How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

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2 Responses to “How to Frame Chronology”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Will Boast | Read to Write Stories - August 27, 2015

    […] To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here. […]

  2. How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze | Read to Write Stories - September 15, 2015

    […] In other words, their structure is driven by time and consciousness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about creating pockets of narrative as a way to avoid the chronology trap: the tendency to kill tension by narrating a story […]

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