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The Fluidity of Time
Counselor, Danny needs you, spoken by a small boy on a high hill, and the four words fell from his mouth and were scattered by the four winds, years ago; but they have been a storm in me.
“The Meteorites,” by Brian Doyle, essay collection, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder
Four words scattered by the four winds. Without being told why the narrator was summoned and what happened next, you know it was earthshattering because although they were spoken years ago, the words remain a storm inside the narrator.
Essays, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir must contend with the experience of time. One of writing’s strengths is that it adeptly conveys how humans experience time. With a flick of a word, a past tense verb changes to present tense—and, just like that, time has passed. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. Albert Einstein was just as profound: “Us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion.”
In Doyle’s sentence, the narrator still has words from long ago inside him.
Doyle brings focus to these haunting words by invoking a metaphor. The words, without a material form, are compared to something with a physical shape via the verbs, “fell” and “scattered.”
Doyle also uses repetition to draw attention to the words, creating more subtext that the words are significant and profound: the four words are echoed by the four winds, and both are hard-stressed (spoken louder) FOUR WORDS/FOUR WINDS.
Finally, Doyle smartly doesn’t bury “years ago” but places it at the end of the sentence so it’s memorable.
After the semicolon, the verb is present tense, indicating a movement in time, and the metaphor continues with the use of “storm.” Unlike the previous base clause, in which the words were scattered by wind, in the present day, they have amassed inside the narrator and turned turbulent and violent.
Try it! What do you have to gain?
Open with dialogue, something said that’s important to your story. Identify the speaker and the setting. Can you invite hard stresses as Doyle did: SMALL BOY/HIGH HILL?
Transform the words via metaphor. Can they become physical? What shape? Size? Texture?
Give some indication of time as to when the words were spoken.
Add a semicolon and conjunction. Now add one more base clause using a present tense verb. Can you extend the metaphor to this base clause?
There’s room for more music:
Alliteration: high/hill; four/fell
Hard stresses: SMALL BOY/HIGH HILL/FOUR WORDS/FOUR WINDS
Let me know how it goes!
What else do you see or like in this sentence?