I’ve recently become a great fan of chronology, the true representation of the order of events. Stories, according to E.M. Forster, are narratives of events arranged in their time sequence, with the great advantage of making the audience want to know what happens next. Beginning, middle, end: the formula is as old as the hills, and for good reason. It works.
All writers enjoy playing with chronology, pushing against the natural order for the sake of art. Any deviance from the direct progression of time can surprise the reader, to extraordinary effect. However, I would argue that writers must first know the chronology of their story before they attempt to break it. And I want to caution writers of memoir that the chronology which seems so obvious when we sit down with a memory often becomes severely mangled once we put pen to paper. What at first seems like a no-brainer is in fact a tremendous challenge.
Here’s why. A memory inspires us; we sit down at the computer and begin narrating the external events that compose this memory. As we write, we realize that certain historical background is necessary to help the reader understand the significance of this event, so we back-track to fill in the reader. As we progress with our story, we gain new insights–into our motivation, into the various characters and their relationships, into the on-going significance of this memory in our life. Perhaps we interject these thoughts. Then we might recall the significance of crafting a scene, and return to the memory to describe our thoughts and feelings at the time. We might also relate this event to others that occurred afterward. By the time we hit “save,” we’re mired in a chronological stew–without knowing it.
Our memory likes to skip and jump; this feels normal and natural and very familiar. But when this process is represented on the page, it makes no sense to an anonymous reader. This is NOT a reason to constrain yourself to chronology in the first draft. Limitations like that are deadly. We need the free-wheeling, associative mess of memory to reveal surprising connections and unexpected insights. However, I would encourage you not to grow attached to this first draft. Quality memoir taps the wisdom of a first-draft mess and layers it with consideration for the reader. Which means honoring chronology.
An exercise I strongly encourage all memoirists to try is to take an unconstrained, leaping-and-jumping first draft and make a timeline of the events represented there. Be sure to identify the chronology of the interior world–the progression of emotions and thoughts–as well as the exterior. Also note where your present-day narrator, who resides at the end of the timeline, interjects his- or herself into the narrative. By comparing the actual progression of events to how our draft represents them, we gain two insights: Our early versions of memories are scattered, richly relational, and worth heeding. And chronology can wisely guide us in our revision.
Why? Because the best writing welcomes the reader fully into the author’s experience. I expect to meet my friend at the State Fair; she never shows up, and I have a miserable time riding the Tilt-a-Whirl by myself. When I relate this story to my reader, the lonely ride means nothing if I haven’t first conveyed my expectation of company. The reader needs us to recreate both our internal and external worlds in the order of unfolding to be brought along on our story. If I wait until the end to divulge that I’m a reporter for the Star Tribune who’s been ordered to write a story on rides at the Midway and that I have a terror of heights, you have been cheated of my story’s full drama.
Only once we’ve been students of our memory’s true chronology and all it has to offer our narrative powers should we begin to play with story-order. According to Larry Sutin, “Always use chronology unless you have a good reason.” We need chronology to invite the reader fully into our story and compel him or her to turn the pages. Only once that progression is in place can we recognize reasons good enough to toy with it. Forster again: “If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?'” We need to craft a good story before we can dive into the rich terrain of why . –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew