Pocket watch in sand - Time and the writer

Is it possible to tinker with the present, the way an author can tinker with the past when writing a story or narrative based on actual events? Is there some method analogous to dawdling over coffee while changing a complex sentence into a simple one and then back again, with all the time in the world to decide which is more effective?

I don’t know how to tweak my present circumstances that way. I’m only “lord of the past,” and only when I write.

And yet, while I recall that past and work on recreating it so that a reader may enter and experience the joy, sorrow and lessons embodied there, it becomes my present. What a paradox—an aesthetic mobius strip!

I don’t feel, when writing about the past, that I’m “running away” from the present. I am, in a sense, living in the past, but adding my present sensibility and purpose. Upon further reflection, I’ve come to realize that this is not really a matter of changing the past, either. A writer can do that, but here I’m only referring to the process of writing and editing to allow the picture or film, as it exists in my memory, to come into clearer and clearer focus on my page. This effort, I find, often takes me into a realm of timelessness—an aesthetic world.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating each aspect of the world—light and dark, oceans, vegetation, animal life, and so on, in just “a day.” As perhaps every Judeo-Christian religious school in the world points out, there’s no mention of how long, in accordance with our idea of time, such a “day” was.

The metaphor of this timeless “day” casts God in the role of cosmic Artist. He takes infinite care, “before the launch,” to produce work that is both imaginatively conceived and skilfully executed.

The human artist can labour to perfect a work in a similar way. Indeed, Carl Jung’s major essay on artists, “Psychology and Literature,” discusses how the obsession with perfection in the work has left many artists with messy lives, for a person is only allotted so much energy and there may not be enough to go around.

As I worked recently to perfect a story about some difficult events that took place many years ago, I noticed that I was living neither in the problems of the story, nor within my usual present-day consciousness. My focus on getting the words to fully and vividly recreate my past world affected me like a meditation. I found that I was living in a world outside of time, analogous to that of the Creator “before the launch.”

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon—fascinated enough to simply note it here, without needing to tie it up in a perfectly neat explanatory bundle.

image: time clock photo via Shutterstock