August 21, 2018

Where Are You NOW? Tracking “Now” in Memoir

Because I have the great honor of reading about 70,000 words (an entire book-length manuscript) every single month for student homework alone, I come across this problem of when “now” is in memoir on a weekly basis.

“Now” cannot occupy two separate spaces, times, or eras. For your readers, there can only be one now. One of the most jarring things beginning memoirists do is to pull the reader out of a given scene by referring to the “now” of today, when they’re writing the book, in 2018 or whatever the new present moment might be.

When you’re writing “in scene,” you are the age you were in that scene: seven, or twenty, or forty-five. Whatever version of you is telling your story, that is your now (as opposed to the “now” of you, today, writing your story), and this is true regardless of what tense you’re writing your memoir in.

The solution for how to handle things that happen later, beyond the “now” of your scene, whether it’s ten or twenty or fifty years after the events unfolding on the page, is to employ the future or conditional tenses. If you read memoir (and if you’re writing memoir, you should be!), you’ll see this future pull that writers do, writing about what they “will later learn” or what they “would later discover.”

Initially, using the future tense to inform readers about what you “will” or “would” do in years that follow the events of your memoir can feel awkward, but I assure you that it’s infinitely better to employ these methods for delivering what hasn’t yet happened than it is to tell the reader that you—“now”— understand things differently from the vantage point of your computer as you type some forty years later.

Let’s look at some examples so that you might curb your own impulse to write in the actual “now,” and see how to make better use of the future and conditional tense in your own memoir.

 

ORIGINAL: I was labeled a “geek,” an insult to be sure, even though today kids don’t bat an eye at this term, and in fact now it seems to be worn as a badge of honor.

FIX: I was labeled a “geek,” wielded by other kids as an insult, despite the fact that a generation later kids would be wearing this very label as a badge of honor.

 

ORIGINAL: I never wanted to go to his house, although my parents insisted. I now understand that the climate was different back then, that kids were to be seen, not heard, and I can’t help but wonder if I’d been born later if my parents might have listened to me.

FIX: I never wanted to go to his house, although my parents insisted. The culture wasn’t child-friendly in the 1950s. Kids were to be seen, not heard, and I can’t help but wonder if I’d been born later if my parents might have listened to me.

*Note the use of the present-tense sentence here: “I can’t help but wonder…” which is equally effective in both the original and the fix. It’s okay to have an omniscient speculative narrator who doesn’t need to anchor him or herself in the “now” of today and yet whose speculation is obviously from the vantage point of a wiser adult.

 

ORIGINAL: Now, after dealing with my weight for most of my life, I can be more forgiving of myself, even though I still struggle. But back then, no one thought to send me to a specialist. I don’t know if there even were specialists for this kind of thing.

FIX: My weight would be something I’d continue to deal with for the rest of my life. And while I’d learn to be more forgiving of myself as the years went by, there would never come a point when I didn’t wish my parents or teachers had handled things differently, that someone might have pulled me aside and suggested I get help, or at least a better education about food.

 

One way to remind yourself not to pull forward to the “now” of who you are today, writing your memoir, is to write as if you’re wearing a camera on your shoulder in any given scene. The you who’s “in scene,” showing your reader the events of the past, cannot jump forward in time to something that hasn’t happened yet while still holding that camera. She must stay put, camera on shoulder, showing us what happened during the slice of life being illustrated in the memoir, in the scene.

Keeping your narrator grounded in the “now,” even if to the present-day you it’s actually a “then,” will help you know when to employ future and conditional tenses in your memoir. And be mindful. You can and ought to use future and conditional tenses to future pull, but don’t overuse this device. Instead see what happens if you stay in the moment—back then—relying less on telling your reader what you now know. You may find that your present-day recollections don’t need to be referenced as much as you might think, and that your “now” narrator—whether she’s seven, or twenty, or forty-five, actually has plenty to say all on her own.

Comments

  1. Judy L Pigman says:

    Thank you again for these pieces of your exquisite wisdom in writing memoir. I’ve just finished my first draft and readying it for someone else to read it (for the first time yikes!) and already know I used the “now” you speak of here. I will go back and change that. Oh my, thank you again, Brooke!

  2. This is such a great post with concrete examples and great reminders. I have become to be very very aware of the use of ‘now” and when I am pulling my readers out the scene. Using future conditional makes a huge difference in showing the growth of your wiser narrator and what s/he has come to learn about himself/herself.

  3. Lori severa says:

    Thank you. This gives me a lot to think about, and is a good reminder to be careful not to jump back and forth in time.

  4. Thanks Brooke. I keep coming to your blogs for refining my memoir writing. These are helping me eliminate so many mistakes in the first draft itself by making me position correctly as a protagonist.

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