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Memory is a Story We Tell Ourselves: A Conversation about ‘The Remembering

Considering that The Remembering: Reflections on Love, Art, Faith, Heroes, Grief and Baseball is a deeply personal examination of the roots of 30 years of first-person essay writing, who better to interview the author about it than the fellow traveler who’s been trading inside jokes and baseball cards with him since before he could write his own name? Please welcome to these pages my brother Gerald Felix Warburg, Professor of Practice at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and author of the novel The Mandarin Club, the memoir Dispatches from the Eastern Front: A Political Education from the Nixon Years to the Age of Obama, and the policy tome Conflict and Consensus: The Struggle Between Congress and the President over Foreign Policymaking. Gerry and I also collaborated as co-editors of California Dreams: Poems 1953-1981, a posthumous volume of poetry written by the author Sandol Stoddard—our mother.

Gerry: This is a book about how we remember things. One of the subsections is called “Origin Story.” Tell us about the origin of this book.

Jason: The immediate origin was Mom and then Dad passing within the space of 20 months. It knocked me sideways, as I think losing a presence that big in your life knocks anyone sideways. It put me in a reflective mood, and I did what comes naturally—I started writing. Not right away—after Mom died there was a pause of a few weeks where I felt a little dazed and a little numb. I didn’t know where to start to try to talk about the experience in a meaningful way, or at least in a way that would be meaningful to anyone else. And I’m always conscious of that when I’m writing for publication—what’s the value I’m offering here? I can recognize the therapeutic value of writing for myself, but what am I offering to others?

The first piece to come out of that was “Earthquakes,” which leads off part four of the book. Writing that essay sent me down a road of going deeper in my writing than I ever had before, not using fictional characters to explore issues that were happening in my life, but actually grappling with them on the page, and sharing that with people. The thing I hadn’t counted on, that was really heartening, was to see the response and know that the writing was resonating and people were recognizing themselves in moments or emotions that I described, and comparing it with their own experiences.

That was rewarding for me, and the messages that came in convinced me that it could also be rewarding for readers. I would have written more pieces like “Earthquakes” regardless, because I was getting a lot out of the process, but the positive response I got back from readers gave me added motivation. So I kept going in that vein, and at a certain point, I had a body of material that felt like it hung together in tone and tenor and focus, and that was meaningful to me and others who were part of that conversation. At that point I thought to myself, so… is this a book? And if it is, what’s it about, and what is its shape and form and narrative arc?

That sent me digging through my back catalog, and there was a lot there. My first “this could possibly be in the book” brain dump left me with a laundry list of essays so full of digressions that no one would ever have finished it. But through a steady process of culling—which was helped immeasurably by early readers of the manuscript—it worked its way down to something that had distinct themes and a progression from early to middle to later middle to the most recent pieces that started me down this road.

On page 2 of the introduction you say that “Both the writing process itself and the conversation after each piece was published became a form of therapy that proved to be profoundly healing.” That observation resonated with me, but also made me think of people who find peace from meditation while the rest of us just sit there thinking about the grocery list. I was imagining the envy that some of your readers might feel when they read that the writing process brought you peace and healing, and I wonder if you could share a little bit more about that.

Meditation is actually a great point of comparison. Writing for me really is like meditation. It brings focus when my thoughts are scattered. It helps me to center myself on small things rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture. At times like the ones I was describing in some of these essays where there’s a lot of emotional upheaval and difficult things to process, writing helps me get unstuck and frees me from focusing too much energy or emotion on one particular thing or moment. I find that writing about something leads to thinking about it from different angles, or from another person’s perspective, and that often helps me to resolve things I’ve been fretting over.

There’s an irony here, too. Sometimes when I’m stuck inside my own head, I have a hard time locating that sense of peace. And yet writing, which is a very interior activity, actually helps to draw me out of my head, because I’m thinking about the larger world and what the things I’m focused on might look like from a perspective other than my own.

