Magic Binoculars

One of the hardest things about writing about your own life is choosing which chunk of it to tell.

There are some amazing memoirs that tell the whole dang thing. Trevor Noah’s Born A CrimeOpen by Andre Agassi and Becoming by Michelle Obama are just a few wonderful examples.

Then there are others that focus on just a sliver — a few months, a few years, the duration of a particular relationship or role. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion are some of my favourites.

Then there are others still, which are part memoir, part sociological commentary, like Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin.

(Did I just give you the perfect list of Christmas presents? Yes, yes I did. Something in there for everyone.)

Anyway: the reason it’s difficult to write about your past is that you are now in your own future.

You can see the whole expanse of your life, much of which you’ve never revisited.

Back then, when you were living it all, you didn’t know how everything was going to turn out. You made sense of the situation as best you were able, and carried on.

But now, thanks to the wonder of physics, you are at a different place in time and space, and you do know how everything turns out.

Your new vantage point also comes with a set of magical binoculars, which allow you to view each experience from any angle, turning the memory this way and that, until you settle on the interpretation of events that feels right to you.

Looking back at your memories gives you the power to change them.

The binoculars give you the power to change your opinion of your past self — and to imagine your future self differently as a result.

But as with all magical doohickeys, these binoculars have a downside.

They can undermine what you believed to be true about yourself in the past. They can cast doubt over memories that made you feel secure. They can make you wonder if your current sense of self is accurate.  

What a tangle, no?

The prospect of multitude of ways each story can thus unravel makes me simultaneously gleeful and nauseous.

Gleeful because I get to experiment and really flex my creativity to find the best approach, and nauseous, because how the hell am I gonna wrangle all THAT?!

Fortunately, I know that defining the period of time I’m trying to write about goes a long way to getting rid of the nausea.

It gives me some control over which memories need examining, and requires me to settle on a theme that will tie all those memories together into something cohesive and compelling for the reader.

That then frees me up to start experimenting.

I know which stories belong in the chosen timeframe, and so the scope of the work becomes far more manageable.

For this book, I’ve chosen my adult life, from the age of about 20 up to now. There will be flashbacks to childhood, for context and colour, but now that I know where to point the binoculars, we’re really underway.