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The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  355 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews
The Art Of series is a new line of books reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism. Each book will be a brief, witty, and useful exploration of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by a writer impassioned by a singular craft issue. The Art Of volumes will provide a series of sustained examinations of key but sometimes neglected aspects of creative writing by some of con ...more
Paperback, 120 pages
Published December 26th 2007 by Graywolf Press
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Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I just finished reading the NY Times Problem with Memoirs and think that Genzlinger weighted his review with the three worst examples of memoir he could find, while Birkerts made me want to run out and grab a whole stack of other memoirs. So I would respond to Genzlinger, that I know and am persuaded by Birkerts that no life is interesting in and of itself, but in the hands of her that writes well it is interesting. Or something. That formulation doesn't quite work. I did like Genzlinger's rule ...more
Sep 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Although Birkerts focusses exclusively on memoir writing, the crux of his book is the distance between the narrator and the subject...and that distance is as applicable to an older self recalling a younger self in memoir as it is to an older narrator animating his younger self in fiction. Birkerts introduces his book by exploring a few classic masters of the art: Nabokov (Speak, Memory) and Virginia Woolf's "A Sketch of the Past," he devotes most of his exploration to works by authors who publis ...more
Kristina Amelong
Want to understand how to work with all of time in your writing?
Read this!
I am continuously reading this book.
Amorak Huey
Mar 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
Lots of smart thinking in this book, helpful advice and musing on memoir. Some quotes and notes that I gave to my creative nonfiction students:

Again and again, people say to me, “If I could just tell it,” and I know exactly what they mean. But how hard it is to disabuse them of the idea that if they just started at the beginning and worked their way forward, all would be revealed. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life, its elusive threads and c
Oct 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Loved this nifty, square tome, dedicated to the philosophy of memory & memoir writing. Be aware: it's most helpful to have read at least several of the memoirs referred to throughout the chapters, which are conveniently organized into 'broad-idea'/'condensed space' chapters: the Lyrical Seekers (a bit dense for the beginning, but it picks up from there); 'Coming of Age' (my recommendation of where to start reading); 'Fathers & Sons', 'Mothers and Daughters'. Possibly due to the space con ...more
Juan Valdivia
Jun 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
Excellent book. If I could give it 4.5 stars, I would. If you ever want to pick up a book that critically and thoughtfully analyzes the memoir, I can't think of a better book than this one. Birkerts provides a number of incisive breakdowns of books within the classic memoir genres (such as "Coming of Age," "Mothers and Daughters," and "Trauma and Memory") to show how some strong writers went about writing their books, how they dealt with the issue of writing about memory, and the passage of time ...more
Michele Cacano
I really enjoyed reading this. It is essentially a critique of modern memoir, with many examples (and a reading list to further explore) of writing techniques; whay works and why, whay is less effective, how to choose and enact the desired effect for readers (assuming you are a memoir writer).

I feel I have learned not only intellectually, but viscerally, through this book. I will most likely revisit it often.
Casie Blevins
Oct 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I felt like I read five books in one. Wonderfully done synopses of five influential memoirs. Thoughtful and moving connections between novels. I enjoyed this The Art of title.
Feb 13, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting overview of multiple classic memoirs, grouped according to several broad themes. One does learn something about the use of time/timelines in structuring memoir, and it can be a fast read (I just got interrupted with several other books).
Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Feb 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Telling the stories of our lives has more to do with simply saying, "and then, and then, and then." The art of memoir is in how we frame the narrative, and how we tell time. Sven Bikerts does a great job of demonstrating the different ways writers use time to tell their stories, depending on the stories they have to tell. Well worth the read.
Jun 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I'm working on writing a memoir and came across this book at the public library. I had read an essay by Sven Birkerts about a year ago and liked his writing style, so I decided to take this book home along with two other books about writing memoirs. I love this book! After reading a few chapters, I realized what a gem this was and what crap those other books were and immediately returned the other books to the library. I'm actually re-reading this book now because there is much to ponder on thes ...more
Jun 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
I love reading anything by Sven! This is the second book I've read in this series so far and it is a good insite into the different types of memoir from someone who went through the long process of writing his own. Given his incredible writing skill, he did justice to explaining the dynamics of three types of memoir, using examples in depth.

He starts off with the lyrical seekers using Virginia Wolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Annie Dillard. Then he goes to coming-of-age memoirs, first drawing the dis
Caroline Barron
Sep 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This small book is a shining light amongst the often dry titles lining the craft of writing library shelf. Sven Birkerts writes in a simple, approachable but in-depth manner about the role of present and past in memoir. The structural and narrative concepts and examples he presents are inspiring and varied, offering several completely different ways to approach your own memoir, or to give you the tools to analyse the memoirs of others.

Favourite quote:
"The distilled experience then exists as a s
Jan 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I went on a spree last fall and bought several books in Graywolf's "The Art of..." craft books. Last year I read Joan Silber's "The Art of Time in Fiction," which I appreciated quite a bit, and know I will continue to dip into it from time to time. But I got even more out of Birkerts's book, though I'm new to writing memoir pieces--or maybe that's a large part of why I so appreciate this one.

Basically, after looking more broadly at what all memoirs do in braiding together different time perspec
I had thought this book would be prescriptive about the particulars of craft of using time in a memoir. For this I blame a misleading title. The book is more descriptive about the fact that memoir is defined by being about something in another time and thus being about moving from the experience of not having perspective to the writer's reality of having perspective. The provides categories of memoirs and describes how this affects their usual structure.

