Perspective: Past and Present

by: Karen Propp

A distinctive trait of the best memoirs is how they unfold on two planes of time—the past and the present. The memoirist recounts past events, but she is looking at the past through the filter of time. She has a perspective on the past that she didn’t have when the events originally occurred, and sometimes she will comment on the event from the present-day perspective. This present-day perspective is what gives memoir its emotional depth and reflective quality.

In fact, often the memories we choose to write about have surfaced because we want to reflect further on them, make sense of them, or gain wisdom from examining them.

We can correlate the two layers of past and present with the two layers of story and idea: A memory from the past unfolds as the story, but it’s the present perspective that provides the idea. In other words, we tell the story about the past memory, and then we add our present perspective to reflect on the story’s meaning.

For example, Vivian Gornick, in Fierce Attachments, remembers a time when she felt excited, alive, the day full of promise, and in this mood, met her mother for one of their walks. She shows the scene and adds her present-day perspective about the incident as well.

"I go to meet my mother. I’m flying. Flying! I want to give her some of this shiningness bursting in me, siphon into her my immense happiness at being alive. Just because she is my oldest intimate and at this moment I love everybody, even her.

“Oh, Ma! What a day I’ve had,” I say.

“Tell me,” she says. “Do you have the rent this month?”

“Ma, listen...” I say.

“That review you wrote for the Times,” she says. “It’s for sure they’ll pay you?”

“Ma, stop it. Let me tell you what I’ve been feeling,” I say.

“Why aren’t you wearing something warmer?” she cries. “It’s nearly winter.”

The space inside begins to shimmer. The walls collapse inward. I feel breathless. Swallow slowly. To my mother I say, “You do know how to say the right thing at the right time. It’s remarkable, this gift of yours. It quite takes my breath away.”

But she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t know I’m being ironic. Nor does she know she’s wiping me out. She doesn’t know I take her anxiety personally, feel annihilated by her depression. How can she know this? She doesn’t even know I’m there. Were I to tell her that it’s death to me, her not knowing I’m there, she would stare at me out of her eyes crowding up with puzzled desolation, this young girl of seventy-seven, and she would cry angrily, “You don’t understand! You have never understood!”

Gornick remembers the moment, tells the story about it in detail, and reflects on its meaning in the last paragraph with a present-day narrator’s perspective.


A metaphor for how to create these dual layers of past and present would be to see yourself (in the past) as an athlete in the heat of competition. For much of the memoir you simply show us the athlete at play. But at select times, you (in the present) become a color commentator, offering insight on the athlete’s performance.

When you show the athlete at play (in the past), you only relate what happened in the past and the only thoughts revealed are those you had at the time of the events described. Such is the case in this passage from Tony Horwitz’s “Yemen: Confessions of a Qat Eater” (Baghad Without a Map) in which the narrator relates his experience sampling qat, a popular drug in Yemen:

“I was so busy chewing and hacking and coughing that I didn’t notice at first that the carpet was massaging my toes. How long has this been going on? I stopped chewing for a moment, feeling a sudden urge to leap to my feet and stretch. But someone had glued my back to the cushions. When did that happen? I slumped back and closed my eyes. The tingling in my toes worked its way up my calves and along the back of my thighs and flooded into my spine. I noticed for the first time that Arab music was playing on a radio in the next room, mingling with the steady, soothing bubble of the water pipe. It sounded like a brook tumbling over smooth, small stones. Burble burble went the hubble bubble. Bubble hubble went the hurble burble.”

We stay firmly rooted in the past. We see what the narrator was doing, and the only thoughts relayed are those he had while he was high on qat. It’s effective when a writer can take the reader this vividly into his past, and in this particular piece the writer chooses to stay in the past for the entire memoir. Usually, however, your story will be more resonant and rich if you can write the past with a perspective from the present.

But in this passage from Tony Earley’s “The Courting Garden” (Somehow Form a Family), the writer moves beyond the athlete at play to become the color commentator:

“One night Sarah said, “ Let’s plant a garden.”

And I said, because I was in love and would have agreed to any number of less reasonable requests, “I would love to plant a garden with you.”

At the time we suffered the delusions with which God mercifully touches the betrothed. All we really knew of each other were the things we hoped to be true. During those courting nights we made up a world out of whole cloth and peopled it with our longings: we were patient and kind and devoted, and, in a moment, simply because we wished it, became gardeners of diligence and skill.”

With the last paragraph, the present-day narrator underscores the naïveté with which he and his wife began their life together in the past, and this paragraph of reflection adds a deeper level of meaning to the story.

You can also add the perspective of other characters involved in the scene. This example from Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face shows two perspectives about a significant moment at the end of a hospital stay:

“At least this is how I remember it, though my mother tells it differently. In my version, when the day came, the doctors took both my parents into my room alone. They stayed in there a long time. Finally my mother emerged, explaining that I was going to have an operation on my jaw, but that I could come home for the weekend first.

I remember being thrilled, as if I’d only heard the part about going home for the weekend. My mother looked at me aghast. She was acting strangely, I thought, not herself. I had to explain that it wasn’t the operation I was excited about. I knew if I went home for a weekend I’d get special treatment, and I did. My father let me go horseback riding not once, a big treat in itself, but twice. When my sister complained about the favoritism, my father virtually snapped, an uncharacteristic response, but I was too excited by the proximity of horses, with their sweet, grimy smell, to even try to figure it out. I don’t remember going to school at all.

In my mother’s version, when she came out of my hospital room I jumped up, hearing only that I was going home. But after that, she says, the doctor asked to speak to me, as if I were an adult. He told me I had a malignancy. He explained they would do everything they could, that I should do my best to get well and they would help. As my mother tells it, I did go to school, where I thanked my teachers and classmates for the cards they’d sent me. I told them I had a malignancy. My mother said I seemed rather happy about it, and my teachers were shocked by my attitude. I told my teachers and all of my friends, probably with pride: I had a malignancy, I was going to have a big operation now.”

The two perspectives not only describe what actually happened, they also help to characterize the players, and add weight to the importance of the moment.

When a moment of great significance occurs in your story, it may be a good time to slow down and reflect on what happened.

How much reflection should you include? Some memoirs contain very little, some contain a great deal. This is a choice you’ll make, depending on your desired content and style. If you want a more action-driven memoir, you’ll stay mostly in the past, mostly focused on the athlete’s game. For beginning writers, this is usually the best way to proceed, especially for the first draft. Indeed, the potential problem with too much present-day musing is that it can interrupt the narrative flow of the story and provide too little energy to keep a reader’s interest.

However, you may want a more reflective memoir, or your writing style may naturally include pockets of reflection interspersed within the writing. In this case, you’ll weave a fair amount of commentary into the action.