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.
Time can also be speeded up through narrative; the dull patches in a day, or a life, can be excised entirely, so that we go skipping from one high point to another, time delightfully accelerated.
Quantum physics would have us believe that time is not linear; that in theory, at least, we should be able to move from one historical moment to another just as easily as we now flip from one TV station or website to another.
As writers, that’s something we have always known and enjoyed. I can write about waking up this morning to a lovely Solstice sunrise, and in the next sentence write about the summer when I was 15, or my trip to France in my 20s. I can skip through time and place with joyful abandon, even launching myself into imaginary futures, or back into ancient history that I know only through research.
Memory, like dream, pays little attention to timeline. In our memories and dreams, we can be swimming in a childhood lake one moment, and the next taking the elevator to the apartment we lived in while as a young adult, with no obvious rationale for the contiguity of those events. However, when I set out to write a story that I want others to be able to follow, I have to be a bit more careful in how I flip through time and space.
In early drafts, it’s important to let the play of memory flow freely into writing, trusting our intuition to guide us to the memories that are most burning to be told. So much of our lived experience is forgotten…so what we remember must be important for some reason.
Our initial task is to write those remembered scenes as fully as possible, taking ourselves back into those moments and doing our best to reproduce them with detailed description, dialogue, character and narrative motion or plot.
Once the flow of memories slows down, it’s time to take stock and start thinking more carefully about the timeline. Everyone has more than one potential memoir in her. What is the starting point of the particular story you want to tell in this book? Where do you want to end up? Do you want to tell the story chronologically, as you lived it, or do you perhaps want to start with the climactic end point, and make the rest of the narrative an extended flashback that will explain how you came to be at that particular critical moment in your life?
I suggest you play around with different possibilities before getting too wedded to a given timeline. Put yourself in your reader’s mind, and consider what they will need to know in order for your story to have maximum impact.
For example, does the reader need to understand your mother’s childhood in order to understand the kind of mother she was for you? If so, where would the story of your mother’s childhood fit best in the overall narrative?
These are questions for the memoirist in the draft process, which can, I must warn you, take years.
I spent 8 years working on my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, and in the course of writing the focus of the book changed quite a bit, partly because as I moved my narrative closer to the present moment, I had to incorporate the effects of still-unfolding events. When I started the book, I was married; by the time I finished it, I was divorced. In a way I could not have predicted when I started writing, the book turned out to be about finding a way back to what had been important to me as a child and young adult, before I married; recovering, in a time of deep sadness and turmoil, what had made me happy in my early years.
I share this to emphasize the importance of patience for a memoirist. Even if you are trying to tell a fairly compact episode from your life, it will take time to get the narrative just right—to hit upon the right starting point, to get the pacing of the story down, to understand how to end it, and what back stories need to be told.
On Winter Solstice, a day when we notice how quickly day fades to night, give yourself permission to slow down time as you work steadily on your memoir. The work of storytelling can’t be rushed and the process must be savored. Sink into the now of the moment you’re narrating today, and take your reader along with you. Now is the time, and we’re waiting for you to tell us the story only you can tell.