Jul 012017
 

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I remember sitting outside on my patio around 8 a.m. on June third wrapped in a drab green blanket—late spring mornings in Maine are still too chilly for short sleeves—while steam rose from a neglected mug of coffee and twirled away through the air. I’d just finished my second semester in a master’s degree program in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I’d imagined that when I reached the midway point of my degree program I would feel elated. Instead, I felt lost. Time and again in letters from my advisors and comments from peers in writing workshops my essays had elicited the same questions and prompted the same critiques.  “Maybe you should cut the first three pages?” Or, with inky red arrows pointing to a specific paragraph, “I feel like the essay starts here.” Others would ask: How old are you in the essay? At what time (of the year, month, or day) does this essay occur? How many years passed between the time of the experience and the time of writing about it? In the work I’d received back from my advisor that morning he’d asked the same types of questions. So I sat on my patio with coffee cooling beside me and the ocean fog still thick over the fields, and I felt like I too was under a fog. What was I doing wrong? Chronology in my essays seemed obvious to me—I’d been there after all—but how was I failing to convey the basic sequence of events to readers?

Three weeks after that morning I started my third semester, none the wiser on how to crack my chronology problem. During the third semester at VCFA students write a critical thesis on literary works, themes, or craft. Douglas Glover, my new faculty advisor, said that to tackle the critical thesis I should focus on an area of my own writing that was deficient and rigorously examine the successful deployment of that technique in the writing of others. I described for him the trouble I had coherently moving my essays forward through time, but said I didn’t know what to call this technique. “Time control,” he answered, summoning to my mind images of Time Lords and a TV show I’d watched as a child in the late 80s where a teenage girl—half human, half alien—could stop time by touching her right and left index fingers together. While this would have been a useful trick to learn, narrative time control requires no superhuman abilities and is far more necessary as a writer.

Prepared now with the name for the literary technique I needed to study, I rallied to begin my research, but surprisingly I found nothing on the topic of time control as it pertained to creative nonfiction. Science fiction, yes, just look at H.G. Wells. And there was even literature on narrative time control for fiction writers and memoirists. But when it came to personal essays, the type of creative nonfiction I was working on, I found that the well of craft books had run dry.

Not to worry, Glover intimated in a letter to me, because there are just a few basic techniques through which writers control time flow. These he called time stamps; tenses and tense changes; temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases; syntactic constructions; and meta-text. Seemed simple enough to me and I was certain I knew what at least half of these listed techniques were, but I wondered if a writer could really use those techniques time and again without bogging essays down with dates, or crafting artificial narrative with tailored auxiliary clauses. In order to truly understand how writers artfully control time with these techniques I decided to examine and compare two personal essays: Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”

One Man Meat Slouching Towards Bethlehem collageCollections containing the essays.

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion tells the story of how she fell in love with New York City as a twenty-year-old woman, and how as a not-so-young woman she suddenly and dramatically fell out of favor with the city. I say “not-so-young” because Didion was twenty-eight when she left New York and returned to her native California, but Didion notes in her essay that New York—bursting with vitality, opportunity, and an endless supply of “new faces”—is “a city for only the very young.” Originally published in 1967, “Goodbye to All That” gained wide recognition in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem and has since inspired generations of writers who have loved and left New York. A reflective, first-person narrative, “Goodbye to All That” is thirteen pages long and is broken into four sections. The essay’s central action spans eight years and was written three years after the main action had ended.

In “Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White tells of his return to an idyllic lake in Maine where he had often vacationed with his father when he was a child. On his return journey, White is accompanied by his young son, and he is provoked by memories into a deep and ultimately unsettling meditation on how time has affected him and that “holy spot” of his youth. White weaves together memories of his boyhood with his father and memories of his week-long vacation with his son and realizes that as he is now the father figure, he is also nearer death than he once was.

A favorite of personal essayists everywhere, “Once More to the Lake” was published in 1941 in Harper’s Magazine. A reflective personal essay with a first-person narrator, “Once More to the Lake” is six pages long and has only one section, which is comprised of thirteen paragraphs. The essay’s basic chronology is based on the writer’s week-long trip with his son.

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Time stamps

The first time control technique I examined was what Glover had termed time stamps, as this seemed like a universally recognizable, and therefore reliable, way to establish time flow. Time stamps are any text that identifies a specific date, such as a year, a day of the week, a month, or a holiday. Other time stamps could include historical references, car models, or objects that are time-related. I began by scouring “Goodbye to All That” for time stamps, expecting to see some time stamps scattered around the first paragraph. To my surprise, I found none until the third page of the essay. Didion uses the word “December” on the third page (227), “Christmas” on the fourth page (228) and twice again on the sixth along with “Easter” and “May” (230). “Saturdays,” and “Saturday” appear on the seventh page (231). On the ninth page Didion refers to “faded nightgowns which were new in 1959 or 1960,” (233). “Saturday-afternoon,” appears on the eleventh page (235), “April” and “January” on the thirteenth (237), and then “January” once again on the final page of the essay (238).

