Writing Alchemy and the Element of Time

by Kendra Bonnett on May 12, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #48 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
big benTime. It shapes the lives of everyone on the planet…whether you wear two wristwatches set to the different time zones where you do business, plant crops according to the seasons or rise and go to bed with the sun.

When we use Time in our writing, we’re dealing with more than hours, minutes and seconds. It’s the dates of world events, celebrations, national disasters. It’s weekends and holidays, anniversaries and birthdays. It’s the days when children are born and parents die. It’s the position of stars, the charts that track sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon and tides, even the decades, centuries and days of the week. It’s seasons and astrological calendars.

We can try to manage Time, but there’s no getting away from it.

If you’re of a certain age, it’s knowing where you were when President Kennedy was shot. Or what you were doing when the World Trade Towers collapsed.

But how do we integrate Time into our writing? Here are a few thoughts:

Time Sets a Tone

I remember the first time I saw the movie Barry Lyndon. I went with some college friends. From the corner of my eye, I could see them squirming in their seats. They made runs to the concession stand and multiple trips to the bathroom. One young man even went outside for a cigarette break. “It was boring,” said one woman after the movie. “Too drawn out,” another complained.

But I saw it differently. To me, acting aside, Barry Lyndon captured the pace of the life in the 18th century, and that added to my appreciation of the film.

Our sense of time has changed dramatically through the years. Have you tried to read an older novel? They’re well written, but they’re slow. In some cases pedantic. Try to pick your way through a story by best-selling author Thomas B. Costain; he wrote such popular successes as The Silver Chalice, The Black Rose and The Tontine. Or Rafael Sabatini, the romance and adventure writer of the early 20th century. When I was in high school, Scaramouche and Captain Blood were among my favorite stories.

But as life has speeded up, so has our taste in fiction. Read a chapter of Leon Uris’ Exodus or From Here to Eternity by James Jones. Then skim through a few pages of any of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay or David Baldacci’s The Camel Club. The speed of the action, the dialogue that carries the story forward, the stories within stories are rapid fire. These newer books suit our 21st-century sense of Time.

Time Shifting and the Future of Time

If anything has the potential to change our relationship with Time, it may be technology and programming on demand. No longer do we have to watch our favorite shows when the networks dictate. Between Hulu and Netflix, I can pretty much watch what I want when I want. Services like Amazon Kindle and Audible, deliver the latest books as ebooks and audiobooks to my iPad in seconds. Instant gratification and Type A personalities are a permanent part of our culture.

Our changing relationship to Time has even led a group of technologists to try to compress time with a clock that ticks just once a year. The century hand moves every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out to sing with each new millennium.

Only our inability to escape Time remains the same. Fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Famed basketball coach John Wooden said, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” And my father used to tell my sister, brother and me, “Times change but people don’t.”

The Perspective of Time and Place

In Writing Alchemy: How to Write: Fast and Deep (see, we can’t even get away from Time in our title) Matilda discusses the role of Time and Place in our memoir writing. Both give context to our stories and bring added depth and dimension to our storytelling. She discusses the confluence of Time and Place and how we can use both to set our stories, establish a pace and explain where we fit in history and the universe.

Today on She Writes, I posted my last blog as Guest Editor. In “Take Your Readers Somewhere…The Importance of Place” I discuss the role of Place in our writing. Next week, Matilda picks up the mantle as Guest Editor on She Writes to share Gail Straub’s keynote speech, “My Mythic Memoir Journey,” at this year’s Story Circle Network Stories from the Heart Conference.

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