Exploring the art of prose


Time Stamps: Eleven Ways of Managing the Clock in Memoir


By Beth Kephart •

All memoirists are ultimately marking time. They denounce or embrace chronology. They deploy fragments or amaranthine circles to supersede the clock. They suggest, by their very storytelling structures and frames, that the sequence of remembering is somehow more true than the actual almanac of living, say, or that time is an ally (we have plenty of time), or that time is in devastatingly short supply (we must hurry, we must make these pages turn).

And sometimes, of course, memoirists speak directly to and even for time. They make time explicit, writing it straight into their lines:

Annie Ernaux in The Years: “Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it.”

Sarah Manguso in Two Kinds of Decay: “Nothing happens in an instant. Nothing starts happening and nothing finishes happening. History doesn’t begin anywhere. And it doesn’t end.”

Mike Parker in On the Red Hill: “All time is now, for, like love, beauty, and a Welsh truth, it is no straight line. Time loops and doubles back on itself, skips a beat, ducks for cover and then stretches out like a lizard on a hot stone.”

When we ask where a story begins, we calculate time. When we merge the act of remembering with the memories themselves, or make our prose stand breathlessly still, or work that much harder to more artfully see, we slow time down. When we rush the days or years, favor the tell over the scene, make the white space speak for the untold things, or let the experiences swirl, we put the wind at time’s back.

We can think of time-stamping as an intuitive art—and, indeed, it is. But it is also a craft, an encyclopedia of strategies and techniques, a cascade of lessons in exemplars. I don’t know how to tell my true story, we say. And then we consider our options.

I’ve taken an idiosyncratic tour of time in memoir. I return with these observations on form:


Time Is the Arrow

It’s straightforward; it’s simple; it’s chronology rules. Commence at the beginning. End at the end. Don’t ramble around in the telling. Of course, you’re still going to have to build a defensible launch pad. You’re still going to have to decide the hour of the day in the year in which you will pin your start and when will constitute a pleasing denouement. But time as an arrow is the least complicated, most purely autobiographical approach to the true story. It’s the methodology Alexandra Fuller took in her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book that begins at night in Rhodesia when Alexandra is young and marches forward through event and self-discovery, all the way through to her unapologetic end: “This is not a full circle. It’s Life carrying on. It’s the next breath we all take. It’s the choice we make to get on with it.”


The Beginning Summons the End

Mary Karr makes a different choice in what was also her first memoir, The Liars’ Club. Karr chooses to begin with a half-told story about a terrible violence threatened by her own mother. Karr doesn’t yield the entirety of the scene in her opening pages. She isn’t ready, she tells us, to fully divulge. She spends the rest of her memoir zigging and zagging through time, telling family stories, all the while circling back toward that unfinished opening scene. Karr wants to know what drove her mother to set a fire, to wield a knife. She recognizes that understanding takes time and perspective, that we are always, when we remember, circling back, narrowing the gaps, speculating. The Liars’ Club ends where it begins, with that same opening scene. But by the time the scene has been fully told, it has also been far better understood: “And the night she’d stood in our bedroom door with a knife? She’d drunk herself to the bottom of that despair… Killing us had come to seem merciful.”


Then and Now

Sometimes—often—memoirists place time on scale, measuring now against then, then against now. There is a present-tense present time, there is a past-tense past time, and over the course of the book, this present and this past are layered one upon the other, creating a dual timeline until the past and the present intersect. Writers of then-and-now memoirs recognize that a simple Present-Past-Present-Past pattern can feel forced, manipulated, too neatly and predictably delineated. Some, like Judy Goldman in Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap use pleasingly irregular rhythms as they place their chapters—Present-Present-Past-Present-Past-Past-Past, say—to generate narrative suspense.


One Big Scene, Many Tentacles

In Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, a terrifying, irreversible event dominates—the drowning death of the author’s younger brother, years ago. Beard was there, just eleven years old, when his nine-year-old brother died. He spends years fighting the memory, or subverting it. Ultimately, Beard finds himself compelled to discover what really happened, who might be culpable, who his little brother might have been had he been given time to grow up. Over and again, Beard recreates the drowning and its aftermath, sorts the mystery. Whereas Karr, in The Liars’ Club, travels far and wide in her storytelling before she circles back to her beginning, Beard remains singularly focused, returning again and again to the initiating scene. Time stalls and stutters in Beard’s hands. One scene. An abundance of tentacles. No matter where Beard goes, no matter how he tries to temporarily distance himself from the story he’s now chasing, the drowning death looms. Here Beard is writing about one of his early novels. But even this novel returns us to the tragic facts of Beard’s youth:

In Lazarus Is Dead I introduced an element of competition between the brothers. At the time I thought I did this for narrative reasons, because the rivalry between them created a plausible chain of cause and effect. The younger brother, Amos, wants to be first at whatever they do—first to run into the water, first to swim out deeper—but fiction isn’t shaped from thin air. All novelists say this, if pressed. The subconscious must be persuaded to open.


