Double Time, by Louise DeSalvo

August 13, 2010

I’ve been reading a terrific book about memoir, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, by Sven Birkerts.  He makes an important point that memoir is not just about telling the events of our lives.  What distinguishes the best memoirs is recounting a dual perspective: what the event was like in the past; what the writer thinks about the event now.

Birkerts writes about the various ways some of the best memoirists accomplish this: there’s no “rule” here, no one way to accomplish this hallmark of the form, the presentation of at least two time frames that work against one another.  I’ll leave it to you to read Birkerts’ book to see what he says about that — it’s essential reading for any memoirist.

What I will say is that in working with writers, especially writers who haven’t worked in the form for very long, the narrative, at first, often gets stuck either in “then” or in “now.”  Often, though, the narrative begins with our writing about either “then” or “now” — that is, our early drafts seem to locate themselves in a single, rather than double perspective.  But as we revise, we often bring our mature self into play, or we bring our child self into play.  That is, as we work, we seem to almost intuitively understand that the form demands more of us than straight narrative locked inside a single time frame.  (Incidentally, that kind of narrative — locked in a single time frame during the telling — is often the province of fiction, although some novelists do shift time frame as they work.  It’s also why I’ve found that novelists sometimes have difficulty when they switch to memoir: the ability to employ that double point of view throughout might not come easily to them, at least that’s been my experience in working with novelists who’ve shifted to memoir.)

In my experience, this use of “double time” that marks the memoir doesn’t come quickly, doesn’t come easily.  It comes as we ourselves learn, by associating one early event with a late one, or by juxtaposing one early event with a late one, or by reflecting on the meaning of an early event, or by enlarging the scope of an early event by flashing forward to its impact on our later lives, that this kind of narrative structure helps us tease out the subtle and complex meaning of our lives.

Birkerts states — and I’m with him here — that these tremendously important moments in our past that have enormous significance aren’t often the “big” moments, but the little ones.  I’ll illustrate.

After reading Birkerts, I started thinking about an event that I’ll be narrating in a few months (I have a few drafts of it).  It’s a “big” moment: the one when my father came home from World War II.  I can “see” him framed in the door; I can “see” me in relationship to him; I can “see” my mother.  I’ve written that much.

I’ve also written that he brought me home two presents: the silk from a parachute, and a bracelet made from shells strung on elastic.

So far, so good.  Big moment.  That’s fine; it has to be related.

But now to significance, to meaning, to double time.

As I thought about this event, I remembered something I hadn’t written down — I’d been locked into telling the “big event” as I wrote the draft — my mother’s asking my father how he got the silk, his answering, my mother’s reaction.  It went something like this: How did you get that silk (my mother).  It came from a parachute that didn’t open (my father).  My mother says nothing, grimaces, turns away, starts clattering dishes, asks him if he’s hungry, starts lighting the coal stove, starts rummaging in the refrigerator.

Okay.  Big moment: his coming home.  Small moment: her turning away, clattering dishes, saying nothing.  I’ve related, so far in my drafts, none of these events.  Why?  Because on the first several attempts I was going for the “big moment.”

But after reading Birkerts, I realize the story in this scene is in the small moment of my mother not answering, and of her turning away.  I’d never narrated these (I will, now, of course).

Now here comes the double perspective part.  Sure, I could include my feelings about my father coming home from the war, giving me presents — big moment).  They’re complex, and I’ve written them from my child’s point of view.  I could explain from my adult perspective why I felt this way — the ambivalence of the child whose father comes home when he’s been away.  So far, so good; I’m writing “then,” “now.”  But I’ve been stuck in the big moment.

Once I turn to the small moment — my mother turning away, the clattering dishes, and tease out the meaning of that moment, the scene explodes.  And, I only understood the significance of that moment yesterday.

That silk, coming from a parachute that didn’t open, means that the person (probably a pilot — my father serviced airplanes during the war) whose parachute it was had died. My mother must have gotten that meaning immediately — she turns away, an unusual thing to do when you haven’t seen your husband for years.  When he brought the parachute home, he was bringing the war home, and he was bringing it home for me to play with.

Wow.  I was knocked out by these insights.  I know the “now” insight into that small moment will enlarge the meaning of my work.  In fact, I now have a title for that piece: “Parachute.”  And that parachute now can stand as a kind of emblem (or symbol, if you choose to call it that) of what happens when someone comes home from war, which is what my book is about: they bring the war home with them.

Okay.  So dig into what you’ve written.  Look for big moment, look for small moment, it doesn’t matter.  But if you look for a big moment, try to recall a small moment you haven’t yet narrated associated with that big moment.  See if you can do what I did — tease out more meaning than you ever thought was there.  In that way, you’ll be sure to employ that double perspective, the “then,” the “now.”  (In my example, the “now” is the mind-blowing insight about why my mother reacted the way she did, and what that parachute must have meant to me.)

Thank you, Sven Birkerts.

Sent from my iPad

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