God Save Donald Duck

by | Apr 9, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

The Nanny is having a moment. HBO Max is now streaming the 90s-era sitcom starring Fran Drescher, and suddenly everyone on my Twitter timeline seems to be a superfan from way back. The 90s have been cool again for awhile now–my high school students love Friends and Nirvana. I never watched The Nanny and I’m unlikely to start, but recently my husband and I have been relaxing after tough toddler bedtimes with a couple episodes of Seinfeld, now available in full on Hulu. 

Of course, this kind of cultural recurrence is nothing new. Even though Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show aired before I was born, I watched Nick at Night eagerly as a kid, reveling in the nostalgia, the cleanness, the classic joke structure. My musical tastes were similarly retro: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Merle Haggard. There’s some feeling of comfort, even security, in encounters with entertainment and art from the past. 

Ray Davies captures that familiar feeling in “The Village Green Preservation Society,” which is sprinkled throughout with references to nostalgic entertainment:

We are the Village Green Preservation Society

God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety

We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society

God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties

Preserving the old ways from being abused

Protecting the new ways for me and for you

What more can we do

We tend to ask, when we revisit art and entertainment that we used to love, Does it hold up? Like, does Cruel Intentions have any merit that can withstand a few cruel decades of aging (probably not)? How about CrazySexyCool by TLC (probably yes)? Or the novel Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, which has the disadvantage–or maybe advantage–of already being over 40 years old by the time I read it?

But I want to ask a different question, one that’s inspired by one of my coaching clients, who is working on a book proposal about an album she loved as a teen: When we revisit a once-beloved TV shows, albums, and dog-eared paperbacks, did the person who once adored it hold up within us? Can we still identify with the emotions and ardor and enthusiasm that our younger selves felt in watching or reading or listening? 

I rarely read Anne Sexton the way I once did. I don’t even teach her work anymore. I could claim that it’s because I learned that she sexually abused her daughter, but if I’m being honest, I stopped reading her long before I found out. I’m not sure why loosened its grip on me, except that I just got older. The poems didn’t change, I did. It’s not you, it’s me

When I revisit “To My Lover, Returning To His Wife,” the most obvious question is why I, at age 22 and certainly nobody’s mistress, identified so completely with the speaker in the poem, especially in the devastating final lines: “She is solid. / As for me, I am a watercolor. / I wash off.”

It seems, initially, deeply sad to think I saw myself that way, as lacking form and substance, as being easily washed away by people with whom I was intimate. I think, first, of the bad relationship I was in, with someone who was relentlessly unfaithful. But then, why would I relate to the mistress? 

But something about that identification must have worked for me, since I chose it. The wife is compared to a cast iron pot. I wasn’t ready to be a cast iron pot. Much better to be pretty and colorful, even if transient. Plus, the mistress is the one speaking. She is the subject, writing about herself, claiming what’s hers. My lover, his wife. She is the only one who is not possessed, who belongs only to herself. Which seems entirely appropriate for a 22-year-old. 

Prompt

Revisit a piece of art or entertainment that you once loved powerfully. For the purposes of this prompt, try to choose something that really moved or shaped you, but that you haven’t revisited for a long while. Maybe something you feel a little embarrassed by now. Or maybe you don’t know why you stopped reading that author or listening to that song. 

Try to suspend judgment of the piece’s merit. Or laugh a little at how cliche or dated it is, and then move on. Instead, return in your memory to the era in which you loved it. Think about who you were then, what made you love it, and what else was happening in your life and in the world. Try to identify with who you used to be. Close the distance; resist easy interpretations, and spurn the idea that you were once more innocent or uncomplicated. Honor that person in their complexity, and honor the art/entertainment that once mattered so much to you.

Then write. This is, in a way, ekphrastic writing, which is writing about, or inspired by, a piece of art, whether the art is described or named explicitly or not. It’s also a little different, since this prompt is asking you to look beyond the art itself, and at the context and the viewer–you, but a younger you.

In a poem, you could invoke the emotions, whether complicated or distilled, that the piece once stirred within you. Set a short story during the time period during which you loved it. You may choose to refer directly to the song or movie or novel, or you may leave it out. Or you could write a personal essay about that time in your life. 

You could be more direct about it, and title your writing “Revisiting _____” (or rewatching or rereading), and then see where that takes you.

Or be much less direct. Write osmotically. Revisit the piece, meditate on it, cast back into the past, and then just let those thoughts and feelings breathe into you as you begin writing.