Monday, January 17, 2011

Summer time

Happy New Year – summer holidays always make me feel philosophical about how we experience time and one of the things that interest me about writing (and reading) is the way in which we employ, manipulate and experience time. Some of the ways we do this are quite obvious and others take a bit more thinking about.

On an everyday level, there is the common experience of being so caught up in a story (either reading/viewing/listening to it, or writing it) that we become unconscious of time, we are in the zone, totally absorbed, and an hour or two can go by without being aware of anything other than the story itself. We are inside the space, time and emotion of the story itself. This ordinary experience is usually considered to be an ideal state for a reader, one that denotes an excellent book, movie, play etc.

A second aspect involves how writers use time as a technique to ground, develop and enhance a story. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of listening to Owen Marshall talk about handling time in fiction, once in 2005 and again in 2009, and some of the issues and challenges he discussed included: the use of tense, e.g. using the present tense rather than the past, or using both past and present tenses; flashbacks and flashforwards; the acceleration, abbreviation or expansion of time; cuts and transitions; and conflation of time where the past is brought into the present, or the present into the future. If my memory serves me right, Marshall said that Annie Proulx’ story “Brokeback Mountain” ( on which the film was based) is a textbook on the use of time and that William Trevor is an expert at conflating time in his stories.

A third area that interests me is the use of, and the difference between, chronological and psychological time in a story (Mike Johnson in a fascinating talk on short stories to Auckland NZSA members in February 2008 used the terms, vertical and horizontal time). A great example of a short story structured by psychological rather than chronological time is Wheat, by Tracy Slaughter (which won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition in 2004).Vertical or psychological time disrupts chronological time, transforming it into what is emotionally linked or meaningful and more closely resembles the way memory and everyday internal experience are linked to emotional triggers. I’ve often heard it said that beginning writers should stick to the more simple technique of using chronological time to structure their stories but I’m inclined to disregard such patronising advice, believing that, at least since James Joyce, psychological time is more relevant and more interesting, although admittedly harder to pull off.

Another aspect I’d like to find out more about is around the differences between how time is used in novels versus short stories. Frank O’Connor (The Lonely Voice, 1963, p 103) suggests that, "The short story represents a struggle with time – the novelist’s time; it is an attempt to reach some point of vantage from which past and future are equally visible…" Easy to think of many of Raymond Carver’s stories as meeting this criterion. I wonder what Charles May would have to say on the subject?

And finally, for a while now I’ve been ruminating on a quote from Margaret Atwood in her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009). This book is a collection of the Empson lectures Atwood gave, and in the second lecture she uses the metaphor of Alice in the Looking Glass to discuss the idea that when we write we call on two, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting, aspects of the self: the ordinary flawed, everyday person who possesses no special wisdom or insight (Alice looking into the mirror) and the artist, (Alice looking back from mirror at real life and the ordinary person). She says: “…here is my best guess, about writers and their elusive doubles, and the question of who does what as far as the actual writing goes. The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”[my italics]

I like that: all the time not in the world.

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