Writing Tips Season 3 Episode 7: The Passage Of Time
Let's hold on to this moment, let's make this moment last.
Welcome to my free creative writing newsletter. This season we’re talking about memoir. This week, we’re talking about time, and how to think about how to deploy it on your pages.
The memoir that inspired this season’s theme, is out! My memoir, Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race Family And Home is out now!!!!! It’s a hopeful book about raising kids and grieving a parent, about how to bring my kids up to be joyful and boundless in a bleak scary world that makes me feel sad. It’s a hopeful book! I swear! Anyway, these newsletters are free and I’m happy to keep them free. At the same time, though, I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider buying the book. Here is a set of links where you can buy the book!
Right to this week’s writing tip:
WRITING TIP: THE PASSAGE OF TIME
In most memoirs, five minutes can last five pages and five years can pass in five words. A memoir, whether it’s told in a linear way, is about time. Time changes our perception of things. Time heals, distorts, mutates, enhances, disappears details, feelings, emotions, action. Time is the bones of your story. The way time passes in your memoir is crucial. If your story is about, say, your professional career as an astronaut, it may not be relevant to spend time discussing you paper round. Unless it’s relevant to the story of your astronaut escapades. This isn’t an autobiography. This is a story. A story requires time and curation. That’s why you can zero into the present of a moment and spend whole chapters stretching it to immerse us in. This is why you can skip those three years.
Considering the passage of time is about knowing when to be microscopic and when to be a montage. The trick is to give your readers clues so that they know where they are. A time jump should be clear. Where we are, from the time of day to the time of year to the age we are in, should always be clear.
A conversation should zero in on what’s said that moves us along. Sure we can luxuriate in the back and forth, and we can build to a moment of conflict or revelation. Knowing when to hold back is important.
The passage of time’s biggest foe in memoir is ‘and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened’.
Knowing what the thematic journey of your memoir is, knowing the time it describes and what that crystallises for you is important. Because it will point you towards what to zero in on and what to hold back on. Remember: a memoir has the theme as its bones and the fragments of your life as its skin.
To put a moment under the microscope is to immerse the reader in everything you can. Use your senses, slow time down, give us every single moment, every pause, every stop, start, stutter. Describe what you can see and describe how you feel in that moment. If this is the moment that changed everything, what do you know in the moment and how might you replay things decades later. What of the years does it draw out for you? What memories does it conjure? You are a camera lens and we are watching this moment through your eyes. Do not blink. Point your camera at everything that is relevant to us understanding its absolute significance in your life.
To zoom out on a moment is to let the years trickle through your fingers. Sure there are life lessons learned and yes there are moments of significance, and I’m sure there are important memories. But these years, these months, these days, they pass with no bearing on the story that you’re trying to tell. Let them trickle through your fingers.
It is your job to attribute significance to moments, weight to time, anchors to the seconds and minutes and hours and days that comprise your life.
Write 500 words about what 2020 meant to you. (Yes, I know, but trust me.) Include significant events, general mood, pivotal moments, joy, sadness, the whole works.
Now open a new word document and write 50 words about what 2020 meant to you. Try and include the above into those 50 words.
Now open a new word document and write one single sentence about what 2020 meant to you.
Now, open a new word document and write me 500 on one day in 2020 that covers significant events, general mood, pivotal moments, joy, sadness, the whole works.
Right, that’s enough for this week.
Thank you for sticking with me this far. If you enjoyed today’s writing tip, please do pick up a copy of my memoir, ‘Brown Baby’, which is one of the most hopeful memoirs you’ll read that came out in 2021.