Jul 022017

Author photo by Jada Lillo


Introduction to an introduction

In her introduction to the 1989 edition of Best American Short Stories, Margaret Atwood describes her selection process. In this essay, called “Reading Blind,” Atwood talks about the “voice of the story,” an elusive quality she defines as “a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across space, across the page, but through time” (xiv). I’m fascinated by this idea of time as narrative’s medium, like a painter’s oils or a potter’s clay. Of course, the narrative voice doesn’t travel through time with only the writer for company; narrative needs readers. If narrative is “a score for voice” (xiv), as Atwood claims, then the reader’s imagination is the instrument.

However, narrative is not music, and the reader’s task of reading this score for voice is more haphazard than a musician’s experience of reading a musical score and performing a song. A musician performs a song after hours of practice, after absorbing the music as muscle memory. In contrast, the reader imagines a narrative voice at the pace of the words on the page. With novels this pace can span days or weeks. To account for this difference, Atwood shifts metaphors in her essay and describes reading as follows:

[From] these scraps of voice . . . we [the readers] patch together for ourselves an order of events, a plot or plots; these, then, are the things that happen, these are the people they happen to, this is the forbidden knowledge. (xv)

The familiar elements of plot are here, but what is this “forbidden knowledge?” And what might this forbidden knowledge have to do with narrative’s medium, time?

Atwood’s essay does not address these questions. Instead, she concludes her thoughts by finding a unifying factor in all the stories she chose for the anthology. For Atwood, this factor is a “sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear” (xviii).

For a long time these ideas have rattled around in my head: narrative’s medium is time; narrative is a score for voice; stories share forbidden knowledge; narrative must be urgent, compulsive, imperative. If I accept Atwood’s observations then what does that mean for the novel I’m writing? What do these criteria look like on the page? How do writers create this elusive voice of the story, and most importantly, how can I do this myself?

Margaret Atwood Best American Short Stories collage_1

Character thought: a crash course

At first the answer to my questions appears simple. In the context of a first-person narrative, every word, gesture, image, idea generates from the character. Technically speaking, first-person novels are all character thought. However, as readers of first-person novels, we have felt how this reading experience differs from reading other first-person accounts: letters, journals, interviews. And what does a novel have that these other modes of discourse lack? The answer—character thought—seems simple, which should have been my first clue that I had a lot to learn. In a section called “Novel Thought” in Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover gives an excellent crash course on the subject, which I’ll quote and paraphrase here, but I recommend a full reading. To begin his discussion Glover describes character thought as “stylized and systematic, unlike real thought” (12); he also says character thought “functions by concentrating on time and motive” (12); finally, character thought occurs within the point-of-view character’s mind (14).

Stylized and systematic language, time and motive from inside the point-of-view character’s head are just the beginnings. For example, Glover continues his analysis by elaborating on how writers use character thought. First, character thought looks back, “remembering where [characters] have been and why they have come to where they are . . . obsessively” (12). Also, characters constantly “[assess] where they are now . . .” (12), even though “they don’t have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before” (12); finally, characters must “[look] ahead” [12] and decide what actions to take based on what’s happened before (13). Here is a partial answer to the question about how writers work with time: characters project into the future, evaluate the present, and reflect on the past.

But what makes these temporal gestures both “stylized” and “systematic?” How does character thought distinguish itself from the other elements of first-person narration? While Glover’s descriptions of character thought provide a significant starting point, I couldn’t answer my questions without returning to the original teachers: books.

Categories of character thought

I identified four approaches to character thought. As with most things to do with writing, these are broad categories that often overlap and are not intended to be proscriptive. However, throughout the novels I studied this semester, I encountered these patterns again and again, with each author implementing these approaches in idiosyncratic ways. As I read and studied, I noticed that each of these approaches provides some insights or intuitions about my questions related to the first-person voice and character thought. The categories are as follows:

  1. Direct Statement: the author uses signal phrases, such as “I thought,” “I wonder,” “I understand,” etc., to transition into a direct statement of the character’s thoughts.
  2. Indirect Statement: the stylistic use of diction with powerful, personal connotations—often times, indirect statement happens at the adjective, noun, and verb level.
  3. Comparative Language: metaphor, simile, analogy create opportunities for character’s to reveal their thoughts in a dynamic, stylized way; in addition to figurative language, comparative language happens in the syntax (through devices like antithesis) and in the content.
  4. Parenthetical Expression: character thought set off between commas, dashes, parentheses; these expressions interrupt the normal syntactical flow of the sentence and often shift the tone, which of course reveals the character’s attitude toward the subject matter

With these general categories in mind, I’d like to look at the novels I read that formed my ideas about how writers use “systematic and stylized” character thought to create the first-person voice, work with narrative’s temporal medium, and reveal the forbidden knowledge of these stories.

