion. What used to be a million now seems to be a billion or sometimes even a trillion. In the face of this, what can one hundred possibly mean?

If the one hundred is one hundred readers, it could mean a lot. Let me explain.

I’ve written many books, but I don’t believe that I’ve ever received a letter or an e-mail from a reader that simply responded to this writing.

What frequently happens is that a person will contact me for advice on some topic that I’ve written about and say how helpful my books have been. Often, if it’s a phone conversation, the person will say that one or more of my books are on his or her bookshelves.

I’m guilty of this too. Year after year I’ve read wonderful books, but how often have I reached out to tell an author that I enjoyed what he or she wrote? Recently, I wanted to praise a short story by an author who had written very little; his primary career had been in law as a judge. I confess that when I couldn’t find his e-mail with the story, I gave up. I could have written a letter to the journal where the story appeared, but that struck me as ever so slow and unreliable compared to an e-mail sent directly to the author.

A few years ago I had a realization that it wouldn’t take very much to create a response to my writing far greater than any I had received before. After all, I hardly had any feedback despite hundreds of thousands of my books going into the world.

What if a hundred friends read a short story or article? Even if only a small percentage responded, it would be like a tsunami. I would have the benefit of contrasting reactions and points of view, the pleasure of direct and immediate reactions. An audience of one hundred readers who might respond could create far more interaction than an audience of thousands who would never think of responding.

I created an e-mail group that included about one hundred people. When my short story titled “The Kindness of Strangers” was published in Forge Journal, I sent out a short message and a link to this group.

The response was wonderful. Roughly a third of the people read the story and wrote back their reactions. It was nice that the reactions were positive, but just to be responded to was great. The sense of publishing into a void was replaced by the knowledge that people read and enjoyed the story.

What if I hadn’t let my friends know about the publication? I received no response at all from the regular readers of Forge. This isn’t a failing on the part of the readers. Rather, it follows the norm. So, if I hadn’t created a group of my own, I would have been left without that direct response that I at least find so valuable.

I then repeated this outreach with a short story titled “On Becoming One of Us” that appeared in The Café Irreal. The response to this piece (actually a very short chapter from A Floating Life) was strong and, in many cases, as macabre and humorous as the story itself. Again, I didn’t hear from the regular readers of The Café Irreal, so I would have had no idea what people felt about the story without my own outreach.

When my article about going into Attica Prison with my National Guard unit—“A Memory of Attica on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Prison Revolt”—appeared in Guernica and I was featured in an online documentary titled “The Attica Prison Uprising: Forty Years Later” by The Nation, I also let my hundred readers know and thereafter received responses of heartfelt surprise that I had been there and anger about the violence that ended the revolt.

So what does one hundred mean?

If it’s one hundred readers, it means a lot to me. It’s on a human scale in which each reply can be taken in and valued. It’s rewarding in the way that a conversation with a friend can mean so much. So I hope this blog will build a bridge on which tolls are never charged and travelers love to chat regardless of their innumerable and far flung destinations.

July 1, 2012 5 Comments