Flipping through old photo albums and keepsakes doesn’t always bring on warm nostalgia; it can also trigger something of an identity crisis. (How did I ever think stirrup pants were a good idea?) Here, James Ireland Baker reflects on how one afternoon in a dusty attic changed the way he viewed himself.

By James Ireland Baker
Updated July 10, 2012
Abelardo Morell

In 1987 I was a disaffected 23-year-old college dropout living in a dingy Minneapolis boarding house, having just finished writing a novel that I chose to call (forgive me) Hawaiian Baby Woodrose. The novel was, not surprisingly, about a disaffected 23-year-old college dropout living in a dingy Minneapolis boarding house.

It was not very good. In fact, it was terrible. But a lovely newfound friend of mine read it, charitably said that she liked it, and suggested I send it to her ex-boyfriend, a writer named David Foster Wallace. I had never heard of the guy—he was not the literary icon he has since become—but he had, at 25, just published his first novel, The Broom of the System. David’s agent, my friend said, was “always looking for new clients,” and naturally I wanted to become one. So I walked from my boarding house to mail my manuscript and buy Wallace’s novel at a nearby bookstore.

Honestly, I didn’t like the book. David, however, could not have been kinder. A week after I sent him my effort, he wrote me a six-page, single-spaced critique. He had clearly paid close and generous attention to the work of a rank amateur, letting me know that he thought I had talent but that the book wasn’t all that it could or should have been. The one line that I remember (it has stuck with me all these years) was “You clearly have a very sophisticated sense of structure.”

Later I became a magazine editor, in part because of this quality. But I didn’t achieve the lifelong goal of becoming a novelist until recently, when a publisher bought my “first” novel (really, it was more like my 10th). In the maelstrom of anxiety that has marked the countdown to the book’s publication, I remembered that letter from David Foster Wallace. And, one dull afternoon last April, I climbed the ladder to the attic of my home in Westchester County, New York, and tried to find it.

I didn't. What I found instead were files upon files of other letters, manuscripts, notebooks, diaries, photos, tax returns, invitations to long defunct nightclubs, and bright lipstick pucker-prints on bar napkins. I sat on the warm attic boards that smelled the way only warm attic boards can smell—as distinct as the smell of wet sidewalks after rain—and paged through the many faded papers from my past.

I discovered letters from friends and family dating back to the late 1980s, when I uprooted myself and moved (with no degree, no job, no contacts, and only $250 in cash) from Minnesota to Manhattan. What struck me was the fact that I remembered very few of the people involved. The letters were like bulletins from a life I no longer remembered, sent to a person who no longer exists. (“The past is a foreign country,” the British novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote. “They do things differently there.”)

Here, for instance, was an unsigned letter labeled FIRST LETTER TO JIM on pulpy paper, its dot-matrix type apologizing for not liking On the Road and wondering—vis-à-vis Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation—what generation we belonged to. “The Less Than Zero generation?” this now forgotten writer asked. “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet.”

There were funny, raunchy, and sad letters from a dear friend who later killed himself: “I miss you, Jim!” he wrote before launching into a litany of our many feckless misadventures, finally closing: “Carole King just got done singing ‘So Far Away’ on the radio. Truer words were never spoken. Denise told me that you called her from New York and talked for a long time because you had been drinking beer. Jim, here’s my number. Now go drink a beer.”

I found a birthday card from my mother showing wildly exaggerated cartoon sheep and reading: “Hope you are enjoying your birthday fully…whether it’s tame—or wild and woolly!”

I found a card from a woman who called herself “Eliza from Brandon’s birthday party!” (I remembered neither, though she mentioned something about a burning couch and rooftop fireworks at 3 A.M.) “I read D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel and loved it,” she wrote. “Many thanks! If you can ever spare a moment, I’d love to have a drink!”

Here, too, I found the beginning of a whole new life: the first letter, circa 1989, from my partner, Philip, which was addressed to “Little Jimmy.”

Little Jimmy may have been the strangest of the strangers I encountered that afternoon. In the 20-plus years that have passed since those letters were penned (and who, after all, writes letters anymore?), the awkward, shy, and tentative boy that I so clearly was became, for better and worse, a (relatively) confident middle-aged man. And I don’t mean to get all Joni Mitchell maudlin here, but I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to “Both Sides Now”: “Well something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

What's gained: a marriage, a career, a house, and some security. And what’s lost? The excitement once attendant upon saving up for months to afford the “fancy” chicken enchiladas at a “fancy” Mexican restaurant. Or the commingled contentment and affection I felt when, watching Nashville on a buggy VCR, Philip turned to me, beaming, and said, “We know how to have fun.” Or the joy of trolling Hoboken, New Jersey, markets looking for strawberries on what Philip called the Perfect Day for Strawberries. “There’s one day in June when all the strawberries are perfect in New Jersey,” he said. “The key is just to find it.”

I showed Philip all those old letters and papers and photos and said, “Why don’t we do this kind of thing anymore? Why don’t we talk like this anymore?”

“Because we’re not those people anymore,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be.”

Later I went back into the attic to keep searching for the letter from David Foster Wallace. I never found it—I’m still looking. But in it, I remember, he graciously asked me to stay in touch. I didn’t; I went on with my modest life as he became enmeshed in both the American canon and his own misery. He killed himself, notoriously, in 2008.

It’s the hoariest of hoary clichés to say that life is short and, well, tempus fugit—but you do wake up, one day, to discover that age has crept up on you through what the poet John Ashbery once called “the waterwheel of days.” Sitting on the floor with my old papers piled around me, I felt as if I had stepped through a door, turned around, and seen a boy running like a ghost through the empty hall. I imagined shouting, “Who’s there?” though of course I knew the answer: It was a total stranger—me—from the foreign country of the past.

James Ireland Baker is the author (under the pen name J. I. Baker) of the novel The Empty Glass ($26, amazon.com), out this month. The executive editor of Condé Nast Traveler, he lives with his partner in New York.