Discovering Cassandra

Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Cassandra reimagines the story of Cassandra of Troy, Priam and Hecuba’s daughter who prophesies the downfall of her city, but Apollo’s curse ensures that people do not believe her visions. The frame story for this novel transpires in a matter of hours, beginning with Cassandra’s arrival at Mycenae and ending with her execution. However, the material of the novel ranges through different times in Cassandra’s life—her childhood as a member of the royal family, her adolescence as a priestess, her adulthood as social pariah, prisoner, and fugitive—; the chronology remains loose and is sometimes elusive, but by the ending I have a profound sense of Cassandra’s desires, how her actions and choices have shaped her life, what she believes and why. As a reader, I have gathered the scraps and stitched together the who and the what. I have discovered the forbidden knowledge. But how does Wolf’s writing make possible my reading experience? How does character thought work in this novel?

Cassandra cover image

Early in the text, Wolf makes it plain that forbidden knowledge is one of the overt subjects of this novel. Here is a representative passage, from pages four and five in the Jan van Heurck translation:

The same sky over Mycenae as over Troy, only empty. Shiny like enamel, inaccessible, polished, clean. Something in me matches the emptiness of the sky above the enemy land. So far, everything that has befallen me has struck an answering chord. This is the secret that encircles and holds me together; I have never been able to talk of it with anyone. Only here, at the utter-most rim of my life, can I name it to myself: There is something of everyone in me, so I have belonged completely to no one, and I have even understood their hatred of me. Once “in the past”—yes, that’s the magic word—I tried to talk about it to Myrine, in hints and broken phrases. Not to obtain relief, there was no relief; but because I believed I owed it to her. Troy’s end was in sight, we were lost. Aeneas had pulled out with his people. Myrine despised him. And I tried to tell her—no, not just that I understood Aeneas; that I knew him. As if I were he. As if I were crouching inside him, feeding in thought on his traitorous resolves. “Traitorous,” said Myrine, angrily raining ax blows on the undergrowth in the trench surrounding the citadel, not listening to me, perhaps not even understanding what I said, for since I was imprisoned in the basket I speak softly. It is not my voice that suffered, as they all thought. It is the tone. The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.

This passage begins with comparative language—Mycenae’s sky versus Troy’s sky. This comparative gesture begins with a clear declarative: the skies are the same. However, Wolf quickly moves into a qualification of the similarity. Mycenae’s sky is emptier, shinier, and these qualifications become more precise through another layer of comparison: the simile linking sky to enamel. Through the use of comparative language, Wolf works within narrative’s temporal medium: Mycenae’s sky is now, Troy’s sky was then. The character’s present and past are connected through both similarity and difference, accomplishing one of Glover’s dictums about character thought. The character both assesses the present and reflects on the past in this example.

Next, Wolf continues her stylized construction of character thought through an extension of the previous comparative gesture. However, this extension changes the comparative terms, with Mycenae’s sky now connected to Cassandra’s self—she matches this “sky above the enemy land.” Through this comparative gesture, Wolf characterizes Cassandra, not as others have seen her and portrayed her in art through the millennia, but as Cassandra sees herself. Whether or not she is accurate in this self-assessment does not matter, as Glover asserts, but this self-assessment must show the character as true to herself.

While comparative language demonstrates the “stylized” nature of character thought, the next three sentences develop through direct statement. The “systemized” nature of character thought demands this change because the previous comparatives set up the necessity. For self-assessment to function as character thought, the narrative must show Cassandra’s fidelity to herself. In these sentences, the shift from comparative language to direct statement occurs with the signal phrase, “So far . . .” This signal phrase introduces an idea Wolf develops through a series of sentences, all self-evaluative, all connecting Cassandra’s now to her past. Also in this series, Wolf announces a portion of her subject matter: Cassandra’s “secret.” This secret has to do with Cassandra’s power, not as a prophetess, although that’s part of it, but as a woman, as herself.

Included in the edition I read are four essays Wolf calls, “Conditions of Narrative.”  In the final essay, which is actually a letter, Wolf talks about this thematic concern—what is Cassandra’s power?—not as I would when teaching high school English, but as a writer who is still discovering her story. Wolf describes Cassandra’s power as follows:

This whole earthy-fruitful hodgepodge, this undisciplined tendency to merge and change into each other, this thing which it was hard to put a name to, this throng of women, mothers, and goddesses which it was hard to classify and to count, was brought under control, along with the right of male inheritance and private property, after what appear to have been long, difficult centuries, which now are described as “dark” and have been forgotten. (282)

Cassandra’s treacherous tendency to contain all the others, and to belong to no one but herself, this “undisciplined tendency to merge and change” is Cassandra’s secret, and the exploration of this secret conveys the novel’s forbidden knowledge, knowledge that is both dark and forgotten until a reader gathers the scraps of Cassandra’s voice into a narrative whole.

