How much time do you have?

We started classes last week at Wright State, and the second day of class I asked my students what they thought off the two chapters we had read and hands went up, they gave me what I also considered the highlights, and at seven minutes into class I thought, oh shit, now what? I’ve worked with a lot of these students before and remember now how good they are. They’re engaged and smart, and as such, discussions are not so much a discussion of what the essay is about but what to do with it, which means I have to push them further just like they push me further.

The class is called “Narrative Time in Fiction” and is centered around Joan Silber’s brilliant book The Art of Time in Fiction.

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She’s broken down narrative structures into different classifications: classic time, long time, switchback time, fabulous time, and slow time. As we discuss them in class, as a way of organizing my thoughts and harnessing this great class’s energy, I hope to give you the highlights here along with what we’re reading. Let me start with a few quotes from Silber’s intro:

  • “A story is entirely determined by what portion of time it chooses to narrate.”
  • “Plot likes causation. We read anything looking for a pattern of events, and through it a meaning–the reason someone is bothering to tell us.”
  • “How much time [a story] covers has everything to do with what it means.”
  • “Time is always in some ways the subject of fiction.”
  • “A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means.”

I can’t say this enough: this book is fantastic. As I was struggling to write a novel, it helped me figure out that my pacing was off because I hadn’t yet determined the time frame; I was just flabbily writing toward an ending. Going back and framing it around a school year made all the difference, and since then, with every story I’ve written, I’ve taken the time frame into consideration. I’ve ended up with tighter, more pointed stories, I think, and it’s all due to this book. I hope my students find it as helpful as I have.

Up first: classic time. We’re reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point,” and David Leavitt’s “Territory.” Stay tuned!


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