The best writers–creative and business–understand the importance and power of time
I’m waiting for the plumber to arrive. Ever since our revered plumber/friend Larry retired, our plumbing issues have either been ignored or a fix has been attempted by me. Never a good idea. There is mold making itself at home on the caulking around the kitchen sink. It is cousin to the dark green matter working its way around the shower seam hoping we don’t notice it. But we do. Every time I’m in the shower I make a plan to dry off and then come right back in to strip off the old caulking and replace it.
But time marches on and takes my thoughts with it. By the time I dry off, my mind is on other todos I will forget about, and fille with great choruses of story ideas, dialogue, and images that will evaporate along with the steam.
Time is a cousin to memory. Our memories weave themselves into new images that may or may not have existed. Visit a place from your past and notice how much it has changed. It is nothing like the way you remember. But a glance to the side reveals a storefront or a road sign and immediately you are transported back to the first time you were there. Or perhaps, the last time.
WHY DOES TIME MATTER TO WRITERS?
Time is something we bend to our will, and rightly so. It is truly elastic. Just ask the Martians who count 37 more minutes in a day than us earthlings. It should not come as a surprise then that time in stories is also elastic; one scene can be over in a flash, while another moves very very slowly.
I am reminded of a dinner we had with a friend in Madrid. We were waiting in the bar for a table to open up, although there are no tables where we wait. Just white and blue tiled walls and a long bar lined with tapas of garlic potatoes. This dinner was many years ago and yet it sits in my memory, popping into view when I see those same white subway tiles along a wall. I am right back in that restaurant waiting to go into the dining room.
Time, and how it stretches and bends in our memories, fascinates me. Significant moments that in actuality pass in an instant are stretched, widened and extended to include what came before or after. Your first kiss. The first day on the job. The last time you saw your whole team together.
YOU’RE IN CONTROL
Of course, the writer gets to decide how quickly the camera will move on to the next thing. I often remind students that there are moments we want to drastically slow down time, to hold our camera still and investigate every detail and nuance in the scene. When we do this, we make it possible for the listener to become involved in that moment.
Science tells us that as an audience, we put ourselves in the story. We imagine what the character is thinking and feeling, we pull from our own memories to capture an emotion, even if the narrative does not include these particulars. If the story moves too fast I won’t have the time my brain needs to become involved, to hold up my side of this conversation in art.
I think about time often. I get up earlier to squeeze more into each day and yet the more I do this, the quicker the days fly by.
Of course, that is how we want to feel when we are immersed in a story. Reading a book on a Sunday afternoon is one of life’s most glorious pleasures; spending four or five hours focused on just this story, just these characters, wondering what will happen next. That is the gold standard. Every story should be a story that I want to spend the whole of a Sunday afternoon with.
For creative writers, this challenge is a good one as long as we understand that to get there, we have to take risks, go off in odd directions, lose the thread every now and then and write some scenes that take us off course. This can feel like a waste of time but it builds creative muscle and story depth.
FOR THE BUSINESS WRITER, THERE IS NO TIME TO WASTE
In business, time and stories are at odds with one another. In business and professional settings, time is measured in money and the more time we spend telling the story, the less money we make. So we rush. Or worse, we move too slowly.
It is for the business writers among us who must consider time not in relation to how it works for the narrative, but instead, how it works for the audience. Because it is not the story time we are concerned with; it is our boss’s time, or the client’s time, or how long we can expect a consumer to actually read that web page.
USING TIME TO GET WORK DONE
When we are writing for a company the question to ask is what does the audience want and need to hear? And especially, how much time do we have? You should know these things in advance. (Although please don’t use the phrase “hard stop” to indicate when you have to leave a meeting. It is annoying.)
A good writer will use time thoughtfully and bend it to the will of the story to capture attention and reveal information AT THE MOMENT IT IS NEEDED.
A good business writer should do the same. Tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. Don’t front-load that email with a whole history of the project. Just tell me why you are contacting me now and what I need to do.
I find myself working to convince our business writing students of the wisdom of starting at the end, or beginning in the middle. This concept can make them feel like something is wrong, like they are breaking a rule. YES, I want to shout. Break the rules! That’s what they are there for.
When we re-order time, we are doing our audience a favor. Don’t start at the beginning just because you think that’s where you are supposed to start. I guarantee that your boss just wants you to tell her the parts that matter, as do your customers and your colleagues.
PROMISE YOURSELF TO TRY THIS AT LEAST ONCE IN THE NEXT WEEK
When you are working on a report or marketing copy or even just shooting the shit with friends, start your story in the middle. Don’t worry about the beginning, just focus on what matters and what will happen next.