The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts Review


Reading craft books has been a priority lately as I try to hone my personal essays and memoir in progress. The latest book is by Sven Birkerts, Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. The Art of Time in Memoir was more academic-leaning than the last couple I read. Birkerts spends time analyzing various texts for how they utilize time. He also wrote about the different entry points of memoir, such as the mother-daughter relationship, the father-son relationship, relationship to trauma etc. I liked his commentary about reflective vantage points and how important this is to successful memoir writing.

“I need to give the reader both the unprocessed feeling of the world as I saw it then and a reflective vantage point that incorporates or suggests that these events made a different kind of sense over time. This is the transformation that, if done well, absolves a memoiristic reflection from the charge of self-involved nave-gazing”

It is the reflection that shows self-awareness. This is something I need to be wary of in my own writing- finding those moments of reflection that can make experiences and lessons resonant to an audience beyond myself.

Birkerts also reminded me of the importance of crafting the narrator, even in memoir. To the reader, the narrator is a character much like in fiction, and as such must have an identity on the page. The reader must be introduced to the narrator and learn to trust her.

Probably the most important nugget I took away was one I have read about in Vivian Gornick’s and Mary Karr’s craft books. “So much of the substance of memoir is not exactly what happened but rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life.” Sometimes I struggle with the fact that I don’t remember every detail about an event I am writing, but I remember the feelings, the moments. This is what is important though, and I need to remember that. It is not about recounting an exact event like nonfiction. It is about recounting a feeling, an emotion, something that touches readers and reminds them of the universal human experience. That is what makes memoir creative nonfiction.

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