Author Anais Nin wrote, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” (In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays, 13) Though she was speaking of writing in general terms in this essay, her statement is definitive of the memoirist’s task. A well crafted memoir often places readers in the action of the story as witnesses and relies on the narrator’s insight—a point of view with increased narrative distance—to interpret motivations, reactions and life lessons associated with the narrator’s experience. Two distinct characters begin to emerge: the author’s younger self or “then-character,” and an older, wiser self or “now-character.” As readers, we are able to know both characters simultaneously. In a strong narrative we may feel that we are experiencing what the author’s younger self lived while also being guided by the older wiser narrator to make sense of her memories, to apply logic and meaning until she comes to some understanding of herself.
Interested readers and writers may find Virginia Woolf an ideal beginning for this craft study, because her memoir A Sketch of the Past was published in raw form. In the editor’s note, Jeanne Schulkind acknowledges that, based on Woolf’s typical practice of revising as many as eight or nine drafts, the text would likely have been extremely altered from its present form had it been intended for widespread publication (7). But as it stands, it is an idea depiction of the memoirist’s struggle to make sense of remembered scenes and images. Throughout the text, Woolf presents her most vivid memories and then attempts to interpret their significance.
Perhaps because this memoir exists in raw, unedited form, we see Woolf wrestling with the memoirist’s task of balancing narrative and hindsight.
…I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time. (75)
Perhaps because this memoir exists in raw, unedited form, we see Woolf wrestling with the memoirist’s task of balancing narrative and hindsight. The “interesting” task that Woolf refers to, the task of creating two distinct and differing characters—a now-character and a then-character—has become one of the most defining characteristics of contemporary memoir. In The Art of Time in Memoir Sven Birkerts describes this as a “manipulation of vantage point” (190) that mimics the cognitive and psychological work of our real life struggles to understand ourselves:
Memoir returns to the past, investigating causes in the light of their known effects, conjuring the unresolved mysteries of fate versus chance, free will versus determinism. To read the life of another person put before us in this way is inevitably to repossess something of ourselves. (191)
This psychological work, and its impact on readers, is obvious in Kelly Corrigan’s memoir The Middle Place. In this text the author revisits her childhood looking for clues to help her understand her struggles and desires as a young wife and mother, a cancer patient and an adult daughter confronting her beloved father’s inevitable death. As readers, we see the now-character, a mother of two toddler girls, come to new understandings of her own mother’s love, a love that was less visible to the naïve, sometimes self-absorbed then-character in her adolescence.
As the author explores her family dynamics—the dynamics of both her childhood family and the one she’s creating as a married adult with children—she discovers and is able to name what it is, exactly, that she gets from her father that she doesn’t get from anyone else, what she stands to lose when he dies.
With the help of the author’s hindsight, we begin to see that Greenie (the author’s father) is more than just a likeable character. He is the very source of the author’s self-worth. At last we understand why she is so desperate to keep him alive.
In Corrigan’s memoir, perhaps more than any other I’ve read lately, I am able to immediately apply the author’s understandings to my own life as well. I stand on the brink of beginning my own family, grieving the loss of my older brother and grandmother, and I’m rooting through childhood memories looking for explanations for who I am. Did I seek someone out who is just like my father? Will I better understand my mother’s love when I’m raising my own children? These are new questions I’m asking myself as a result of reading this memoir. I believe this reaction is exactly what Birkerts alludes to when he says, “To read the life of another person put before us in this way is inevitably to repossess something of ourselves.” (191)
The memoirist’s task, ultimately, is not to craft a narrative but to reveal something about herself that contributes to a larger understanding of ourselves as readers.
Memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self completion. The writer discovers that fashioning a narrative from memory can be an occasion of emotional return, creating a connection that was perhaps missing in the experience itself. It can be restorative, compensatory in the deepest way. (Birkerts, 88-89)
So, as Nin said, we do write to taste life twice. But not just for the sake of enjoying or savoring life a second time. As memoirists, we experience our lives in the moment and in retrospection so that we can make sense of the events, people and places that leave their imprints on us. And we hope, if we tell our stories well with honesty and specificity, the stories will resonate with readers and perhaps serve some greater purpose, further some greater understanding of humanity.
This is an excerpt from a larger craft essay and reflection.