By Irene Waters
My almost ninety-year-old mother rings me every night. A habit that began many years ago both to ensure that she had someone to talk to every day and from a safety perspective. Too often the elderly fall and are not discovered for days. Every day she tells me minute by minute how she has filled her day. She is autobiographically using time to chronologically map her day. When her day is complete, she asks me what I have done. I pick out bits that may be of interest to her, starting with that which I consider to pack the most punch. I may also join a few events making one, such as meeting Donna five times that day and getting some different bits of the story each time. It is easy just to conflate time (join them together) and tell it as one. I am giving her memoir and with my use of time making the narrative interesting and compelling.
Last month we looked at dialogue and high definition description as a fictive element allowed in memoir writing that is acceptable when it is in the style of what would have been said at the time. Time is another element that can be used creatively in memoir. However, there is much more to time than simply technical aspects which create a compelling narrative.
You cannot divorce memoir from time as memoir deals with the duality of time – where the narrator looks back in time to understand the past from his present position. There are three different purposes for writing memoirs. Firstly, there are the “lyrical seeking” narratives, where the memoirist is trying to come to terms with lost experience. Secondly, the bildungsroman (coming of age) that often relate torrid circumstances. Thirdly, there are those narratives where the author has an overwhelming need to write what is purely a good story. Each of these types deals with time differently. The lyrical seekers combine ‘then’ and ‘now’ whilst in the bildungsroman the past and present are separated, often using flashback strategies.
Unlike time in auto/biography, time in a memoir can be manipulated. It does not have to follow a chronological order starting at birth and finishing at the end (biographical works) but focuses on a particular theme which can take place over a long or short period of time. The narrative can be started at the beginning, the middle, or the end – jumping backwards and forwards in time or, alternatively, the past and present can be written together. Birketts, who wrote The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again believes this use of time is the difference between a good and bad memoir.
By conflating time, that is writing several events as one, allows the author to have a smooth flow in the narrative and for the reader removes any boredom caused by repetition of repeated events. Additionally, vivid memories don’t follow a chronological time frame and may be presented as recalled by the writer with movement between past, present, and future. Mary Karr demonstrates this as she struggles to allow the past to surface. She jumps back and forward in time creating a tension and compelling the reader to continue reading to find the answers that Karr, herself, seeks from memories which are deeply hidden.
For the memoirist, time has some other important functions. As a memoir contains both memories and reflection, the passage of time before the memoir can be written is essential, as this distance allows the events affect upon the author to become known. Additionally, it can be a difficult reliving experiences that caused the narrator such pain in the past. Distance may be needed to safely revisit the situation. Memoir can be used as an agent of healing, but I believe that these valuable cathartic memoirs are written for personal consumption only and not for publication.
Time is also an important factor when writing a memoir about other people. Memoir should never be written close to an event when we are still wielding an axe we wish to grind, wanting to pay back someone who wronged us. Enough time must elapse so that we can deal with these difficult relationships objectively and ethically. When writing people who have adversely affected our lives it is better to objectively write, showing the reader rather than telling them, allowing them to determine a person’s character through their action rather than being told what the character is.
Time can also change what we write. The culture that we live in may have changed their views on what is acceptable allowing a different version of the narrative to be told (this happened particularly with slave narratives). Time may also change our perception of ourselves. We might not like the ‘I’ of the past. Virginia Woolf wrote in her memoir Sketch of the Past “…it would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.”
Having said earlier that time must pass before writing a memoir letting too much time elapse may be detrimental also. It is a generally held belief that memoir is more prone to becoming irrelevant to a readership than does fiction. As readers often read memoir to see how another has dealt with a particular situation, perhaps following the path taken by the memoirist over time or for the inarticulate using these narratives to express how they feel, as time elapses at least some of these situations may have ceased to exist because of, eg, medical advances, political change, etc., thus making the memoir outdated. Memoir, I believe, will always give a social commentary of interest to social historians and other researchers.
Time is important in memoir, and a subject I touched on slightly in this post – dealing with others is also a crucial consideration when writing memoir and that will be the topic of next months post.
Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month we are going to look at cooking with Mum reflecting on whether our childhood experience affected our cooking as an adult. Write a post of your own and link up to my Times Past Page, leave a comment in my comment section or in the comment section when Charli posts her memories of learning to write. Don’t forget to put where you lived at the time of the memoir, your generation and whether it was a rural or city area.