Whatever kind of fiction you write, my guess is, you’ve experienced incontrovertible evidence of time warps, at least once in your career.
At this moment (late summer 2013), my first published novel is out in the world. I began working on An Alien’s Guide to World Domination in early 2008, and its passages and characters can snap me right back to that point in time. I am editing my second soon-to-be-published novel, a manuscript I started during NaNoWriMo in 2010, based on a short story I’d written at least twenty years before that. It is scheduled for release in April 2014, one year after An Alien’s Guide launched. I’m completing substantial revisions on a third draft of what I truly hope will be my third published novel-length work, a story for middle-grade readers that I started writing in fall of 2012. And there’s one more (for now) partially-completed manuscript that came into being in 2011; I hope to start revisions on that story as soon as I complete the middle-grade book.
The routine I began this summer means that each morning, Monday through Friday, I spend three hours focused on my writing work. So for fifteen hours in a given week, my brain must follow time warps from 2008 to 2013 to 2010 to 2014 to 2012 to 2011 and back again and again and again. It’s not quite the range of the time-traveling Tardis, but it can feel just like that, as I visit settings, scenes, and eras from each book. Step aboard the writing vehicle, and two seconds later, doors open on May 2008 when I visited Prague for the first time. Step back on and two seconds later, an ashram for ex-hippies in Taos in the mid-1980’s awaits. On the next leap, I visit a planet where the locals adore the object of furniture we call a “futon;” since time moves a lot more quickly on that planet than on Earth, it’s probably something like the year 23,465 there. And then another leap, and I’m in the same geographical place where I started, but now I need to inhabit the mind, spirit, and body of an eleven-and-a-half year old girl, for whom the time clock on childhood is running out.
As the omniscient author, or at least one who’s trying to pretend I know what’s going on, I seek wormholes, or tele-transporters, or whatever mechanisms can help make these time-journeys a bit more comfortable. A mechanism might come in the form of music – a song or album or artist whose work evokes the right atmosphere for the story I’m working on. The middle-grade book includes an epic road trip for a girl and her grandfather; every time they turn on the radio in the old Dodge truck that’s taking them on their journey, a song from the Beatles’ Let it Be album plays over the scratchy speakers. Listening to those songs helps orient me to the world of that story, and the ways in which the grandfather and granddaughter try to reach across the time warp between their generations.
Location – where I sit when I write – can help me slide through a wormhole to a different time/mind state. Don’t ask me why, but some stories need to be written while I’m propped up on pillows on my bed, laptop at hand. Others need me to get out of the house all together. Often this means they want to be written at the local coffee shop, accompanied by a generous Americano with cream. (Caffeine itself is a truly effective wormhole lubricant.) A memoir I’m helping a friend write about his amazing life as a Cuban exile in small-town central Washington state demands that: a coffee shop and coffee, or the wormhole won’t open.
Then there’s research, a time-honored (pun intended) means for writers to slip through into other eras and places. It might be a quick orientation on Wikipedia, or a visit to the library, pulling big books out of the stacks, or a visit to a place I need to describe. Recently I needed to describe a certain part of South Dakota where I’d never been. So I put out a call to friends and family who spent a lot of time there, and asked how they would describe it. Their beautiful, generous, funny, and wistful responses were more than enough to pull me right into that time and place.
Reading fiction by other authors doesn’t seem like research to me, though I think some writers consider it to be. For me, reading a great story, even if it’s only tangentially related to one of my projects, is a powerful way to travel to the time-space I need to inhabit. It carries one significant danger, however. Every great book I read wakes up the little gremlin in my head whose job it is to convince me I’m the worst writer on the planet – or if not the absolute worst, bad enough to conclude I should stop trying.
The gremlins of fear, inadequacy, insecurity, and the one I like to call “But My Mother’s Never Even Heard Me Say That Word,” are quite skilled in blocking up wormholes. So are their cousins, the imps of procrastination and distraction, and their king, who is known by the name “I Can’t Possibly Write Until I [Fill in the Blank].” Take a shower, get something to eat, do the dishes, lose fifteen pounds, win a Nobel prize, solve the budget crisis, change the oil in my car, do the laundry, call my mom to warn her about the words in my book she’s never heard before – whatever it is, that imp king thrives on filling up my wormholes with such obstacles.
This is a blog for fellow writers and authors, so I’ve focused on our world. But I believe this same experience happens to all artists, in the course of any kind of creative project. When the work is going well, we slip into alternative time streams almost without effort. When it isn’t, we lose count of how many of those gremlins and imps loom ahead of us, beside us, even behind us. Our quest then is to find the means to blast them away, via music, research, location, reading, or whatever tools serve the purpose.
There is one other kind of time warp that can seize me as I work on a manuscript: the experience of visiting an earlier version of myself, the person I was when I started writing that story. It evokes memories of where I was, who I was with, what I worried about, or looked forward to, when the kernel of the story grabbed me and decided not to let go. Often, being back with that “earlier me” creates even deeper wells of creativity. Sometimes, it makes me break down and sob. Of course, it could well be these seemingly opposite reactions are really the yin-yang of the writing endeavor. We spill blood, sweat, and tears on the pages, and take great joy in forming them into art, something an audience of readers (at least we hope they will be plural) can share and enjoy.
Navigating the time-warps caused by writing fiction can be painful, joyful, silly, frustrating, fearful, or full of wonder. Come to think of it, I guess that’s just like life. And our job is to grease the wormholes that take us to the time-spaces we need to visit, fighting off the gremlins and the imps, until we’ve created something beautiful to share. Come to think of it, that’s just like life, too.
Elizabeth Fountain left a demanding job as a university administrator in Seattle to move to the small town of Ellensburg, Washington, and pursue her dream of writing novels. She started writing in grade school; fortunately, most of her tortured high school poetry and song lyrics are lost to posterity. Her first book, An Alien’s Guide to World Domination (BURST Books, 2013), is a tale of people, aliens, and dogs who face the impossible, and do it anyway. Now Liz has three more novels in progress, including You, Jane, which will be published by Champagne Book Group in April 2014. She takes breaks from writing to teach university courses, spend time with family and friends, and take long walks while leaning into the diabolical Kittitas Valley wind. Her degrees in philosophy, psychology, and leadership contribute to a gently humorous view of humanity well suited to tales of aliens and angels, love and death, friendship and dogs. Liz strives to live according to a line from British singer-songwriter Chris Rea: “Every day, good luck comes in the strangest of ways.” Read more of her work at www.lizfountain.wordpress.com
Louise Armstrong Holliday is the last person on Earth you’d expect to save the human race. But when she uncovers proof that her boss is an alien the color of lime Jell-o ™ gone horribly wrong, and is at the center of a plot to destroy humanity, Louie decides to do exactly that. She begins a journey from her company’s suburban Seattle office park to the old cities and castles of Eastern Europe. Along the way, Louie is attacked by flying books, overly-sensitive bat-crow monsters, and her own self-doubts. She must learn the truth about her closest friend, stand up to her boss, confront her oldest enemy, and make peace with her Aunt Emma, who annoys her in the way only true family can. She also has to rely on Buddy, the little blind mini-Schnauzer who saves her life twice – and really is from Mars.