A warning: I’m going to talk about science, physics in particular. I’ve been doing a little reading about time. And when I say little, I mean very little, because I am not a physicist. I’ve only ever taken one physics class, in fact, and that was with Mr. Sheffield, who was also our high school’s resident computer expert. Whenever anyone had a computer problem, they’d come interrupt his class. And since this was 1998 and computers were still rare and somewhat mysterious in my high school (I learned to type on a typewriter in the 10th grade), this meant he was always gone. We spent most of our physics class goofing off and copying each others’ answers to questions about how fast a ball rolls down a ramp. I learned almost nothing.
In other words, this one is a bit messy and convoluted, a messay if ever there was one.
So I’ve been reading about time, and in particular about different theories of time, inspired by this very simple post on NPR. And reading about time has got me thinking about memoir. Specifically, why we write memoir. And how memoir functions in the world, for both the writer and reader.
Maybe you’re familiar with the idea of world lines. This one is new to me. Basically, from what I can tell, a world line is the four-dimensional path of an object through space and time. So for example, the computer I’m typing on is three-dimensional. It’s about an inch high, fourteen inches wide, and ten inches deep. The fourth dimension is its existence in a given moment of time. So the moment I bought this computer, it was one distinct four-dimensional object. It had height, width, depth and time (the single moment I opened the box, for example). At the present moment, despite having the same three-dimensional qualities, it is not the same computer. For one, between then and now, Roscoe’s wagging tail has caused a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to spill its contents across the keyboard and down onto the logic board. Miraculously, the computer still functions, but as the genius at the Apple shop told me, the computer will never be the same. The computer itself changes, as we humans do, over time. So you can think of the computer as having a unique fourth dimension in each subsequent moment.
The world line idea suggests that time is not linear, but it is in fact just a series of distinct four-dimensional objects that all exist simultaneously. It is only our perception of time that is linear. This is just a theory of course, and there are others out there, but it’s interesting one: that the universe could be made up of an infinite number of four-dimensional objects. You could take each moment of the computer’s existence (and, if you want to get complicated, of the existence of each of its components as raw materials) and pile them up like sand.
If this theory is true, it means that we, too, are four-dimensional objects. This means that everything we have experienced and everything we will experience already exists in four dimensions. But all we have access to is the three dimensions within the given moment. In other words, it is only our perception of time that creates what we call “the past” and “the future.” This is where my brain gets obstinate, because as I’m formulating these ideas, I perceive myself to be having a distinctly-logical thought process, a process that extends by necessity from one moment into the next. Because logic is inherently linear.
It’s almost impossible for me to conceive of a non-linear world because my experience does not feel like a collection of separate moments but rather it seems to be a series of indistinguishable moments driven by cause and effect. And cause and effect are the building blocks of narrative. At its most fundamental, the human experience is a narrative one. It is ordered. I feel hungry, I eat a falafel wrap, and then I feel satisfied. I assign my students lots of writing and then I spend hours reading papers. A decision I made yesterday controls, to some extent, what I do today. Or at least it seems to. (Obviously, we’re starting to wade into complex questions about free will, but I refuse to go all the way there today.)
My point is that we cannot escape the sense of our lives as linear, and of ourselves as creatures who move through time. Time happens to us. Or it feels that way. And this results in a quintessentially human capacity: an uneasy relationship with change, the ability to look both backward and forward, to anticipate what will happen, to feel a sense of loss for what has passed. And yet, we also feel the effects of the past on the present. Who I was ten years ago has a direct bearing on who I am today. We are, in many ways, the sum of our past experiences, thus the past is embedded within the present moment at all times. Thus the whole idea of existence as a pile of four-dimensional objects is both very uncomfortable and intuitively familiar.
I wonder then, if writing memoir is a way of both acknowledging time’s hold on us and escaping its restrictions. Memoir allows us to juxtapose the past with the present. It allows us to place two four-dimensional objects side by side and to marvel at their similarities and their differences. Similarly, a diary records the present moment so it will also exist (if only as a document) in the future. Keeping a diary is a kind of self-preservation, a way of fighting against the dying of the light, that sense of loss we’re stuck with thanks to our linear perception of the world. And this sense is particularly acute when you’re sixteen and your heart’s just been broken by the boy who skips school to ride BMX bikes and smoke cigarettes. (And that’s as close as you’ll get to my diary.)
One of my graduate advisors, EJ Levy, said that memoir is made up of two “I”s. One “I” is the character of the writer as she exists in memory (for example, me at sixteen), and the other “eye” is the writer at her desk, looking back on and making sense of that experience (me today, at thirty). It is from the juxtaposition of those two “I”s that memoir creates meaning. For a really fluid and affecting example of this, read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.”
Memoir gets a lot of flack. And memoirists are often written off as a bunch of navel-gazing narcissists. Or subjective truth-twisters. But it seems to me that there could be no more intuitive way of processing the world around us. The memoirist isn’t saying, “Look at me, I’m important and interesting!” but rather, “What happens when we align the past and the present?” It’s the same reason we tell stories, and take pictures, and write histories. It is in our nature to chronologize, to collect, to record, to archive. And because we are slaves to our own perceptions, this process is necessarily–and beautifully–subjective. Maybe memoir is just another way of reconsidering our relationship to time.