Monday, April 24, 2017

When to Avoid Chronology

When I began writing longhand notes more than year ago for my memoir, I found myself not following a timeline. Rather, I began seeing series of events that could easily make up a story in and of themselves.  This was how I chose to group the events. When one family friend read the preliminary story I had sent as PDF by email, she critiqued me for not following a timeline. This made me panic as to how much rewriting I was going have to do in order to keep the details I'd included intact. To write everything chronologically was going to take a lot of redoing and rewriting. Yes, I know "Writing is re-writing is re-writing.." But could I do this without having to totally reconstruct the timeline?

What I did not know then was that some people do advise avoiding chronology in a memoir. Here are one such piece of advise from this post on Standout Books:

4. Avoid chronology

That’s right.
Memoirs are distinct as they underplay chronological dates and times which novels, short stories and even autobiographies rely so heavily on.
Of course, our lives are not comprised of solitary, isolated bundles of experience. Rather, the repercussions of our life choices and events all form threads which bind together to create experience. The single contained nugget of your life you are writing about will of course have implications on other aspects of your life too.
It’s important to bear in mind that the actual turning points and the implications of the turning points are two separate entities. It is understanding the turning points (i.e. the events which have inspired the memoir) which are significant to the story and require deep unpicking to succinctly convey their emotional significance.
So, how does one avoid chronology in memoir writing? The answer is simple.
Ignore it. 
This appears to be what I have done. I kept seeing different subjects in my life I felt were important to the story. One chapter is devoted to what occurred in 2001 just before the fateful September day. I almost could have written an entire story on that year!  But in each chapter, I did mention events in order, though in the 2001 chapter, I began with an overview of the year, then began with January 2001 (which included my 30th birthday) and ending with the 9/11 incident.  Another chapter takes on another year of what I labeled my personal traumas.  I go in order of months, dates for that year. 

Do not confuse memoir with autobiography.

Memoirs exist to express the essence of a moment in time, not to list a series of events. Don’t restrict your story to a front-to-back chronology of how you ended up where you are today.
Instead, hone in on the most compelling moments, memories, and emotions. Rather than focusing on the events of the story, focus on the purpose of it, and steer what you choose to share toward that purpose. Just as you would in a novel, allow yourself to skip time, ignore meaningless events – and get to the good stuff.

Once again, this what I have appeared to have been doing.  

When I began writing my memoir, I had no idea of how to go about it--just write down what I felt contributed to what I planned to write about.  I can see that all this time I had the right idea and approach. 


  1. I would think combining like ideas and stories would be easier to follow than a chronological timeline. Even encyclopedias divide people's lives into categories like early history, education, family, achievements, education, significant event, etc.

  2. Sounds like you are going in the 'write' direction.
    And what works for one author doesn't necessarily work for another.