The Art of Time in Memoir

Graywolf Press has made a wonderful Art Of series with these light and eminently readable books, all written by knowledgeable artist-practitioners who offer portable master classes on some aspect of their practice. Other fine books in the Art Of series include, for instance, poet and critic James Logenbach on The Art of the Poetic Line and novelist Amy Bloom on The Art of Endings. Now noted essayist and memoirist Sven Birkerts muses about how the art of memoir makes use of the dimensions of time, reading writers as varied as Andre Aciman, Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, Gabriel Garc¡a M rquez, and Mary Karr. If Birkerts has a thesis, it?s that memory is an ?irrational, even counterintuitive ecologist? and that memoir is the art of bringing back something that surprises and upends the ?authorized versions? we have of our own lives. Birkerts is especially concerned with the problem of retrospection, and the question of how to compress the ?then? and the ?seen again? into the same space. How does a memoirist?s act of re-regarding change the thing that?s being seen? Are there aspects of experience that can only emerge through the act of looking again? How does the self that recounts interact with the self that has experienced, or the self being recounted? These are questions that are far too tricky to have one answer, and Birkerts doesn?t try to give one. Instead, he explores how varied strategies yield varied results. Throughout, his genial intelligence makes him a valuable companion for students of writing and readers of essays more generally. He?s a master of seeing how storytellers of their own life fuse their outer lives to their inner ones, and how through sometimes radically unexpected fusings, arrive at the act of finding meaning. -

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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