Writing Lessons: How to Cover Time When Writing Memoir

Jessica Hendry Nelson book cover Book coverMUST 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.

Author’s bio

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.


I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.

It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.

Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, May 5, right in time for the next installment of Writing Lessons.

Good luck!




  1. says

    Hi, Marion. This post was a wonderful validation of the approach I took with my memoir essay and the work we did on it together. I would absolutely love to win a copy of Jessica’s book. Thanks so much.

    • Brynna Carpenter Nardone says

      Hi Marion,

      I have been worrying over chronology while writing about recovering from an illness that stole memories which flood back in random order after getting unaccountably rousted by recent experience; it has seemed to me to write memoir true to my experience, the writing must reflect this particular oddness about my life. So after reading the above, I feel encouraged. I would love to win a copy of this book. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Brynna Carpenter Nardone

  2. Melinda says

    Well. Now I have to find Ms. Nelson’s book. That was quite the scene, and the voice is just “right.”

    I really appreciate Ms. Nelson’s thoughts on chronology. I lead a little memoir writing group at the local senior center and they get so caught up on getting every detail “right” — meaning completely accurate in time, place and relation to other events. This will help me talk more about pacing and the choices they can make on how to place details and events. Maybe I can convince them that the stories they tell can be “true” even if told out of order or framed in different ways. Thank you.

  3. says

    “How we put things together in memoir is as crucial as what we put together. “–one of the best things I gleaned from this post. I’ve been thinking about that in conjunction with Karen Joy Fowler’s novel WE ARE COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, which seems to teach us that lesson through nonlinear fiction as well. Thanks to you both!

  4. says

    “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.” This is a fundamental truth. I have been writing a memoir and going by years to aid my memory. But the work of life for me is to clear memories that hurt from current experiences when they get all tangled together. Ms. Nelson’s words give me reason to continue to sort the tangles and snares into threads of healing.

  5. says

    I didn’t necessarily come here seeking validation for the proliferation of thoughts cruising around inside my head, but validation I found. You see I’m about 2/3 of the way through my first draft of a memoir and suddenly I don’t like the track it’s taking. I’ve been considering writing my stories in essays or vignettes without a sense of time chronologically, but no one I mentioned my idea to seemed to agree. I’m enough of a rebel to do it anyway, but now you’ve given me some concrete theories.

    • Annette Petrone says

      Yes! Write essays and/or vignettes without a sense of time. Your writing will burst forth with life!

  6. Diane Bush says

    “The placement of scenes drastically changes the way a reader understand the hard nugget of truth…” So true. Sometimes at the beginning of a project, just getting things down is enough. But identifying that truth takes time and care. Once that deeper truth becomes known, structure often follows—and it usually deviates from a simple chronology.

  7. Judith says

    The memoir I’m currently working on, with Marion’s invaluable feedback, is all over the place in terms of chronology. Each chapter has its own purpose so my stories reflect that intention. The result is a narrative that moves forward naturally rather than as a strict timeline of events.

    Jessica – I found so many gorgeous sentences in your writing. Thanks for sharing. Yeah, Philly! My family’s history began there.

    • says

      Thanks, Judith! Cities in general, and Philly in particular, tend to lend themselves especially well to a collage approach. Good luck with your memoir!

  8. says

    This is wonderful! I immediately want to go get this book. Thanks for sharing such helpful advice. I’ve been struggling with this exact issue and it feels more clear. Congrats on a book finished and written well!

  9. says

    I’ve been worried about trying to wrangle time lately in a memoir. Begin at a moment and then trying to give some back story … weaving it in … making sense.

  10. Linda says

    A great lesson about order – “Like comlementary colors… depends on what surrounds it.” Thanks for sharing – looking forward to the book.

  11. Jody says

    Wow, I loved this guest article! The memoir I’m writing uses a fluid chronology and I think it really increases the interest and understanding. Can’t wait to read Jessica’s book and see how she does it…I also grew up outside of Philadelphia and this brought back so many memories. I particularly laughed at “we were best friends by default.” So true.

    Thanks for featuring this topic!

  12. Annette Petrone says

    Chronology, schmolology. Amazing jumping jack writing about innocence gone awry, but never lost: Fairies denote innocence, Playboy a loss of innocence – delightful picture of “Philly’s shadow tucked under her (Charlene’s) poofy skirt.” Didn’t we all wear poofy skirts back then? Poodle picture on felt? Boy, THOSE were the days. “Daddy’s wild mustache”, losing innocence. Wishing house of her own contained some things more exciting – hoping to lose some innocence. Naked…Playboy again – loss of innocence. ‘Cause they’re in love’ – innocence. Life is full of screaming moments until innocence fills the gap between those screaming breaths again. Thank you for this wonderful journey.

  13. Maren says

    Just having someone say that a memoir doesn’t have to be written chronologically is a relief to me!! Thank you for your insightful advice. I look forward to reading more of your book, Jessica. The excerpt is wonderful!

  14. Nancy Harrigan says

    Thanks. I feel better that I usually pluck my opening paragraph from somewhere well into my draft. In my memoir about my parents, it helped me to refer to a dateline. Yes, after that, vignettes — and they fell in where it felt “right”.

  15. says

    I’m more than half way through reading Jessica’s memoir, and am intrigued by her ability to let go of chronology and allow her fleeting, coming-and-going memories tied in with a series of losses- not necessarily death- guide the structure of the book. I’ve completed yet another draft of my own memoir, The Peach, and plan to return to the page to re-evaluate the structure – it is partly chronological with flashbacks, but I’m thinking it calls for some more alinearity. Thanks, Marion, for sharing!

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