“If I write in the present yet digress, is that real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers of the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time. Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.”
– Patti Smith in “M Train”
Writers are seldom in real time. We’re writing about yesterday or years ago and we’re writing about tomorrow and aeons into the future, creating time machines with words. If I’m sitting in a room in the purported here and now and you walk in and sit down in a vacant chair, you may soon observe that I’m not really there; I’ve gone deep into the past where time and space are so real that I can taste her breath in my mouth while noticing that the color of her lipstick matches the color of the dawn’s “sailor take warning sky.”
Patti Smith follows–figuratively speaking in her own time–the gurus who postulate an “eternal now.” Interesting, perhaps true, but that concept doesn’t help us get to work on time or remember when to feed the cats. Time used to be all mixed up before the railroads created time zones at high noon on November 8, 1883. Before that, time was a roll-your-own approximation of the sun, moon, stars and custom. But, you cannot run a railroad–other than the Polar Express–through roll your own or the eternal now.
As the New York Times said looking back at the date and time in 1983, “Some citizens grumbled about ‘railroad tyranny’ and tampering with ‘God’s time.’ The Mayor of Bangor, Me., deplored the change as an ‘attempt to change the immutable laws of God Almighty.’ The Indiana Sentinel lamented, ‘The sun is no longer boss of the job.'”
I’m reminded of the verse in Isaac Watts’s old hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”:
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
That verse made quite an impression on me the first time I sang it in church. I felt small, awash in an almost-timeless universe, awash in the power of my own thoughts and words to take me away from the “now”–as defined by the railroads–into fluid moments so far away most people have forgotten them or not yet imagined them.
When a writer writes, the time is always now or, if not now, whatever we say it is. From time to time, I ask people, “Is it yesterday yet?” Nobody seems to know. They haven’t yet noticed that the right creative thought and/or the well written book will take them into yesterday with or without clocks and time zones.
I guess people notice the eternal now when they read and become lost in the story. Writers are always lost in the story, and I think that’s a blessing even though it plays hell with temporal appointments ruled by clocks.
1960 movie poster
When I read H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, I thought what a wonderful invention that would be, this long before “Star Trek” invented the “temporal prime directive” stating that the people in our time couldn’t tamper with the people in another time. Science fiction writers love playing with the notion that if a person simply strolls through the past, his/her presence there might change the world. What would happen to you if you accidentally killed your great great grandfather?
If there really is an eternal now, then the answer to that question is probably “nothing.” For years, writers have wondered if a time machine might make it possible to “go back” and save President Lincoln. Some say that, had he lived, reconstruction wouldn’t have become the hellish mess that it was. A character in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 figures out how to return to Dallas on the date in question and save President Kennedy. The world resulting from that was a horrible mess, darker than the dark ages. As it turns out, playing God is dangerous because we don’t know what God knows in the “evening gone” since Lincoln and Kennedy were shot.”
Yet, when we write, we are playing God. Sometimes I wonder if our play is confined to the pages of our novels. Perhaps our stories have impacts we can’t imagine and will never know. Best we can do is hope that our muses keep us on the straight and narrow so that we always write the right thing when the time is right.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels, a fact that shouldn’t surprise you after reading this post.