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.
Wow.. I am looking forward to take up this challenge. I have so many memories of cooking with mum.. I belong to gen y..
Glad you joined in with a great post about your Mum and cooking.
I have already responded at your site, regarding cooking.
And I want to say wow and thank you for the provocative post here.
Here’s a question: How do you see the difference between memoir and autobiography?
An autobiography is a chronological recounting of one’s life normally with information that could be publicly researched. It is a whole of life to date account. A memoir is a part, a particular incident or period of life or may have a theme like trees in my life and it involves reflection as to how the period being recounted has changed/altered/effected you as a person. So there are differences primarily in truth (bio should be able to be researched/memoir is internal so cannot be fully researched), time and period of reference and reflection.
Thank you both for the question and answer!
This is really a great idea, Irene and I’m going to share around the web. Hugs to you! <3
Thanks Colleen. Much appreciated.
I find autobiography, memoir, diaries, biography infinitely more absorbing that fiction – lives are so precious and so fascinating … the stories of deeply felt experience and lives are the logbook of the human soul for me ….
That is a lovely way of describing the joy of reading life writing Valerie. We definitely get different things out of reading memoir to reading fiction and I’m glad you find them absorbing.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts on memoir, Charli. I also suppose it depends how a memoir is written. It is different form biographical fiction like I am writing about my Mom’s like. I have been making changes and doing re-writes of this book in line with your suggestions and I am having a most wonderful time doing it.
I’m glad you are finding the pieces on memoir interesting. It is possible that although you are writing about your mother it is still classified as memoir as you are writing about someone that you personally know and therefore have a connection with and depending on how you are doing it you are probably using at times ‘I’ when referring to yourself in the narrative. Are you fictionalising it? Would love to hear more about your project but I’m glad you are having fun working with points that I have made in the memoir essays.
Thank you, Irene. I am not narrating the story, I am “trying” to write it along the lines of Little house on the prairie, a series I have loved all my life. As I do the edits, I read the amended chapter to my Mom and she invariably remembers something new and interesting for me to add. It is wonderful.
That sounds wonderful Robbie and you are so lucky your Mum can tell you things. I tried with my Mum and she couldn’t tell me anything on a personal level even things like games they played were impossible for her and not because of memory but because she wasn’t sure if they were the right games she played.
Oops! Sorry about the missed byline. I updated the post because Irene Waters wrote it. But I’m happy you like the thoughts on memoir, Robbie!
I’ve gotten to the point where the kitchen and I are friends again…
It wasn’t always that way. I enjoyed reading your post 🙂
I think I’d rather be a cook than a chef…
I’d rather avoid the kitchen than be a cook. I look forward to reading just cooking. Thanks Jules for taking part and glad you enjoyed Time.
Jules, I look forward to some kitchen explorations from you now that you and the kitchen are friends again. I forgot to insert the guest byline. I thought it would be abundantly clear that memoir is not my area of expertise! 😀 I defer to Irene…
I made my own sort of Pesto the other day – too much garlic (but really can there ever be too much garlic?), basil and walnuts instead of the traditional price pine nuts… (salt and pepper to taste) Worked for me. 🙂
This will be a delicious prompt, Irene. The kitchen is one of my favorite places and I’ve had a few unusual ones growing up.
I’ll look forward to it Charli.
As always, I thoroughly enjoy your memoir posts Irene, lapping up every single word. I would burn your ears off if we ever met (and how I hope we do oneday!) wanting to talk memoir all day and night…yikes!!! The way you explained the differences between your and your mum’s conversations is one of the best definitions of the difference between biography and memoir I’ve ever read. I have not heard of ‘conflating’ time in that term, but I can see how clearly a memoir captures those ‘with the most punch’ moments for the story in such ways. I have worried that my memoir might seem irrelevant, the events having taken place over three decades ago, but I hope it captures the time as it was then in sharp contrast with the way we communicate though the theme is timeless. Very helpful about showing and not telling when it comes to people’s actions, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. Would love to know more about Birkett’s definition of using the past and present together in memoir…does that mean throughout the story or just as it jumps out? I look forward very much to your next memoir post Irene, and thank you very much for this wonderfully informative and interesting memoir series. Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to swing a post before the end of the month, but will comment over at your cooking with mum times past post next week…great prompt! 🙂 <3
Now that would be nice Sherri if we could mull over these memoir thoughts in person over a cuppa. Glad the differences between memoir and autobiography were clear from what I said. At a guess without having read your memoir (which I am very much looking forward to doing) your memoir will have lots of relevance to in the modern day as relationships still exist and moving between continents does also. Some of the detail will be different to today but the emotion felt will not. There is no rule for how you use time, it is what fits in with your narrative the best but Birkett was referring to writing present and past together including reflection as you went. An example of this is found in Lori Schafer’s book where she starts off in the present having just heard of her mother’s death and then she goes backwards and forwards from the present to the past and also to the far past which she writes in a fictional manner as it is still too painful for her to deal with and ends with some good insights and reflections.
Don’t worry Sherri about posting. It is lovely to see you when you have time but I know you are furiously working on your memoir and that life has to be lived between. ❤️