'What Plot Is Grander or More Essential Than Time Passing?'

Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, looks to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as an example of how to speed up and slow down fiction narratives effectively.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

In her essay for this series, Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, explores the way novels—and writers themselves—manage time. Narrative time in fiction, she reminds us, is fully elastic, capable of any pace between light speed and snail’s crawl, and the author must learn to manage its fluid rhythm and pace. She pits the ravishing, radical middle section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which reels off 10 years in 20 pages and is itself a meditation on time’s tempo and force, against another form of literary “time management”—the fact that writers face long, slow hours at the desk while their lives flash quickly by. For Shipstead, literature requires enormous patience, and she explains how she’s learned to love the way novels grow slowly.

Time plays a lead role in Astonish Me, too, which begins in Studio 54-era New York but makes unexpected leaps forward and backwards in time. Joan, an elite-level ballet dancer just good enough for supporting roles in the corps, is pregnant—and her body’s imminent changes will soon make dancing impossible, with no chance of return. As her colleagues tape bruised feet and starve on coke and scrutinize one another’s flesh, and we think the book’s tension will be in Joan’s hiding of her pregnancy—but the second chapter flashes forward, the baby already born, and time keeps marching. As Joan’s son himself becomes a dance prodigy and wants to study with his mom’s old flame, the book explores collisions of talent and fidelity, passion and security, family and career.

Maggie Shipstead, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, is also author of Seating Arrangements, which won two major prizes in 2012: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and the Dylan Thomas Prize for the best book in English by a writer under 30. Her work has appeared in Tin House, VQR, and The Best American Short Stories.

From Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse:

Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

If there are such things as universal truths about how we experience life, “time passes” is one of them. (I’d suggest its harsher relative “everybody dies” as another.) Time is the medium in which we live, the thing that separates each heartbeat from the last, the axis against which the distance between birth and death is measured. Time is also a necessary conductor for literature. Reading, the basic act of moving eyes over words and allowing sense to penetrate the mind, takes time, even if during the best and most transcendent reading experiences the forward tick of time ceases to register.

Or perhaps, reading, we don’t so much forget about time as give ourselves over to an alternative, artificial version of it, one manipulated by an author to suit the needs of a narrative. Time within fiction is a malleable thing. I might speed my characters’ clocks along, spinning the hands into a blur, or I might stop them entirely to dwell on a suspended moment. This is the power of a god, and, as far as my characters are concerned, I am a god, the only god.

To me, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a masterpiece if there ever was one, is defined and spectacularly elevated by its middle, those 20 pages of expansive vision and extreme beauty called “Time Passes.” The novel’s other two sections, the much longer “The Window” and “The Lighthouse,” each take place over one day at the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye. Their pace is measured; in them, Woolf’s attention stays trained on the psychology of her characters and the complex emotional resonances set off by offhand remarks and minute gestures. “Time Passes,” in contrast, makes a majestic, impersonal swoop through 10 years, a period when the Ramsays don’t come to Skye, three of them die (their deaths noted briefly and parenthetically), and nature—fertile and insensible, as Woolf puts it—creeps in among the family’s abandoned possessions, inhabiting and reclaiming the house. Only the last-minute intervention of the caretakers, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, save the house from total disintegration.

In a purely structural sense, the section is unnecessary. It’s awful to imagine such a loss, but Woolf could have transitioned from “The Window” to “The Lighthouse” with a few sentences explaining that a decade has passed, that Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew are dead and the house fallen into disrepair. If plot means dealings among the characters, there is no real progression of plot here, but, at the same time, what plot is grander or more essential than time passing? In and around the Ramsays’ vacant house, the seasons pass and pass again; the sea advances and retreats; new life and decay cycle endlessly into each other. The confrontation of life’s persistence with death’s inevitability is thrilling.

As a reader, I want the house to be saved and repaired, made habitable again, but I also want it to crumble away, as everything must. I want to see it all. Yes, let the wind blow; let the swallow build; let the broken glass be tangled over with wild berries. “Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw,” but I want to go with it, to be the human gaze where there is no human gaze.

The planet is indifferent to the beginning or end of any individual life. Mrs. Ramsay’s death devastates her husband but means nothing to the house where she once lived, now occupied by “the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling.” Not one of us makes any difference to the waves, the thistle, the rat, the wind. Knowing that the only important thing about my single, finite life is my experience of it, I can’t help but want to squeeze more into its confines than is actually possible, and my best idea for how to do that is to read, to scoop a profusion of vicarious experiences into my lap like poker chips. My second best idea is to write, although I vastly prefer reading because it’s easier, more satisfying, more fun, and much, much faster. Writing is a geologically slow process, the drip-drip of a stalactite forming, and I am not a naturally patient person.

I come by impatience honestly. My father is a change-jingler and knee-jiggler for whom every commute is a road rally and who watches sports on mute because he can’t endure the commentators’ blather. My mother, on the other hand, spends most of her time making quilts: sewing together tiny bits of fabric, tearing out her work if the corners don’t align perfectly, ironing every little seam, adding embroidered embellishments by hand. She loves baseball. When I was little, she used to listen to spring training on the car radio, and the indolent crowd noise and the announcer’s leisurely calls bored me to the point of rage. Clearly, in this case, my father’s genes had shoved past my mother’s, determined to get there first.

What pleasure I derive from writing arrives and departs unpredictably, like some shy, nocturnal animal, but frustration is always there, an underlying constant. In a single day, even a banner day, I can only produce a horrifyingly small portion of a book, and, in all likelihood, what I write in any given day will be deleted and sent into oblivion, maybe the next day, maybe not for a year, but probably sometime. The sentences and paragraphs and chapters that eventually fall away are as necessary to the project as those that survive: I know this intellectually—I believe it, even—but I still catch myself thinking, as though the idea were perfectly plausible, that maybe this time I’ll just sit down and unspool one perfect first (and last) draft.

My brain presents this fantasy to me as though avoiding the prolonged, tedious, swampy struggle of writing might only be a question of willpower, or luck. As soon as I write the first word of a novel or story and realize that the process, again, will not be enchanted and effortless, I start longing to write the first word of a different novel or story, one that will come with breathtaking ease and speed and is only a mirage, of course. A mirage of fiction—nothing could be less real.

But, as more of my own time passes, I’m better able to discard my foolish wish to accelerate through the in-between parts of my work and life. The thing to long for is the impossible thing: for time to slow, for the chance to loiter in a moment. A novel offers such a chance; it is a portal into a preserved wedge of time, a past, present, and future that can be revisited in a way our own can never be. A novel also offers an opportunity to rocket through more time than any person could ever live, to knock off 10 years in 20 pages or 20 words, to follow generations, to experience versions of the distant past or future. It’s a trade: The writer sits at a desk (or somewhere) and expends many, many quiet, solitary hours of her finite life in exchange for the opportunity to build more lives, imaginary ones, cantilevering them off her own and out into the ether. The reader trades hours, too—for access to those lives and the irregular chronologies on which they are stretched like flesh over a skeleton. Woolf cut her time short. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how she could look at death with such clear eyes and then choose it, but we all make our bargains.