The other thing I say in The Remembering—paraphrasing your UVA colleague Mark Edmundson’s great book Why Write?—is that writing can be like a prayer. I believe that when we think in a deep and purposeful way about the core concerns in our lives—the future, the past, our relationships with people, love, art—it brings us closer to the divine, whatever form that may take for you. And I think that is healing.

Amen. The book is a peroration that gently but deliberately addresses the nature of memory itself. You say “these emotional impressions and sense-memories that we all carry with us become our story.” And then you say that “Memory is inherently subjective, real events refracted through prisms of perception and emotion and imperfect observation, then spiked with conjecture and wishful thinking.” Yes. Memory is like a kaleidoscope with many different angles where people can see the same thing and experience it very differently. Tell us more about your conclusions about the nature of memory.

I think memory is a story we tell ourselves. And like every piece of fiction I’ve ever written, some of it is true, and some of it is how we would like things to be, or to have been. And in fiction, some of it is pure imagination. Hopefully in memory it’s not, but it could be, because we are the sum of our experiences, and we tend to try to pull anything we observe in the world into our own frame of reference.

Then when you add time elapsing, you’re no longer reporting facts and events, you’re telling yourself a story. No doubt parts of it are true—probably the truest parts are the emotional impressions that you hold onto, of how you felt in that moment. But in terms of facts, I don’t know how many studies have been done of people on the witness stand putting their hand to God and swearing to what they saw, and three other people who were standing in the same room swear they saw it differently. And it’s not necessarily because any of them are lying—it’s just as likely that they just experienced the event differently in that moment, and then remembered it differently in the story they told themselves later, in their head.

I’m curious about how the process of writing changed your message as the book evolved. When we first talked about The Remembering, I thought you were tacking towards one shore, and then it seems like the wind shifted and you were on a different trajectory. Could you talk a little about the process of collecting these essays, and how that changed your destination?

The process was huge with this book. I sat down with the idea that I have this recent body of writing that I’m happy with and want to get out in the world in book form, and then I started looking backward and thinking about how it was related to the op-ed pieces I wrote in the early ’90s and the other essays that came in between. In the process of thinking about what the common themes were and what the progression was, I kept coming back to the fact that the most interesting thing about them wasn’t how and when they were written, but why. For example, why did I start out back in 1992 with the idea that I was going to write about politics, and end up writing about my family?

The process drew out this interest in the context from which the pieces came. And once I started digging into that, I found myself looking deeper than the daily life that’s reflected in the stream-of-consciousness quality of a lot of the writing (because I wanted to ground these essays in everyday life, because it’s relatable), and toward asking really fundamental questions about what drew me to writing in the first place. Again, for example: what made having that stable suburban family life so very important to me in my 20s?

Another thing that I think you and I have both grappled with at different times is the fact that we are second-generation writers and that creates a whole dynamic inside our own heads that we sometimes have to fight with. There are these parental expectations—real or imagined—that you have to try to shove in a closet and not listen to as you’re doing the work. And this book was the first time that those were completely out of the picture for me.

In your conclusion you say that when writing The Remembering you got the feeling of “closing a circle I hadn’t realized I was drawing.” At some points in the book I think you sound like a 90-year-old man looking back on your whole life, and then at others I think you sound like a 25-year-old man looking ahead. But there’s a calmness and sense of peace there that underscores for me the therapeutic qualities writing has for you. I believe there’s a process of distillation or synthesis inherent in the act of writing that allows us to get rid of some of the background noise and focus on what really matters. I’m interested in how the writing process contributed to that sense of calmness.

I don’t know how else to be. I suppose on one level it’s a survival mechanism, because there were so many times in my childhood where the person on whom I was relying the most was emotionally unstable. My reaction was to always be the calm one. And in fact I’ve found that there are times when people around me are really irritated by how calm I usually am. They really wish I would get more upset! (Laughter)

I think the process of writing forces you to consider your values in a really primal way, because you’re deciding what is important enough to you to say it out loud to others. To a writer, that decision is everything. And that’s been my habit my whole life—I tend to be quiet, and speak only when I have something to say. It’s an ingrained habit from early in life. But I do think that the process of writing forces us to identify what’s really important to us, that we want to spend our time and energy talking about, and use our platform to talk about, should we be lucky enough to have a platform.

