Tempus fugit; memento mori*

I began writing this post to explain why so much time elapses between my blog posts. I intended to say something about how my interior experience of time differs so radically from “objective” time. Wasn’t it only a few days ago that I wrote “A storyteller in search of a genre?” No, it was two weeks ago.

As I wrote, I started thinking about temporality in fiction and how time and imagination play upon each other and on me as a writer, and the post took a very different turn. Enjoy.

“Time goes so fast. It slips away before one has a chance to live it, first an hour, a day, a week, year, month, a lifetime. How I want to reach out and hold it, but like so many tiny bouncing bubbles it flies on, impossible to catch, to hold. But where are they all going?” – Journal entry, March 9, 1975

Illustration by: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

As my journal attests, I possessed a precocious nostalgia for the passing of time. Somehow I knew, even as a child, that my hours and days and years were not limitless.

Those rare occasions when I am able to exist outside of time are liberating and intoxicating. Mind-altering substances can get you to that place. Luckily, so can meditation, reading, and writing.

Storytelling is about playing time like an accordion. In fiction, a year or decade can collapse into a sentence or paragraph. Or a single day (or night) can expand to fill an entire novel (Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake).

Cover of "Mrs. Dalloway"
Cover of Mrs. Dalloway

Unlike Facebook fanatics who chronicle every breath and eye-blink on their timelines, a storyteller plucks moments out of time and presents them—artfully, one hopes—to the reader. You don’t account for every minute of the hero’s day as he eats his fried egg, visits the bathroom, pulls on his socks, backs out of the driveway on his way to work. You write about those activities only if they are relevant to the story.

Then you shape those activities into scenes and scenes into a narrative. Between one scene and the next there may exist a gap of hours or days; the action might jump forward or back a week or a year.

Deftly executed, flashback and foreshadowing add to a story’s richness.

Reading and writing fiction is both time-bound and timeless. Within the world of a book, I forget how old I am, my marital status, the squabbles of my children, or even that I have children. I forget the weight of the world’s problems. I forget my own death. When I write, all worlds are possible at once: the world of childhood, the world of the old crone I hope to one day become, a world that existed before I was born, and the now.

Writing is the only way I know to hold onto anything in this world, and to let it go.

What do reading and writing do for you?

*The title translates as “Time flies; remember you are mortal.” I didn’t realize this would be such a serious post. I promise something more fun next time!

On a lighter note

The third volume of Fault Zone launched this past weekend! Fault Zone: Over the Edge contains stories about “a vertigo-inducing mixture of people and places rooted in the SF Bay Area.” I’m thrilled to have helped out as assistant editor, and also that one of my stories—an excerpt from my novel-in-progress—appears in its pages. I hope you’ll check it out (available on Amazon from Sand Hill Review Press).

11 thoughts on “Tempus fugit; memento mori*

Add yours

  1. One of the things I find most attractive about writing fiction is having control – over things like time. And yes, when you read a story, the author plays with your time sense – and with your time, too! How much time have I “lost” in my life while reading? Hopefully I have also gained from the experience.

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.


  2. Being mortal and having time fly is preferable to being mortal and having time creep by, slugging along, dismally dragging us. I don’t think there’s a Latin term for that, though.
    Time travel is the #1 appeal of good books, all good books. They move us forward or backward in time, or stay in the moment but help us experience a different life. Good writing does that for us. When I read GONE GIRL, I loved the whirl of being in different characters’ lives, some in real time, others in false time, all in a mix of compelling confusion that made me feel a part of the charade, a character in absentia.
    Thanks for opening the discussion. Good post.


    1. Thanks for the response. I agree that being mortal and having time creep would be dreadful, surpassed in horror only by being IMmortal and having time creep.

      Many paths seem to be leading me to read “Gone Girl.” I’m adding it to my “to read” list.


  3. It sounds cliché to say reading takes me to another world, but that is indeed what it does. And as you point out, time in this world is on a different scale than my own. Just thirty minutes ago I was on the treadmill reading. But I was also in Japan in the year 1800, sometimes on land and sometimes at sea (I’m reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), all within the scope of an hour. Although I love watching movies, I’m never transported like this–distracted and entertained, yes–but not transported. Writing carries a similar trickery on my mind.

    “How I want to reach out and hold it, but like so many tiny bouncing bubbles it flies on, impossible to catch, to hold. But where are they all going?”—This is really beautiful. It reminds me of my kids getting older and my desperate attempts to imprint memories of their various ages on my mind. Oh, to be able to flash back in time for 24 hours when each of them was a beaming, cuddly toddler. 🙂


  4. I just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife. I lived a lifetime with them in 5 days. I love love love how the writer played with the flow of time. I love how a good book makes you disappear into it. 🙂


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