The Grammar of Autobiography: A Developmental Account

By Jean Quigley | Go to book overview

5
A Sense of Location

TENSE: ACTING OUT OR ACTING INTO?

Past, present and future are all in the Present for me. Subjectively, my Present is not like one dot on the dotted line of time, a dot distinct from the dot that preceded it, distinct from the dot that will follow. On the contrary, this directly experienced moment flows without a break into the future and it contains its past. What has already happened gives meaning and content to this Present; what is foreseen gives meaning and content to this Present. Fingarette ( 1996, p. 44)

Time is one of the essential things stories are about. Portelli ( 1981, p. 162)

There are many reasons why tense plays such a vital role in this context, including perhaps the most important one, as elaborated in Linde's ( 1993) model, that tense and temporal connectedness is vital for establishing a sense of continuity and of causality, as a central component of the self. This theme appears over and over again in the literature. For instance, Kerby ( 1991) asserted that apart from bodily identity, temporal connectedness best accounts for our initial sense of personal identity. Modell ( 1993, p. 3) said that "to speak of narrative is simply to emphasise the temporal, that is, the historical, nature of the self." According to Taylor ( 1989):

Another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going. But narrative must play a bigger role than merely structuring my present. What I am has to be understood as what I have become. My self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and incorporates narrative. ( 1989, pp. 47-50)

When we ask someone to talk about themselves, to tell their autobiography or life story, we expect their narratives to be firmly set in the past, yet even with children we find the curious situation that a substantial part of their story is not past- bound1 and that the speaker or autobiographer is "a kind of point" ( Davies &

____________________
1
This trend is borne out by, for example, Bruner ( 1990), who reported that 33% of the Goodhertz family's autobiographical discourse was in the present tense. And Gerhardt and Stinson ( 1994): "the very idea of narrative draws attention to the fashioning of experience in the present rather than the uncovering of memories from a buried past" (p. 152).

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