Shifting Self/Problem of Time when Writing

The self is not a stable thing. Sure, there’s a sense of continuity, but our mindset, attitude and mood are constantly shifting; so much so, they can be barely recognisable from the inside given the space of a few days. If I look to my journal, some entries are verbose, some are whimsical, some are interrogative and some are superficial. Some are depressed, some are elated. We move through life, changing with it all the time. We come to acceptance of the past through pain. We add to our little collages with every new experience or perception. Tomorrow’s self if not identical to today’s.

Yet we desperately try to present ourselves as though this were not the case; as though some overriding essence is our character through and through. As though change is something that only happens on a large scale. Similarly, in our books, we set out to create a stable (even when unreliable) narrative. Perspectives change, but we write them with control. We stick to the voice we chose. But we ourselves are not the same.

In fact, the one doing the writing is not nearly consistent enough in character to get a whole book finished with focus and singular intent. No sooner have we laid the groundwork than we’re changing our minds completely about what the piece should be, what its angle is etc. The self shifts every few days, through external influence and organic rhythm. And so the narration shifts, too. The writer in a week’s time may well fight all the progress the writer today made. It is the integration of our ideas over time that really give a book depth. It is also what makes writing hard.

A book is supposed to be a consistent thing: something the mind only pretends to be through use of a persona. The deeper we dive, the more altered our vision becomes, and we find ourselves a hostage to intuition.

‘The person you needed to be to write the book never settled into form.’ ~ Renee Gladman.

The problem of time when writing is that the book exists entirely outside of it. A writer literally pulls a narrative out of a bunch of impressions into the flow of time, so the way it comes together follows no familiar pattern or pace unless it’s purposefully formulaic. It cannot be forced. It may be necessary to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling for weeks on end, or to scribble down fragments in the middle of the night that don’t match one another but will later form dots to connect. A book may dictate that its author spend a month in a hotel room or on a train. It may play dead then rear up with a vengeance some years later.

The words we need to say care nothing for genre, convention, meaning or publishing schedules. That’s all placed upon them later, if not by the author then by the reader. But in the days it is being written, the narrative is untamed. If we try too hard to sculpt it while the raw material is still being exhumed, it can turn to dust before our eyes. The problem of time when writing is one of being pulled in opposite directions: toward recognition and toward authenticity. Kate Zambreno illustrates this perfectly in her autofiction Drifts.

My narratives are not really plot-driven but ontologically-driven. Perhaps these are the spaces in which time becomes a problem; where it isn’t a natural attribute of the thing to be controlled. And if time is not a natural attribute, the writer has to decide when to stop: when enough has been said. Enough has been framed.

A conclusion implies an ending. Something has been proven, highlighted, gained. But it’s fallacy: far from complete and tucked away, we go on building. It might be a fresh canvas, but the artwork is the same one. It just goes on and on.

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