Most writing is a practice in guided mindfulness. In writing we are attempting to uncover the past, while at the same time being aware in the present. We sit at our desks and go back in time, and those memories and emotions are filtered through our present self. We have to be in touch with the past, but have the wisdom of the present in order to write. Writing is in essence, a form a of time travel, and writing about the past from the present day is either to be subsumed in the moment–to channel the past or to be looking back from your present self in the form of narration.
In the example of these two books, the authors go back and forth between the two styles brilliantly.
Channeling is often in first person with visceral details and set to a specific moment, it is a deep dive into the psychology of a moment. An example of channeling:
“Sweat down my back. The fan pauses then begins again. At midnight this hand is the only thing moving. As discreetly and carefully as whatever animals in the garden fold brown leaves in their mouths, visit the drain for water, or scale the broken glass that crowns the walls. Watch the hand move. Waiting for it to say something, to stumble casually on perception, the shape of an unknown thing.” -Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family
Narration usually covers a large swath of time, conflates events where the author talks generally about “birthdays,” contains more generalizations and also a has a sense of the writer as narrator in the scene. An example of narration:
“I turned ten that spring, but birthdays were not a big deal around our house. Sometimes Mom stuck a few candles in some ice cream and we all sand “Happy Birthday.” Mom and Dad might get us a little present –a comic book or a package of underwear–but at least as often, they forgot our birthdays altogether.” -Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Try writing a scene in each style: channeling and narration, to see which is more powerful for you in your work!