Red Lemon Frozen Concentrate #4 : Time for You and Time for Me by Ray Montalvo
I think about time. A lot. I have the physicist's soul and nothing intrigues me more than the shape and force of time.
Time is many things. Time is temporal—hours, days, years. But time is also scope. And tempo. Time is asynchronous, ordered, fleeting, wasted. There’s the story’s time, the reader’s time, your time. Time can stop, but it can’t disappear.
Time bends and can be bent. As creators, writers know this. But do we take advantage of time fully? Our stories flow organically because most of us emphasize story and character. Because we live in linear time, so, often, do our stories.
But using time and integrating it into a story in unusual ways can make that story more powerful. I love work where time creeps in and hijacks the narrative. Of course, the author is working hard to create this illusion, but as a reader, we move into a special time machine of words and move freely through space and years. I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, and a slender little section entitled “Time Passes”. In just a few dozen pages, Woolf collapses the lives (and deaths) of several characters and covers ten years of time. The section is all the more effective given the density of the two sections that bookend “Time Passes,” with their philosophical meditations and interior monologues. “Time Passes” contains evocative yet straightforward prose, spare in detail but dense in peripheral imagery. Time passes like the sunlight in an empty room where the details are found in the shadows as the light arcs through the sky. Seasons pass, people die, war rages, dust gathers. The writing is beautiful, an example of a writer using all her talents to create a world.
The storyteller can also use time to take us hostage.
Currently, I’m held in the grip of large book of ideas and action, The Instructions by Adam Levin. Time, for Levin, is like sand in an hour glass, meted out precisely, flowing through its choke point before it free falls and recollects. The story moves forward in time over four days, which gives the work a flexible if not ordinary structure with only occasional flashbacks, mostly at the beginning. But within this typical structure, something strange happens. The language and description Levin uses fills the 4 days like air in a balloon. The structure elongates, filling from within to create a 1000+ pages of sometimes dense (sometimes endless) observation and character development. The technique can be maddening. I find myself overwhelmed. This isn’t the Proustian sweep of a single life, or the Dickensian cavalcade of events. Instead, the book is a kind of mock epic, a long-winded shaggy dog story that fascinates and fatigues the reader simultaneously. As a writer, I can marvel at the time it took to write all these words. The time it took to edit them, rewrite them, then have an outside editor work on them some more. I realized, reading this book, that writers and readers are marathon runners, lonely and moving forward watching the world unfold along the road.
Beyond temporal, time is about speed, deliberate tempo (or lack of it). Fast means easy patter, dialogue, short sentences. Slow means deliberate, mannered, artificial, with generous seasoning from punctuation, particularly our friend the comma. William Faulkner slows down the tempo to great effect in The Sound and Fury. Look at this opening passage from section two, Quentin’s section, which follows his methodical thinking controlled by the outside forces of family and time: “When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” More modern sensibilities tend toward the faster style. Kurt Vonnegut (a writer who had a rule to “keep it simple” as well as other rules that any writer should keep in mind), offers a good contrast to Faulkner. Vonnegut’s short paragraph-long “chapters,” his to-the-point dialogue, and use of simple verbal motifs (“so it goes,” “hi ho”) give the novels a sense of momentum, even at the price of eccentricity.
And lastly a few words on something I think is not discussed enough—tense, the sublime side of time. Past, present, and future. Past tense seems safe, the easy control of the flow of action, giving a story the tone of a lesson or entertainment (“Once upon a time...” or “I remember when....”). The present seems edgier, like a mystery unfolding in real time, though when used for no apparent effect, present tense can quickly lapse into distraction. The past is eliminated and the future seems too far away. And, I wouldn’t even know how an entire story in future tense would read, but the idea is fun if only in the abstract. Certainly our characters can speculate in future tense. But beyond a few asides or an experiment or two, future tense seems best taken in very small doses.
I think about time. A lot. What do you think when you think about time? What have you read that resonates because of the way the author used time? How do you use it to craft your own work? Take time to talk about time. Time for you. Time for me. Et cetera.
Ray Montalvo is a writer and marketer who lives in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in film from Columbia University, but sadly, the film business wasn’t for him. He recently began gathering web pages and articles of interest on movies, writing, editing, and more at pinterest.com/rmdash.