Everything happens at once

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The fragrance from my mother’s recipe for cabbages and apples set off a cascade of memories for me, seemingly all at once: my mother’s frustration with the lack of effective kitchen ventilation, resulting in a house that smelled of whatever she’d cooked for supper; childhood nights spent reading on my belly in front of the heating duct, smelling supper and hoping to get to the end of a chapter before being called to set the table; my father challenging me to read Tom Jones and his delighted surprise when I finished it.

Fiction is the only artistic medium that grants its audience (readers) the deep intimacy we need to expand our empathy and compassion. Sure, I can write an essay about those overlapping memories, but for a reader to be immersed in another’s experience requires a suspension of disbelief, a state of unguarded openness that is accessible only when we set aside our expectations of reality.

So conveying the simultaneity and interconnectedness of a character’s interiority is both the reason to write fiction, and a fiction writer’s singular challenge.

One way writers can show a character’s seemingly random associations across time, without disorienting readers or jolting them out of the story, is to put past and present moments into adjacency with adverbial clauses of comparison. Consider this sentence, from Andrea Barrett’s story “Two Rivers” in Servants of the Map.

Joseph was staring at him, he saw. As intently as Samuel’s pupils had once stared–what had those boys with their figured stones meant to say?

(164, Servants of the Map)

The clause (“[a]s intently as … “) places the present (Joseph staring) adjacent to the past. The dash signifies memory’s leap from a general similarity (Joseph/the pupils staring) to a specific moment in the past (those boys, their figured stones).

This oscillation in time flows in part because of the clause, in part because of the dash, but also because as readers we recognize our own experiences of recollection. First there’s a memory-triggering link from the present to the past: one thing is like another. That leads to an idle question about the thing in the past, what it was connected to, and perhaps a new present-moment interpretation of that past event.  Sometimes, although the present remains in front of us, our speculation about the past pulls us into a full-on memory. 

Try it!

Ease in with reality: Pay attention while you make breakfast and note what actions, foods, and smells trigger memories. Of those memories, do you still wonder about any of them? Write into these using Barrett’s structure: X happened. As Y happened–Z?

  • X=action/food/smell
  • Y=memory related to X
  • Z=what you still wonder about Y

Play with your fiction: If you’re already immersed in a story, try this exercise with a character you’re familiar with but want to deepen. What sensory experience triggers a memory for them? What questions do they still hold about that memory? Try this as a timed free write, three minutes each for X, Y and Z. Do not stop to think: just keep your pen moving across the page.

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