Lessons from the Writing Workshop #12 — Representing Time

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #12 — Representing Time

Time is such an important element in writing, and maybe we don’t talk about it enough. There is the time period in which a story or poem is set, the span of time that occurs within the work, how we move through time in the piece, and the reader’s experience of time while reading. All are elements a writer is crafting in their work.

Time as setting
Events take place not only in a particular location, but also in a particular time period.  A love story will have different elements set in the 1940s, the 1960s, or the 1980s.  A story about AIDS will be strikingly different if set in 1981, 1988, 1998 or 2017. It is part of the author’s work to evoke that era through a faithful rendition of its language, its concerns, its mores, its historical events, and its cultural representations. This may require research, which can involve reading books or periodicals from the time period, reading books about the time period, talking to people who lived in that time, consulting online almanacs for the particular year, and/or viewing photographs or films from the time period. Such research can help you immerse yourself in the time period.

Span of time
What period of time the work will cover—is it an hour, a day, a week, ten years, or three generations?

There is always a “present” (although this does not necessarily determine the choice of verb tense), a time in which the protagonist is either undergoing or realizing the effects of his/her arc of change. Change can’t happen in the past, and so the plot advances in the present.

There may also be a “past” (or more rarely, an implied future), revealed through back story or scenic flashbacks. It’s important to keep in mind, the past is always there to be in service to the present, to help us understand why the character is making the choices they are. Sometimes writers will use the present merely to create a frame for a story set in the past, but unless something is happening in that present time, you’re better off to let it go, and let the historical story become the “present.’

Some novels with a broad span of time treat this passage as a continual, unfolding “present,” as with Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Ordering of time
When we speak of the structure of a story, we often mean how one arranges time in the work. One may tell a story in chronological order, but this is not the only choice. There are as many structures as there are stories. Charles Baxter’s novel, First Light, for example, is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with the end and working backward toward the beginning.

A story with flashbacks obviously inter-cuts different time periods. It’s critical that flashbacks be triggered by events in the present, and that the reader be returned to the present, which is the place where the plot advances.

A work may contain parallel time periods, such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Or a work may contain multiple points of view about a single time period, so that a moment may be replayed in the work from different vantage points, as with Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Duration of time
A writer must choose which moments to elongate as scenes and which to condense into exposition. Moments containing action that is pivotal to the plot of the story, or behavior that is specifically revealing of character and motivation are usually most effectively presented as scenes. It’s important not to let major moments take place “off stage” or simply be referred to in exposition.

The author must also decide about the duration of such scenes (are a few lines of dialogue in a specific setting enough, or does the action need to play out in a semblance of “real time”?).

Moments or spans of time which are more incidental are often best dealt with exposition (keeping in mind though that this too should be made vivid through specific observation and sensory description.)

Movement in time
Is the action continuous from beginning to end or are there breaks in time? Movement in time is typically signaled in the following ways: end of chapter; end of section; paragraph or, in poetry, stanza breaks.

It’s crucial to keep the reader oriented as to where they are in time. This may be done by attaching Date/Time headers to chapters or sections, or by building references to time into the text of the work.  (“Three days later, she…” or “A long month passed before he saw his father again…” or “Seven summers blazed and died again before she returned to the island…”)

Reader’s experience of time
What kind of experience does the author want the reader to have? Long, slow, meditative, reflective? Jagged, disturbing, disrupted? Edgy, heart-racing, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down?  Among other elements, the manipulation of time will contribute to this reading mood.

How does the reader perceive his/her experience of reading? If the experience is too slow, they may become frustrated and not finish the work, but if it’s too fast they may feel unsatisfied, as if they’d gleaned no substance. The author can’t avoid such factors as people’s shortened attention span and faster pace of life.

Pacing
Scenes with action and dialogue tend to move more quickly than paragraphs of description or exposition, due to the reader’s involvement in the action.

Pacing is affected by the density of text — ratio of action/dialogue (through which a reader tends to move more quickly) to description/exposition (through which a reader may move more slowly).

Another element is diction. Elevated language, unusual syntax, or an unfamiliar dialect will all contribute to slowing the reader’s experience of reading. Simpler language, conventional grammar, easily understandable slang will all move the reader through more quickly. I’m not saying faster is better, just that you are determining your reader’s experience of the text.

Then we can consider the following: Sentence length — usually one wants variety with this, but longer or shorter may predominate; Paragraph length — a reader moves more slowly through long paragraphs than through short ones; and Chapter length — how much span of time is contained in each section—a moment, a day, three weeks, a year?  And, are the chapters divided into sections that signal shifts of scene and/or breaks in time?

The element of time may not be the first thing you think about when beginning a first draft. Often the initial rhythms of a piece—languid or breakneck—appear intuitively. However, this craft element is an important part of your toolkit when you begin revising and refining your work.

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At my desk

Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).

Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed.  The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity.  The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art.  Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.

Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows.  I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned.  What would that be like?  It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway.  What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.

The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction.  He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.)  One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.

Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it.  Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning.  To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.

To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective.  When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.”  By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities.  In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.

Writing Tip by Felice Picano

In the past few years I’ve begun to tune in to the wavelengths of the world — like a radio receiver — and now strangers tell me their lives.  I don’t know who they are until I’ve let them use me to narrate.  I think it began with my discovery of the unsolved murder in 1923 of a child, an uncle I never knew existed.  I searched but I never learned who killed him or why.  Yet. . . telling his story may have settled his spirit . . . a bit.  Since Vincenzo, I’ve heard other lives.  I always know it’s them because the story “writes itself,” often in a few days:  a woman who died of cancer in the Midwest married to a closeted man; an elderly writer stricken in a freak accident; a psychic boy in Northern Florida illness-bound to a wheelchair; a Venezuelan scientist facing the utterly unknown; a Victorian noblewoman in England, seduced, abandoned, and self liberated.  I called one story “Gift.”  They all are! . . . Learn to listen.

