The “Chron,” the Chronology in Writing a Life, by Louise DeSalvo

January 6, 2010

Last night I was reading Alan Furst’s gorgeous Dark Star, in part because it’s set during the time period I’m now writing about in my memoir-in-progress, Father Gone to War. Furst’s novel is set in Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and Prague during 1937, and so atmospheric that you feel the crystalline snow fall upon the character Szara as he walks down a dark street in Berlin.  Every detail — the food on a supper table, the leather of a mysterious satchel, the appearance of a train station — is precise, accurate, the product of Furst’s prodigious research.

Szara is a foreign correspondent for Pravda, trying to post stories he’s written, but against his will, he’s pulled into being a spy. He becomes custodian of a mysterious briefcase containing documents secreted in the satchel’s false bottom.  When he finds them, he knows that they will  hold a dangerous secret.

Szara starts copying the documents, using a code of his own invention, knowing he’ll never get the original documents across the border when he leaves Germany for his homeland.  But he pauses in his work.  He realizes that to understand what the documents can reveal, he must develop a chronology of  events referred to in them.  Then and only then can he discover the hidden meaning of the words he’s reading.

Here’s Szara’s revelation about the importance of making a chronology: “To organize the effort he began at the beginning and proceeded, in a table of events, week by week, month by month.  Without really meaning to, he’d fashion what intelligence officers called a chron, short for chronology.  For in that discipline what and who were of great interest, but it was often when that produced usable information” (Alan Furst, Dark Star (NY: Random House, 1991, p. 78).

What and who are of interest, but when reveals the hidden meaning of the narrative.

Szara knows that’s true for intelligence officers.  It’s true, too, for those of us writing a life.

It’s been my experience that as many of us proceed, we begin writing our lives, or the lives of others, as if they occurred in a time vacuum.  Very often events are related in our early drafts as if there are no other people on the planet, no other events occurring in the world, no other lives of significance, than what’s happening to us and the people who appear in our pages.  And these happenings rarely exist within a discernible time frame.

“When did this happen?” is a question I often need to ask students who write with me, as we work, together, through the writing of their lives.  “How old were you then?” is another.  After one draft or two or many, “What  was happening in the outside world at the time?”; “What’s the context of these events?”;  “Did that happen before or after that other event you describe?”

In writing a life, I’ve learned, you can’t do everything at once.  The work needs to be done step by step, stage by stage.  You do what you can when you can.  At first, a moment suspended in time without context.  Later, a puzzle: when did this happen?

Often, we don’t feel the need to establish a chronology, “the chron,” until late in the process when something in our work puzzles us.  That’s fine.  But I’ve known writers who like to have a “chron” before they write one word.  Through the years of watching writers write their lives, I’ve learned there are no “shoulds” here, no perfect time when we writers writing a life should establish the sequence of events in our narrative, when we should learn what was happening in the world.  Here, as always, it’s writer’s choice.  In my own practice, I tend to determine a chronology when I have a puzzle about an event to solve, and that tends to come into, say, a third or fourth draft.  But no matter when we establish a “chron, as Szara states, the meaning of events we thought we understood often shift in dramatic ways.

Let me explain.

The first time I wrote at length about the circumstances of my birth was in my memoir Vertigo.  My sons had given me a copy of The New York Times published on the day of my birth for Christmas.  I was well into the writing of the book.  But that gift showed me that I was writing about my birth, about my life, as if nothing else was happening in the world.

I read that copy of the Times cover to cover, turning its yellowed crumbling pages carefully.  And I learned that on the day of my birth, September 27, 1942, Marines were pinned down on the beach at Guadalcanal, leaders of the Czech Orthodox Church were sentenced to death by the Nazis; Soviet troops were pushing into German positions northwest of Stalingrad, Allied bombers attacked three Japanese transports east of New Guinea, five Axis ships were sunk in the Mediterranean, and — among other things — there was an official blackout and dimout in New York and New Jersey.

