Fred was a runner, so it’s been hard to keep him still. Now we’re both still, save for his tremors. A once-in-a-lifetime athlete, they called him. And not that he didn’t run fast, he did, but Brewster was a…
The Medium of Time
Writing is a medium of time. Rather than relying on all the wit and eloquence and charm you can muster in the moment, writers get to slow time down. They can float in it, and spend however much time they need finding the right words to tell a story that spans one minute, or one decade. We’ve had all the time in the world to prepare, and everything is neatly arranged for the reader.
Writing, especially fiction writing, is a murky business for me. It’s an underwater endeavor, a cloudy pond. That pond leads somewhere, to a creek then a river or an ocean, but even if I’m lucky enough to know where it is I’m going, I can only see a few feet in front of me.
Luckily, narrative has a built-in structure, which is also time. Whether a writer adheres to the rules of time or obliterates them, stories exist within a chronology. We understand the world and ourselves sequentially. This happens, then this. This happened way back when, and this is why this is happening now, and why this other thing is going to happen in the future.
JoAnn Beard’s use of time in the brilliant short story “The Tomb of Wrestling” (Tin House 70; The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018) was one of the main inspirations for “My Heart Goes Out” (MHGO). Beard’s actual story takes place over the course of about twenty minutes, but within those twenty minutes the author does away with the limits of time. Characters’ lives are exploded out for us. Beard invites us into the matrix, and after it’s all over our hearts are swollen with empathy for humankind and woodland creatures alike.
I applied this elastic approach to time in my own story. Fred and Sylvie fall in the snow. There’s nowhere for either of them to go, except for deep into the truth of their lives. Sylvie takes us back to 1954, to two winters ago, to 1987, all without leaving the snowbank or Fred or the present moment. You have to be precise when playing with time, though. Time has rules, and so does grammar. Editing MHGO brought on a bit of an existential crisis. I found myself in the math-y realm of parsing proper verb tense, and I am horrible at math.
Another thing I am sometimes horrible at is giving myself the time to write, which is really all writing is, and all that craft is. How good you are at your craft is how good you are at sitting with your work, and staying with it. Even if no words come, you’ve given your story or idea or image time to grow into itself. Everything we want to write is on the other side of time.
I find the more I think about the mechanics of writing and the elements of craft, the more the magic murkiness dissipates. The duckweed clears and then the pond does, too. But my approach to craft doesn’t matter. If you are a writer, your approach is what matters. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you there’s one surefire method to writing well. The only thing that matters is that you give yourself the time and space to do it your way.
AMANDA BLOOM’s work appears in The Rumpus, The Offing, The Yale Review, matchbook, Storm Cellar, The Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. She received a Connecticut Artist Emerging Recognition Award for fiction in 2018 and is a fiction editor at the New Haven Review. Find her on Instagram at @bloomamanda, on Twitter at @bloomamanduhh, and at amandabloom.com.