MUST MEMOIR BE CHRONOLOGICAL? In a word, no. How is your story best told? How can the reader best absorb it? These are the questions to begin to ask yourself as you face the writing dilemma of how to cover time when writing memoir. Let me introduce you to Jessica Hendry Nelson, author of If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), a book that is getting a great deal of much-deserved attention. When we got talking about her topic and she posed the idea of coming out against chronology, I knew she was perfect for a Writing Lessons post. Read on.
A Case Against Chronology
by Jessica Hendry Nelson
Some of the best memoirs do not proceed chronologically, but instead leap across expanses of time, forward and back, to build narrative from an emotional logic, rather than some misperceived contract with the clock. I am thinking of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, of Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, of Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, of Annie Dillard’s essays and Stephen Elliott’s personal and profound The Adderall Diaries. These personal narratives show us that time is a tenuous master, impervious to how we remember and, in the ways that matter, how we live. Regarding the alinear structure in her memoir, Yuknavitch writes, “Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.” Our stories are often better served if they are allowed to develop on the page in shapes more organic to the ways in which we experience them — which is to say in fits and starts, slowly and then all at once, quietly and alone, or loudly and in scene. When I started writing If Only You People Could Follow Directions, it was a compulsive, obsessive effort to capture moments. I had no plans of writing a book — not yet — I was just overwhelmed with reverence and love for the beautiful, and beautifully flawed, human beings with whom I shared an orbit. I had an urge to dress them up and put them in shop windows, to give them away like candy, like shots of tequila, like blankets in winter. This is what matters, I wanted to shout, look at this face.
But they aren’t dolls silently perched on the shelf just so, porcelain and charmingly askew. If I meant to capture just a modicum of their complexity, I wouldn’t have the luxury of chronology, which meant a wild abandonment of time and good common sense. It meant circling, then doubling back. It meant many narratives would have to play out simultaneously, because, as in life, they always do. An A to Z narrative would have been as fallacious as Frey’s Million Little Pieces, and just as dishonest. That sort of narrative drive didn’t fit this terrain, which necessitated trusting my readers to suffuse the white space, those vast intersections between time and place, with all of the meaning inherently contained.
Writers often struggle with transitions, and in part, this struggle may be born of the difficulty of making sense of chronology, of leading readers confidently across a timeline that doesn’t actually support the “truth” of your story. How we landed in that puddle with a broken ankle might make more emotional sense if we approach our lives holistically, rather than linearly. One truth might involve rain and miscalculated distance. Another more poignant truth might involve a childhood predisposition for fantasy and recklessness. The placement of scenes drastically changes the way a reader understands the hard nugget of truth that belies your impulse to write in the first place. Like complimentary colors, emotional resonance is tuned to higher or lower decibels depending on what surrounds it – in the same way that tragedy and comedy are merely different sides of the same coin.
It is terrifying to un-tether oneself from the false logic of our own life story. I won’t get into esoteric and possibly devastating ideas about various misconceptions of time. Suffice it to say, when it comes to building narratives out of the raw materials of life, chronology may not be the most sturdy scaffolding. Our behavior is in direct relation/reaction to any given memory at any given time. The reason I just punched that kitten has little to do with the breakfast that came before, so why place it there? An old professor used to talk about “the Toothbrush Syndrome.” I get up; I walk to the bathroom; I pick up my toothbrush; I put the toothpaste onto my toothbrush; etc. Eventually, we’re at the funeral parlor with a six-shooter and a digital camera, but it sure does take a while. And what was point of that toothbrush stuff again?
Juxtaposition is a torch of light down the dark hallway of the half-remembered and the barely there, the signposts of emotional epiphany and the tenuous structures that keep them aloft. How we put things together in memoir is as crucial as what we put together. Your father’s fist floundering inside the belly of a pregnant sow might illuminate so much more if we are first able to see him ten years later, shivering beside your hospital bed, or five years before, when he wrecked his truck on the way to Dairy Queen. Or perhaps the context of chronology does in fact serve this moment well, and that’s convenient, but I’m simply suggesting we reconsider our allegiance to the timeline as the most meaningful structure for memoir. Often, but not always, it deprives us of the power of our transitions, which, when allowed to breathe, can be some of the most significant moments in a narrative. Our silences, remember, say as much as our words.
If Only You People Could Follow Directions, an excerpt
Most days, Charlene and I ride our bikes down the big hill and through the woods to the creek, which is sometimes dry and sometimes not, but always full of fairies and the crumpled Playboy magazines that have been there since forever. Charlene lives next door, and so she is my best friend by default. She’s ten now, which makes her two years older than me and in charge when we leave our yards, even to go across the street, even to the corner that’s right there. We live in Philly’s shadow, tucked under her poofy skirt. From the outside, our houses look the same, long and flat ranchers with bushes underneath the windows, which are yellow and wild like our daddies’ mustaches. Inside, though, her house seems impossibly different. I like to trick myself by closing my eyes when we go through her front door, pretending it’s my house, and then delighting when I open my eyes and see the TV that is much larger than I remembered, the couch suddenly navy instead of beige, the huge fish tank that wasn’t there before bubbling in the corner. Best of all is her parents’ room, though the door is always locked since the afternoon we walked in and her mom was sitting on her dad’s lap (“Naked as they came,” Charlene had explained. “’Cause they’re in love.”). They’d screamed, we’d screamed, and then we went out back to dig up worms from the garden.
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), which was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program and the January 2014 Indies Next List by the American Booksellers’ Association. She lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she co-owns the Renegade Writers’ Collective and is the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review.
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