After I read that newspaper, I knew I needed to establish a “chron” for the events surrounding my birth.  Before I established the context of the events of my birth, before I worked out a chronology, this is what I knew: I knew I was born during the war, but I didn’t know what was happening at the time of my birth; I knew my father would go to war, but I didn’t know what stage the war was at when he was drafted; I knew my mother was terrified of giving birth, but I thought it was because she was a “nervous” woman, not understanding, until I established a “chron,” that any woman giving birth under those circumstances, whose husband would soon be at war would surely be “nervous.”  I hadn’t thought about how  the raging war in the Pacific, the Soviets trying to repulse the German destruction of Stalingrad, the naval war which would determine who would control supply routes which would profoundly affect the outcome of the war might affect a woman in labor and how it might affect her ability to nurture her child.

In short, the revelation about my life that I incorporated into the writing of my life was that my parents were profoundly affected by the times they lived in.  That sounds so obvious, but it’s something I hadn’t understood.  And the student writers I write with often take some time before they come to that understanding.  The war affected my parents, it affected me, though it would take me years to understand this.

Before the “chron,” I thought of my parents as, well, screwed up and damaged people.  I didn’t understand them.  I judged them.  I didn’t ask myself how it would be to give birth at a time like this, what it was like to live their lives.  I was involved in writing my life, not my life in the context of their lives, and our lives in the context of history.

The book I’m writing now has taken its own dramatic turn, and, again, because of the “chron.”  This time, I was rethinking the circumstances of my birth, and decided, one day, to count back the number of days of a normal gestation to find out when I was conceived.

What I learned was astonishing.  For I learned I was conceived just after Pearl Harbor, just after the United States entered the war, just around the time Italians and Italian Americans were declared enemy aliens.  And that has changed the shape of my narrative, and has left me with a number of questions I’m still pondering.  Did my parents try to have a child in the mistaken hope it would keep my father out of war?  For my parents had agreed that wartime was no time to conceive a child.

I’ll never know the answers to some of these questions.  But what I do know is, as Szara learns in Furst’s Dark Star, it’s the when of the narrative that, so often, provides the most valuable information to the writer of a life.


5 Responses to “The “Chron,” the Chronology in Writing a Life, by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Louise – this is such an interesting meditation on time & place, and how far out (how far in and how far back, also) a writer must go in considering the course of her own life or those of her characters. I am SO glad you started this project. I love the way your mind works.

  2. Elizabeth Harlan Says:

    What a rich and valuable post. I got so much out of this that I can directly apply to what I’m doing. And of course I loved the reference to counting backwards to your conception; this is what my Sand biography turned on: the awareness that her ostensible “biological” father was away in the army when she was conceived. Yes, brilliant, the when of things happening is too often given short shrift in memoirs. I’ll be mindful of what you’ve written and look increasingly forward to your future posts. Thank you!

  3. writingalife Says:

    To me, Elizabeth Harlan’s George Sand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) numbers among the best biographies ever written. An enormous amount of research went into this work. Years of it. And because much of the material was in French, it involved, not only reading, but translation. All this information is put to the service of a narrative that is a gorgeous read. I was stunned by it the first time I read it.. This biography has broken new ground in terms of how it unlocks how Sand’s parentage affected her own mothering, and the account of Sand’s relationship with her daughter Solange is breathtaking. Besides being psychologically astute, the locales where Sand lived, traveled, and worked are painted in novelistic detail — Harlan is a novelist as well as a biographer. But beyond what it teaches us about Sand, her work, her relationship with members of her family, this biography shows anyone wanting to write an extended portrait of a historical figure how to do it as well as it can be done. For anyone writing a book-length biography, I recommend Harlan’s Sand above any other.

  4. This is so interesting, Louise. I’m struck by how, when I’m setting a character in a historic period, I’ll go back and research weather, events etc., and that it will really matter that it was hot on July 10, that a parade happened on July 11 etc, and I will imagine that dailiness having a great effect on my characters. And yet in my real life, for the most part I do and feel and think things independent (it seems) of many of these events — or at least their effect is more in the background, less conscious. So I wonder whether the “when” of our real lives is more influential than we perceive it to be, and if the “when” of our characters’ lives is perhaps less important than we might guess, especially in setting a character in the past, in the sense that we all share a common humanity across time.

  5. donna masini Says:

    Louise thank you! The first thing I did was to google the front page to my birthday. I loved reading this. I didn’t know Furst, until, coincidentally, a friend gave me The World at Night, which I haven’t yet begun.

    Excellent advice for Novelists and their characters — as well as poets.

    Thank you!

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