Playing with time: the work of the memoirist

Playing with time: the work of the memoirist

Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, always gets me thinking about the fleeting passage of time. It’s a cliché to say that life is short, but once you get to middle age, that’s indeed how it feels.

One of the gifts of writing memoir is that you get to play games with time. In lived experience, a day can seem short or long, but it’s always the same number of minutes and hours ticking away. Not so in narrative.

As Virginia Woolf showed us so beautifully with her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which takes place over the course of a single day, when we set out to tell a story, we can do all kinds of tricks with time. A crucial hour can be slowed down and looked at from multiple viewpoints, all its facets separated out and narrated with full complexity, including the flashbacks of memory that give our minute-by-minute lives temporal depth and breadth.