Biography of Felice Picano: Author of numerous novels, memoirs, nonfiction works and poetry, Mr. Picano has much of his work collected in references and collections including The Cambridge History of American Literature: Vol. 7Prose Writing, 1940-1990, A Concise Companion to American Literature & Culture since World World II, Eyewitness To America: 500 Years of American History: In the Words Of Those Who Saw It, The Readers Catalog: An Annotated Listing of the 40,000 Best Books in PrintContemporary Authors: Autobiographies: Felice PicanoContemporary Authors: Volume 20, Contemporary Gay Male Novelists; A Bio-Bibliographical Criitical SourcebookThe Post Modern Short Story: Froms & Issues, Gay Fiction Speaks: Interviews with 12 Authors, Vol 1, and The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill Club and the Making of Gay Culture.

Writing Tip by Samantha Dunn Camp

Getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes us tick is not something that comes easily, even for those who are inclined to want to do it. It seems we naturally resist examining why we are the way we are; we want to avoid looking at our contradictions, the places where we don’t make sense. That, however, is exactly the place we need to write from in order to arrive at insight.

I have my memoir students in the UCLA Writers’ Program do this as a beginning exercise: As quickly as possible, write fifteen sentences using this construction, “I’m the kind of person who________ but ____________ .” For example, I’m the kind of person who votes democrat but hates to pay taxes. Think first about actions in the world, rather than thoughts or beliefs—the tangible as opposed to the abstract.

After they have done the fifteen, I ask that they observe the list, think hard, then choose one of those sentences to expand upon for a 20-minute timed writing. The structure of the sentence usually ends up falling away like old scaffolding. What emerges is insight—the key to making any narrative more finely layered, more profound.

Biography of Samantha Dunn Camp: Samantha Dunn Camp is the author of several books including the memoirs, Not By Accident, and, Faith in Carlos Gomez. Her essays are widely anthologized.  For more information visit her website at http://www.samanthadunn.biz.

Writing Tip by Janet Sternburg

This is about the old chestnut: “Do you write every day?”

And if you answer, “yes,” then chances are you’ll hear another old chestnut: “What discipline you must have!”

Nope. It’s not discipline. I always think of discipline as beating yourself on the shoulders with a stick. It’s actually a writer’s “trick.” Let yourself fall in love with what you’re writing — so much so that you can’t stay away from it. I don’t mean infatuation. I don’t mean bliss. I mean letting yourself become so absorbed in the story you’re telling, the words you’re honing, the structural problems you are trying to solve, that it’s the most interesting thing you know to do. So you do it.

Biography of Janet Sternburg: Janet Sternburg’s books include The Writer on Her Work, Volumes 1 & 2, (W. W. Norton); Phantom Limb: A Memoir, American Lives Series, (Univ. of Nebraska); and Optic Nerve: Photopoems, (Red Hen). She is also a photographer and has exhibited in solo shows at galleries and museums in Korea, Mexico, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles.

Writing Tip by Eric Gutierrez

That throbbing cursor at the top of an empty computer screen at the beginning of a new tale is the Medusa that can often turn imagination into stone.   To get past not getting started I still use that old trick of writing the last sentence first, regardless of whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

If I’m already working on something and the words aren’t coming that particular day, I will kick-start the keyboard by writing a letter from one of my subjects (either a character or actual person) to myself, using his/her voice, concerns, humor, life.   I find they often confide in me this way.   “Their” letters usually yield some new dimension or information and spark a detail or reference point I hadn’t previously known or considered.   The subjects’ interior lives get richer and I get that cursor moving across the screen.
 

 Biography of Eric Gutierrez: Eric Gutierrez is a writer, essayist and cultural commentator.   His fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including Indivisible and the Lambda Award-winning The Man I Might Become. His essays and non-fiction have appeared in Harvard Divinity Today, huffingtonpost.com, NuestraVoice.com and the anthology Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner. He is the author of Disciples of the Street: God & Rap in the Holy Land of Hip Hop, profiled on The Tavis Smiley Show, and co-editor of Suave: The Latin Male. His scripts for stage and television include the Imagen Award-nominated theaterwork “By the Hand of the Father” (co-writer), and “Los Beltran,” nominated for an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award for Best Television Comedy.   He is the recipient of a Brody Fellowship from the California Community Foundation and a Burton Fellowship from Harvard and lives once again in Los Angeles.

Writing Tip by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Discover your assets!

With no income and possessing only a desire to complete a book about my work with Iraqi refugees, I realized my greatest albatross is really my greatest asset:  my house.  I decided to take a year and rent out my home while I travel, live elsewhere for free – and write.  I now house-sit/pet-sit and vigorously apply for fellowships.  This fall, I am enjoying a fellowship in Eureka Springs, AR, at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow (www.WritersColony.org).  I’m living in a serene suite with a nurturing staff in an artsy, lefty, hilly community while I write full-time and have my mortgage covered by tourists.    It’s a huge commitment to unplug for a year;  three months or three weeks might be more your style.  But dedicated time to moving a project forward is priceless, and reassessing assets can make it possible!

Biography of Kelly Hayes-Raitt: Kelly Hayes-Raitt is the Gorrell-Nelson Travel Writing Fellow at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow this fall and was last year’s Carson McCullers’ Fellow, living in the author’s girlhood home in Columbus, GA.  She continues to sleep around while completing Keeping the Faith:  An American Woman’s Listening Tour Among the World’s Forgotten. She blogs at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.