I noticed several scenic descriptions in Didion’s essay that, while they are not time stamps, gave temporal context. For example, she writes “the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes” (227) and “the first snow had just begun to fall” (228). Didion often enhances scenes with what I’ve termed sensory time cues, and as I continued to read I realized these descriptions are generally auxiliary to time stamps, though they can appear before or after them. The foregoing sensory time cue comes just before the time stamp “Christmas”: “I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white. . .” (228). While subtler than time stamps, these still give temporal information. Of a winter evening at 6:30 p.m. Didion writes that it was “already dark and bitter with a wind off the river…” (229). Of an early morning she writes, “the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of the traffic signals” (234).

Didion uses time stamps as anchors: they clearly identify a context around which she builds more elaborate descriptions in the form of sensory time cues. However, as time stamps appear less often and later in Didion’s essay than I had anticipated, it was plain they are not her primary method for establishing time at the beginning of her essay. While universal time stamps are sparse, it occurred to me that Didion often gives the reader a sort of time marker that solely pertains to her: her age. Didion often states her age in scenes, which orients readers as Didion leaps forward in time. While not a time stamp per se, it is clear that an age stamp (be it the age of a minor character or of the writer, which I’ll call an authorial age stamp) can be used to establish time flow and sequence events in the same way as time stamps.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968Joan Didion by Julian Wasser 1968

Following this trail, I searched “Goodbye to All That” for authorial age stamps and noticed that most scenes in the essay were sequenced or given temporal context through identification of Didion’s age. For example, the opening paragraph does not have any time stamps but Didion writes that she was twenty when she arrived in New York, and she also makes an observation about how she felt when she was twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three. The word “twenty” appears three times in “Goodbye to All That,” “twenty-one” appears once, “twenty-two” appears once, “twenty-three” appears three times, and “twenty-eight” appears twice. It is interesting to note that Didion uses the word “time” or “timed” fourteen times in as many pages.

What about “Once More to the Lake,” I wondered; does White use time stamps with the same frequency as Didion? Does he root his sentences with time stamps and build out sensory time cues from that base? Does he use any age stamps for himself, his son, or his father? The first thing I noticed was that most published copies of “Once More to the Lake” (the essay often appears online and in various anthologies, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay) retain the original publication date, August 1941, which precedes the text. I then looked at the first paragraph for time stamps:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer—always on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

In the first sentence, White provides the reader with two time stamps: “1904” and “August.” Then “August 1” appears in the third sentence. While White uses time stamps in the way I had expected Didion would, as an expedient way to establish time at the outset of the essay, only four more time stamps appear throughout the rest of the text. “September,” “June,” and “Sunday” appear on the third page of the essay (535) and “August” appears once more on the fourth page (536). White uses fewer time stamps than Didion in total, but this is predictable as “Once More to the Lake” is less than half the length of “Goodbye to All That,” and the basic chronology is shorter, spanning only one week as opposed to eight years.

Unlike Didion, White never explicitly states what his age is, either at the time of writing or during his boyhood visits. Nor does he mention his father’s age or the age of his son. White references his father’s seemingly “enormous authority” (536), he mentions “what it felt like to think about girls” (537) when he was young, and in the final paragraph White also writes that he felt “the chill of death” (538) when he revisited the lake as an adult. However, White does fill his narrative with temporal context through sensory time cues in the same way as Didion. For example, in the second paragraph White recalls how as a boy he would dress quietly in the early morning “so as not to wake the others” and he’d take a canoe out on the “cool and motionless” lake, keeping near the shore “in the long shadows of the pines” (533). And later, he remembers how the tennis net “sagged” and the court “steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness” (535) when he would walk up to one of the farmhouses for lunch. Most of White’s sensory time cues pertain to the time of day or the time of year.

What amazed me was not only that White’s writing is inlaid with sensory time cues, but that even the insistent use of this time control technique reads so beautifully, not at all like a captain’s log or a list of historical dates one might have to memorize for an exam. It is worth noting that the word “time” occurs ten times in six pages, including when it appears in the words “summertime” and “daytime.” It is interesting, also, that there are no time stamps, age stamps, or sensory time cues in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake,” that it is the only paragraph in which these do not appear, and that it is the shortest paragraph by several lines:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

As I read the ending of “Once More to the Lake,” which seemed to comment on the passage of time without any direct references to time itself, it was clear that time stamps and sensory time cues were not the extent of the time control techniques used by White. Some other technique was at work here. I opened my letter from Glover again to see how else White and Didion might be controlling time.

E.B. WhiteElwyn Brooks “E. B.” White

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Tenses and tense changes

The second time control technique that Glover had listed was the use of tenses and tense changes. This refers to a writer’s decision about what tense to use, or how to express the time during which the main action in the essay takes place, and any intentional changes in that tense. I looked again at “Goodbye to All That” to see what tense Didion uses in her narrative. The first paragraph of the essay is twenty-five lines long and is comprised of only five sentences. (Long, complex sentences are typical of Didion’s style, so complete quotations often seem excessive and unnecessary; however, I’ve provided the first paragraph in its entirety here to serve as an example of how Didion controls time through tense and tense changes, and for future reference.) The narrator begins by making a statement in the present tense, and then eases back into a memory in the simple past:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the exact moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be the same again. In fact it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. (225-226)

