Temporal Distance in Memoir

I was twenty-three when I took my first creative nonfiction writing class, and I was actually pretty terrified because I was the youngest person in the class, and I had never submitted prose to a creative writing workshop. The course was made up of undergraduate and graduate students, and I needed the course to fulfill a graduation requirement. Before that class, I had only written poetry.

Turns out I really liked writing memoir, and more than twenty years later, I am still at it. One comment I disliked when I told people that I wrote memoir was, “Aren’t you too young to write a memoir?” I’d feel the need to justify my practice of art to people who had already made their minds up about me and my ability.

Image by Jacquelynne Kosmicki from Pixabay 

I don’t think anyone is too young to tell a story about their life; however, sometimes a little distance from a life event can help the memoir-writing process. Here’s an example, I have an essay called “A Beautiful Morning.” It’s currently submitted to a few different journals for consideration. Writing this essay was a slow process. I started writing it while in the thick of the actual story. I was having problems with anxiety and perfectionism, trying to do everything right all the time and worrying so much I would have anxiety attacks. I started writing the essay in the present tense, partially because I had just experienced it, and partially because I used the suspense of being in the present tense to move the story forward. Would I totally lose it? Could I? It was actually not a solid narrative plan to have the reader question my reliability as a narrator. These are some hard-learned lessons, people.

This essay has been rejected a lot. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not just because it hadn’t been ready to be sent out, but also because of the topic, which is about motherhood. A lot of journals don’t want to hear about what it’s like to be a mother. It’s been written about before. What makes my story new? And I digress. That’s a whole other story.

After years of revising, I finally realized that the essay wasn’t missing imagery or relevance. What the essay had been missing all that time was the time of writing voice. The voice I had been able to use in my earlier writing for events that happened in my distant childhood. In those stories, I could reason and talk about my childhood.

Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay 

As an adult, I couldn’t reflect on my adult experiences similarly. I found it infinitely hard to write about my adult experiences. How could I write about my struggles with anxiety, while maintaining the appearance of being a functional adult? I worried about coming under the scrutiny of readers who were also parents. The thought of my readers’ future disapproval rang through my head. I couldn’t separate myself from the character. My protagonist and I were having the same struggle, worrying about how we would be perceived. I hadn’t yet gained the perspective I needed to reflect on my experience because I feared telling a story about having an anxiety disorder.

I kept writing and eventually figured out the voice and perspective in the story. I was only able to do this after having more temporal distance from the experience. With time, I was able to write more reflectively and without fear about my experience.

Back to the opening paragraph, to say only older people can write a memoir means a person is saying younger people don’t have the ability to reflect. That’s absolutely not the experience I had as an English teacher. My students could take risks and be brilliant and brave while telling their stories.

I don’t regret the struggle of writing this essay. I am grateful for the earlier, messier, present tense drafts I slogged through because they taught me how to develop suspense, reflection, and flashbacks. Ultimately, the experience taught me how to be brave when telling a story about my life.

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