Bending Time, Uprooting Lives
By Levi Pulford | Friday, February 25, 2022
By Levi Pulford
Friday, February 25, 2022
In 2017, Professor Anthony Brandt and neuroscientist David Eagleman published a book about the neuroscience of creativity titled The Runaway Species, in which they explain how the brain creates new ideas. They propose that the brain uses three basic strategies:
- bending, in which "an original is twisted out of shape,"
- breaking, in which "a whole is taken apart," and
- blending, in which "two or more sources are merged."
While these strategies may seem simple enough in real life, how do writers go about bending, breaking, or blending time in their work? We will consider these strategies and others in the writing lab, "Remembering to Write, Writing to Remember," but for now let's look at how the first strategy of bending time works in a #1 New York Times bestseller: The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Because memory is malleable, time can be bent or twisted out of shape in order to form new chronologies and tell new stories. Individual memories can be entwined with public memory through narrative so that the personal is contextualized within the historical, political, and social––or, in the case of Richard Powers' novel, the environmental. The Overstory considers the question: how might trees remember the events of human life?
The novel opens with a story titled after one of its characters: Nicholas "Nick" Hoel. At 23 pages long, the story does not introduce its main character until page 17. Instead, the story begins by declaring that "now is the time of chestnuts," with the "now" being located several generations prior. The story bends its temporal logic––how it structures time––so that Nicholas Hoel's story is told through the "time of chestnuts," which begins long before he is born, originating with Nick's great-great-grandfather, Jørgen Hoel. In other words, the story of Nick Hoel is twisted so that its roots are exposed.
His story's roots are as follows: Jørgen Hoel plants six chestnuts in western Iowa and raises three children with his wife. When Jørgen's son, John, buries his father, there is but one sole surviving chestnut tree. On a Kodak No. 2 Brownie, John begins taking photographs of the tree once a month, a tradition that John's son Frank continues until he is drafted into war and bestows the tradition onto his son Frank Jr. Three generations of the Hoel family document the gradual changes of this chestnut tree, and, as the narration explains, "the photos hide everything: the twenties that do not roar for the Hoels. The Depression that costs them two hundred acres and sends half the family to Chicago... everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos' frame."
Here, the tree's perspective is favored over the family's perspective, which might be another reason why the story is told through a third-person narration. From the tree's point of view, the events of the Hoel family are experienced externally, from the outside looking in. However, a tree's "memory" can be traced back further than a single person's lifetime. The narration continues to say that, within the frames of the Hoels' photographs, "there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood."
The life of the tree is synchronized with the life of the story: both are at their midpoints when readers are finally introduced to Nick Hoel, who, as the son of Frank Jr., returns to the Hoel family farm one winter break during his time in art school. Tragedy strikes the Hoel family that Christmas and leaves Nick breathless and gazing at the branches of the chestnut tree, wondering if the events have been recorded within the tree's rings. The story ends on the image of twigs clicking against the midwestern blue sky.
Consider how you might bend your own story's temporal logic––in other words, how you might bend a story so that different parts are emphasized over others. If your story is about one character, instead of beginning the story with that character, find an earlier starting point, one that originates before that character is even born. What chain of events lead to a significant or pivotal moment in your main character's life, or from what object or point of view could bend the story in a way that is new and exciting? Keep in mind that how we remember something is almost as important as what we remember.