The essay begins in the simple present with the simple present verbs “is,” “see,” “see,” “can remember,” “makes,” and “constrict,” but then the tense dances between simple present and simple past with the verbs “began,” “cannot lay,” “ended,” “can/cut,” “is,” and “was.” This final change to simple past smoothly transitions to the simple past verbs that the following sentence begins with: “saw,” “was,” “was,” and “got off.” However, in the middle of that sentence, Didion changes from simple past to past perfect, with “had seemed” and then switches back to the simple past, “smelled,” “programmed,” and then switches tenses again with the past perfect trio: “had/seen,” “had/sung,” and “had/read,” before using a final modal verb, “would never be.” This complex sentence is followed by the simple past tense declarative statement, “In fact it never was.” In the next sentence Didion changes again to the simple past, “was,” “went,” and then “used to be,” and “used to wonder.”  The next sentence starts in the simple present tense to contrast her present self with her past self (“know,” “wonders,” “is doing,” “being,” and “is”) before ending with the present perfect “has/happened.”

Within this one paragraph Didion moves with startling grace through several tenses and times. She navigates between the time of writing and the time of her experience with stunning grammatical complexity. She begins in the present moment (the time of writing, or what I call the narrative present) with the simple present tense, and then moves to a specific past time (the moment of her arrival in New York) with the simple past tense. She switches briefly to the past perfect to reflect on a decision she made in Sacramento (an event in the slightly more distant past) that she regrets upon arrival in New York (the more recent past) using again the simple past tense. She then uses the past perfect tense to reflect again on her life prior to New York and how she “had been” prepared for her arrival in New York, which spans a period of time from an unspecified point in the past up to a specific past moment. Didion then moves to a more recent past event in which she recalls feelings of nostalgia for a more distant past, using again the simple past tense. Finally, Didion brings the reader back to the narrative present to share her current understanding in the simple present tense, but she ends on a twist with the present perfect tense, which begins at an unspecified time in the past and ends in the present moment.

In total, she uses simple present, simple past, past perfect, present perfect and a modal verb to describe seven different times. This general pattern repeats, with some variation, throughout “Goodbye to All That.” Paragraphs often start with a simple present reflection, leading to a simple past scene, followed by a past perfect reflection, then returning to a simple past scene, and ending with a simple present reflection. The final paragraph of the essay, in which Didion reflects on her last visit to New York, serves as an example of a variation on that general pattern of tense and tense changes:

It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since. Many of the people we knew in New York think this a curious aberration, and in fact tell us so. There is no possible, no adequate answer for that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to “afford” to live in New York right now, about how much “space” we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles “the Coast,” but they seem a long time ago. (238)

Here, Didion begins with the simple past “was” and “told,” and then switches to the present perfect “have lived.” The second sentence moves from simple past “knew,” to simple present “think” and “tell.” Then Didion starts the third sentence with the simple present “is” and continues in the simple present, including one modal “would,” throughout that and the following sentence. Then she transitions from the simple present tense statement “All I mean” to the simple past reflection, “I was very young” back to the simple present “I am not that young anymore.” This moves the reader nicely into her next piece of reflection, her trip back to New York, which occurs in the simple past and her reflection on what had happened to her old friends, whose actions take place in the past perfect tense, “had moved,” “had gone,” and “had bought.” The next sentence starts again with simple past, “stayed” and “took,” then uses the modal “could see,” “smell,” and then the past “knew,” “was,” “keeping,” and “kept.” In the final sentence Didion moves readers from the simple past, “were” and “called” to end in the simple present with “seem.” Here Didion uses simple past, present perfect, simple present, and past perfect to express action occurring at seven distinct times.

Goodbye to All That

I wondered if “Once More to the Lake,” uses tenses and tense changes similarly to “Goodbye to All That.” White’s essay, like Didion’s, is framed by a present-time narrator who reflects on a past time and, like Didion, White’s essay isn’t about a specific event that occurred in the past, but rather it’s about a place where past action occurred over several seasons. I looked again at the first paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to see what tenses and tense changes White uses.

Unlike Didion’s essay, which begins in the present tense, White’s essay begins in the simple past. In the first three sentences he refers to his childhood adventures on the lake with the verbs “rented,” “took,” “got,” “had,” “rolled,” “was,” “thought,” and “returned.” Then the fourth sentence switches to the present prefect with “have/become,” and then the simple present “are” and “make” as White writes about his current preference for the ocean over lakes. Then in the fifth sentence, the final sentence of the paragraph, White expresses his nostalgia for the placid lake of his youth and the tense returns to the simple past, with the verbs “got,” “bought,” and “returned/to revisit.” There is also one occurrence of “used to” in that fifth sentence, which acts irregularly (much like “would always”) and refers to the repetition of past actions.

As I continued to look through the essay, I realized that most of the action in “Once More to the Lake” occurs during two distinct times in the past: the past of White’s childhood on the lake and the past of his recent visit to the lake. The only exceptions are the brief use of the simple present and present perfect in the opening paragraph when White writes of his preference for saltwater, and a present modal in the second paragraph when White writes of memory: “It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back” (533). When writing about and comparing two past times they can easily become muddled without strong grammatical indicators, but it occurred to me that White likely controls his choice of verb tenses and changes between tenses in order to clearly express these two distinct past times.

