Looking Ahead with Nostalgia

Every writer has their writing style which stems from the fact that each and every one of us has different background, experiences, as well as memories. It is hard to escape subjectivity especially when you intend to find your writing voice that will stand out among other literary works.

One way to start creating your writing voice through individual experiences is to feel nostalgia, a wistful longing for the past, which is closely linked to memory. Bearing in mind the etymology of the word, (Greek: nostos – return home and algos – pain), one can observe that the concept of nostalgia includes a personal, emotional experience that urges us to revisit our past with the hope that we will bring a piece of it in our present. But what makes nostalgia so powerful when it comes to writing?

Firstly, let’s have a look at the different fields in which the concept of nostalgia has left its strong and lasting effect. One example that crosses my mind is nostalgia in the film industry. To put it simply, nostalgia here is connected to the idea of re-making, re-booting, or adaptation. For instance, film productions such as Little Women (2019), Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007) are some examples where films are based on books and, as a result, they give life to them and vice versa. Apart from films, the pop music industry creates acoustic covers of the most popular and influential songs. Iconic bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns N’ Roses to name but a few, have their impact on upcoming rock bands. Generally, the genre of pop music itself often borrows elements from jazz, rock, urban and country music.

Regarding literature, contemporary writing engages a lot with the past and I will consider James Joyce’s Ulysses as the starting point of my discussion. Ulysses is parallel to Homer’s epic poem Odyssey in which Joyce manages to tailor the story to modern society. In this case, nostalgia creates intertextuality, a common feature in the literature that renders texts dependent on other ones. However, the contribution of nostalgia here is that it functions as a way to interpret the present through the past. Writers have a new understanding of the past and eventually, they make something new out of the old.

Remarkably, nostalgia finds a way for texts to travel through time. Nevertheless, how hard is it for a writer to have this feeling of nostalgia and use it as a means of inspiration for their writing journey? I will provide you with a tip that can make you travel back in time and make the most out of it. First and foremost: it’s all about the place. But before we delve into this concept let’s clarify the difference between place and space in literature. Space merely refers to a geographical location, whereas place endows that space with a personal or cultural identity. This notion of place is a characteristic of diasporic writers, who very often attempt to flee from the past pain and develop the cultural identity they were always deprived of.

To arouse nostalgia within you it would be sufficient to go somewhere where your memories can be triggered, such as your hometown, the city where you spent most of your student days, or any location where you used to spend moments with your loved ones. Ideally, it would be better if you haven’t visited that place for a long time because this kind of detachment will force you to recollect your past and view it in a new way. Depending on your writing content, you can either reflect on a good or bad experience that you had. Although I would advise you to focus only on good old times, remembering an unpleasant moment and seeing it with fresh eyes can be a cathartic moment for you. If you lack this luxury of time and you’re not able to travel, you can just create an environment where you can calmly close your eyes and think of a specific period in your life.

However, this sense of nostalgia, except for affecting the writers themselves, can also have an impact on their reading audience as well as on the way they interpret a literary piece. By employing specific strategies, writers can make readers feel nostalgic. One way to accomplish this is to make use of our senses and use auditory, visual, tactile, and gustatory imagery which will trigger some parts of a reader’s long-term memory. Readers will be overwhelmed with a feeling of melancholy and will experience its multi-faceted nature. This is also a way through which readers identify with certain characters and relate to certain parts of the plot.

Additionally, a technique which I find very intriguing is describing a scenery which comes from a completely different era and then inserting values and ideas that make it more modern. Some historical novels manage to achieve that, and I consider the best example to be Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith. The author transfers her audience to the Victorian era and blends images of the past with concepts that are quite familiar to today’s readers’. To exemplify, one of the themes that is prevalent in the story is feminism and homosexual relationships, since the lesbian love of the two protagonists, Maud and Sue, is depicted. Another reason why Fingersmith is representative of nostalgia in literature is because of its intertextuality, namely, it is often claimed that Waters adapted Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist in her novel and, consequently, she created a new story for a contemporary audience.

Overall, the feeling of nostalgia has multiple layers which writers can take advantage of and create a masterpiece. However, it cannot be denied that it is an oxymoron for a notion that is related to past events to be used for our future. As mentioned in the very beginning, we travel back to our past intending to carry a piece of it within us. Do you think it is worth the journey? If yes, plunge into your past and let your memory guide you—just make sure you tell us how it goes!

About the Author

Hi! I am Ioana Meta, and I am a postgraduate student of MRes Translation and Interpreting Studies at Surrey University. With a background in literature, I always try to combine translation and literature either through literary translation or by writing poems that can be translated into the languages that I speak. Interestingly, I use nostalgia as a technique to write poems in Greek!


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