To return to the original passage, Wolf’s development of character thought continues, although direct statement gives way to what I’d always considered as the grunt work of narrative: there’s a scene, where Myrine the Amazon hacks at overgrowth with her ax, and the plot detail of Aeneas’s departure becomes the subject of dialogue between Myrine and Cassandra, progressing the characterization of Cassandra, Aeneas, and Myrine. This work in scene is important, and Wolf handles the technical difficulties of scene with finesse, but what interests me in this scenic material is Wolf’s continuous insertion of character thought. There’s the parenthetical expression of “yes, that’s the magical word”—and Cassandra’s reflective tone delves into a moment of discovery, revelation, recognition in the present before returning to the work of the scene, which is to describe an event from the past. There’s the comparative language linking Cassandra to Aeneas, signaled by the phrase “as if,” which shows Cassandra’s undisciplined tendency to merge into others, the reason for both her power (as a woman; as a seer) and her punishment (her imprisonment in the basket; the destruction of her people).

In the final sentences Wolf returns to comparative language, a symmetry that has been a hallmark of Wolf’s gestures throughout this passage. With these sentences, Cassandra takes up the subject of her voice, the musicality of it, and this music’s connection to her past experiences, as Atwood suggests any urgent narrative must do. After her imprisonment in the basket, Cassandra’s voice has not “suffered,” as her people believe, but its “tone” has changed. To quote: “The tone of annunciation is gone. Happily gone.” These final two sentences demonstrate the precision of indirect statement, or character thought as connotation, one of the distinguishing characteristics of first-person narrative. The word “annunciation,” with its implications of sacrifice, duty, self-destruction, reveals Cassandra’s assessment of her past. The word “happily” shifts Cassandra’s self-assessment into the present with an ironic lurch. With annunciation “happily gone,” Cassandra is in full possession of her powers. This “happily” can co-exist with her future, her death within hours. These connotations stretch character thought into all three temporal dimensions: past, present, and future. In these examples of indirect statement, this high degree of temporal flexibility, this simultaneity, generates urgency. When taken with what’s come before, the passage’s final gesture is one of highly-structured synthesis. Through different approaches to character thought, Wolf’s narrative shapes time, explores the forbidden knowledge, and tells the story as Cassandra must tell it, and as the readers must hear.

Absence in The Blind Assassin

In her 2002 essay called, “Descent: Negotiating with the Dead,” Margaret Atwood uses a question as the subheading: “Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?” The main thesis of this essay answers to this question in the following way: writers make the trip because writing, at heart, presents an opportunity to rescue something from the oblivion of time. To quote Atwood: “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead” (156).

As the essay develops, Atwood claims for writing a specialized territory not occupied by other arts. According to Atwood, writing’s relationship with mortality is unique because “it survives its own performance . . . as voice” (158). For Atwood, the novelty of narrative’s artistry is how “the voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change” (158). Much like Christa Wolf, Atwood claims the voice’s mutability as a source of power because, for Atwood, the writer’s “deeply forbidden” journey through the Underworld bears worthy fruit when “life of a sort can be bestowed by writing” (172); Atwood’s metaphors imply that life-bestowed-by-writing derives from the vitality of voice and the searing pain of absence.

Blind Assassin Negotiating with the Dead collage

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin takes absence as one of its overt subjects. The Blind Assassin is a family novel, telling the story of Iris and Laura Chase, sisters who come of age during the Great Depression. This story unwinds through three modes of discourse: first, Iris Chase’s first-person narrative of her family history, childhood, marriage, and the aftermath; second, a novel-within-the-novel, also called The Blind Assassin, which Iris published under her sister’s name, after Laura’s death. This novel-within-the-novel is a third-person limited story of an affair between an unnamed “he” and an unnamed “she” that takes place during the inter-war years and ends during World War II; and third, a series of newspaper and magazine clippings, small announcements, obituaries, political and fashion columns, all mentioning people intimately connected to Iris.