I looked for text that describes White’s week-long trip to the lake with his son to see what verb tenses he uses to describe that time and landed on the fifth paragraph, where White and his son go out fishing:

We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches above the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was the same as it had always been, that the years were a mirage and that there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor…We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the top of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted, two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of. (534)

White starts this paragraph in the simple past with the verbs “went” and “felt” and the past continuous “covering.” In fact, all of the following action occurs in the simple past tense (“saw,” “alight,” “hovered,” “convinced,” and so on) until White reflects that the lake and the activities that take place at the lake are unchanged from when he was young. When White harkens further back he writes “everything was as it always had been,” and “there had been no years.” Both statements are in the past perfect tense. Then White returns to the simple past and past continuous as he refocuses on the fishing expedition with the verbs “were,” “chucking,” and so on. This pattern of referring to the recent past trip to the lake with his son in the simple past and past continuous carries forward into the next paragraph when a fish is caught: “We caught two bass, hauling them briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat…” (534). And the tense changes again to the past perfect when White iterates for a third time that there “had been no years” (535) between his own boyhood on the lake and his son’s.

I decided then to look at text that primarily describes White’s boyhood experiences on the lake to see what verb tense is dominant there. I selected a paragraph on the fourth page, focusing on the second half of the paragraph where White watches his son learn to use an outboard motor and reflects on how he had used a motor when he was young:

Watching him I would remember the things you could do with the old one cylinder engine with the heavy flywheel, how you could have it eating out of your hand if you got really close to it spiritually. Motorboats in those days didn’t have clutches, and you would make a landing by shutting off the motor at the proper time and coasting in with a dead rudder. But there was a way of reversing them, if you learned the trick, by cutting the switch and putting it on again exactly on the final dying revolution of the flywheel, so that it would kick back against compression and begin reversing…It took a cool nerve because if you threw the switch a twentieth of a second too soon you would catch the flywheel when it still had speed enough to go up past center and the boat would leap ahead, charging bull fashion at the dock. (536-537)

I found here that instead of using the past perfect tense to express actions that occurred or conditions that were present during his boyhood, White predominantly uses modal verbs and conditionals to express repeated actions in the past. The foregoing excerpt begins with the past continuous “watching” and then the modal “would remember,” and “could do,” where the modal verb “would” expresses repeated past action and “could” expresses a past ability. This is followed by the conditional “could have/if,” which expresses a possibility. In the next sentence, White uses a modal “would” again, then an “if/would” conditional in sentence after that, and he finishes the paragraph with an “if/would/would” conditional.

White’s use of modal verbs continues into the next paragraph when he recalls the trip with his son as a completed past event: “We had a good week at camp…We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside…Sleep would come easily and in the morning the red squirrel would be on the roof, tapping out his gay routine.” In these cases, the modal “would” is used to express past actions and conditions repeated over several nights of the week-long stay.

While nearly all of “Once More to the Lake” occurs in the past, White uses different verb tenses to express different types of past action. To describe an active scene, such as fishing with his son, White uses simple past and past continuous, but to describe patterns of action that happened when he was younger, or patterns of action completed in the more recent past, he uses modal verbs. When reflecting on the ways in which the lake was unchanged from the time of his boyhood to the time of his visit with his son, White uses the past perfect tense. These clearly delineate for the reader what type of past action is occurring: White’s own distant past, his recent past with his son, or the lake’s past.

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Time clauses: temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional and adverbial phrases

However, there was more to White’s and Didion’s time control than time stamps and verb tenses. As I searched for tenses and tense changes, I noticed that time-related information was often offset in a separate clause, which I learned is called a subordinate clause of time. Clauses of time are always subordinate, or auxiliary, and contain information about when the action in the main clause occurs. In “Goodbye to All That,” for example, Didion writes: “It was three years ago that he told me that, and we have lived in Los Angeles since.” The sentence begins in the past tense with a subordinate clause of time which tells when an action occurs (in this case an action revealed in the previous paragraph of the essay) and then switches to the present tense in the main clause which refers to a present condition, i.e. her living in Los Angeles.

I noticed a key word in the main clause that Glover had flagged as another time control technique: the word, “since.” In his letter, Glover said to look for conjunctions of time, adverbs of time, and adverbial phrases of time. Temporal conjunctions tell when an action happens. The most common temporal conjunctions are: when, whenever, after, before, until, since, while, once, and as. Temporal adverbs are more varied and can be broken into four main groups. The first type of temporal adverb expresses the definite time of an action, for example: now, today, tonight, then, tomorrow, yesterday. The second type expresses the definite frequency of an action, for example: daily, nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly, annually, and so on. The third type expresses the indefinite frequency of an action: always, ever, constantly, generally, frequently, often, sometimes, occasionally, rarely, seldom. The fourth type of temporal adverb expresses time relationships between actions: already, before, first, finally, just, since, last, late, later, soon, still, yet. There is some overlap between temporal adverbs of this type and temporal conjunctions. Temporal adverbial phrases are two or more words that serve as an adverb, such as: in a minute, any time, as soon as, after the movie, and so on.

