Time Is On My Side; or, Narrative Motion

I am thinking about time, that mover, that crawler, how it shuffles, how it disappears. I began thinking about this as I have been doing an online course on the braided essay, that is, a prose beast that contains two or more throughlines of thought/experience, the weaving of which can create a conversation, as one line questions, highlights, casts shadows on the others, or creates gaps of warp and weft such that new ideas are suggested. I often love these kinds of essays. But the course offered one example in which I  found myself speed-reading in boredom through. And I posited that I was bored because none of the threads of the bread contained a narrative that moved through time. I wondered if I needed that pull of story to carry me forward, that sense of time passing and something unfolding.

I don’t know if that is actually the case, because I can’t be bothered to go back and reread it to test my theory.

But in poetry my preference to read and to write is for the lyric poem, the poem-of-a-moment, of held breath, a blink-and-now-it’s-gone. So why this testiness when it came to prose?

To be fair, maybe it was just that one essay. I’m reading various works by my latest literary crush Robert MacFarlane. (I know I’ve mentioned him in this space before.) His works are not set in moving time, particularly, yet I find them fascinating. The narratives are of short duration — a hike here, a conversation there. Maybe there are just enough of those to keep me turning the page, maybe it’s that not the magic of his lyrical prose.

The movement of time on the page is prestidigitation: one moment you’re in the dining room, the next, five years have past and you’re on a train. The tick tick of life lived is never that gratifyingly flee-full of the ache of passing time: boredom, the dentist’s waiting room, the wait for the other shoe to drop. (Yes, there is the sending the child off to kindergarten one day and college seemingly the next, the panicked knowledge that time has passed that you haven’t noticed. But is that not also ache?)

But maybe it’s not the passage of time that helps pull the reader along, but in fact, some indication of change — whether that be change in the narrator, in the situation, in the unfolding comprehension of what is occurring. Long ago I attended a creative nonfiction writing workshop, and it was suggested that my essay about my decision to quit my job was too blame-y of everyone else. I was taken aback by this perspective, as I didn’t think that that was what I was doing. But I think back now and suspect that what I had not sufficiently done was to express the internal change that had lead me to that point — had not shown the eagerness turned dread, the hope turned to despair.

Time is change, and change occurs in time. So whether the expression in writing is “later that day” or “I had thought once X but finally realized Y,” the readerly imagination is caught and carried. But of course that inner change is the more satisfying thread to follow, the emotional trip always more deeply interesting than the movement of the minute hand or the walk from point A to point B. But it’s the harder story to tell.

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