Synthesis is a good word. That process can focus and center us on what’s most important to us and what our core values are, and help us to refine and solidify them in ways that we don’t when we’re just moving through our daily routines, feeding the cat and taking out the garbage.

You talk in the book about how your work has evolved and reflect on it in a way that really invites the reader to be part of that conversation. But when you look at that evolution, from political speechwriter to op-ed columnist to music reviewer to author of two novels to blogger—which form calls to you most when you think about the next 10 years? Which do you think you’ll be drawn to next?

It all comes down to where I am in a given moment and what things I want to be talking about, and for what purpose. I love the way that telling a fictional story allows you to create a distinct world that you draw people into, people who enter with their own experiences and perspectives and biases and may get different things out of it. The joy of writing fiction is that you can entertain you reader as a storyteller while at the same time weaving in themes and values and ideas and emotions that are important to you, that you think or hope may resonate with readers. On those occasions when they do, that’s the whole ballgame, right there.

I mention fiction first because the next book that I have in mind to work on, that I actually was beginning to work on between drafts of The Remembering over the summer, is another novel. It features Tim Green again, from Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain, and in a sense it continues some of the themes of this current book—how memory becomes a story we tell ourselves, and how we receive and reinterpret the memories that are shared with us by others. I’m just far enough in at this point to have a sense of the superstructure of the book and the direction it might take. We’ll see. Like we were just saying, the writing process has a way of steering you to places you hadn’t planned to go!

I’m also continuing to write first-person essays and music reviews—I still enjoy both of those forms a lot, and they offer different kinds of vehicles for having different kinds of conversations.

One other thing—when you started listing different kinds of writing, my first thought was about the fact that three of my favorite writers—Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, and Anne Lamott, who are all mentioned multiple times in The Remembering—have each excelled at both fiction and non-fiction. I really admire that ability to use the tools effectively in a range of different settings.

Now I want to ask you a question inspired by our mother. Late in life, when she was asked about the daydreaming, nonconformist child at the center of her children’s books, we were all curious to know which of her sons each character was based on. As you’ll recall, she smiled mischievously and said “They were all me.” Which made me realize that fiction is forever influenced by autobiography. Fiction is how we imagine ourselves experiencing something while also trying to get out of our skin and imagine someone else experiencing it. Where do you see your own character popping up in your writing?

It’s funny because my friend Mark Doyon, whose imprint Wampus Multimedia is the publisher of the electronic edition of Believe in Me, once asked me who Blake Saunders in Never Break the Chain was based on. I told him, “Well, he’s a little bit based on a couple of famous guitar players… but really, he’s me. They’re all me.” And Mark was taken aback, because, let’s face it, Blake is an arrogant, controlling asshole. And I said “Mark, I’m a control freak, and I can be selfish sometimes. I understand how this guy’s mind works. In his case those things are just… amplified.”

Many of the characters in my novels have elements that are based on specific people—physical appearance, an attitude they have, a band they like, something they think is funny—but all of them in some way also reflect me, because that’s inevitable. It’s my imagination that gives them life, and while I’m always trying to see the world through the eyes of others, at the end of the day, it’s still me doing the trying.

Regarding faith. Our former neighbor Anne Lamott—my kindergarten classmate—writes about faith and the process of writing in a way that’s really unparalleled in modern American letters. I appreciate her and go back to her book Bird by Bird like some people go back to the Bible or Mary Oliver poems. Faith is another theme of The Remembering, which is an interesting choice since you don’t actually practice one.

(Laughter) True. I admire people who gain a sense of peace from feeling like they have the right answers to those big questions about existence. I think in many cases they probably have the right answers for themselves, and that’s great. For me the right answer is that I don’t have an answer, at least one that really resolves anything. My answer is that I think the universe is so filled with wonder that it would be silly to think that it’s entirely random, and yet I think whatever of the divine exists in our universe is by its very nature beyond our ability to comprehend. That’s the mystery of it.