I looked to see how Didion uses temporal conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases in “Goodbye to All That.” I started again with the first paragraph, where Didion uses the time conjunctions “when,” “once,” and “before.” Temporal adverbs are more common. In the first paragraph, “never” appears three times, “ever” appears four times, and “first,” “already,” “late,” and “now” each appear once. Didion also uses two temporal adverbial phrases: “some time later” and “sooner or later.” As I kept reading, I was surprised to see  how abundantly Didion had scattered temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That.”

An excellent example of Didion’s frequent use of temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and adverbial phrases (as well as her complex sentence style) comes a couple pages into the essay when she foreshadows the end of her time in New York in a scene where she is still enjoying her early days there:

I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there— but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month. (228-229)

Still attuned to Didion’s use of age stamps, sensory time cues, verb tense and tense changes in essays, I noticed that in these two sentences Didion uses the authorial age stamp “twenty-two or twenty-three,” she hints at summertime with the sensory time cues “peach” and “soft air blowing,” and she begins with the modal verb “could” and continues in the simple past, “smell,” “knew,” before switching to the modal “would,” and simple future, “will,” “pay.” The second sentence starts in the simple past “believed” and “had” and uses the modal verb “would.” Now that I was looking beyond those time control techniques I could also see that she uses the temporal conjunction “when,” and the temporal adverbs “later” and “then,” and “still” twice. In addition to those, she uses the temporal adverbial phrase, “sooner or later,” and a string of three phrases, “any minute, any day, any month.”

After reading through “Goodbye to All That” with an eye trained to this new time control technique, I noticed that Didion often uses temporal adverbs of indefinite frequency to express ultimate conditions. For example, it isn’t Didion’s style to write that the majority of the songs and stories she heard about New York led her to believe that living there would change her life. Instead she writes “all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me it would never be quite the same again” (226). In fact, the word “ever” appears seven times, “never” appears thirteen times, and “always” appears five times in the essay. “First” is used seven times and “last” is used three times. The most common temporal adverbs pertaining to action that occurred while she lived in New York express relationships in time, such as “already,” “often,” “still,” and “later.” There is not a single paragraph in all of “Goodbye to All That” that does not contain temporal conjunctions, adverbs, or adverbial phrases.

I noticed something else, too. Throughout her essay Didion writes the time of day during which scenes take place. These she often writes as temporal prepositional phrases, which act like adverbial phrases but contain a preposition and a noun. For example, her use of “at night” in the first paragraph: “Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went ‘but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that” (226). Didion uses several temporal prepositional phrases throughout “Goodbye to All That,” including “in the spring” (227), “on nights like those” (229), “in the morning” (233), “in the early morning” (234), “in the night” (234), “at dawn,” (234) and many more.

I wondered if White uses temporal subordinate clauses in the same way as Didion or if the two writers’ methods of time control  differ on the level of conjunctions, adverbs and adverbial phrases. The first thing I noticed looking at “Once More to the Lake” was that White uses far more temporal adverbial phrases than Didion, starting with the phrase contained in his essay’s title, “once more.” I read again the opening paragraph of the essay and found that nearly every sentence contained temporal adverbial phrases and saw that White had used temporal conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositional phrases as well:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summeralways on August 1 for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening makes me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts. (533)

White uses three temporal adverbial phrases in the first sentence: “one summer” and “along about 1904,” both of which are offset in temporal subordinate clauses, and “for the month of August.” I noted that two of these adverbial phrases also contained the time stamps “1904” and “August.” In the second sentence, White uses two adverbial phrases: “night and morning” and “from then on.”  The third sentence contains the temporal adverbial phrases “summer after summer,” and “for one month,” the temporal adverb “always,” and the prepositional phrase “on August 1.” The fourth sentence is the only sentence without an adverbial phrase, but it does contain the temporal adverbs “since” and “sometimes,” the temporal prepositional phrases “in the summer,” “across the afternoon,” and “into the evening,” and the temporal conjunction “when.” The fifth sentence contains two temporal adverbial phrases: “A few weeks ago” and “for a week’s fishing.”

As I continued to look through “Once More to the Lake,” I noticed that, as in Didion’s essay, every single paragraph contains at least one temporal conjunction or adverb, or temporal prepositional or adverbial phrase. Most of them contained many more than one. I also noticed that he uses the temporal adverb “first” often, seven times in the essay with two of those times occurring in the adverbial phrase “first morning.” But unlike Didion, White never uses the word “last.” I noticed that White also routinely uses temporal prepositional phrases, such as “in the daytime” or “at night” (536), and in these he often inserts an adjective, for example “in the still evening” (536) and “in the shining night” (537).

