memoir and the space-time continuum

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.

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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. Continue reading

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the messay: a question of genre

Reading Brevity’s blog this afternoon has gotten me thinking about genre. Often when I tell people I’m writing a book on love stories they look at me with interest and say, “You’re writing a novel that’s a love story?”

I usually respond by explaining that, no, I’m writing a nonfiction book about love stories. But this description does not make a particularly snappy elevator pitch. Sometimes I say, “I’m writing a book-length essay on love stories,” or “My book is part memoir, part research, part family mythology.” Sometimes I wish I was writing a novel just so I would have the language to describe what I’m doing. But what I’m doing doesn’t seem to have a sufficient genre descriptor. Calling it a book-length essay allows for the wandering approach that Scott Russel Sanders famously called “chasing mental rabbits.” But it’s ultimately unproductive because, frankly, most people don’t know enough about the essay as literary form for a book-length essay to sound remotely interesting. On day one of teaching the personal essay to my undergraduates, I spend a lot of time distinguishing it from the academic essay–a genre they seem to either tolerate or loathe.

But memoir isn’t quite the right word either. My experiences happen to be a convenient starting point for talking about love stories. But in the book I also want to re-imagine the stories I’ve spent my life hearing: my parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, things I could not possibly remember. Annie Dillard says, “A memoir is any account, usually in the first person, of incidents that happened a while ago.” But what if those incidents happened before I was born?

And where does research fit into all of this? Some of the tools I’ve been using to explore the topic include the things scholars, philosophers, and friends have to say about love and love stories. And when I actually publish this thing, in what part of the bookstore or library might it reside? I find myself in a weird, nameless gray area.

But luckily, if that’s the right word, lots of other books fall into a similarly ambiguous space. A few that come to mind right away are: Lauren Slater’s Lying, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, even Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. We don’t have adequate generic words for books like these much less a designated bookstore shelf. All are narrative. All are intensely personal. All are imaginative. But all are distinctly unwieldy creatures when it comes to genre.

So should we coin the messay? The novoir? When we discuss this in class, many of my students are comfortable with blending truth and fiction or research and narrative. To them, a good story is often just that. But I worry about orphan books that so easily find themselves in genre limbo, mostly because I’m aware that that’s exactly what I’m writing.