Atwood’s novel is, ultimately, about absence. As Iris’s first-person narrative unfolds, she reveals a history of betrayals. Her marriage to Richard Griffen, an economic arrangement intended to keep open the Chase family business, ends in ruin. Richard closes the Chase factories; he uses Iris as a sexual object and abuses her; later, he transfers his physical and sexual abuse to Laura, but Iris cannot see what is in front of her because she is mired in betrayals of her own. During the years of Laura’s deepest trauma, Iris engages in an affair with Alex Thomas, the man Laura loves, and when Iris reveals this information to her sister, this revelation propels Laura to suicide, the suicide announced in the novel’s opening sentence: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (1). However, through most of Iris’s first-person narrative, Alex is an absent entity, a gap, a hole, in contrast to his presence in the other modes of the novel, for example as the “he” in the novel-within-the-novel. As I read this novel, my questions once again center around the word how? How does Atwood create this tension between absence and presence? How does a character vanish from the narrative while at the same time establish a presence in Iris’s every action?

The answer is through character thought. Throughout the complicated structure of this novel, character thought systematically links the various modes of discourse through association and reflection. For example, in the chapter “The Chestnut Tree,” Atwood begins with a two-paragraph sequence that is entirely character thought:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted. What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.

You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones. (395)

Just as in the Christa Wolf passage, this example from The Blind Assassin announces its subject: absence. This passage begins with direct statement, signaled by the subject/verb pairs “I look back,” and “I know.” This sentence situates the reader within a triangular relationship between what Iris has written in her first-person narrative, and what she remembers, which is just as must absence as presence. The narrative is “wrong” because of what is missing. This contrast between absence and presence continues as the sentence transitions from direct statement to comparative language, signaled by the “not because . . . but because” correlation. With no full stop between direct statement and comparative language, the second gesture becomes an extension of the first. As Iris reflects on her writing in the present, she recalls but does not express her past. While moving through different modes of character thought, this sentence also moves through time. Now the writing is “wrong” because of what Iris has “omitted” from back then—behind that word “omitted” is a remembered history. There, in those memories, is the forbidden knowledge, and Iris’s voice spirals around it but does not touch it directly . . . yet. As character thought, comparative language makes this spiraling between times possible. The spiral structure lends itself to the discussion of absence: the circular movement around a narrowing gap.

The final sentence of this paragraph confirms this spiral structure. The sentence begins with direct thought—Iris’s commentary on her writing—“What isn’t there has a presence.” Then the simile (“like the absence of light”) moves the sentence into comparative language, echoing the gestures from the previous sentence, but at a quicker pace. The spiral narrows. In this comparison, presence becomes absence, darkness become light. The forbidden knowledge takes on dimension.

The next paragraph changes rhetorical direction with the direct address of “you.” However, rather than functioning as a move away from character thought, this rhetorical shift adds another temporal dimension to the character thought sequence introduced in the previous paragraph. The use of anaphora—“You want . . . You want”—and the simple, declarative syntax indicates character thought through direct statement. In addition, the “you” isn’t another person in the room; instead, the “you” is a projected future reader, Iris’s estranged granddaughter Sabrina. These “you” sentences project Iris’s thoughts into the future, but they remain Iris’s thoughts.

In the paragraph’s last four sentences, Iris responds to the projected “you.” The conjunction “but” and the direct statement, “two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth,” set up this turn and lend a call-and-response structure to this paragraph. Within call-and-response structures reside another implicit reference to time; first the demand then the response, a structure containing both sequence and causality. In this example from Atwood, time unfolds in several ways within the call-and-response; first through the future projection of “you” reading and wanting certain responses; second in Iris’s answers to “you’s” demands because these answers transpire in not only the now of her writing but also the future of her voice talking to “you,” to her granddaughter Sabrina. In this future, Iris will reveal the forbidden knowledge of their family’s history. That this extension of Iris’s voice takes her into a future beyond her death shows another way Atwood uses character thought to explore the nature of absence. Even as Iris writes, the movement of her thoughts through different temporalities generates the presence of her absence.

Finally, the last three sentences return to the gesture of comparative language. All three sentences use metaphor to express Iris’s thoughts about the slippery nature of truth. The first two metaphors announce their relationship to the paragraph’s previous sentences through anaphora: “two and two equals.” Syntactically, this comparative language connects to the previous direct statements, which continues the temporal dimensions of the previous sentences. Iris writes now; her granddaughter will read her voice in the future. In addition to present and future, these metaphors also stretch character thought into the past: “ . . . a voice outside the window” and “ . . . a wind.” Within the context of the overall novel, not to mention this specific chapter, both the voice and the wind connect to memory, to the past, to regret, to absence.

