The Trouble with Chronology

When writing a memoir, chronology takes on a level of importance I don’t usually associate with my memories.  The way I remember events has to do with poignant moments, some of which are interrelated with other poignant moments, others are not.  These memories aren’t linear.  They are not organized by cause-and-effect.  They’re just there.

When I planned out my memoir, I ran into several times where linearity became important, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out which came first and which came afterwards.  Still, I planned out what I wanted to say and where I wanted to say it to create the effect that I was going for.  A strict linear telling didn’t quite go with that overall effect.

Basically, my memoir is broken down into three parts, and each part is broken down further, using rather short chapters.

The first part is Discovering Autism.  This is the story of how I went from not knowing my children were developmentally delayed to learning that my oldest son had autism.  In the lexicon of narrative, this first part is also where I go from being a clueless wanderer to the realization that I would need to become a warrior, including experiences that initiated that shift.  The end of the first part is the pivotal moment, the midpoint, where I shed the last of my passivity.

The second part is Discovering Neurodiversity.  This is the story of how I went from ignorance of the disability rights movement to being empowered by that movement to fight for my children’s rights.  In the lexicon of narrative, this second part is where I assume the role of the warrior and end up, at least figuratively, as a martyr for my children.  The end of the second part is the climax and the denouement, which satisfies the needs of the story itself.

The third part is Embracing Difference.  This part is outside the story dynamic and is a call to action for my readers.  Another way to describe this part is that it is a manifesto that answers the questions:  “What am I doing?” and “How can you help?”

I’m still working on the first part now.  Specifically, I’m in the middling section of it where the events are stuck in my memory in something other than chronological order.  When I went into this portion of the story, I started with this:

Time passed quickly during those hectic early years.  Moments stand out in the chaos of my memories.  Which came first?  Which came later?  It’s difficult to be sure, because my records are spotty at best.  But I know we made slow progress.  We started to understand.  I started to accumulate the words I needed to express the ideas that were otherwise trapped in my mind.   We began to see things more clearly.

 It probably started with the decision to take Willy to the therapy center to receive his services.  ….

I expected to follow this with several experiences that I knew happened around the same time, but couldn’t quite fit into a precise chronological order.  Then, as I immersed myself in my memories, I realized that the memories themselves made it clear which order they happened in.

Now, I learned a long time ago—actually, I learned this within some of the experiences that I’m writing about—that people experience life differently than I do.

So, one of the reasons I’m drawn to science fiction, even though I’m not really any good at writing typical science fiction fare, is because we are at the cusp of understanding things that are meaningful to me and to how I experience the world.  For example, scientists theorize that time may not really be linear, in which case our perception/experience of events is linear, but that time itself either does not exist (no time travel, sorry) or that time is cyclical or dimensional in nature (time travel is possible, woohoo!).  If we perceive events in linear fashion because of our perception and not because of the limitations of time, then that could also suggest that there are those who experience or perceive events in a less linear fashion—prophecy, déjà vu, ect.  In which case, those of us who experience time as something other than a constant—getting lost in time, a watched pot never boils, ect.—may be experiencing something subjectively real.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy, which I can write much more successfully, is because there are things that happen or that may have happened that we are not even close to understanding.  The scientists describe these events (or supposed events) as myths.  Religions tend to account for them in other ways.  Fantasy opens us up to possibilities that we are not wholly willing to consider.

Now, let me bring this back to chronology.  As you may know, I’m big on planning.  I plan my novels and even, to some extent, my short stories.  I planned my memoir.  I have more books planned than I am able to work on at any given time.

But something durned near magical happens when I actually sit down to write.  Whether it’s a novel or a portion of my memoir, when I write I experience.  It’s more than memory, more than imagination.  Physically, I’m at my keyboard typing letters to make words to string together sentences to build paragraphs to fill up pages.  Mentally, I’m going in and out of phase.  Sometimes I’m there experiencing, sometimes I’m back here writing.  It works as well for memories as it does for events that never happened, at least not in our spacetime.

Sometimes, when I come back, I find I’ve written several pages.  These pages are full of missed letters and sometimes even missed words.  Aside from the typos, what I’ve written is more clear, more tangible, more real than the stuff I struggle to capture.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen when I’m writing.  Like all writers, I struggle with my muse; it’s not a tame assistant by any means.  Like most professional writers, I can force myself to write and to produce quality written materials whether my muse cooperates or not.

But during those magical moments, it’s like part of me isn’t really here.  People can call my name, can try to speak to me, can desperately try to get my attention, and then—bam!—they manage to jolt me back to this shared reality.  It’s very jarring.  I have a tendency to jump out of my skin, almost literally.  It’s also confusing, because I was experiencing something very different.  It’s sad, too, because it can be hours or even days before I get back into the flow of my story.

And this experience of non-linear reality is normal for me.  I could be doing something else entirely—washing dishes, playing a mindless game, folding laundry, –gasp– driving!—and have a similar experience.  The dishes get washed, the game gets played, the laundry gets folded, I get to my destination—physically, I’m here and parts of my mind react as if I’m here.  But I am also there.  And whatever I bring back with me is desperate to be written down or lost forever.

So, in the moment, I can place things in order, even if I’d planned things in a different order.   The order experienced in the moment is always better, clearer, and right.  But, dang, this chronology stuff is a pain!

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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5 Responses to The Trouble with Chronology

  1. acflory says:

    Yes, the driving and being elsewhere is tricky. When I’m deep into a story I find there is a sort of soundtrack going on in my brain all the time, except its not music, its images, phrases, connections, random sentences. I once drove to my chiropractor [1/2 an hour drive] and then had to sit outside in my car, scribbling down this scene that had formed in my head while the rest of me was driving. It was a great scene, but I honestly don’t remember anything about the drive, and that can be dangerous. Now I play loud music to keep me in the here and now.

    • I play music, too, especially on a longer drive. I also make my music its own story line, so I don’t get sucked into my head too much.

      It helps. But sometimes driving can just trigger something that refuses to be denied.

      • acflory says:

        Maybe it’s because your conscious brain is busy doing something else, allowing the subconscious free rein [reign?]. Sorry I just distracted myself with that saying. Does it refer to letting a horse have its head [rein]? Or does it mean letting your subconscious take power [reign]? Gah… it’s been a long day.

      • Free rein:

        The problem doing all I try to do is that I don’t give myself as much time to just think and imagine as I used to do. I’ve been getting better lately, but I think your premise is probably right. The busier I am, the more distractable I become by my own mind. When I give my mind it’s own time, it lets me focus when I need to.

      • acflory says:

        lol – that video clip was fantastic. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one confused by that spelling. I think I’ll stick to ‘rein’ in future though. 😉

        And yes, I think some balance is vital for creativity.

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