(Or why time flies when you’re having fun but a watched pot never boils.)
If you think about your relationship to time, you will probably find that time moves at a variable pace. We all have days that zip by and nothing seems to get done; other days so crammed with events that sixteen hours feels like a week. Remember when you were a child and how time crawled when you waited for a birthday? Why is it that when we are put on telephone hold by a telecommunications operator every minute becomes much too long whereas if we are eating a piece of double deluxe chocolate layer cake for the same number of minutes the time seems to go quickly?
You get my point. Time is relative. Time is variable.
A writer gets to play with time.
One of the most challenging choices in writing a memoir is to decide which weeks or days or minutes in those years to give your attention. How many pages should you write about the afternoon you were six and shoplifted chicklets from the corner store? Should you spend more time describing what it was like to be stranded in a blizzard and less time on the trucker driver who eventually rescued you? Do you need to describe every person at your fortieth birthday party?
It all depends.
Let’s say that your Uncle Moe’s death figures in your piece. You get to decide whether to spend four pages or four paragraphs or four sentences on Uncle Moe’s death. If the piece is about your relationship to Uncle Moe, you’ll want to spend at least four pages on his death. If you were with him when he died, you might want to spend at least two pages on what it was like to sit by his deathbed. But if the piece is about your relationship to your mother and Uncle Moe was her brother, you might want to spend four paragraphs on his actual death and more time on the effect of his death on your mother. On the other hand, if the piece is about living in Italy and you only met Uncle Moe three times in your entire life and your parents want you to come home for the funeral and you do not, well, then, Uncle Moe’s death doesn’t warrant more than four sentences, while your conflict about whether to take a plane home will take up four pages.
There’s no clear cut rule about how much time you need to spend on any particular event, and many of those decisions will be influenced by the pacing of a given piece as much as the relationship of the event to your intended theme. The important thing to keep in mind is that as a writer you can stretch or shrink time. You may not be conscious of how much time you allow for things to take place when writing a first draft, but as the spine of your narrative becomes clear, you want to consider places to slow down and stretch, places to speed up and shrink.
The Mezzanine, Nicholas Baker’s first novel, takes place in an escalator of an office building where the narrator is returning to work after buying shoelaces. The entire novel covers a grand total of seven seconds! Baker can stretch out time in such detail because of his unique obsession with the minutiae of every day life. In an interview, he said:
I would write in my notebooks about all these ambitions of writing enormous books, huge subjects for novels, but the only time I actually felt pleasure writing was when I had turned the lens a little bit and was focusing on something carefully and was able to revolve it in my mind. It's not automatic, I don't feel as if I'm a description machine cranking myself slowly in one direction, fixing on something, spitting out a description of it, and then moving on to the next thing. What it feels like is that, instead, I have some pressing point I want to make about the coils of a toaster.
Baker makes an important distinction when he says that slowing down time is not about laying on endless description, but about turning your writer’s lens and focusing on something carefully. Most of you will not be spending as much time discussing, say, the pros and cons of paper towels versus hand dryers in bathrooms as Baker does, but it’s useful to think of his work at one end of a spectrum.
There are times you want to intentionally slow down time. For example, Robert McCrum, a 42 year-old British editor and writer, wakes up one morning in his London apartment to find that he has suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage which has left him completely paralyzed on his left side. In My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke, he takes a good ten paragraphs to narrate the twelve hours it took to make his way down a flight of stairs to the phone and call for help. McCrum has stretched time out to show how excruciatingly long everything took now that he was paralyzed by a stroke, and also to convey the odd state of mind this event produced.
In memoir, you’ll also want to quickly summarize a long periods of time in order to get to whatever point in time is your actual subject. You want to be able to compress hours into a single sentence. You want to cover decades in a paragraph. This requires that you write with economy and imagination.
Here’s the writer Autumn Stevens, now middle-aged and writing about her marriage in A Body Scarred, A Marriage Healed. To bring us up to date on the couple’s history, she says:
Incomprehensible, it sometimes seems, that the Volvo-driving, tax-paying, insomniac mortgage holder whose ring I wear on my fourth finger was once a gangly 19-year-old who so stirred my soul, the blue-eyed boyfriend I met in the college co-op we both lived in, a haven for latter-day hippies and student activists.
Granted, it’s a long sentence, but notice how an astute list of adjectives swiftly characterizes both the 19-year-old boyfriend (gangly, blue-eyed) and the midlife husband (Volvo-driving, tax-paying, insomniac mortgage holder).
James McBride, in The Color of Water, compresses to one paragraph the essential information about a year in his and his mother’s life.
By the time I began my senior year in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college
and be a musician of some kind. I couldn’t see myself hanging around Wilmington
working at a 7-Eleven, gigging in a pop band that played the VFW and other
seedy country joints, which is what I was doing. I did have an urge to stay out of
school and study saxophone and jazz composition like the old-timers I admired—Bird, Coltrane, Clifford Brown—but I was afraid I might never get out of Delaware.
Ma wanted me out of Delaware too, but she had no escape. She was the
unhappiest I had ever seen her. It was like her legs were cut out from under her.
The day before Thanksgiving in 1974, her old Toyota broke down and she had no
money to fix it, which meant we had to take a bus to some godforsaken distant
supermarket to find a turkey we could afford. We found the bird, but when we got
on the bus to go home the paper bag holding the frozen turkey burst; it fell out of
the bag and rolled all the way down the aisle to the front of the bus, where the
driver grabbed it. The passengers and driver laughed, but to Ma this episode
epitomized her entire experience in Delaware, that darned turkey rolling down the
darned aisle in front of all those darned people. She had few friends there.
The black folks found her to be awkward. The white folks bored her. But there
was no quick and easy escape.
McBride begins the paragraph with exposition, explaining what he wants—to go to college and be a musician—and what he doesn’t want—to stay in Wilmington, Delaware. He tells us his mother is the unhappiest I had ever seen her. But then the second half of the paragraph slows down to relate a concrete example—the turkey rolling down the bus aisle—that will explain why they hate Delaware. And then he comments on the rolling turkey. In the very next paragraph in the book, McBride fast-forwards in time. High school is almost over. He gets into college. He’s found his escape.
Combined Stretching and Shrinking
Skilled writers will simultaneously stretch and shrink time in a single scene, choosing when to speed up and when to slow down, as if they are driving in stop and go city traffic. Here’s Joyce Johnson, in Missing Men, writing about the night she met her husband, Jim Johnson.
The passage covers, let’s say, eight or nine hours at the most. Previously in the book, Johnson has shown how they met and what Jim was like and what attracted her to him. But in this passage she’s most interested in conveying her state of being. It’s also the way she ends a chapter. Notice how economically she uses dialogue. “Come upstairs for a minute.” That’s all either one of them say. We don’t need to hear Jim’s response. We don’t need to hear whatever else they might have said after that comment. Johnson wants to speed up time so as to get to her final moment of the scene, when she wants to slow down and tell us how she feels about this man and about her life at this time. “I lie there in astonishment, careful not to move.”
Come upstairs for a minute,” I said to Jim, still talking sideways as we hesitated, unwilling to part, outside the door of my building. I no longer recall what we said to each other one flight up or our hungry, inexorable progress to the mattress on the floorboards of the front room. My memory fades out demurely like an old-fashioned movie. But the next scene comes up bathed in yellow light. It’s morning—the sun is up over the low rooftops of the East Village, over the flat rubble filed across First Avenue where blocks of tenements have recently been torn down, over the dusty tree with hard red buds just outside my window. The sun is in the room as I wake up, Jim’s breath on my back, his hands around my breasts. I lie there in astonishment, careful not to move.