It was then that I realized what time control technique White uses in the final paragraph of “Once More to the Lake” to elicit a sense of time passing without making use of time stamps, age stamps, or dramatically shifting verb tenses. I read that paragraph again, this time looking for temporal conjunctions, adverbs and prepositions. I found four, one in each sentence:

When the others went swimming by, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy, garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death. (538)

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Then/now constructions

By this time, I was beginning to feel like I had a solid grasp on time control techniques. I’d read “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake” at least a dozen times each. I’d learned about time stamps like “Christmas” and “1904.” I’d scoured both essays for verb tenses and tense changes and observed how each writer uses them differently to express time changes. I’d looked as temporal conjunctions and adverbs, and temporal adverbial and prepositional phrases. Surely this was sufficient for a writer to move a story through time, to establish the chronology of events and deftly move from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. However, when I looked back to my letter from Glover I saw that my exploration of time control was not yet over. In his letter he wrote that the use of syntactic then/now constructions allows writers “to quickly juxtapose a past event with the present.” When I began to explore then/now constructions I saw that time control is more than just establishing a coherent baseline for a story, a beginning that leads to a middle and then to an end; time control is the key to showing how the writer is affected by and changes in response to the events within a text. Then/now constructions carry this trick off with aplomb.

Didion’s first use of a then/now construction occurs in the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That.” Didion recalls hearing a popular song after she’d lived in New York for some time, she relates how the lyrics of the song affected her when she heard it and what she thinks about them in the narrative present: “…there was a song on all the jukeboxes that went ‘but where is the school girl who used to be me,’ and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later…” (226). Here, “then” is expressed in the “used to be me” of the lyrics and echoed in “I used to wonder.” This is followed by “I know now,” which concisely juxtaposes, as Glover had said, the way Didion thought at the time of the experience and the way she thinks at the time of writing.

In the second paragraph of “Goodbye to All That” Didion uses a then/now construction when she reflects on how she had been sick in bed for three days after her arrival in New York, laid up in a hotel room with a broken air conditioner. She writes that she never called the front desk to have the air turned off because she wasn’t sure how much to tip the person who would come to fix it. She reflects, “was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was” (227). When using then/now constructions, Didion tends to vary her word choice. That is, she doesn’t exactly say “Then I was young, but now I am old,” but she repeats this sentiment throughout her essay using different phrases and constructions. Often she expresses “then” through the past tense, and will follow that implicit “then” with an explicit “now.”  For example, close to the end of the essay, as Didion’s time in New York is nearing its end, she contrasts two “thens” and a “now”: “I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure I understand now, but I understood that year” (237). Here, “before” and “that year” express two previous times with a “now” in between. By juxtaposing a happier “before,” a despairing “that year,” and a happier “now,” Didion book-ends a particular time, thereby showcasing how she was affected by staying too long in New York.

In the final paragraph Didion is more direct in using the then/now construct than elsewhere. She writes: “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more” (238). Here Didion expresses “then” through “I was” and expresses “now” through “am not/any more.” This passage also reveals how crucial the then/now construct is in conveying the central thought of Didion’s essay, and exemplifies how then/now constructs are a key component of the personal essay as a form, which often explores a past experience through a present-time lens.

As I was looking for then/now constructions I noticed another time control technique that Didion often employs. When transitioning from a scene in the narrative present to a past scene or when contrasting present and past, Didion often uses a phrase to fade into the past. For example, in the first paragraph she begins the first sentence in the “now” but transitions to the past with the phrase “I can remember”: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now…when New York began for me…” (225). Didion starts the second section in a similar way: “In retrospect, it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later” (227). And again at the start of the second paragraph of the second section: “I remember once, one cold bright December evening…” (227). By using what I came to think of as reflective fades, Didion transitions the reader smoothly into another time. “I remember” is used most often and appears in various iterations: “I can remember now” is used once, “I remember once” is used once, and “I remember” is used three times. Additionally, “in retrospect” and “I recall” are both used once in the essay.

It occurred to me that White’s approach to the then/now construct would likely differ from Didion’s because most of his essay is set between one distinct past time and one habitual past time with very little “now.” And whereas Didion’s essay focuses on contrasting the relatively distant “then” of her youth in New York and the more recent “then” of her aging out of New York with the “now” of the narrative present, White’s essay is about how the lake of his youth and the patterns of life are unchanging, how “then” is just like “now”; at moments it almost is “now.” However, I recalled that there are some incidents of contrast in “Once More to the Lake,” times where White notices a few small changes around the lake and in society and also notices how he has changed. I wondered if he uses then/now constructions to show these contrasts.

Essays of E.B. White cover image

I didn’t have to look far for an answer, and I found that White’s then/now constructions do appear differently than Didion’s. In the first paragraph White recalls how after his family’s first vacation “none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine.” After a brief sentence about how the family returned to the lake, he contrasts “then” when he preferred the lake to all other places with: “I have since become a salt-water man…” (533). This is White’s clearest use of the then/now construct to show how he changed over time, however White does use similar constructs to describe the few ways in which the lake had changed. For example, White recalls that when he was a child and his family visited the lake, arriving “had been so big a business in itself.” A farm wagon would pick them up at the train station, and they’d load all of their trunks and head for the lake where they were greeted by other campers with “shouts and cries” (536). White writes, in a parenthetical sentence, “(Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car…and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks)” (536). Here, White uses the past perfect tense “had been” to indicate “then” and juxtaposes it with “nowadays.”

