“It’s not a chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life: born in Hoboken, New Jersey; schooled at Elm Creek Elementary; moved to Big Flat, New York, where you attended Holy Mother High School. Memoir gives you the ability to plop down like the puddle that forms and spreads from the shattering of a glass of milk on the kitchen floor. You watch how the broken glass gleams from the electric light overhead. The form of memoir has leisure enough to examine all this.”
– Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away, xix.
Writing chronologically has its place. Structurally, it helps in a lot of different ways. When I worked with at-risk students in Stockton, reminding them to use transitional words, first, second, and then, finally fenced in their writing, allowing it to grow longer and longer like tough, pesky vines growing up a tree. The words are like training wheels, reminding them, “Oh yeah, I remember how to do this.”
For my EL students who come from all over the world, process essays, loaded with transitional words, help them get in the saddle in terms of writing the perpetual linear essay. We do these a lot. Many reps, many sets.
But when it comes to writing memoir, it’s really hard to get out of the chronological tendency. Where is it written that a project has to start with a writer talking about where they were born, and where they went to school, and then middle school, and then high school, and then college, and then marriage, and then kids, and then, and then. With memoir, we need starts and reversals; we need more teenager learning to drive stick, we need to be like ground bloom flower fire works, we need to be all over the place. Our minds are lured and taken by the chronological trap. It takes some effort to undo like learning to write righty when you’re a lefty.
A shattering glass of milk on the kitchen floor will not form itself into a tidy, white streak on the floor; that is, writing chronological. Life explodes, a little grenade of glass spreading where it may with the little force it has. It’s a mess, someone can get cut. That’s writing. Clean nothing, leave the mess. Assume the detective role, analyzing the scene for those imperceptible memories you know are there if only you’d look long enough, a writer’s kind of rorschach test.
Recently I have stopped working on a memoir project because I needed to get away from it to see what else I could see in the milk puddle. But I couldn’t see much. I poked at some of the books on my shelf, to see what I could glean. Then I found the quote above. I’m inclined to see everything now as mess rather than chronology when it comes to memoir. If anything, I’m more aware of telling it messy. Milky shards and all.