On Chronology and Necessary Abandonment: Working with Letters and Diaries in Creative Nonfiction

Broken by MarcelGermain

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. And even though this isn't my first book or review, it's still a wild ride to have strangers reading my work.

In her review of the book, Claire Posner points to a major challenge that I faced writing this book: chronology.

Perhaps reflecting the uneven records that Šimaitė left behind, Epistolophilia's chapters are grouped by subject matter rather than in chronological order.

She's right: rather than telling Šimaitė's story from beginning to end in a clean and linear fashion, I attacked the librarian's life by topic, and attempted to answer the questions that the process of piecing her story together raised for me.

This book, as many of you know by now, was a struggle to write. The archival materials I was working with (letters and diaries) resisted my efforts to tame them. I simultaneously had too much and too little to work with. Only after a long internal battle and after putting aside some of my ideas about how this book should look did Epistolophilia finally come together.

The funny thing is that despite its being such a major obstacle, I'd pretty much forgotten about the issue of chronology and how much pain it had caused me, until I read the ForeWord review.

So what did I learn from writing Šimaitė's life? For one: we don't actually live our lives chronologically. Two: we certainly don't record them that way. Rather, we move continually back and forth between the past and present, reinterpreting, forgetting, remembering, inventing, telling ourselves our own histories, then (in the best cases) turning around and recounting those histories to our children, our loved ones, and our readers.

So, when I was recently asked by a fellow writer how she should tackle a large collection of letters in her possession, I had to stop and think. The obvious advice is to organize and read the letters and diaries chronologically (if they come from different archives, be sure to devise a system to identify the source of each letter before mixing documents up -- I used coloured star stickers). Then, the second most obvious piece of advice would perhaps be to abandon chronology altogether.

The difficulty lies in the fact that you've got to make order from chaos to start. But then you may realize that the order has created a new kind of chaos. Do not confuse mere chronology with structure. Chronology may be a start, but it may not be a solution. It may even be a problem.

I suspect that each body of correspondence or life writing demands its own structure when being reworked for a book. This is great, because it means that there are  no rules. (The bad news is that there are no rules.) You have to pay close attention to your material and tease out its meaning. With luck, once you have meaning, structure should follow. By this I mean that once you see a story emerging from a pile of documents, chances are you can also see how to tell it.

The best I can offer for now, in terms of a method, is this:

  1. Organize your materials chronologically.
  2. Read them chronologically
  3. Track the story they tell. (Find their meaning)
  4. Abandon chronology if necessary. (Build a structure)
  5. Tell the story as the material demands.

I'd love to hear from others working with letters and diaries. How have you coped with an embarrassment of riches that resists structure? How do you organize your material and tame it? What is your relationship to chronology and the material traces of lives lived?

Share your thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can learn from one another.


Julija Šukys is the author of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (2012) and of Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (2007). You can find out more about her at http://julijasukys.com.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

[Photo: MarcelGermain]

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Comment by Julija Sukys on March 13, 2012 at 9:43am

Speaking of the Memory Palace -- it just won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Autobiography!

Comment by Tina Barbour on March 11, 2012 at 5:30pm

Kayann and Julija, Thank you for the recommendation. The Memory Palace is on my "Books to Read List." I will have to move it up the list!


Comment by Julija Sukys on March 11, 2012 at 11:58am

The Memory Palace is great! I interviewed Mira about her book (the interview is on my site) http://julijasukys.com. She also did a great interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air on NPR. 

Comment by Kayann Short, Ph.D. on March 11, 2012 at 10:13am

Tina, you might take a look at The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok. She uses some of her (schizophrenic) mother's diary entries between chapters. By threading her mother's writing voice throughout the text, we understand her mother's illness in a more shocking way because we can see the paranoid thinking for ourselves. Your dad's story is quite different from that but maybe you could use the most powerful of your father's entries to give the reader his view to augment your own.

Comment by Tina Barbour on March 10, 2012 at 9:17pm

Great post--lots of food for thought!

With my memoir, I'm not writing chronologically, at least at this point. A structure I'm working with now has the work beginning at the middle, a pivotal time, and then moves into the past and into the future and the "now." There is so much of my life story that does not fit into the theme of the memoir, so staying strictly chronological doesn't seem to apply.

I have letters that my father wrote home when he was serving in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. I also have a handwritten autobiography he wrote at my urging before he died over 14 years ago. I don't know what to do with them. I want to share them. Several years ago, I scanned the letters and shared copies with my brothers and mother. But I have some idea to combine what he wrote and his letters. I don't know if I should just transcribe as he wrote, if I should add some kind of commentary, give some kind of context . . . ? Somehow, I want to share his story. He wanted it shared, I think, at least with family. I have sat on this for too long and want to act. Any suggestions?

Comment by Kayann Short, Ph.D. on March 10, 2012 at 6:57pm

One thing that I like about Girl, Interrupted is Kaysen's use of official documents from the mental institution that offer insights into how young women were expected to act at that time. My students loved reading between the lines of those documents to learn more about why Kaysen was institutionalized for things that, today, wouldn't cause anyone to blink an eye. It's a wonderful, compelling memoir, much more introspective and creative than the movie, although I liked it too. Good luck on your next book!

Comment by Julija Sukys on March 10, 2012 at 1:51am

Thanks Joanne, Kit, and Kayann! 

I'm really interested to hear your insight on this. I feel like this is a revelation that I've stumbled on, and I'm trying to work through its implications. The good news is that I'm now working on a new book partially based on letters. Abandoning chronology is making the new project much easier navigate. I only hope it's not an illusion. 

Kayann -- I haven't read Girl, Interruped, but it sounds like I should. 

Everyone: send more non-chronological suggestions. This sounds like fertile ground!

Comment by Kayann Short, Ph.D. on March 9, 2012 at 7:45pm

Your insight that chronology may even be a problem is helpful when thinking about lifewriting. Although a timeline often offers a type of historical foundation, why narrow the rich field of a life to one event following another?  I think of Susanna Kaysen's wonderful Girl, Interrupted. Other than knowing that Kaysen enters and leaves the mental institution at two different times, chronology isn't important. Congratulations on your book! 

Comment by Joanne S Frye on March 9, 2012 at 1:54pm

I really like your description of process--and your idea that there are no rules.  I hadn't really thought of my process in in quite these terms since I was drawing on my own journals rather than someone else's when I wrote "Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood."  But after a lot of memory work, I reread the journals and marked out some thematic concerns as part of my overall process.  I totally agree that chronology isn't structure--and that structure has to somehow come from the material.  Thanks for a great post.

Comment by Kit Frazier on March 9, 2012 at 11:30am

great post--thanks for sharing!


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