September 18, 2012

"The tyranny of the linear"--working with chronology

This week in the Introduction to Developmental Editing class we've been working on the issue of chronology in personal memoirs and fiction (especially novels that imitate memoirs). In my current lecture I included a quote from Sven Birkerts’s book The Art of Time in Memoir that I've found enormously helpful:

“…writers just starting to work with memoir often have a real difficulty with this crucial distinction between event sequence and story. The impulse to tell sequentially works with gravity-like force, generating structures that sag from the tedium of ‘and then and then…’ recounting and produce dense thickets of ostensibly relevant information. The writer gets the dread feeling that everything belongs, that important moments only make sense when all the facts have been presented. Every first-time memoirist comes up against it—the demon of infinite regress. To get this, you have to know that.”

I suggest, in our work as editors, that we often see two different sides of this problem with event sequencing. Sometimes a manuscript is too sequentially structured: it bulges with details, both essential and unimportant, and marches along from date to date in mind-numbing rhythm, what Birkerts calls “the tyranny of the linear.” 

Sometimes, on the other hand, in an attempt to make the narrative more compelling or dramatic, the author has told it in a nonlinear or non-chronological fashion that can be hard to follow if not done well. The memoir or novel may shift from present to many different pasts trying to capture certain themes. The author has moved around in time to such an extent that we're confused trying to follow the when’s and then’s. 

If you're interested in thinking about how to work with writers and how to think about issues like plot, pacing, and chronology, another 8-week introductory online class begins October 3 and runs through the end of November. The editors in the current class are from all over North America and have many different backgrounds. It makes for interesting discussion. The registration deadline is September 28. Email us at for more information.

--Barbara Sjoholm

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