Time Out of Time

When I was teaching college-age and graduate fiction writers, I liked to use an exercise called “Braiding Time” to encourage the students to think about the interior lives of their characters and getting closer to understanding their habits of mind. Before we began the written part of the exercise, I would ask them to consider how much time they spent thinking about the past (a remark they regretted making, say, or the pain of a recent breakup), and the present (This class feels endless! Why won’t this damn headache go away?), and the future (Is he going to ask me out or not? Will I do okay on the LSAT?). I asked them to assign percentages accordingly. This is a challenging exercise (you might try it yourself), and the results, which we discussed as a class before they began writing, were fascinating for being all over the map. Some of the students claimed to think primarily about the past, a response one might expect from much older people. Others lived largely in the future. Very few reported thinking primarily about the present,

One of the gratifying parts of the act of writing is how it changes one’s relationship to time. When the work is going well, one enters that now well-publicized state of flow, where total immersion makes the sense of time evaporate, while the feeling of selfhood also seems to dissipate. It is an altered state more rewarding, in my view, than any narcotic could be. And in the writing of fiction, even non-autobiographical fiction, one is revisiting the “stuff” of one’s own life — emotional entanglements, fears, hopes, etc. — and deploying that material, mostly unconsciously, in the creation of characters and stories. It is a way of reliving and rethinking life, finding meaning in things that were never fully understood on the first go round.

I am thinking about time now because the first anniversary of my ALS diagnosis is approaching at the end of this week. February 4th. That milestone has thrust me into a contemplation of both past and future. I’ve been remembering events and people I haven’t thought of for years and fondling the memories as if they were meaningful as rosary beads. As for the future, questions abound. How much time do I have left? (Impossible to say.) What will my remaining time be like? (Equally impossible to surmise.) What can I feasibly expect to do in that time? Travel perhaps? Publish another book? Host dance parties with friends?

I can’t really wrap my mind around more than the next year. I hope that I will still be mobile and able to “converse” when my two new novels come out in September. I hope that the fervor with which I hold this hope will have something to do with making it come to pass. Mind over matter. My doctor is holding out the possibility of six years, and maybe he’s right, but it feels safer to me to think in terms of one year at a time. Nevertheless, come next January I’m sure I’ll be thinking of these matters in new ways.

The Greeks have two words that refer to time. Chronos describes sequential or chronological time. Kairos refers to a time outside-of-time, an extraordinary period, a turning point, perhaps a time for action or decision-making. It is likely that, for the ancient Greeks, time moved differently during kairotic time, perhaps more slowly, bringing on keener awareness of its passage. I like the idea of understanding certain periods of our lives to exist outside or ordinary time, making us more thoughtful, reflective, self-aware.

To some degree, this past year has been kairotic time for me, an extraordinary period outside the usual passage of time, almost like an attenuated period of flow. It isn’t that time has moved more slowly exactly, but it has been infused with a richness brought on by the daily contemplation of life and death and love. Perhaps it is living in this period of kairotic time that has allowed me to see my diagnosis, in part, as a gift. For that reason, you won’t find me weeping on February 4th — instead, I’ll be making a toast to the time I have left.




Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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