A great crowd last week at Janette Turner Hospital’s course in Columbia, SC, Caught In The Creative Act. Preparing for my talk there led me to think about how any good writing reflects the ways of the human mind: how difficult it is for us to focus, how rarely we can keep our thoughts to one topic, how when we listen to someone we often drift off to think of something else. Or, as the poet Howard Nemerov said,
We think obsessively about sex except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.
The sad fact of dementia—I’m only guessing here, after watching my father and others with Alzheimer’s—is that patients can’t focus on what they wish to, on any kind of larger picture, on anything that involves language and memory. As that world retreats from them they are locked increasingly in the here and now, yet inevitably struggle with a windshear of confused memories, a drop into confusion.
Meditators want to live in the here and now. Popular psychology holds it up as a kind of ideal. But of that’s all you have, it seems to me a miserable state. I watched my father draw close to living entirely in the moment—and how he suffered.
Most novels and memoirs swing back and forth between two elements: a story unfolding in front of us, and some broader explanations and comments. Narrative and exposition, in literary terms. I imagine this feels natural to us because it’s how our minds work. It’s okay that our minds tend to wander during sex. It may not be best, but from the big laugh I got from that line at my talk in South Carolina, I figured everyone knew what Nemerov was talking about. But if our minds cannot be directed at all, if they cannot wander along some cozy paths with language and memory as handrails, we are in danger of falling off a horrendous cliff. My father fell off it. If he could have lived happily in the here and now, I’d have been much less concerned. But clearly, as I watched him, he felt it as a terrible loss.