We are all interested in time, but writers are especially so.  I touched on it in a podcast I made a couple of years ago (posted on this blogsite as a "A Letter to myself aged 7" in October 2018). More recently I was asked for a contribution to the Dear Reader blogsite, and I came back to the subject. This is what I wrote.

About Time, and Stories

I dare say all story-telling is about time. As word succeeds word, and page follows page, the flow of time is tested and explored. Time is the water in which story-tellers swim. Stories are drenched in it.

Even when a story is pretending to look forward, it is actually looking back, because the all-important business of fiction is retrospection — in anger, in tears, in gratitude, but often only in simple curiosity. Ideally, though, the matter is not so simple. There should be a chord of emotions, because the music of time is complex. It is often discordant, but when it’s harmonious, as the saying goes, time is medicinal, a consolation. Writers love to play on the sadness of time, but they know it can be a sweet sorrow just as often as it’s a bitter pill.

Memory is the postman of time, bringing the past again and again to your door whether you want it or not. As everybody knows memory's eye is selective, and a distorting lens. Its selections and distortions can’t be eliminated, nor should they be, because they’re loaded with important meanings. Just ask your analyst, if you have one. Or ask your mother, if you still have one. But be warned: her memories have their own distortions and their own, quite different, meanings. Memory is not only selective, it is relative.

The only element in the mind that is not of time is the moment. Time is escapement, but moments momentarily escape time. In them the mechanism stops, the sun stops. When the poet Louis Macneice held hands with his girl in a teashop, “time was away and somewhere else” and Macneice had an experience of bliss. But soon enough the shadow on the floor moved and the moment was gone.

We dream of seizing such moments in order to live in them, if only we had time enough. But that is impossible. All moments, without exception, are inevitably crushed under time’s chariot-wheel. We don’t have time because, instead, time has us.  

Every moment, every precious moment, is transient: that is the deal. In the long run time, as we experience it, does not mean development, or progress, or even random accumulation. It means loss. It means never going back.

Get used to it, says common sense. But time is immune to common sense. Time is immune to everything, except story-telling.

Posted on August 9th, 2020


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