Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Experience and Memory and Meaning

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

As we age, we often examine our lives, bringing to the front memories and moments to assign them meaning in the overall purpose our lives seem to have served. Anyone engaged in such an examination knows its challenges. Making sense of isolated moments loosely strung together in a pattern that has logic only in the stream of consciousness often ends in sighs, especially when words fail. Yet authors triumph in this endeavor. They take life’s detritus and glory, order it, and share it with us.

Riding into the Light
Photo by Al Griffin Photography
Daniel James Brown’s Prologue to The Boys in the Boat reveals the ground to be covered, ground that moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from detritus to glory, from experience through memory and into meaning. Here is an excerpt wherein Brown shares what he learned:

“… [Joe Rantz] talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, . . . I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both--it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience--a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it” (Brown, Daniel J. "Prologue." Boys in the Boat. New York: Penguin, 2013. Kindle File.)

Memories of the Husky Clipper, a boat that carried nine men to glory somewhere far away in both time and space, provoke tears, but that tangible object represents far more. It is the experience of mastering it, of overcoming the limits of the human species, and sublimating individual self-interest for the team’s. It is pride in accomplishment, respect for the work, and love of wind, water, and waves. It is his past, his character captured in a singular “golden sliver of time long gone.”

Brown understood and informs us that Rantz measures his life in such moments, not the mundane coffee spoons of J. Alfred Prufrock, but in the beauty of Nature, men, and work.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Boys in the Boat for a great story told beautifully.

Writing Challenge:


Communicate the intangible magic found in a very tangible act or object.