How memoir works with two time perspectives simultaneously
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This Month's Topic:​​​​

Time in Memoir

For all its popularity, memoir remains a baffling and elusive form for many writers. Its most confounding aspect, I think, is the way it works with two time perspectives simultaneously: past and present.

In his book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts writes that all memoirs worth their salt “use the vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.” He describes how these two overlapping time perspectives “twine" together to create a kind of “four-dimensional interrogation” of the writer’s memories.

But before we wander too far into the heady question of an intertwined, four-dimensional memory interrogation, let’s look at a very common problem for beginning memoirists: the autobiographical urge. Many folks begin their memoir efforts by writing autobiography. It makes sense, since the distinction  between the two genres can be difficult to grasp, and of the two, autobiography is far more approachable.

To begin to understand how they differ, let’s look at the etymology of both terms. 

Autobiography: auto=self, bio=life, graphy=writing. 

Memoir: mem=to remember, oir=a suffix indicating the tool-like use of an action indicated by a verb (in this case, to remember).

In other words, autobiography is writing about one’s own life, and memoir is a tool for remembering. 
Collage by Diego Max
Autobiographies tend to start at the beginning (usually childhood) and advance more or less chronologically from there. An autobiography might involve a few flash-backs and -forwards, yes, but there's no 4-D time-twining. 

Memoirs, on the other hand must operate, like memory, on two time planes simultaneously: the past (which we recall) and the present (in which we recall it). A host of thorny questions arise immediately, such as, why do we remember one thing and not another? And, do we understand the thing recalled the same way we understood it at the time it occurred?

No wonder the budding memoirist clings so fiercely to the autobiographical approach!

And yet the story at the heart of a good memoir will always be found in this complex double perspective: the past superimposed on the present, the present reflecting the past. There, in this constantly shifting dynamic, meaning is forged.

For an example of how this looks on the page, consider this brief passage from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In this scene, Didion describes the painful process of getting rid of her deceased husband’s clothes:
…I opened a closet and filled more bags: New Balance sneakers, all-weather shoes, Brooks Brothers shorts, bag after bag of socks. I took the bags to St. James’. One day a few weeks after I gathered up more bags and took them to John’s office, where he had kept his clothes. I was not yet prepared to address the suits and shirts and jackets but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start.    

I stopped at the door to the room.    

I could not give away the rest of his shoes.    

I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was going to return.    

The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.  

I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.
It's the last line that gives this passage true emotional depth. The passage matters, in a sense, twice as much because of that line. It matters in the past Didion points to (the year after her husband's death) and it matters in the "narrative now," when Didion tells the story of that year. With that last, time-tangled sentence she deftly reveals the distance between her grief then and her grief now in a way that lets us into the heartbreaking truth of her loss. 

Read Sven Birkerts’ wise and inspiring book if you'd like to further explore the mysterious ways time works in memoir. You can also send me questions in response to the thoughts I’ve shared here. I will try to address them in future issues of Write On.

© Kim Adrian 2021
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