In her recently released memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro says she used to teach her students that writers need distance from the event or events they intend to explore in memoir.
I was quite certain that we could not write directly from our feelings, but only the memory of our feelings. How else to find the necessary ironic distance, the cool remove? How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect? (93)
Distance Leads to Fading
I’ve heard this same advice from many sources but struggled with it in practice. Certain experiences in my life have seemed like perfect fodder for memoir, but I waited to write. Time has passed. Years. At this point, critical details and insights have faded—and, yes, even the feelings. That “cool remove” she speaks of seems more like evaporation.
Shapiro says her thoughts on the timing are shifting, though. She now sees that “[e]ven retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary figment of consciousness.”
To me, her new approach feels like a much better way, enlivened by real-time action and energy and all the rich texture of now.
Tell the Story While Inside of It
She writes: “If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?”
I wonder how many stories have mutated as we wait.
It happened to me—to a story I thought I might write. I guess I was waiting for perspective before writing it down. Well, and time. I didn’t have time to write as I navigated the memoir-worthy events, but had I been savvier and recognized the power of snatching the story while it was fresh—while the feelings surged with the most intensity, I would have done it. I wish I’d jotted more notes, saved more texts, recorded more observations with my smartphone’s voice recorder.
Blogging in Real Time
The way people used to blog seemed to follow this approach. Those who wrote from their lives seemed to blog almost in real time, attempting to tell their stories while they were in the midst of them.
Journaling in Real Time
Those committed to keeping a journal, like Anaïs Nin, a faithful—some might say obsessive—diarist, wrote, “It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.”
Telling a Story as Memoir in Real Time
Capturing those living moments is the work of a diarist and perhaps some journalists, and Dani Shapiro’s comment makes me wonder if it’s also the work of a memoirist when we capture them in real time and write inside the story.
Diaries and journals and this idea of a real-time memoir help us look at life even as we’re living it. Again, Anaïs Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
We write to remember the moment, the feeling. We write to document the way it changed us. Is there a story here? Or just a series of snapshots? Was this a passing emotion or a transformative event?
Capture the Living Moments
One way or another, whether or not it’s a story of transformation, capture the living moments. Try to tell the story as you’re inside of it.
Record the songs that play and the color of clothes on the day you receive life-altering information by email.
Take note of the way the old 90-pound dog heaves himself up from his nap and moves through the house and down the hallways on creaky joints to greet the college kids when they walk in the door.
Listen for the woodpecker tapping the maple tree as you talk on the phone with your father.
Don’t decide yet if it matters; write inside the story that has yet to be a story.
After all, if not now…when?
If you wait to write until after the old dog dies, you might forget the way he cuts a corner and slides his side along the doorframe in his hurry to greet the girls.
If you wait, you’ll forget that “Fire and Rain” was piped through the McDonald’s sound system, that your father asked if someone was at the door when he heard the tap-tap-tapping in the background of your call, and that you were wearing jeans with a bit of mustard dried on them when you got the information that flipped your heart on end.
The dried mustard may not matter for the story. But you have it on record. Just in case.
- BrainPickings article featuring Anaïs Nin
- Dani Shapiro, Hourglass (Amazon affiliate link)
- Ep 112: My Best Writing Tools to Get More Done (at Home and on the Go)
- Ep 113: An Easy Solution for the Writer with Big Goals and Little Time (write with your voice)
- All podcast episodes
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