November 18, 2017

Where Are We in Relation to the Last Scene? Tracking Time in Memoir

shutterstock_285744158Lately, with my memoir students and clients, I find myself writing the following query into nearly every submission: Where are we in relation to where we just were? As the writer of your memoir, it’s critical to remember that you lived the experiences you’re writing about, and that you must slow down and anchor the reader again and again and again as to where they are in your timeline—multiple times in a single chapter.

I encourage my students to read best-selling memoirs to see how other memoirists handle time in memoir. Linda Joy and I have taught our best-selling memoir series for the past three years. We’ve taught Wild, Eat, Pray, Love, The Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes, The Liars’ Club, H Is for Hawk, and now Smashed and Drinking: A Love Story. In each of these memoirs, no matter the structure or the topic or the subgenre (grief, coming-of-age, addiction), the authors use abundant and specific time markers to let their readers know exactly where they are in the timeline. This is an equally important practice whether you’re writing a linear narrative or a thematic memoir. In re-anchoring your reader in the timeline, they feel more assured, and less like their floating around in time—which can be a disconcerting experience as a reader.

Just last night I was reading a brilliant homework assignment. This writer has stunning language, great sensory details. I was with her during an intense scene in which her older brother pushes the young protagonist—just twelve years old in the scene—to commit a petty crime. The scene ends. A line break is inserted. When we pick up on a new line, new scene, the girl is at home lying on the couch having a conversation with her mother. There’s no mention of where we are in relation to the previous scene. Though my student brought the petty crime scene to a close in the previous scene, it was also an important scene, with supposed reverberations. Perhaps the act itself was never discussed in dialogue with the mother because the writer never told her, but if we’re reading a dialogue scene between mother and daughter in the aftermath of such a crime, the reader is longing to know (and right away): Is the protagonist (the memoirist) thinking about it? Has a day passed? One week? A month? A year?

The entire scene with the mother came to a close without any mention of what had transpired with the brother, and the chapter ended. I felt as if I’d read two completely unrelated scenes. In memoir, you’re writing a sustained narrative (again, even if it’s non-linear), and therefore your job is to find ways to incorporate time markers into your narrative.

Use sentences like:

  • Three weeks later I found myself…
  • It was fall by then, and three months had passed since…
  • I was anticipating my XX birthday when…
  • That summer of 1983, I …
  • My dad had been dead for seven months by then…

You can anchor your reader in relation to major events that have happened in your book already. Use dates, your own aging and the passing of birthdays, and significant cultural events (like the death of MLK, Jr. or JFK, or 9/11, or others that are in the collective conscience, for instance).

The two primary reasons writers I work with don’t anchor their writing in time often enough are: (1) they feel it’s repetitive, and (2) they’re not thinking about it. In the first case, do your readers a favor and err on the side of being repetitive, at least for a first draft. It’s better to allow an editor to remove timeline markers than to be asking you constantly where they are in your timeline. As for not thinking about it, this makes sense when you first start writing your memoir. After all, you lived your life. But your readers didn’t. Until you get to a place where you’re consciously thinking about the timeline every time you sit down to write, make yourself a note that you keep in your writing space. Or read every chapter you’ve written to date for the sole purpose of tracking time. Or ask a neutral reader (meaning not someone who lived through an experience with you) what their impressions are.

You are a Sherpa guiding your reader along the journey of your life, and your insights and experiences are far too valuable for readers to get caught up questioning where they are in your timeline. So keep throwing out that anchor, and know that doing so is part of what you’re reader truly needs to stay fully immersed in your story—at your side on the journey and not stumbling two steps behind.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this insightful and generous post. It was a really helpful flag to pay more attention to where and when I’m tugging the reader.
    Thanks again!
    Beth

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