"little bits of something still alive..."

On July 18th, I'm celebrating the birthday of the Russian writer, Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999). She's primarily known as a novelist, but the book of hers that has most influenced me as a writer is Childhood (1983), a memoir of sorts, about the first twelve years of her life. Sarraute wrote this when she was in her early 80s, far, far from the time of the events she was remembering, which presented challenges for her. What is a writer to do about lost or decayed memories and no one left who can help one fill in the gaps? Sarraute's solution was to write Childhood in what she calls her ''predialogue'' style, which she defined as one that captured the ''little bits of something still alive'' on the border of consciousness, ''something prior to language -- a sensation, a perception.'' She said that these feelings must be caught before she had a chance to label them with adult words, because adult words both falsify experience and render it traumatizing. Sarraute also spoke of  her writing as a ''sub-conversation,'' through which she captured and conveyed half-formed ideas and feelings in often hesitant dialogue. She uses an interlocutor throughout the text to question the validity of her memories.

This summer I've been working on an essay about a 14-month period when I was four and five that my family lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. My very young parents were terribly homesick for our hometown of Burlington, Iowa, terribly unhappy, and broke most of the time. The mood and content of my memories of this period are quite unlike those of other periods in my childhood, which long puzzled me. I hoped that I'd come to understand why that was if I wrote an essay about this time. 

At least once a week, I walk on the MoPac Trail that cuts through the heart of the old neighborhood south of UNL's agricultural campus. It used to be that when I passed the apartment where my family lived during this hazy and unhappy time, I only felt sadness and nostalgia. But now I feel more. Following Sarraute's example, I've reentered that time by attending to the emotions and sensations that surround my memories of it. This less cerebral, less information-based approach than I usually employ when writing about the past has evoked even more memories, some of which are surprisingly pleasant. What has resulted may be the most heart-filled and vulnerable essay I've ever written. My gratitude to Nathalie Sarraute for showing me how to do this!


Lisa Knopp