Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics
I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.
We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.
This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.
This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.
For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.
It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.
Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.
This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)
Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.
One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.
This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. “
And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?
Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.