Bad Advice Wednesday: Play with Time!

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.   




  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Very interesting and resonant, Dave. Recently it struck me how powerful the retrospective memoiristic voice can be, even in novels, when I read Richard Ford’s great new novel, Canada. It is written, or told, by a sixtyish man who in the story is a fifteen year old kid. So he has a neat dual perspective on the foreground action, which is in the past, in a sense a book-length flashback. Like Gatsby.

  2. Dave writes:

    How about this style:

    It was in the fall, 1983 years after the death of our lord, that I met the great Tommy Conlon. There was a radiance to the man, a halo of glory shining from his shaggy mane, as he shambled toward the field…..

    • Tommy writes:

      You might mention, travelling economy in the fall of 1983, you spilled the cup you held between your knees while driving across Harvard Square one Saturday. A lengthy explanation was needed, you felt, but really no one cared. But it was earlier that summer when you and I first dined together near the fields of the Banana Slugs. What were you, a walk-on, HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE in one the highest levels of competition?? It was me,David, who pushed Barkan over to ask “the question” (reference: “Ultimate Glory”, last paragraph of the third version). Don’t think we didn’t notice Moons whispering sweet nothings in your ear. And they were all sweet nothings, and it wasn’t until he paid your fine for drunken commentary (and destruction of personal property) in D.C., that I began to love him.

      And Debra, you’ve given me your ass, and your great-grandmother’s underpants, to contemplate. She reminds me of Jessica Tandy in “Fried Green Tomatoes”, (a movie that came out on video cassette) and I like the sound of the story you’re painting. Tell me, how is the best butter in the county determined? By the pastor?

      • Debora writes:

        Hahaha. Well! Tommy! About Katy McQuaid, my great grandmother. She was by now Katy Clifford, married to a young farmer. It was Mrs. McCarthy, pillar of the community, that first announced that my grandmother made the best butter in the county. All of the other ladies agreed. Mrs. McCarthy’s husband was a fine business man, and the ladies, therefore, deferred to Mrs. McCarthy’s judgment on these matters. They often told the story of how Mrs. McCarthy had returned in a huff to the grocer, slammed a jar of butter on the counter and said, “This will not do. This is not Katy Clifford’s butter. I want Katy Clifford’s butter. She makes the best butter in the county.”

        • Tommy writes:

          Ahh, of course, the women’s circle, prim and catty, all at the same time! No finer recommendation than Mrs. McCarthy’s, whom I imagine wore fabulous hats.

  3. Shelley Burbank writes:

    I enjoy reading both styles. I have to say the first example tugs me gently into the story and says, “Sit down, sip a cup of tea, settle in for awhile.” I guess it really does depend on the story and the mood you want to evoke.

    Have fun exploring all the options for the new book.

  4. Tommy writes:

    One of the things I like about being older – I have a lot of great memories. I think as a writer, as you mature, it gives you a perspective few younger have, and it comes from that sense of time, you’re talking about. You can measure events, not just by their immediacy, but by how they relate, stand up to, even shape, other experiences.

    That being said, if you’re worried about your epic from the attic of your childhood summer home turning into a Neil Simon play, tedius, weighty, dull – add scandal! Uncover some old newspaper clippings of one of your ancestors living a life that was never talked about. (Of course, it’s been done before… about a hundred times.)

    • Debora writes:

      Tommy, smart and funny. I’m glad you contributed, I was wondering what you might have to say. I have this fabulous great grandmother. Auburn hair and bright blue eyes. She was known for dancing all night long and making the best butter in the county. She wore the strangest undergarments.

  5. Debora writes:

    Wow. Love both openings. Yes, different everything. I like to shift around in time, as I read. Tinkers, Paul Harding comes to mind. I don’t know Stegner, but I will check him out. Sounds wonderful.

    Back to Cape Cod, Prophet of Dry Hill. Terrific rendering of all of the abandoned ideas. It’s sad and wonderful (feels like fall). Leaving is always a good idea. Gosh, I have to read this book!

    I have not thought about this play of time in my own writing. Hmm.