The last sentence makes these connections explicit; the metaphor shifts away from the “two and two” echo to convey Iris’s thoughts about the ambiguity of truth: the “living bird is not its labeled bones,” Iris writes. In this metaphor, time and mortality, presence and absence exist within the single figure. The image of the bird—alive then dead—and the distortions of truth—the living bird is more true than the bird’s bones, but the bones are also true. Presence and absence exist within both of these comparative terms: the bird once lived; one can imagine the living bird by labeling its bones, which exist now, have presence now, but not living presence. This metaphor applies not only to truth in the abstract; this comparative language also applies to Atwood’s entire novel. Each of the modes of discourse—first-person narrative, novel-within-the-novel, and newspaper clippings—also presents a version of truth, but as separate entities these modes are only the bones of a story. Character thought connects the novel’s three modes of discourse; through this connection the novel becomes a living bird.

Conclusion: The Golden Notebook

In Doris Lessing’s 1993 “Introduction” to her novel The Golden Notebook, she comments on her surprise at the novel’s progress through the decades, surprise at how many people read the novel, surprise at the book’s many lives. In this introduction, Lessing speculates on why The Golden Notebook remains a vital experience for multitudes of people. As she observes, “novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavor of a time in a way formal history cannot” (x), which is why she “[has] to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record” (xi). Emotions and time, fiction and truth—here are the prerequisites for Margaret Atwood’s urgent voice; also in Lessing’s ideas are the necessities for character thought.

Doris Lessing Golden Notebook collage

Throughout The Golden Notebook, the protagonist, Anna Wulf—woman, writer, communist in 1950s London—describes a private, euphoric experience she calls “the game.” In the game, Anna imagines herself in her room, builds the room object by object around her. Once her mind secures the room, she imagines the house, the street, the neighborhood, London, Great Britain, Europe, the world. With each addition, Anna also maintains the image of herself, her room, her house. On good nights, Anna can, for an instant, finish the game—her imagination holds all these places together, what Anna calls “a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness” (513). A brief vision of spectacular unity before the moment passes: pure “exhilaration” (513).

I think the game makes a good analogy for character thought in fiction. In a technical sense, character thought provides the apparatus for the writer to create an emotional matrix through the medium of time, to create voice. Character thought infuses plot with meaning, and meaning is what grants fiction with its texture of reality, its feeling of truth. Reading a good novel, being caught in the net of character thought, feels a bit like Anna’s game: exhilarating.

—Erin Lillo

In addition to writing, teaching, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently she’s losing. Her work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and The Tishman Review. Her poems appeared in an earlier issue of Numéro Cinq. She has an MFA in poetry and fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Jul 022017

John Hampshire photo by Elana GehanJohn Hampshire, photo by Elana Gehan


Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decision-making process that the artist used and the record that’s
embedded in the work.

— Chuck Close

John Hampshire employs and embodies labyrinths: he cloaks a mathematician inside an introvert, inside a college professor. He is best known for elaborate portrait drawings that disintegrate upon close inspection into paths of abstract lines that never overlap, a seeming chaos of doodles.

It could be argued that some writers, too, internalize within one body such a complex spirit, inquisitive and process-driven, constantly in motion, and their journals become great art, even when they feel like they are “not creating.” Biographer Diane Middlebrook reveals this phenomenon in the work of Sylvia Plath and refers to Plath’s journals as “the hand drawing the hand” (think M.C. Escher), claiming that, “Her writing itself enacts the process by which writing comes to be.”

So it is in the work of John Hampshire: the drawing enacts the process by which drawing comes to be. His drawings and paintings begin with what would seem random mark-making, only to evolve and congeal into recognizable imagery. We are left with the entire record before us, since Hampshire’s work gels at a distance, but dissolves when viewed up close. I’ve asked him a series of questions that led to these writings. We chose to remove the text of the questions, so that in the manner of his labyrinthine work, in the grand design, the hand alone could draw the hand.

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski

In the mid-1990s I started drawing self-portraits, looking in the mirror, using pen and a language of mark-making and symbols to construct the images. These consisted of things like teardrops, arrows, molecular structures, etc. I wanted these things to remain legible or visible in the finished drawing, and so the idea of not crossing any lines developed out of this concern. Over time, as the drawings became more resolved or detailed, the interest in the symbols fell by the wayside but the structure of not crossing any lines became integral to the drawing process; creating impediments to slow down the process and keep me engaged, a circuitous route to making something. While this process formally started in my work in the mid 90s it is an activity that occurred in my notebooks and doodles in high school.

Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2013Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2013

It’s natural for me to paint the people around me. Most of my subjects tend to be people I know, some more casually, some more intensely, than others. I do occasionally work from images of people I do not know, but this is rare. My consciousness or awareness of these people, their natures, or my relationship to them may or may not influence the work. I can’t help but think that it does, but it is not something that I think about when I am working. Formal issues of color and mark and abstraction and representation are the things that I tend to think more consciously about when I’m working. That’s not to say that the results do not have qualities beyond these concerns.