In the next paragraph White contrasts another difference at the lake with a then/now construct as he talks about how outboard motor technology had advanced:

The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. That was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. (536)

The word “now” is contrasted with the temporal prepositional phrase “in those other summertimes,” which are “then.” As in the example from the essay’s first paragraph, White spreads his now/then construction over three sentences, with a descriptive sentence between the times he’s contrasting. I noticed as I was looking for now/then constructions that White also uses reflective fades but in a slightly different way from Didion because he only uses the narrative present in the first two paragraphs. In the second paragraph, White writes, “I guess I remembered,” and then again, “I remembered” (533), and then later, “I kept remembering all this,” “I would remember,” and “I kept remembering everything” (536-537).

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Meta-text

Syntax certainly added some fireworks to time control and began to connect the chronology of a story to the meaning of a story. However, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is time control really just about grammar? Is it all parts of speech, word choice and order, and juxtaposing then with now? I referred again to Glover’s letter and saw one final time control technique on his list, something he called “meta-text.” Meta-text, Glover said, “comments on memory or time and tells the reader how the text is organized in terms of time.” So meta-text tells the reader how time functions within the essay and how it functions for the narrator or characters within the essay. It seemed too good to be true, this claim that a writer would explicitly tell readers how to read their essay. And surely, I thought, I would have noticed the first ten or so times I read White’s and Didion’s essays if they had. Yet back I went for another reading of “Goodbye to All That.”

To my chagrin I saw Didion’s meta-text had been there the whole time, plain as print in the first two sentences of the first paragraph of “Goodbye to All That”:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. (225)

This passage illustrates how meta-text can either comment directly on how time flows within the narrative or refer to how memory functions for the writer. For example, when Didion writes, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” and that she can “never cut through the ambiguities…to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer” optimistic, this informs the reader that Didion’s essay has a clear beginning, but otherwise it lacks a linear chronology. There is no decisive climax, but rather a series of events that move forward and backward in time, and are “ambiguous” but somehow lead to the end. And when Didion writes that she can “remember now with a clarity that makes the nerves on the back of my neck constrict,” this tells the reader how memory functions for Didion, and sets up an expectation for scenes to be written with detailed precision.

In fact, this is how “Goodbye to All That” reads. The essay starts with this reflective, self-referential text and shifts to the scene where the essay’s action clearly begins, her arrival in New York. She describes her arrival with clarity, as predicted, noting that it was her first time in New York, what age she was then, what model plane she arrived in, what terminal she landed at, what she was wearing, how she’d felt about what she was wearing at two separate times (“…a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already…” [225-226]), how the air felt and how it smelled, and how she felt internally about her arrival all in the third sentence of the essay. In the fourth sentence she jumps ahead in time (using the temporal adverbial phrase “some time later”) to when she listened to a popular song playing on jukeboxes on the upper East Side and felt nostalgic for her younger self, and then jumps to the narrative present (using a now/then construction previously examined) to comment on her past feelings. This non-linear time flow, which shifts from the present to a distant past, to a more recent past, and back to the present, is coherent for the reader because Didion explains at the outset of the essay that this is what the reader should expect.

Didion uses meta-text to illustrate both time-flow and the workings of memory twice more in “Goodbye to All That,” at the beginning of the second section and at the beginning of the third. In the second sentence of the second section Didion writes:

Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick-shots—the Seagram Building fountains dissolve in snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. (227)

Didion begins again with meta-text, explaining that the essay flows through eight years and passes from year to year and scene to scene with the “ease of a film dissolve.” She then refers to her own memory, stating that the eight years she was in New York are like a montage of “sentimental” fades. The next paragraph begins with Didion bringing a friend to a party one December evening to see new faces (227). The next paragraph is about how Didion “was in love with New York,” and she recalls walking around one twilight in spring eating a peach, and she recalls getting her first job in the big city, and peering into the windows of brownstones in the winter (228-229). Sentimental scenes dissolve into each other that are seemingly uncorrelated and decidedly unchronological.

At the beginning of the third section Didion writes from the narrative present that when she remembers New York, “it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would affect the distortion with which it is commonly credited” (233). As with the two previous examples of meta-text, Didion restates that the sequence of events is non-linear and instead of being driven by chronology, her essay pops with “hallucinatory flashes.” Didion also reiterates that her memory is precise and scenes, however hallucinatory, are “clinically detailed.”

As promised in the essay’s initial meta-text, Didion is unable to identify at what point she was “no longer as optimistic” as she had been, and the third section ends with Didion still enjoying parties. She lists various sorts of parties she enjoyed and says it was a very long time before she “began to understand…that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair” (236). Then the fourth section begins: “I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is it was very bad when I was twenty-eight” (236). In the first paragraph, Didion describes how time flows in her essay, says that the basic chronology is non-linear, and that scenes, though perhaps ambiguous or appearing in a broken sequence, are written with vibrant sensory details. Additionally, she predicts that there will not be an “exact place on the page” where her transformation from young and optimistic to older and less optimistic would take place, and so readers are prepared when Didion jumps from enjoying being young in New York to suddenly feeling “very bad” at twenty-eight.

