Time and Narrative in Memoir

When it comes to writing memoir, we can never give full expression to an entire life. We have too much from which to choose—too much time, too many moments, too many characters, too many questions. We can, though, find a narrative arc that, if handled skillfully, will contain more of the past, the present, and the future than the literal timeline of the memoir can dramatize. I call this timeline, even though it may be happening solely in the past, the dramatic present. I’m talking about the narrative arc comprised of events happening in chronological order in a select period of time. I spent the first seven years of my life on an eighty-acre farm in southeastern Illinois. When I was ready to enter the third grade, my parents moved to Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago, where my mother was a grade-school teacher. The summer before I started high school, we moved back downstate. We kept our farm, but we bought a house in a nearby town. I could choose a climactic moment from my high school years to end the narrative arc, or I could extend the timeline a few years beyond my graduation to another climactic moment in my life and in the lives of my parents. The memoirist looks for pivotal moments in which people made decisions and lives changed forever. Beginning, middle, end. The chronology of a life.

I’m interested in the way chronology invites spirals back into the past, or ahead into the present I occupy as a writer looking back upon experience, and even into the future I find myself entering. The past, artfully expressed, is always there to contain the multiple lives we live, scattered across time. Where are those points of intersection in the stories we have to tell? How does a recalled event from childhood, for example, contain family stories that happened before we were born, or stories that are happening now in our adult lives, or stories that may be just upon the horizon. A tightly constructed narrative gives us the confidence we need in order to leave it and to dip into past, present, and future. When we know the beginning, middle, and end of the story we’re telling, we have more freedom to engage with the elasticity of time. We know that the narrative spine will always be there, waiting for our return.

Our readers know it, too. As long as it’s clear to them how the dramatic present rubs up against our forays across time’s spectrum, they’ll follow us gladly and with the confidence that sooner or later we’ll all return to the narrative arc that makes up the spine of the memoir.

Begin where the story you’re telling begins. The choice is, of course, somewhat arbitrary because who knows exactly where any story begins. But choose, we must. So maybe I start with an early memory of the night my father was whipping me with his belt and my nearly-blind grandmother scalded him with a hot teacup to get him to stop. And maybe that memory leads to a sequence of events, all of them leading to my family’s move to Oak Forest. You see what I mean? Any moment that seems significant can immerse us in memory’s river of time. As long as we know the beginning, middle, and end of a story, we can follow that river wherever it wants to take us, and in the process, we’ll come to a better understanding, or if not that, to a more probing series of questions that will reveal to us the things we couldn’t see when we were in the midst of our lives.

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