For a writing project, I’ve been reading about early Hollywood, how precious film was and how hesitant producers were to fund projects that didn’t move in pure chronological order. When a filmmaker cut together two parallel sequences—a family held hostage and someone coming to save them in the nick of time—the studio was appalled. They thought the audiences wouldn’t understand how time was working in this film. The filmmaker argued that Charles Dickens had done just this; he had faith that this was how stories were often told. Turns out, he was right.
For the same project, I’ve been reading about spirit photography, double-exposures and other film tricks that mediums in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would use to present messages from the beyond. One medium in particular reported that a face in a spirit photography was interpreted by different people as a whole variety of family members, of different genders and ages; they were certain they were looking at their dearly departed uncle, grandma, husband, child.
Maybe we can learn from the way film moves, how it plays with time and pulls us along with it. And maybe we can also learn from the way even a static image can interact with the viewer’s memory and deceive it, telling the story the viewer wants to see.
Text, after all, is both a temporal and static medium. It takes the reader on a journey through time in a way that, say, a painting might not. But it also has a physical presence on the page. We can manipulate both of these aspects to immerse the reader in expanded or contracted moments.
In his essay “The Memory Field: Musings on the Diné Perspective of Time, Memory, and Land,” Jake Skeets explains, “Memory is a physical construction. While memory is normally associated with the cognitive functions of the brain, I argue that memory’s connection to time imposes its existence onto physical space as much as it does onto cognitive space. I am always fascinated by the idea that the starlight we see today is in fact old light cast out from a time existing simultaneously in the past, present, and future. The star’s light began in its present, a past to us when we see it in our present, which is the star’s future.”
He goes on to note that “Throughout our lifetimes, we develop many memory fields as we navigate humanhood in ever-changing times and environments. As we venture in and out of these fields, we are essentially participating in time and space travel.”
Just as language is elastic, so are our minds, and so are our memories, and the stories that get into our bodies at highly-charged moments can become more than fiction, more than words. They can become our lived reality.
Back in 2013, I drove from Iowa to my grandma’s house in Minnesota. She had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer four months earlier, and her living room had just been converted into her hospice space the night before I arrived. My aunt, a nurse, told me she didn’t think my partner needed to drive up after work; she said she didn’t think we’d lose Grandma that night. I sat by the hospice bed for a while, but Grandma was fast asleep, and my mom told me I should clear my head. I brought One Hundred Years of Solitude to the coffee shop.
All this to say, when I remember my mom calling to say I needed to hurry back to the house, that Grandma’s breathing had changed and she likely would die that night, beneath the full moon, what I taste isn’t the coffee that had cooled in my cup. No, what I taste is the dirt Rebeca eats in the novel. That story is what lingers on my tongue, outside of time,.
For me, the core of writing that makes me feel is its connection to embodied experience and the senses. I also value surprising metaphors and the rhythms and sounds of the lines and sentences. So when I read something zoomed in, that is holding me suspended in time, I want to feel it in my body; I want to taste dirt on my tongue. I want to feel the rhythm. If the physical sensations are relentless, I want the sentences to go on and on. If the experience is fragmented, I want the language to follow. Same with speeding up time: I don’t want the events to become remote; I still want to feel them in my bones.
Now, that’s me. One question that came up a lot in the registration surveys was how to pace writing that expands a small moment, how to bring the reader along without boring the reader. I think the most important answer to that question is this: What makes you personally go along with a writer when the writer plays with time, when the writer squeezes a century into a sentence, or turns a single hour into a novel? Before you do any of the exercises below, complete this sentence in your notebook: I’ll follow _________________ anywhere. Fill in the blank with your favorite authors’ names. Fill in the blank with sonic qualities, with the way writers craft emotional and physical experiences, how they manage Skeets’ act of time travel. That’s your answer. It’ll be different from mine, and that’s okay.
In the live session on Saturday, you’ll have time to play, but you can go ahead and start exploring if you like! Choose whichever exercises speak to you in this moment; discard the others or save them for later.
- Look at your “I’ll follow _________________ anywhere.” Find a passage or piece that perfectly demonstrates your criteria, your writing love language. Read it twice. Study how it moves. Then take one of your “In the Midst of” titles from Day 1 and write a piece emulating this model.
- Take the freewriting piece from yesterday and flip it. If your title was, “In the Midst of Lockdown, I Could Not Get Over the Cowlicks in Your Hair,” change it to, “In the Midst of Brushing the Cowlicks in Your Hair, I Could Not Get Over Lockdown.” Write that piece. See how it’s different. What happens when you zoom way out and focus on something huge, when it eclipses something small?
- Write your own “Refrigerator Elegy.” Go to a closet or cupboard, a junk drawer. Catalogue the items, building toward a big statement, like Harding’s “All things expire” and the later, more hopeful, “These things, here and gone: may they fill us like the light now filling our refrigerator, glorious and bright.”
- Write your own “Footnotes on a Love Story.” Write a snapshot poem or short story, then complicate its narrative through footnotes. Now make the footnotes the main story. See what happens.
- Write your own “After Leaving My Father at the Hospital on Christmas Day,“. What is everywhere after a major event? How do small details take on a different meaning? What do they become? You can play with not naming the big event, leaving that to subtext.
- Write a piece that physically mirrors how your memory of an event exists within your mind. Are there giant gaps? Put that blank space on the page. Are there a ton of exclamation points that would never fly in a writing workshop? Cool. Write a calm, collected narrative then footnote it with rows of exclamation points. Are you not an authority on this family lore? Write the whole piece in questions. How can you take the rhythm and shape of memory and put it on the page?
- Make a list of oppositions: sex and death, joy and fear, tragedy and comedy, etc. For each noun, write a list of words that mirror that feeling. Think about the way thought works within that space. Does death speak in fragments or run-on sentences? Then, write a piece about joy that uses the language of fear, or a tragic piece that uses the language of comedy.
- Take one of the items from your “small things” mega-list. Wallace Stevens it. You could even try looking at through the lens of thirteen things on your “big things” mega-list if you’re feeling adventurous.
- BONUS CHALLENGE: Take your favorite piece. Cut it in half. Then double it. See how the focus changes, how the language changes. Then write the piece again, with this new knowledge.