Gina, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2014Gina, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2014

The labyrinth drawings typically are in black and white, as the introduction of color makes them much more complicated. The paintings vacillate between full bombastic colors or subdued earthy colors, or are completely restricted to grays. I usually aim for full color with the portrait paintings, but after doing several of those and needing relief, I resort to black and white.

Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11x14, 2015Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

I started the paintings around the same time as the drawings, in the mid 90s, and the sensibilities that directed the drawings related very much to the sensibilities that directed the paintings. Painting is very much about physicality and layering and those are not things I was very successful at denying, hence the continuing of layering marks of color over one another. The paint marks themselves are more or less responsive to information derived from the subject matter that I’m looking at, whether a person in front of me, my reflection in the mirror, or a photograph. In all cases I am pulling vague and then subsequently more specific information from my interaction with the subject matter. My aim, in the drawings and paintings, is that the language of mark or line remain present and visible and that the process of the making of the drawing or painting is readily apparent or accessible to the viewer. The tension between both mark and image simultaneously asserting themselves is something I like to have in the work. I’m an abstract painter unwilling to let go of the primal desire for representation.

Inherent Strings attached, acrylic and string on panel, 11x14, 2015Inherent Strings attached, acrylic, string on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015

The painting itself (or in some cases drawing) usually determines the degree of resolution that occurs in the work. I find that the recognizability of the human face allows for an immense amount of abstraction to occur while retaining the visual implication of a face. The degree of resolution that the painted image brings is determined by the painting and whether it’s working or not. I keep painting until I feel the work is resolved; sometimes this requires more and sometimes less resolution in an image.

The paintings more recently have also incorporated clear medium between layers of paint, physically separating the paint strokes from each other, and playing up the three-dimensional quality of painting. In some cases I’ve even incorporated string or other objects in the clear medium. This goes along with the nature of the way I handle paint in these works; less like manipulated liquid material. The marks retain themselves and their individual identities more like the tesserae used to make mosaics.

Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32x80, 2014Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2014

Although I have made some very large portraits, most are somewhat conservative in scale, and it is the landscapes that tend to be more monumental. My interest is in the sublime power of nature, but more tangibly, I am interested in the dichotomy between the ephemeral qualities of weather or fire or clouds and the tangible physicality of the language of mark-making or lines that are used to build these images. While the portraits are typically of people I know based on photos I take, the landscape references are an amalgam of my own photos, appropriated imagery and imagined passages. The complexity of landscapes and weather, the deeper sense of space contrasting the surface of the drawing and the greater compositional possibilities are all attractive traits for me with the landscapes.

Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24x80, 2015Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24″ x 80″, 2015

Lately, particularly with the landscapes, I’ll start with some long lines that will break up the picture plane, which tends to be on prepared hollow core doors these days, and I’ll have very little, if any, anticipation of what particular image will develop. As I go along I start to select an image and start to build that, and then I’ll add other imagery to the drawing, working from both the photo references as well as imagination to put these disjointed images together. Intuition plays a major role in decision-making, and most thinking is retrospective rather than anticipatory with the work.

Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32x80, 2015Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2015

I have always had an interest in math and physics, and I was a math minor in undergraduate school. I see a relationship between these pursuits and interests and those of my current work and working methods. There are simultaneous dichotomies in my work: abstraction versus representation; solid tangible marks describing soft ephemeral transitions of light in an atmosphere or form; abstract expressionist versus Renaissance ideas about pictorial space or depicting form; surface versus image. These dichotomies make me think of some of the juxtapositions or seeming incongruities in physics, such as those between the harmonious Einsteinian relativity and anti-intuition of quantum mechanics; or the duality of light, having qualities of both waves and particles.

The mystery of painting seems more alive than ever with its growing history, and physics is no different. The more we know, the more perplexing the universe seems: the simultaneity of Schrodinger’s cat in a box, being both alive and dead until you open the box. The abstraction of these ideas to a philosophical level seems easily transferred to image-making, color theory and optics. With painting, I’m not exactly sure when the box is open, or if it ever is. Things really remain undefined until the viewer experiences the work; even then ambiguities persist.

—John Hampshire

John Hampshire is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at SUNY Adirondack and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally. He is the recipient of many honors and awards, including most recently a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity, a NYFA fellowship grant, and a Purchase Award from the Hyde Museum. http://johnhampshire.weebly.com

John’s 2015 video interview with AHA! A House for the Arts can be seen on YouTube.

xMary Kathryn Jablonski
A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist and poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Jul 012017

Rick Jackson


We never know where the paths of the sunlight begin
or where they end. The first sundial was called a Gnomon,
meaning one who knows, from the 35th century Mesopotamia,
and still used by African Bushmen.

…………………………………………………This morning I feel I have
come from a place I no longer remember. The light seems
to genuflect on the roadside. There’s a ditch here but it carries
its own stories from somewhere near the top of the ridge.
The darkness won’t abandon its secret places. Sometimes
it seems we are like those characters in math problems
running towards the rear of a train that’s rushing forward.
Where we were is never where we were. Our maps and
stories are made of mist.

………………………………….In one version it must have been
an important place, what those few worn letters
that were left tried to announce on the brick
wall beside the vacant lot. And that scraggly tree that still
shades the old men who gather there by day, and beside
the fire barrel by night, what attracts all those birds
gathering like broken smoke in the branches? Or it is that
their leaves are made of birdsong. They speak in a language
we know before we hear it. But by the time we arrived
the story had come to its natural close.

……………………………………………………..In another version
the dew is still heavy on the grass. For a moment you are
asleep in my heart. What more can I ask for? I am rocking
inside your breaths. I have turned into the words you whisper.
When I speak to you, I clothe my heart with your heart.
When you tighten and tremble into love, these dreams
wander into distant fields and leave no tracks. I have
never been so lost, I have never been so certain of
where I am. Inside you, it seemed as if you were
quivering with the stars that had faded away billions
of years ago to be reborn in another galaxy.

…………………………………………………………….But you have
your own stories, and your own way of saying what
you miss. Sometimes our versions are dim lights
at the far ends of a street or valley.

………………………………………………..How easy it is
that we have not devoured each other the way some lost
galaxies have swallowed each other since the beginning
of time, or the way the mantis devours its mate so lovingly.



No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an
Old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from
It, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.
—Mark 2:21

A robin dips into a puddle and flutters the water
From its wings. Above him, the fog seems to glow
With a billborard’s neon. He’s in an abandoned lot
Of broken glass that mirrors forgotten images.
There are so many unexplored galaxies behind our
Eyelids. One sailboat capsizes then rights itself
On the river. A city falcon rising into the fog
Must think it has reached heaven. I am on my way
To the airport passing store mannequins that have
Their own dreams. The dreams we have dressed
Ourselves in will need to be patched. Which is
What love is– dreaming ourselves into all new and
Possible forms of love, the way a flame quivers like
A leaf that itself is dreaming it has become a flame.

For Ata and Christina



That deep in the pit I could see the hidden dreams
of daylight stars. If I listened carefully, I could hear
the earth’s plates grumbling. I didn’t know why.
Every once in a while a grudging wind might twist
its way down to me. Every once in a while a raindrop
would leave its thumbprint in the mud. I learned, then,
that our real histories lie in wait in the shadows.
My own brothers tried to kill or sell me, you know
the story. Revenge crumbled from the dirt walls.
But it’s true, I was unfair.  I thought to imprison
them. I dreamt the sheaves and stars bowed
down to me. My own words became my chains.
I was ashamed. What I can’t decipher is your own
cavernous dreams. They have no meanings that don’t
spread out like the tracks of a frightened herd towards
wars, rapes, beheadings and the refugees from the everyday
selling of lives. You thought you could put the moon
in a prison. You called arrogance by the name of
practicality. The books you held sacred you refused
to follow. Pretty soon another day is out of reach.
What will you dream when your words are forgotten?
This morning I watched as a stray dog settled into sleep
among the worn headstones. I do not know whether
he was remembering or forgetting. I think we have to
burrow deep into our own dreams, into the pits of
our worst desires. We have to gather every syllable
in search of a truer meaning. Sometimes our dreams
seek sanctuary in what we can’t say. Why can’t we
clothe our hearts in each others’ hearts? My dream
eddies out of the coves and inlets of these words. Here,
a firefly lights, now and then, the ashes of a dead star.



Winter’s net of black branches has begun to haul in
a few buds and leaves. There’s nothing to explain
our desire to embrace all that surrounds us. A sudden
sun has made the statues glisten. I remember my own
age of cries as dreadful as yours. We all desired
a story different than the one we lived. I sang
whatever was true, however painful or torturous,
not to dwell in those valleys but to climb out of them.
No one wanted to remember the wars, the captivity,
the rapes. No one wanted to remember that we too
did unspeakable crimes. Now your own stories are
so light they drift away like milkweed looking for
some better ground. There isn’t any, there never is.
The moon’s scarred face gives us back our souls.
Saul thought I would drift away, then tried to kill me.
I forgave him as I forgave myself. My own faults now
crumble like pages of a forgotten passion. All I know is
that memory is a place that is nowhere, which is why
we can retrieve the lives we never lived. Each song is
a woods where the paths return always to the beginning.
I sang to invent what I could not remember, or to remember
what I could not invent. It was the only way to let my soul
glisten as if it knew.  Here a few deer step out of the woods.
The cornstalk stubble has been burnt away. The cemetery
Stones are telling only a part of the story but that seems
Enough. A sudden wind nudges the statues awake.



Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what
judgment you  judge, you will be judged; and with
the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
—Matthew 7:1, NKJV.

Today it would be Jordan. I would wear a head scarf.
It would be the same sun eating the dirt, making thorns
of the air. I left my people yes, but love them still, while
their lands are bulldozed, the same lands you once
exiled them to, where my husband lay. Because you left
the fallen grain for the poor I went to gather it. It is
that same dust that seasons our food, the same wind
that is sandpaper on the face. You could map my journey
by its tendrils of pain. I was still a foreigner.  I was
ready to pull down the clouds around me. But I knew
that the new belief was tolerance. What has happened?
The birds and snakes have become planes and tanks.
The words you once used to embrace have changed into
words that will strangle you. There is no other ending.
My own road took me to a Bethlehem before yours.
My own road took me to a husband whose words
cloaked me. This morning a sparrow pecking uselessly
for worms would not give up, its wings fluttering like
a heart. It paid no attention to the contrails of jets.
The face of the desert has a look this evening that
I would like to call home, that I would like to call love.



What I never understood was that I never owned
even myself. I used to listen to the river trying to claw
its way back to the hills over the rapids. I used to walk
only in the shadows that seemed to spread like thrown
cloaks in front of me. Everything we own is owned by
something else. In the end we’d fight for the dew
that collects on the fallen, the clouds that seem to shade
an enemy, even the faint tracks the robber would leave
in the alleyway.

…………………….And now? One morning someone blows
himself up or sends a missile down some chimney just
to own the breath he’ll soon exhale. Our words are
vapor as the Preacher says. We have to remember how
the wind blows away the wind. We have to escape
the mind’s broken bridges.  We have to let our hearts
empty themselves in the sea.

………………………………………..One day I could feel
the sun burn into my hands and side. Another day
it seemed the devils leaving Arezzo were shadows
of stars. There are so many things we see that have
no words, so many words written in invisible ink.

We have to learn the language of birds which is prayer.
There is always another heart within the heart, for
what we own is never what we have, what we love
is never what we own

………………………………just as the woman in Nigeria knew
caring for the friends whose body had become pustules
and leaked their own blood, putting on their wounds like
a cloak, like Job, like more than all the love we can own.

—Richard Jackson


Richard Jackson has published over twenty books including fourteen books of poems, most recently Traversings (Anchor and Plume, 2016) Retrievals (C&R Press, 2014), Out of Place (Ashland, 2014), Resonancia (Barcelona, 2014, a translation of Resonance  from Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004), Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland, 2003), and Heartwall (UMass, Juniper Prize 2000), as well as four chapbook adaptations from Pavese and other Italian poets. The Heart’s Many Doors is a collection of poems by American poets on the artists Metka Krasovec (Wings press, 2017). A new, limited edition book of prose poems, Fifties, is due from Dayton U later this Sprting. He has translated a book of poems by Alexsander Persolja (Potvanje Sonca / Journey of the Sun) (Kulturno Drustvo Vilenica: Slovenia, 2007) as well as Last Voyage, a book of translations of the early-20th-century Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, (Red Hen, 2010). In addition, he has edited the selected poems of Slovene poet, Iztok Osijnik. He also edited nearly twenty chapobooks of poems from Eastern Europe. His own poems have been translated into seventeen languages including Worlds Apart: Selected Poems in Slovene. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetryand Poetry Miscellany, a journal.. He is the author of Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). He was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia for his work with the Slovene-based Peace and Sarajevo Committees of PEN International. He has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, and two Witter-Bynner fellowships, a Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award, and the Crazyhorse prize, and he is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Best American Poems ‘97 as well as many other anthologies. Originator of VCFA’s Slovenia Program, he was a Fulbright Exchange poet to former Yugoslavia and returns to Europe each year with groups of students. He has been teaching at the Iowa Summer Festival, The Prague Summer Workshops, and regularly at UT-Chattanooga (since 1976), where he directs the Meacham Writers’ Conference. He has taught at VCFA since 1987. He has won teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and VCFA. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret Award for teaching and writing.


Jul 012017


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.


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


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.


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)


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).



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).



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.

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.