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All Moments Are Present to This Moment: The Elasticity of Time in Storytelling

by Fenton Johnson

Spalding MFA Fiction and CNF faculty

Here’s the great secret to the storyteller’s approach to narrative time:  It has nothing to do with the time of clock and calendar.  In a very real way, storytelling time is timeless – outside of time – if one needs evidence of this, consider the power of that magical phrase, “Once upon a time . . .”, which might be appended to the beginning of every work of fiction and creative nonfiction, even those that we think of as “realistic.”  (Involuntarily I think of the great novelist and memoirist Vladimir Nabokov’s observation:  “Reality is the only word that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks – ‘reality.’”)

And yet the very linearity of the sentence on the page imposes a kind of linearity on our stories.  One word follows another, follows another . . . And in a most poignant way, that linearity describes how we in Western civilizations most frequently think of life:  We’re born, we live, we die, end of story.

Creative writing will liberate you from that way of seeing the world, if only you will let it.  To offer only one example, anyone writing a memoir discovers quickly that a successful memoir must be more than the sum of its parts.  It must be more than a recitation of events – “this happened, then this happened, then this happened . . .”  Many tools (many of them considered the territory of fiction) are available to the memoirist to leaven her prose, but chief among them is the artful manipulation of time.

In a recent craft lecture given as part of the Spring 2016 Spalding intensive, I spoke of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinction between “surprise” and “suspense.”  Emerging writers often set out to create suspense by concealing information from the reader, in hopes that the reader will continue turning the pages in order to find out, say, that your only brother died in Vietnam.  They opt for surprise. But you’ll engage the reader more by allowing the reader access to information that the characters (and the individuals who people creative nonfiction are characters, as surely as those in fiction) don’t know.  That is, you choose to opt for suspense, an emotion that (as Hitchcock points out, in his famous interviews Hitchcock / Truffaut with the French film director François Truffaut) has nothing to do with fear.  That way the readers participate in the characters’ discovery of events.   If you reveal up front, for example, that your brother died in Vietnam, we feel full force the irony of his wish, expressed to you on his last night in the States, not to return crippled.  

Whether writing fiction or creative nonfiction, you may also apply this principle by writing against the backdrop of familiar historical events.  Readers of Sena Naslund’s Four Spirits most likely know of the deaths of four girls in the church bombings in Birmingham, and the events of the novel are charged with anticipation and dread as we watch the impact of those terrible events on the characters’ lives.  Readers of Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star know that Custer and his men died in the battle of the Little Big Horn.  Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl may be our most famous illustration of this principle:  She suspects her fate but we, her readers, know it, and though that knowledge informs every page with fear and sadness, it also enables us to appreciate more deeply the diary’s many moments of joy and delight.  The Diary also makes the case for the significance of memoir and creative nonfiction:  Millions of readers worldwide know the story of Anne Frank, far more than know the story of the dictator who destroyed her life.

In her very useful The Art of Time in Fiction, novelist Joan Silber names various approaches to time:  Classic Time, Long Time, Slow Time, Switchback Time, and Fabulous Time, and describes how well-known authors work in each of these forms – and often in a combination of several.  The key – and here’s my takeaway point – is always to orient the reader in space and time.  I often teach James Baldwin’s magnificent essay Notes of a Native Son as an example of how an author can move fluidly between and among many moments.

In the essay’s powerful opening paragraphs Baldwin establishes the setting and time of the essay – the date of his father’s Harlem funeral, which was also the date of the birth of his youngest sibling, the date of his nineteenth birthday, and the day after a race riot.  The second paragraph concludes by establishing the question that informs the following thirty or so pages:  “When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own.”  At the same time – masterfully – Baldwin gives the impression (“I began to wonder”) that these pages, which took him eleven years to perfect, are unfolding as he writes.  Thus the essay seems at one and the same time both immediate and reflective.

So, as a prompt, start by reading Notes of a Native Son, easily locatable at any library or online.  Then compose a one-paragraph (no more!) vignette or anecdote that succinctly introduces the richest moment of your life.  Note that “richest” may not be the most dramatic.  Then pose a question to yourself, about what you might learn from that moment – how it acts as the touchstone of an interior journey in which writing serves as your means of finding a way through the seemingly chaotic thickets of experience. 

The recipient of many literary awards, Fenton Johnson is the author of  a new novel The Man Who Loved Birds, as well as a Harper’s Magazine cover essay (Going It Alone:  The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude). He is the author of two previous novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock, as well as Geography of the Heart:  A Memoir and Keeping Faith:  A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks.  He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air.

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