Writing about one’s own past in a memoir or that of one’s ancestors in a family history, if it’s done well, is not just a chronicling of events, but a search for their meaning, The key is not simply writing about what happened next, but also reflecting upon why it was significant.
Richard Gilbert, in his excellent blog Narative, explores the problem of writing about one’s past in a review of The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts.
Birkets’ premise is that to write about the past one must use the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.” It is in that reflective pocess that the writer unlocks the insights and lessons to be learned from the actual events and experiences.
When memoir or family history simply lists what happened next, says Gilbert, they are failures because, as Virginia Woolf said in To the Lighthouse they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”
To get at that person, the writer must escape from mere chronology. By deciding what is more or less significant in the events she writes about, she may decide that some events require only cursory discussion whle others need to be examined at length, while some mey not be important enough to be included in their book at all. It is such considerations that may lead the author to alter the chronology. She might, for example, choose to begin with a dramatic event which occurred later in time, then trace the things which led up to it. What assumes the greatest importance in the story the author is telling is not its linear chronology, but the meaning of the events themselves.
Click here to read Richard Gilbert’s review of The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts.