Wednesday nights. Weekly. A room full of writers.
The instructions are clear – “Never stop writing. Don’t think. Don’t lift pen from paper. If you get stuck, write about being stuck.”
We don’t know precisely how long we have for the second exercise. We write and write, and the time ticks by. Our internal clocks, masters of habit, accustomed to a fifteen to twenty minute limit, automatically pace us.
But the buzzer doesn’t ring. We grow agitated, restless, edgy. The energy in the room deflates. Pens stop moving. Fidgeting becomes more pronounced. Assorted writers stand and stretch and head off to the bathroom, bumping by one writer scribbling away, determined to stay inside the exercise.
I keep writing. Or attempt to, but the movements in the room and my internal metronome distract me.
And I write, “I’m running out of thought and wish I knew how much longer we had. How fitting. I bet we all wish we knew how much longer we had…
“…Sometimes I imagine how I would live if I knew my time limit…
“…Here I am again, aware of the sounds of movement in the room, the pens that have stopped. I’m back to wanting to know how much time, and why we don’t know – was that by design or by inadvertent omission? How would it make a difference if I knew how to pace myself?”
A fine question, indeed.
How would it make a difference if you knew how much time you had? A lack of knowledge by design or by inadvertent omission? Turns out writing class isn’t so different from life.
Finally, after thirty minutes, the buzzer goes off.
“Uh, I don’t know if this goes against your teaching methods,” one student tentatively starts, “but is it okay to know if it’s going to be a long or short write?” Nods and grunts of agreement fill the room.
“Sure. Okay,” the teacher replies. “I’ll let you know from now on.”
Even though I nod along with the others, even though I’ve written the above words, why does it matter how long we have to write? We are a room of writers. If we finish one piece, we can jump to another. We don’t need permission to write. In this case we only need permission to stop.
And that is the ideal view, the enlightened view, the view I’d like to march with or lounge with through life. Only I know it’s not that simple. We depend on time for our structure, for our limits and our freedom. We use time to figure out how deeply we can go or how concise we must be. In both writing and life.
How we react to the quantity of time surprises us. The brief affair that takes us deeper than the lengthy relationship. The death sentence that liberates and allows the dying to live more fully. The precision of language that a short piece requires.
Short can be good.
Planning for the future puts on the handcuffs. The practical side dominates and dreams fall away. With six months to live, I’d cram in all possible play and adventure. I’d leave nothing unsaid. I’d be completely free.
But as much as we love the beautifully crafted vignette, its brevity and precision, we never get invested in the same way as with the novel that takes us through the lengthy journey.
So long is also good.
My grandparents lived into their nineties and were married for seventy-one years. I will never know that kind of longevity with another, a truly unique experience that writers attempt to capture in story but are unable to place into the core of our beings. Without living through the love, lust, boredom, disappointment, acceptance, renewal of love, respect, and peace, we’re just spectators. Oh yeah, and the bickering. My grandparents exchanged pokes through countless petty arguments, but I never saw two people look upon each other with more pride. The reward of endurance.
Like the finished novel.
So how to reconcile a relationship with time and with not knowing how long we have?
I play with both, some days tapping out a vignette and on others addressing the novel. Some days I imagine a long life stretched before me and sometimes I picture a short sprint, and I choose my behavior accordingly. By mixing it up, I can experience it all, or at least have a taste.
But despite the exercise, I crave the crystal ball. I want to know how long I have. I want the chance to tie up loose ends, to say the meaningful words, to get my characters home.
But unlike writing class, in life there is no teacher who can answer, “How long?” Whether by accident or design, our amount of time is a mystery. And I hope in the future if I find myself with extra time, I won’t sit back and wait for the buzzer. I’ll keep writing and living, right till the end.