The Time of Writing

by Daniel Hartley

Writing takes time. It demands that you acquiesce to the passing of the minutes and the hours. There is a time of writing, but there is also a time in writing. The first kind of time is the time it takes to do the basic sitting down and actually getting on with the novel: plotting, character development, scene-setting, structuring, negotiating voices, practising points of view, and so on. A wise man once said “life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans”, in which case writing would be what happens when you consciously disregard those other plans and isolate yourself from the exigencies of daily life. In that sense, whilst you turn away from the time of business, you submit to the time of creation. You rest like a sunken stone and let the river of the day wash over you.

The second type of time, the time in writing, is narrative time. Without engaging in a massive detour ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit, let it be said that at a basic level narrative time is the time it takes for a complete action to unfold. There is a certain moral quality at work in narrative time: it defies impatience. Take, for example, a scene I wrote last night, in which a man realises he is being observed, approaches the observer, at which point the observer flees. For that simple action to approach its optimum dramatic intensity it is necessary that the tempo of the scene be set at a certain pace. It must lead inevitably to the climax of the observer’s flight, but in order for this moment to constitute a climax, for the reader to experience it as a climax, the writer must have invoked the powers of time. The man must hesitate, contemplate the stranger who is watching him, prepare himself for the approach, and so on; all of these sub-actions combine to elongate time, to stretch it out until it can finally snap back into place with the climax. And these are the bits that are boring to write, these constant fillers or “satellites” that elongate the scene, that set the rhythm, when all you really want to do is have the scene over and done with.

In this sense, we might say that there is a certain temporal economy of writing which dovetails with a certain moral economy of writing. One must have the patience to sit down at the desk day after day, week after week, month after month, and one must also have the patience to offer the created world the time it requires to unfold. This is not to say that good writers are automatically good people – far from it. But it is certainly to suggest that there are particular qualities which lend themselves to the virtue of patience which are also common to virtuous fiction. This would go a long way to explaining why, as yet, I am neither a virtuous person nor a virtuous writer.

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