My Non-Toxic Relationship with Nostalgia
“Memory is like music, melancholy, yet deeply uplifting.” -Patti Smith
I may have an unhealthy obsession with nostalgia. I like talking about it and I meet it as an old friend, but sometimes I wonder if I simply have a toxic relationship with the past. I have been asking myself a lot lately: Why do I need nostalgia? Does it help my creativity?
So much of our life is spent in yearning. That's the essence of story isn't it? It’s the hero’s journey. A desire, a quest, a longing for something which, in opposition to something else, is the plot itself. We want money, more time, a job, recognition, a baby, a relationship, a new city, better food, bigger apartment. Nostalgia is a yearning in the opposite direction, and perhaps, a different dimension, for something we know we cannot have or gain, that has already been and often, cannot be again. Research has found that this is not an American sentiment. In What is Nostalgia Good for? Quite a Bit, Research Shows, John Tierny, finds that, “The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.” Who doesn't want to be the protagonist of their own story?
I know nostalgia well, but I don’t love explaining it. Sometimes it feels like naming it will take some of the magic away. But understanding it will help us use it. Perhaps my favorite definition thus far is this one: In The True Meaning of Nostalgia, for the New Yorker, Michael Chabon writes, “It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.” He goes on to call it, simply, “the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” I find that the older I get the more I use nostalgia to look fondly on things that were once difficult or less than ideal scenarios. Chapters of life that I wanted to escape in the moment, now have a faint glow. That’s no small thing. It’s the reason stories and memories flood out of our grandparents. And wanting to hear them, that’s nostalgia, too.
There is personal versus historical nostalgia, the former of which is the better when looking at it as it relates to art-making. Like the author of the New Yorker article, I am not interested so much in history, or the dangers of it. There is restorative and reflective nostalgia, even anticipatory nostalgia, or “nostalgic-to-be memories.” In an article for the National Geographic, Clay Routledge, author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, says, “Nostalgia is a way of offering ourselves hope and inspiration...a buffer against existential threats.” This is what interests me. This is where art collides with nostalgia. In this explanation, nostalgia could just as easily be replaced with the word “art.”
On one hand, nostalgia has it’s perils. It has certainly survived a troubled and misunderstood past. From the monikers of Cowbell Syndrome to demonic possession to Immigrant Psychosis, it was once seen as a dangerous and pitiful condition. While those views have softened and all but disappeared, nostalgia can keep you in the past, addicted to another time or place, wanting not what you have and where you are, but what you used to have and where you used to be and sometimes even, who you used to be. It can easily morph into sentimentality, with which I also maintain a regular relationship but attempt to keep out of my art as best I can.
On the other hand, and I think this hand is dominant, nostalgia draws meaning from experience and can be a tool for creativity. I believe many of our earliest creative instincts – early creative memories, are spot on. They can act as a roadmap when we get lost and confused in our ambitions or strengths. Routledge writes, “Nostalgia mobilizes us for the future...It increases our desire to pursue important life goals and our confidence that we can accomplish them.”
I wanted to be a figure skater when I was young. I took lessons and had the Tara Lapinski poster on my wall. And while I love to put on skates in the winter and relive my figure eights, I don’t feel spurred into the future by that dream and memory. I was, however, also obsessed with The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. I can trace my love of music and story back to those VHS tapes. The Sound of Music was a PBS special that my parents recorded onto a VHS, commercials and stories from Julie Andrews herself, all intact. The Fiddler on the Roof was a double VHS, the split being at intermission, of course. Much of my interest in music began with those musicals, and watching my dad play the piano, singing in church, and scribbling song lyrics I heard on the radio down in a little notebook, just because I thought they were so brilliant.
I'm working on putting out some Christmas songs in December. This project was born of nostalgia, specifically the Christmas kind: food and music and the ones you love all together. Those memories are vibrant to me, as they are to many. A year ago I started writing a song about things I remember from childhood and I couldn't stop and the songs kept coming. Nostalgia guided me through this creative process.
Books and plays have been written because of nostalgia, certainly songs sung, even more certainly, pictures painted, taken, and drawn. Nostalgia doesn't just create sentimentality, it works for the future—what could be and what could be remade. How many musicals have been reworked and revived for this reason? There are things yet to be learned and while there is nothing new under this sun, everything (almost) can be made new and reconnected with in some way. It’s why starting with what you love is so important when you are finding your voice as an artist. I heard this quote recently: “Copy what inspires you and at the end you'll find yourself.” At the start were those movies and music-filled memories, and my middle is everything after. And as for the end, well, I’m getting there, with a little help from nostalgia.