categories: Cocktail Hour
I guess it should not be much of a surprise that as I get older, and have more of a past to play with, I increasingly enjoy playing with time on the page. I have a colleague who tells grad students to avoid flashbacks at all costs, and I understand where he is coming from, pushing them to reveal all through active scenes. But for me the constant layering of time is one of the greatest pleasures in both what I write and what I read. For instance, as regular viewers of this page know, I have been reading a lot of Wallace Stegner of late, and almost all of the fiction he wrote after fifty, which is his best fiction, follows the model of a protagonist experiencing relatively brief present moment scenes that in turn spur reflections that send him spiraling back into much longer and fuller scenes from the past. (This holds true of Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, The Spectator Bird, etc..) This allows for a kind of active reflection in between present and past scenes, a telescoping in and out of time, and gives a sense of depth and texture to the writing. It also frees one from the fetters of what I call play-by-play, that moment by moment purely scene-driven style of writing that so predominates the workshop writing I have encountered. It allows a sense of layering that for me rings true to life, or at least true to the sort of life that is reflected upon as well as lived.
The novel I have been writing, on and off for over twenty years, has this kind of frame. The present moment “action” is that of the narrator cleaning out his old family house on Cape Cod. Not the sexiest of plots and one that would be hard to pitch in New York. But one that allows for sharp present moment descriptions of the weather–both natural and human– while also allowing for an entire family history to emerge from those surroundings. The danger of course is potential sluggishness of plot, but the advantage is that sense of scope, of temporal depth, through which one can move not linearly but impressionistically. Which I like.
As a young writer I was almost entirely beholden to the present tense, and my first three books were written that way. It has the obvious advantage of immediacy, and seemed to me a better vehicle for describing both the natural world and my own confused but evolving state. By my fourth book, as my own past tense grew, it began to make inroads, and by my fifth the past tense had taken over. The first line of that book, The Prophet of Dry Hill, reads like this:
“It was on Cape Cod during fall a few years back, after the century fell but before the towers did, that I began paying a series of visits to the writer John Hay. I had it in mind to write a biography of the man, whom I had always admired from afar. That book has long since been abandoned, joining a growing mulch pile of old papers. As it happened, I also abandoned the Cape itself and am no longer the permanent resident I once imagined I would be. Stranger still, John has also now left Cape Cod, a place he long celebrated in print and the place where he lived for close to sixty years.”
By way of contrast here are the first lines of my first book:
“Fall. The best time on the Cape. Today one of those cool, almost cold, mornings when the wind gets things going…..”
I won’t copy in the whole first paragraph but I think the point is made. A different choice, a different shape to hold the sentences, and so different sentences. And different tone, texture, everything, right? I should add that despite how I started this little essay, I am still a fan of the present tense, and am still wrestling with the decision over which tense I’ll finally use for this summer’s road trip through the West. But even if I settle on the present it will surely serve as a springboard for much past tense writing. I now like pinning little –ed tails on my verbs. Of course I still like fooling around in the present, but, older now, I have grown to rely on my own past tense.