Writing Time

Like many a parent, I watch summer retreat and my children return to school (this very morning, as a matter of fact) with considerable ambivalence. I am relieved that our schedules will once again prove predictable and productive, and heartbroken that the season, which seemed so golden and endless when I was a kid, is so finite, so fill-able, and can close itself out in a matter of a few weekends.

Many people more qualified than I have taken on the subject of time, how we perceive it, how we divide it, occupy and squander it, but I am always interested in how writers capture it.  After all, inside a narrative, whether true or imagined, time is an illusion. However long we spend reading the book—hours, days, weeks—the time inside the story unfolds according to its own rules. I represent a short fiction writer who can, in the space of a few thousand words, create the impression that we’ve known a character for a lifetime.  In truth, the author presents us with a middle-aged woman who recounts the events of single summer long past. Yet the psychological space between the perceptions of the college-age narrator and the recollections of her more mature self expands–almost magically–to create a whole life.  It’s a bit like a painting, where close inspection of some cleverly rendered distant landscape is revealed to be no more than a field of contrasting colors that our brain has resolved into coherent shapes.  Good writing enlists the power of suggestion, expansion, imagination.

Whether an author is stretching a single day into a world—as Virginia Woolf  famously did in  Mrs. Dalloway or Ian McEwan in Saturday, or folding generations and political and social transformations into a single story,  as Geoffrey Eugenides did in Middlesex or Naguib Mahfouz in his Cairo Trilogy—the author is, in this endeavor at least,  a master over time.

What books would you say weave the fabric of time from whole cloth? What works do you look to as models for temporality?

3 Responses to Writing Time

  1. I thought Ian McEwan also did a very good job of this in ON CHESIL BEACH.

    I also quite like what J.K. Rowling did with the camping sequence in the middle of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. It felt like they were in the woods forever, and you were just waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen again. It was tiring to read. But that’s why it was brilliant: Harry and Hermione and Ron were out there for months, bored and tense most of the time as they hid and tried to think of leads for the hallows. By dragging that portion of the story out, we felt their exhaustion.

    I’m not a fan of the Twilight novels, but I did like what Meyer did with the blank pages with the month’s names in the second book (I think?). Again, it allowed the reader to experience time the same way as the character.

    And I just recommended it in another post, but Kim Stanley Robinson is brilliant in THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT. That story is an alternate history where the black plague wipes out most of Europe, so they never dominate the globe and other cultures shape the development of technology, the discovery of the New World, etc. It covers about 1000 years, following a group of characters who keep reincarnating together in different times and places and cultures. It’s quite a fascinating read and an interesting approach to a story stretched out over so many centuries.

    I recommended SPIN in that post, too, but I’ll say it’s the last ten percent of the third book in that trilogy, VORTEX, that was masterful in its handling of time (and also very moving). Not only do we get a sense of the aliens’ perception of time (they’re nanobots, so they see things on a grand scale; their plans move so slowly from our perception, but it’s because they’re working with a vision spread over billions of years), but we see the slow death of the universe through the perspective of a sort of alien/human hybrid.

  2. Mardi says:

    In Olive Kitteridge, author Elizabeth Stout masters time and its effects on her characters. We watch them grow old, and know the young people they once were and who still live and love within. One of the reasons I just love that book.

  3. emily says:

    Sadly, I suggest William Faulkner’s “Sound & Fury” — the stream of consciousness method of story telling left me so tired — it took forever for the kid to find a golf ball and TELL US ABOUT IT !!!!


    When I Googled Faulkner, a title called Barn Burning poped up and I truly read it as ‘book burning’ — I thought some other readers must have decided to burn his books — but no — it was just my crazy head still reeling from Sound & Fury.

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