Decide Where You’re Standing in Time as You Write Your Memoir

From Jane Friedman:

Two temporal elements—the time frame of the story and where you are standing in time while you tell your tale—are central to the idea of structure in memoir.

But they are tricky to determine because you are still living the life you are writing about in your memoir, and you existed at all the points in time throughout the story you are telling. It’s easy to think that you are just you and the story is just the story, and to believe that you don’t have to make any decisions around time the way a novelist does. But if you neglect to make conscious choices about time, you risk getting tangled up and writing a convoluted story.

The first decision: choose a time frame for your story

What time period will your story cover? Don’t think about flashbacks to your younger self or memories of times gone by; all stories have that kind of backstory and it doesn’t count when answering this question.

Also don’t think about whether you are going to write your story chronologically or present the story in some other way (such as backward or in a braid); these are questions about form that get sorted out later.

For now, just think about what is known as “story present”: the primary period of time that the reader will experience as they are reading the story.

Here are some examples of story present from well-known memoirs:

  • The several weeks I spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (Wild by Cheryl Strayed)
  • The year I planted my first garden (Second Nature by Michael Pollan)
  • The three years I was in an abusive relationship (In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado)
  • The three years consumed by the trial of my rapist (Know My Name by Chanel Miller)
  • The four years when I was a dominatrix (Whip Smart by Melissa Febos)
  • My childhood in Ireland (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt)
  • The 18 years following the accidental death of my high school classmate (Half a Life by Darin Strauss)
  • The 30-something years of my marriage (Hourglass by Dani Shapiro)
  • My whole life (I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell)

If you find yourself considering a time period that covers your whole life or a big chunk of time like the last two examples in my list, make sure that you actually need to include the entire period of time to effectively tell your story.

Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass doesn’t cover her whole life, but it covers many decades. That’s because her topic is itself time—the way it moves and flows in a long marriage, the impact it has on the relationship. Even her title cues us into this truth: She is making a point about the passage of time. The time frame she uses fits her point.

Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: 17 Brushes with Death, starts in her childhood and covers the entirety of her life up until the moment she is writing the book. It is a beautiful and effective story. But note that the intention of this book is not to tell her life story; it’s to discuss the specific ways that she is mortal and the reality that we are all mortal, and to remind us that every moment is a gift. She imposes a concept onto the material—a form or structure to unify or organize the material so that it’s not just a bunch of things that happened but a very specific and highly curated progression of things that happened. The story presents her whole life, but she only chooses to tell 17 stories. The time frame she uses fits her point as well.

The second decision: where you are standing in time as you tell your tale

While you are thinking about the time frame of your story, you also must decide where you are standing in time when you tell your story. There are two logical choices:

1. Narrating the story as you look back on it

The first option is that the story has already happened, and you are looking back on it with the knowledge and wisdom gained from having lived through those events. You are standing in time at a fixed moment that is not “today” (because today is always changing). It’s a specific day when the story has happened in the past and the future life you are living has not yet happened. This choice has to do with what we call authorial distance, or how far from the story the narrator is standing. In fiction, a first-person point of view often feels closer to the story than a third-person point of view. In memoir, if you are telling the story from a specific day that is just after the events that unfolded, you will be closer to the story than if you were telling the story from a specific day three decades later.

I wrote my breast cancer memoir just months after my treatment had ended and the friend who inspired me to get an (unusually early) mammogram had died. Her recent death was the reason for the story and part of the framing of it. She died young and I did not; the point I was making was about getting an early glimpse at the random and miraculous nature of life—a lesson that most people don’t really metabolize until they are much older. I wanted to preserve the close distance to the events of the story. If I told that story now, I would be telling it with the wisdom of having lived well into middle age—a very different distance from the story and a very different perspective.

I once worked with a client who had been a college admissions officer at an elite private high school. The pressure of the work, the outrageous expectations of the kids and parents, and the whole weight of the dog-eat-dog competitive culture contributed to him having a nervous breakdown. He wrote a memoir in which he answered college application questions from the perspective of a wounded and reflective adult. It was brilliant, and part of its brilliance was the wink and nod of doing something in his forties that so many people do at age seventeen.

We are talking here about authorial distance related to time, but there is also the concept of authorial distance related to self-awareness. I know that sounds a little like an Escher staircase circling back on itself—and it kind of is. The narrator of a memoir (the “you” who is standing at a certain moment in time) has some level of self-awareness about the events and what they mean. One of the reasons that coming-of-age stories are so beloved is that, by definition, the narrator is awakening to themselves and the world for the first time. There is very little distance (temporal or emotional) between who they were and who they became and there is a purity and poignancy to that transformation. It’s as if they are awakening to the very concept of self-awareness.