I would be careful to distinguish faith from religion. One of the pieces in the book tells the story about a time years ago when I was chatting with a small group of writers online and startled them by correcting their assumption that I was a fellow atheist. “I don’t have a problem with God,” I told them. “My problem is with religion.” Too often with religion what I see is people using pious professions of faith as a way to justify their own very human failings and prejudices—which seems to me to be a particularly terrible thing to do. To me faith is personal and private and the louder someone wants to proclaim theirs, the faster I back away.

I get a strong sense of closure and peace when I read your last words in the book about Mom and Dad. There are some painful, searing observations in there about the truths of those relationships for you, but do you feel closer to them after writing the book? And do you feel their presence still? Is Mom editing you over your shoulder?

I think it’s been tremendously healing, and I think the process of writing about my relationships with Mom and Dad has made me feel closer to both of them. I’m grateful that I’ve never felt Mom editing me over my shoulder, although there are certain moments when I’m arguing with myself about word choice and grammar when I do sense her presence…! (Laughter)

Heroes are another theme in the book. Talk about how the process of writing changed your perception of what is a hero.

The pivot point in my thinking about heroes in the book is in the essay called “The Hug,” which is three quarters of the way through. It tells the story of an experience I had that reminded me in a really powerful, personal way that the real heroes in the world aren’t the ones who are getting all the attention and recognition. The real heroes are people on the ground, going through their day and making choices that put others above themselves, that manifest compassion and generosity toward other human beings. What I came to understand after spending time working on the section of the book called “Heroes” was that it was really about the values and actions of people I admired and wanted to try to emulate.

There are different kinds of heroes—your literary heroes, the people you want to try to emulate in your work. And while I don’t think of heroes in terms of people with tremendous athletic accomplishments, baseball does offer an example that comes to mind. One of the things that we’ve all loved about the Giants teams of the last 12 years that’s been said over and over again by players and managers and reporters is that they play unselfishly. They play for each other.

Okay then—baseball. (Laughter) What is it about baseball? It connects fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, across genders and generations. Is it because, as you say in the book, it’s a metaphor for life, fast and slow, full of moments big and small? Why do you think it is that when we list the things that are most important in life, our lists always seem to include baseball?

I do think it’s a great metaphor for life. It also has a kind of mythic quality, that I think reflects and amplifies the poetic aspect of the American spirit. The other thing I point to in the book is that baseball is about stories, and the ones I tell in the book are mostly about small moments. One of them is about a home run that a Giants player hit in the 10th inning of a pretty meaningless game. It was a big deal because it was a walk-off home run against the Dodgers, hit by the last guy on the roster, the 25th man, the backup catcher Guillermo Quiroz, who as far as I know never made another headline in his entire career. But that will be a story he tells to his grandchildren 30 years from now, and it’s those kinds of stories and those kinds of moments that create a really powerful emotional bond with the game.

And then in our family, baseball is wrapped up in our bonds with each other as brothers, and with Dad. In the introduction to the third part of the book I talk about how my relationship with Dad grew closer late in his life and about how, if baseball was one of the bits of glue that bound us together, what could be wrong with that? Common ground is common ground.

I was thinking about one other thing you say in the book, about how people can have different memories of the same event: “That doesn’t mean one of us is right and the other wrong, but simply that we are different people moving through life with different sets of filters and experiences influencing our perceptions.” I think that’s so true and I think when we embrace that, the natural reaction is curiosity: “Tell me more. I just experienced that, too, but how did you experience it?” I think curiosity is almost a form of love, and the only people on earth who I genuinely dislike are those who aren’t curious about other people, who only ever see things through their own lenses. Your curiosity about the human condition really comes through in the book.

Thanks. I’m still as curious about that as ever. Like I say at one point, “Human beings are endlessly complex creatures who will surprise you at least as often as they don’t.”

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