The Whorl

What is Kathryn Harrison’s memoir about her affair with her father, The Kiss, if not a coil of intensity—a story sprung from an incessant circling of complex relationships: father-daughter/daughter-mother/father-mother? Raised first by her single mother in her grandparents’ house, and then mostly raised by those grandparents, Harrison grows up desperate to know her elusive father until, as a college student, she becomes entangled with him in a sexual romance. It’s not just the language that is spare in The Kiss: “We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.” It is Harrison’s commitment to keeping her story tightly controlled and contained. There are no tangents here. No small asides. Nothing regarding the content of those years save for the story bound up with the family’s unsettling dynamic. Time spirals and twists in The Kiss. It is not then or now, not just one scene and many tentacles, no circle. Time, in the whorl, is emptied of all that does not illuminate the cardinal story.


The Sine Curves of Our Thinking

Watch Casey Gerald at work in his debut, There Will Be No Miracles Here. Watch how he puts his own thinking on display, about being a poor, gay, Black man who—in the Ivy Leagues, in the business world, on TED Talk stages—achieves the American Dream, but at a such a cost that the dream itself may not be worth pursuing. Gerald does not frame his book according to hours or days. He frames it as if memory and epiphany are their own kind of chronology, as if time itself must be cranked apart to make room for his pronouncements like these: “Anyway, I’m back. I have not returned with empty hands. No. I have come with urgent news: we must find another mountain, if not another world, to call our own.” Gerald lays down the track of his thoughts. We follow. Is this time? Why shouldn’t it be?


The Collage

The collage operates as a puzzle, wanting to be solved. It approximates a musical refrain. Fragments dominate. Plot recedes. Time is discontinuous—a stutter and a sidestep. My recent favorite is The Crying Book, by Heather Christle, described by the publishers as a “symphonic work of nonfiction,” and which is, in fact, a catalog of thoughts, separated by white space, about leaking eyes, elephant sadness, writers who have cried, the author’s own sadness, and so many other crying-adjacent things. One might say that time stands still in a collage. Or that time is the hard metal ball inside the pinball machinery of the book.


File Folders

File-folder memoirs are built from named parts—from categories of stories, rubrics, types. Familiar conventions of time—the forward-thrust of the ticking clock—are set to one side in favor of authorial sorting and interior headings. Jeannie Vanasco, in her debut The Glass Eye—a book written for a much-loved and mysterious father who died too soon—both exemplifies this strategy and defines it: “Nine years after he died, in an attempt to organize my thoughts, I started keeping several color-coded binders labeled, ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Jeanne,’ and ‘Mental Illness.’ Within each binder are categories, such as ‘Vision’ and ‘Voice.’ ‘Jeannie’ isn’t a binder. I’m ‘Mental Illness.’”


The Lyric Braid

How do we present the realized and the yet-becoming, the researched and the felt, the personal and the universal? How do we manage concurrent possibilities, instructions, worlds? How do we represent time as the fully dimensional, perpetually fugitive thing that time actually is? The lyric braid offers one solution. Think of Terry Tempest Williams in When Women Were Birds. She has been left her mother’s journals. They are, she discovers, blank: “I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.” The author doesn’t know what this means, what the story is, why every time she considers the journals they become, in her mind, something else—paper tombstones, desire, evidence, the power of presence. These shape-shifting, meaning-defying blank journals become a kind of ribbon in Williams’s book, a ribbon that she braids with considerations of erasure, sensuality, and Mormon culture. The power of every lyric braid is all bound up in the weave. The writer of a lyric braid invites the reader to co-create the story’s meaning.


The Obsession Tangle (or Hybrid Memoir)

Operating somewhere between a collage and a lyric braid, the obsession tangle (which I have also called the hybrid memoir) springs from the well of the curious self. Think of Mark Doty’s What Is the Grass and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers—books that explore the writers’ respective obsessions with Walt Whitman and Carson McCullers. Obsession tangles dissolve the border between the writer and the obsession. Their many elements are additive. Their writers move between two time periods—effortlessly, or so it should seem—the time of their own lives, the life and times of their obsession.


The Memoir in Essays (or Pieces)

A memoir in essays (or pieces) is a tightly choreographed collection of essays in which stories are told, retold, and reconsidered until personal and universal wisdoms are gained. Silence speaks through the seams of these books. The emphasis is on iterations, not additions. One image planted in one part of the book may reappear elsewhere, then again, and then, perhaps, again, so that time loops and days recur and hours grow saturated with deep reflection. Never simply an arrangement of essays already in existence, these books are shaped in respect for, and in deference to, their multiple parts.

I think of the memoir in essays as choreography. I write about this in the final pages of my book Wife | Daughter | Self:

The aggregation of parts that constitute this memoir reflect my belief that truth is not continuous, that stories live in seams, that we remember in bursts and find wisdom in the juxtaposed, that writing the same story twice is to puzzle out dimensions, that we must follow the telling detail through the fog and mist, that sometimes we are the teacher but mostly we’re the student. The memoir built of parts says Yes. We’ll never get it perfectly right; the truth is in the trying.

In memoir, time whispers. It shouts, it demands, it recedes. It chases its own tail and sits still beside the window. Whether we’re intuiting time or actively wrestling with it, we must acknowledge its existence. It will drive us in one direction or the other. It will be heard, felt, seen.


BETH KEPHART is the award-winning author of more than thirty books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, the co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her new book is Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays. More at bethkephartbooks.com.


Featured image by Aron Visuals courtesy of Unsplash