The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again

by Sven Birkerts

The Art Of series is a new line of books reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism.

By examining memoirs such as Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory; Virginia Woolf's unfinished A Sketch of the Past; and Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Birkerts describes the memoirist's essential art of assembling patterns of meaning, stirring to life our own sense of past and present.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Language
  • Rating: 4.01
  • Pages: 120
  • Publish Date: December 26th 2007 by Graywolf Press
  • Isbn10: 1555974961
  • Isbn13: 9781555974961

What People Think about "The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again"

I did like Genzlinger's rule of thumb about "If you didn't feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don't publish it." I suspect that that much Birkerts would agree with, since he writes For example, I may reflect in therapy on an unhappy period of my adolescence, testing memories and looking for insights that will help me understand why I did what I did then. That my natural gravitation toward the "lyrical memoirists" that Birkerts lists -- Nabokov, Dillard, Woolf -- has something to do with the fascination with memory and sense of self and not merely my own memories or my own self -- I have a squirmy relationship with that sort of attention, in fact, but that in any kind of writing done well specific instantiations point towards universal truths in a more vivid (truthful?) way than trying to speak in generic or abstract universals could. Says Birkerts "The point -- the glory -- of memoir is that it anchors its authority in the actual life; it is a modeling of the process of creative self-inquiry as it is applied to the stuff of lived experience.

What makes the difference is not only the fact of reflective self-awareness, but the conversion of private into public by way of a narrative compelling the interest and engagement of the reader." "The act of storytelling--even if the story is an account of psychological self-realization--is by its very nature an attempt at universalizing the specific; it assumes there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience.

There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event. Even the juiciest scandals and revelations topple before the drone of, And then and then Memoir begins not with even but with the intuition of meaning with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story. Memoirs present not the line of the life, but the life remembered serving theme rather than event. I think about preparing a meal: whatever happened might be your raw ingredients, so you have to get that down to get started, but you still have much work to do in terms of combining, cooking, arranging, presenting before you can serve the meal to someone else.

Be aware: it's most helpful to have read at least several of the memoirs referred to throughout the chapters, which are conveniently organized into 'broad-idea'/'condensed space' chapters: the Lyrical Seekers (a bit dense for the beginning, but it picks up from there); 'Coming of Age' (my recommendation of where to start reading); 'Fathers & Sons', 'Mothers and Daughters'.

It's an excellent, thorough meditation on the memoir genre, what differentiates it from fiction writing.

I thought I would glean more useful information, as I am now in the throes of designing an approach to my own memoir. It could have been easier to read and digest if the language and the ideas had been kept simpler and more straightforward.

Birkerts is the Director of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and the editor of AGNI, the literary journal.