A WRITING PROMPT FROM JOHN BRANSCUM

Each Friday we post one new writing prompt created by a Sarabande author. Prompts like this one are included in our online Reader's Guides along with discussion questions and suggested reading to accompany each title. So if you can't wait a week for the next prompt, visit our Reader's Guide page to find them all in one place!

This week's prompt comes from John Branscum, co-editor of Red Holler.

THE EXERCISE: RETHINKING TIME

Most discussions of time in relation to writing assume one of two models. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel addresses the first model – linear time. Forster explains that if we write “The king died, and the queen died,” we have a narrative, but if we write, instead, “The king died, and the queen died of grief,” then we have a plot because of the role of causality implied in the second example. Whether reversed as in Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli or parceled out in flashbacks, linear time tends to be the default temporal structure of much creative writing. However, mythologists propose a second model, cyclical time, which concerns itself with repetitive occurrences, such as seasonal events or rituals, daily routines, and forms of return. Take Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. At the novel’s end, the last descendant of an old family realizes that the mysterious parchment he is trying to decipher is, in fact, the story of himself and his family, a text that furthermore reflects the novel that the reader is reading. These are not the only temporal models available. And it’s important to pay attention to alternative models because an increased sensitivity to time and facility with rendering temporal structures enhances a writer’s ability to craft the subjective world of their work.

Here are two alternative models that commonly work alongside the first two:

1. Repetitive-compulsion time. In this model, certain emblematic moments act as psychological and even physical gravity wells, causing a person to attempt to repeat pivotal events or encounters. Examples of this occur when people date variations of their fathers, and subject themselves to emotional dilemmas that echo earlier traumatic moments as if trying to fix them.

2. Rhythmic time. This Hebrew model is reflected in the two principal tenses of the Torah, which correspond to the completeness or incompleteness of events rather than past, present, and future. This is the logic behind Genesis’s inclusion of two creation stories side by side and the arrangement of the New Testament. Moments are treated and arranged like beats in a rhythm. Any moment relates to all previous and coming ones like one beat of a drum is only what it is in relationship to the other beats. Thus the meaning of actions or thoughts in the past are literally changed or revealed by actions and thoughts in the present (hence the concept of redemption in which a sin is “undone” by atonement). Many collage essays and stories make use of this model by juxtaposing different experiences of death, love, being an outsider, etc. This multi-part exercise seeks to inspire the writer to think of time more dynamically and to translate this enhanced perception into deeper and more nuanced work.

Your exercise:

1. List cyclical occurrences in your life such as holidays, annual trips, and routines.

2. Next, list emblematic moments and characters in your life and also later iterations of these events and characters – either in terms of repetition-compulsion or rhythmic completion (how a later event or character makes sense of an earlier one). Note such details as variations between manifestations, the underlying conflict that charges these moments, and possible future events that would either resolve the conflict at the heart of the repetition- compulsion or complete and amplify the meaning of the rhythm.

3. Finally, translate this enhanced sense of time into your work. You might, for example, write a collage piece that juxtaposes events that follow the structure of repetitive-compulsion or rhythmic time. Or you might rewrite a draft, adding or changing scenes and sections or stanzas to capture the importance of emblematic moments to characters, or the movement of cyclical or repetitive-compulsion and rhythmic time.