Time in Stories
The music swells, the bridesmaids and groomsmen are already in place, as is the groom, looking nervous-elated-placid-dour-hungover. There’s that moment of anticipation when the wedding guests turn in their chairs and crane their necks to look for what they know is imminent, the arrival of the bride. Suddenly, there she-him-they is/are, escorted by father and/or mother, and already people are near tears. I must confess I always get a bit misty-eyed at weddings even if I don’t know either the bride or groom very well. Weddings, like all our major rituals, are full of emotion.
I never really considered what it is about weddings that can bring an ache to my throat until the past two weekends when Cathy and I attended first, the wedding of a niece, and then the ceremony for a granddaughter. As I watched each processional, listened to each officiant, attended to the various toasts offered the happy couples, I realized that each step along the way was pointing out the precious nature of time. The little girl or boy now grown, the graying heads of the parents, the bonds of childhood friendships, the journey ahead of the married couple—each adhering to the strictures of its own clock. Time—it’s gathering and its passing—gives an urgency and a bittersweet quality to this ritual.
The same can be said for the stories we tell. The intensity of any narrative can be enhanced by paying attention to time passing. Think of summer coming to an end in The Great Gatsby, or the order to kill the two English soldiers one night in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” or the school day coming to a close on the last day before Christmas vacation in Richard Yates’s “Fun with a Stranger.” Each of these works relies on time passing to make their main characters’ journeys critical. Gatsby has this one golden summer to recapture his lost love, Daisy. The Irish soldiers who have hosted the English prisoners are faced with the struggle between duty and friendship under the clock of war, a march of time more powerful than they. The children in Miss Snell’s class have their eyes on the pile of presents on her desk as they keep one eye on the clock bringing them closer and closer to finding out what they’re about to receive.
Passing time makes everything stand at attention. Choosing the perfect apple takes on additional weight when the person doing the choosing is aware of time running out. The man who promises to join his wife at church on Christmas Eve—a last-ditch effort to save the marriage—finds himself delayed at work where someone is in need of a kindness. Because the clock is ticking and the wife is waiting, we pay close attention to every detail of the plot.
Don’t be hesitant to put time to use in your stories. Let the ticking seconds give everything about your work an added significance. Newly married couples always leave us eventually. The bride tosses the bouquet, the couple hurry off to their getaway car, and we wave them off. “Goodbye, goodbye,” we say. “Good luck to you both.” Then we stand there, our voices lowering, our feet beginning to move. We return bit by bit to our regular lives, and the rest of the day we think about the ceremony and those moments when we felt a swell of tears because something was beginning and ending, and there was nothing we could do to stop the clock from ticking.
I love this, Lee. Reading it at an early hour, the ticking of my kitchen clock reminding me that time is passing. And I’m doing Nanowrimo so I’ll put your suggestion to work.
Thanks for this comment, Kate. Good luck with Nanowrimo!
I will save this link for my memoir students to read, Lee Martin. As I age, I am more and more conscious of time and today with the time change, I am more so.
Thanks, Glenda! Time–it just goes.