Is White as explicit as Didion about how time flows in “Once More to the Lake”? And does he also tell the reader how time and memory function for him as the narrator? Again, I didn’t have to look far for an answer. White’s first use of meta-text appears in the second paragraph. He writes:

I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and paths behind camps. I was sure the tarred road would have found it out, and I wondered in what other ways it would be desolated. It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. (533)

White uses meta-text to inform readers that he will be comparing the lake of his childhood with how the lake is in the narrative present, and will thereby judge if time is a force that only and always mars and desolates. Like Didion he comments on how memory functions for him, saying one memory sparks another memory. However, unlike Didion he is not only interested in how time has affected him, but in how time has affected the lake. In this respect the lake itself becomes a character in his essay and so White entwines how time affects both himself and the lake.

White uses meta-text again in the fourth paragraph, where he writes that as soon as he and his son settled into camp he could tell “that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before” (534). The sameness of the lake and the smell of the camp and the presence of his young son warp time for White. Of his son he writes:

I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation. (534)

This “simple transposition” sets up the conflation of past and present time that occurs in the following scene when White takes his son fishing. While the two are on a boat with their rods in the water, a dragonfly lands on the tip of White’s rod, just as he recalled had happened when he went fishing as a boy. This occurrence confirms for White that “there had been no years” between the trips of his childhood and the trip with his son, a sentiment which he expresses two more times before they pack up and quit fishing. Then when White and his son go up to dinner that evening at a farmhouse he notes that “the waitresses were the same country girls” as had served him as a child, “there having been no passage of time.” This is followed by perhaps the best remembered passage in “Once More to the Lake,” which also is a piece of meta-text and could serve as the essay’s treatise on time:

Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottagers with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky…This was the American family at play… (535)

This reflection, which comes about halfway through the essay, also cues the reader that White’s twining of himself and his son begins to unravel. Summertime, the woods, the lake: these provide the unchanging background. But the design does change somewhat over time: the waitresses have clean hair, the boat motors are different, the roads are tarred, the paths are for cars rather than horse-drawn carts, and White has grown older. The “simple transposition” which carries White back to his boyhood also places him in the role of the father, and in this role he can feel himself falling away from the vivacious current of life. When White’s son and several other campers decide to go for a swim after a thunderstorm, White remains on shore. He watches as his son pulls on wet swimming trunks and the essay ends: “As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death”(538).

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Conclusion

That was it, I’d gone through Glover’s entire list of time control techniques and found that both Didion and White use every single one to manage, manipulate, and comment on the flow of time in their essays. Some techniques they use similarly and some techniques they use to produce different effects, but they both use all of them. I was not surprised to see that both writers use time stamps, or that Didion uses more than White as her essay is longer. Nor was I surprised that both writers change between verb tenses to show different sorts of action occurring across different times. I was surprised, however, to see how Didion expresses past scenes primarily in the simple past with frequent jumps to the narrative present, and how White remains almost entirely in the spheres of two past times, which he expresses using distinct forms of the past tense and modal verbs. That both writers use temporal conjunctions and adverbs and temporal prepositional and adverbial phrases was similarly not a surprise, but I was astounded by how often they use them and how often they repeat particular words and phrases; for example, Didion’s tendency to talk about the “first” and “last” time events occurred and White’s frequent use of temporal prepositional phrases, like “in the morning.”

I was somewhat familiar with then/now constructions before writing this paper, but had previously thought of them as a tool of narrative voice, not of time flow. Yet when I considered then/now constructions as a time control technique it became clear that the desire to look at their past experience through the lens of their present self is the defining paradigm and driving force of both White’s and Didion’s essays, and perhaps of personal essays in general.

What was most surprising was that both writers use meta-text to guide readers by describing how time flows in their essays, how scenes are sequenced, and what to expect of the essays’ basic chronologies and conclusions. For example, Didion explains that she is examining a period of eight years, and so her essay is predictably longer than White’s, who is recollecting a week-long trip and comparing it with the month-long trips of his childhood; Didion writes that her essay flows like a series of film dissolves and writes her scenes accordingly; White writes of how one memory sparks another memory, and so he describes a fishing scene with his son that reminds him of fishing when he was a boy.

It was early in June when I’d started wrangling with time control, unsure then of what the technique was even called, and it was late September when I finished my study. I reached for the same drab, fleece blanket that I had wrapped myself in that chilly morning a few months ago as I headed out to my patio, hot coffee in hand, to marvel at all I’d learned from two little essays by White and Didion. Time control techniques pervade “Goodbye to All That” and “Once More to the Lake.” Didion and White use time flow not only to clearly and cleanly move between scenes and events in their essays, but also to convey how time affected them as children, spouses, parents, and as writers, and to share the lessons they learned from memory. Time control in the personal essay is much more than a technique for establishing chronology; it is a vehicle for theme, an expression of mental and emotional evolution, and when properly managed, it makes writing soar. For readers the effect of masterful time control is not too far off from a ride in H.G. Wells’s time machine.

—Rosanna Gargiulo

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. “Goodbye to All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Simon and Schuster, 1979, 225-238.

Glover, Douglas. “Packet response.” Received by Rosanna Gargiulo, 8 August, 2016.

White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1995, 533-538.

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Rosanna Gargiulo graduated from UMass Amherst with a B.A. in Journalism in 2013. She lived in the Balkans, southern Africa, Mexico, and beyond, before returning to her home state, Maine, to work at her local newspaper. She currently lives in Bath with her husband and is a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She likes to go for long, muddy walks along the coast with her three rescue mutts.

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