And it does the above very well. However,
Aug 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I will reread this book many times--a lyrical, thoughtful beautifully written reflection on the art of memoir.
I have savored Mr Birkert's style of writing, that flows effortlessly, revealing an incisive exploration of how memoirs are written, and what makes them successful. He has added extensively to my reading list by quoting the texts of wonderful, sometimes dark, self-explorations into the timeline of the author's life. He separates and studies their constituent essential features, what and
Nancy Hinchliff
4169634 Just finished reading this. I must say I was rather disappointed. I thought I would glean more useful information, as I am now in the throes of designing an approach to my own memoir. and thought maybe this would delineate a few issues for me...things to consider, to look out for.

I did not like the style of writing in this book and the language used. It seems pretentious, affected and excessive in the choice of words. It could have been easier to read and digest if the language and the i
Aug 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
This is a great book for anyone thinking about writing a memoir. The author is a critic, editor, writer, and Harvard professor, so as expected; the book is more analytical than others. The author makes the distinction between literary memoirs that are focused, versus the sensation driven and often chronologically written biographical memoirs that cover a wide spectrum of the author’s life. The author defines several categories of literary memoirs and illustrates each with his discussion of numer ...more
Sep 02, 2008 rated it liked it
Suspended somewhere between a short book and an extended essay, this is a brief look at a number of reoccuring narrative and stylistic techniques in the ever-popular genre of memoir, fleshed out with examples culled from Birkert's obviously expansive personal readings. It often gets bogged down in mere synopses, but the first two chapters--the prologue where Birkerts describes his own struggle to write a memoir and the chapter on "lyrical seekers" (specifically Nabokov, Woolf and Dillard)--are d ...more
Sep 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
This book is truly a master class in literary memoir -- if you are struggling to write one (who isn't, these days?), and you're having trouble boosting it in the air above a long Wikipedia article, this book helps. Birkerts provides gorgeous examples embedded in his own insightful and clearly written prose, and I tagged so many places throughout this book it's an invaluable resource. In fact, when I finished reading it, I turned back to the beginning and started again. Add it to your bookshelf i ...more
Jan 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-craft
I highly recommend this book to anyone attempting to write memoir. Birkerts explores the way memoirs use time differently than other genres, noting that memoir writing is less about telling everything that happened in chronological order, and more about searching for patterns and connections among events in your life. Birkerts writes that many memoirists “use the vantage point of the present to gain access to … the hidden narrative of the past,” and he gives solid examples of how different memoi ...more
Apr 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
As I wait for contracts to be signed, and prepare to dig into edits on a (great!) new memoir, I’m reading Sven Birkerts contribution to Graywolf’s unflaggingly excellent “The Art of” series, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. He crystalizes what I appreciate about the genre and the type of books I find myself drawn to, and he’s instructive about weaving “the now and then (or many thens)” to approximate the “sensation of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of ...more
Michael K.
Jul 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is not a book to curl up by the fireplace, but it wasn't intended as such. It was assigned to me by my grad school advisor, and is a wonderful source of information about handling time in your writing. I made about 4-5 pages of notes on a legal pad that I'll be reviewing on a regular basis as I revise and write again. The only downside is there are a few chapters that are so specific, and a little dry, that I didn't get a whole lot from. A must-read for CNF writers.
David LeGault
Feb 15, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I keep trying to get into memoir. I want to believe it's not this thing I hate, that it's worth exploring.

Then I read books like this: the introduction outlines the problems with the genre (that it's more therapeutic for the writer, that it's narcissistic and self-serving). The book goes on to explain why memoir is not these things by giving examples that are mostly therapeutic, narcissistic, and self-serving. What a joke.
Sep 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Yes, yes, yes! While I left feeling a bit frustrated that it didn't "solve" any temporal problems I am having in my own writing, I was reminded that any so-called craft book that promises to yield easy answers or duct-tape-like narrative sutures is worth its weight in crap. We have to stake out our own territory. Do our own work. But Birkert's book gives us much to consider as we do so.
Aug 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Whether you are a writer of memoir, or you just really enjoy reading it, this book is phenomenal. I found this book really inspirational and I think it's really helped me elevate my writing to another level. I plan on reading this again and again over the years. Sven Birkerts is a rockstar.
A.R. Beckert
May 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this very much, and felt better aware of the intricacy of this genre. I read it as part of a self-directed study of memoir and creative non fiction. It helped to be introduced to some of the leading titles in this genre.
Mar 22, 2016 added it
Very helpful to make concrete what works in various types of memoirs, and what may not, or how an author can make a technique work be it in a lyrical memoir or one focused on family relationships. It also provided an excellent reading list.
Mardi Link
Nov 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Why are so many of us compelled to write about ourselves, me included? To understand, to document, and to re-remember. This little guidebook takes a complex topic and resists the urge to simplify, but instead adds depth and understanding.
Oct 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mfa-coursework
Not quite what I expected, but a fast read and interesting survey of literary memoir. (If you're looking for a critical analysis on time or temporalities within the memoir genre, this is not really the book.)
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Sven Birkerts is an American essayist and literary critic of Latvian ancestry. He is best known for his book The Gutenberg Elegies, which posits a decline in reading due to the overwhelming advances of the Internet and other technologies of the "electronic culture."

Birkerts graduated from Cranbrook School and then from the University of Michigan in 1973. He has taught writing at Harvard University
More about Sven Birkerts

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