Unless you’re a relentless thrower-away, if you’re as old as I am you’ve probably got one, though you may not call it an archive. You know: photos, diaries, unsent letters to people you thought you were in love with, files of notes on subjects you once studied, newspaper articles that you cut out and kept for some reason you can’t remember, family bits and pieces you’ve never had the heart to get rid of, Christmas cards from people you no longer see. You may not look at it very often but it’s somehow comforting to know it’s there – proof, before memory dwindles, that you have a traceable history.
I’ve just been unpacking mine, having kept it here in boxes for over a year (well, I was in London half the time), and before that in storage for nearly three years while I was living in a bedsit. The sheer quantity amazes me: a tall pile of journals, more wallets of photographs than will fit into the large drawer I’ve designated for them, files of notes and essays from my undergraduate days (do I really need those?), notebooks of Russian vocabulary from when I did the A-level, poems and stories I didn’t remember having written, and some rather spectacular black-and-white doodles which I obviously thought worth saving. And much more, of course – and that’s just my own life. The thing is that by my age you haven’t just accumulated your own back story (and that of your present family, if you have one), you’ve probably also inherited a fair bit from other people. Their history, which, if you were attached to them, is just as hard to throw away as your own, or harder. If they meticulously kept copies of all their correspondence – in the days before we stored documents on hard disks or memory sticks – and all their correspondence bears their unique style and way of doing things, the temptation is to hold on to it, as if by doing so you could somehow hold on to them. Throwing it away feels like a betrayal, even if the letter says no more than “Dear Gas Man, Please don’t come tomorrow”.
Of course in order to make room for your current life you have to be selective – keep samples, say, or crucial documents only. Otherwise you don’t just retain the past; you drown in it. For someone like me, whose natural tendency is to hold on to things, it’s easier said than done. In any case, sifting through it all, deciding not only whether to keep it but where to put it if you do, takes hours and days of the time that you could have spent writing, or doing something more obviously rewarding. Not that this isn’t worthwhile, but I have to keep psyching myself up to get on with the next bit, or else make excuses for not doing it. There are still papers scattered over my study floor – a lot less than there were – and piles of books and photograph albums on the landing, but slowly some sort of order is emerging. After that the piles will need a proper home. At best my intended cull of books will be a decimation in the original sense (i.e. the loss of one tenth); in addition to that the amount of paper still left is either impressive or appalling, depending how you look at it. Ironically, my little maisonette in Cricklewood, less than half the size of my present house, had at least twice as much shelf space, which was a disincentive when it came to throwing things away. Now I’ve got so much more room I don’t want to crowd it, but the fascination of the past keeps threatening to engulf my newly-acquired space.
And what of the archive itself? Going through my files, liberating my books which have been confined – and I’m sure multiplying – in their boxes, I’m rediscovering phases and facets of my life: jobs, interests, some constant, some ephemeral, the friends and acquaintances who went with them, the groups and associations I’ve been part of. Amongst all of that I’m reassured to find a sense of evolution, as a person and as a writer – a gradual gaining of ground and confidence, an equally gradual turning away from self-created misery. Perhaps that’s just what happens as you get older, or perhaps, as I’d like to think, all the therapy and what used to be called ‘personal growth’, the professional training and Buddhist practice really have made some difference. What also becomes clear, as I forage in the archive, is that the process isn’t linear. Insights that I think I’m having for the first time now I discover in my journals of ten or more years ago; writings from the past that I’ve dismissed as clumsy and unskilled turn out to be as good as anything I could produce now; interests that have peaked and then receded surface again years later, reminding me that they still belong here after all. If I’ve forgotten about a particular author or language or kind of music or spiritual tradition, the chances are that sooner or later they will become relevant again. And, of course, I never know what might be useful to something I happen to be writing.
The idea that these disparate and sometimes ill-matched pieces of my past form a coherent story is a comforting one. The story may change constantly, according to the the mood of the moment and the point in time that it’s viewed from, but for me, as for most people, it’s important that there is a story. Making stories, out of our own life and other people’s, is something we all do, even more so if we are engaged in the business of creating fiction. We need stories, the stories that arise from our inner archive as well as the outer one, to give shape and meaning to our lives. And yet on another level the act of making a story can obfuscate its meaning. As a psychotherapist I’ve seen many times that when someone momentarily lets go of the story – what happened, the hows and whys – and simply experiences what’s there in this moment, something more profound emerges. That doesn’t mean the story has no value, but there is a recognition at those times that we have created it and it may not fit the ever-changing nature of our experience. Perhaps fiction writers are lucky in this respect: even if we are writing our own story, more or less, we know we are making it up in accordance with the book’s underlying truth.
Most of us need some sort of external archive to remind us of the story, whether it’s just a few selected pieces or (like one friend of mine) boxes lining the staircase and filling a room from floor to ceiling. It helps to stimulate the internal archive, the store of memories and ideas about our life which, a lot of the time, is who we recognise ourselves to be. In Buddhist understanding none of this is ultimately real: the self who we think we are is in a constant state of flux and the only reality we have is this present moment. So long as I’m hanging on to an idea of ‘me’ I can’t fully experience myself as I am right now. Put like this it could easily sound like a recipe for fragmentation and nihilism, but what the Buddha is pointing to is that beyond/beneath/around/within our conditioned ideas of self there is freedom and spaciousness and creativity, which many of us have glimpsed at moments. Not only are our notions of self impermanent (to use the Buddhist word); particularly as we get older, we are faced with the reality – which we may choose to ignore – that this body is not going to last forever and we can’t take our accumulated hoard with us. A friend of mine described how, as he neared the end of his life, her father no longer cared about the beautiful and interesting things he had so carefully kept. The story had ceased to matter.
And yet, day to day, it does matter. At this point I wouldn’t want to get rid of everything from my past and just live in a bare room. But nor do I want to be so encumbered by the weight of the past that there is no space in the present. The ultimate and the ephemeral have to come to some kind of accommodation. Which means I’ll just have to go on sorting through the archive, making those difficult decisions.