Writers as travellers in time.
How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?
As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.
Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.
Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.
On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.
But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.
In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet. And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.
I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.
I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.
This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.
So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.
Time for some lateral thinking.
We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.
Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.
The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.
Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .
I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.
I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.
I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.
I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.
I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.