It is entirely possible for an adult to write a memoir and not bring much self-awareness to what they are writing about; it’s unfortunately quite common. A narrator who is simply reciting what happened—“this happened to me and then this happened and then this other thing happened”— is not exhibiting self-awareness about their life. They are not stepping back emotionally from it, so they don’t have any perspective to offer no matter how far away they are from it in time. They are just telling us what happened. These kinds of stories tend to feel flat and self-absorbed. They make no room for the reader. They don’t offer any sort of reflection or meaning-making, don’t offer any emotional resonance, and don’t ultimately give us the transformation experience we are looking for when we turn to memoir.

Laurel Braitman, author of What Looks Like Bravery, explains it like this: “I tell this to my students now: You can only write at the speed of your own self-awareness. You do not want the reader to have a realization or insight about your life that you haven’t had already or they will lose respect for you.”

If you are telling your story as you are looking back on it, make a clear decision about exactly where you are standing in time and make sure you have enough self-awareness to guide the reader with authority through the events you are recounting.

2. Narrating the story as it unfolds

The second logical option in terms of where the narrator stands in time is to tell the story as though you are experiencing it for the first time. There is no temporal distance from the events you are writing about. You narrate the story as the story unfolds, which means that you narrate it without the knowledge of how it all turned out. In this kind of story, the self-awareness that is necessary for an effective memoir is unfolding as the story unfolds as well.

I wrote a memoir about getting married and the structure of it was a “countdown” to the wedding. In this format, the concept is that events were unfolding as I was living them. This wasn’t technically true—I wrote the book after the wedding had taken place—but I had taken extensive notes and was able to preserve the concept of not knowing how people would behave or how I would feel. (This book embarrasses me now—the whole idea of it. I was 25 when I wrote it, so what can I say? I am grateful for its role in my career and here it is being useful as an example.)

In Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, she wrote about the year after her husband dropped dead at the dinner table, and of the difficulty that the human mind has grasping that kind of catastrophic change. In the first pages of the book, she writes, “It is now, as I begin to write this, the afternoon of October 4, 2004. Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock….” What she is doing here is signaling to us that there is not a whole lot of authorial distance or self-awareness to what she is sharing. She is figuring it all out—this tendency to think magical thoughts about the dead not really being dead—as she writes. But the key thing is that she knows that she is figuring it out, and she invites us into the process. She has self-awareness about her own lack of self-awareness. She is not just telling us about the dinner and the table and the call to 911.

In Bomb Shelter, Mary Laura Philpott places her narrator self at a point in time when the story is still unfolding; she has perspective and self-awareness, but those elements are still clearly in flux. The New York Times reviewer Judith Warner called this out in her rave review of the book. Warner said, “I want to say something negative about this book. To be this positive is, I fear, to sound like a nitwit. So, to nitpick: There’s some unevenness to the quality of the sentences in the final chapter. But there’s no fun in pointing that out; Philpott already knows. ‘I’m telling this story now in present tense,’ she writes. ‘I’m still in it, not yet able to shape it from the future’s perspective.’” Like Didion, Philpott was well aware of the choice she made around narration and time, and those choices perfectly serve her story.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG notes that on the date he posted this item, the book written by the author of the OP had not been published yet. You can find the book here for preorder. Here’s a link to a broken home page for the publisher, Tree Farm Books.

PG was about to comment about a publisher that can’t even keep a home page operating when a large number of readers, including PG, spend time online gathering information for books they might be interested in reading. Not to mention that the profit margins for selling ebooks are much larger than for books on paper.

PG mentions again that, in his opinion, it’s stupid to get a blurb for a book or, in this case, have the author of a book write a detailed online article about the subject of the book when the book isn’t available on Amazon yet. In the case of the book shown below, the publisher, Tree Farm Books, hadn’t even made the book eligible for preorders on Zon.

But PG’s opinions could be entirely wrong.

2 thoughts on “Decide Where You’re Standing in Time as You Write Your Memoir”

  1. >>> a broken home page for the publisher

    If anyone should want to know what a web site from the 90s looks like, go take a look for a horrendous flashback.

    I see these “future book” blurbs all the time. Some are interesting, but by the time the book actually comes out, I’ve forgotten all about it. Pre-order, you say? Not likely, in my case.

  2. The book is finally available on Amazon, so I harvested the sample.

    Looking at the Table of Contents, most of the book is about making a deal with Trad, agents, pitching the book, etc…

    The interesting part of the sample is the Introduction, where she features a rich guy and how she helped him find his story. The book blurbs at the front are also interesting, showing the world that she lives in.

    – She is a couch for writing non-fiction and she also trains coaches, so this is her calling card for her potential clients, writers and coaches.

    I’ve been building up a bunch of Kindle Points lately, so her book is free to me. I will probably buy it as a resource for her as a character in one of my books. The vibe that I am picking up from her, and the blurbs, is interesting.

    I can’t tell if she is a narcissist or a sociopath, but I’m definitely picking up that long con vibe like in the trailer for:

    A Haunting In Venice | Official Trailer | In Theaters Sept 15

    The woman at the start, who brings Poirot in, has that same vibe.

    This all goes into my Story Folders.


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