Now and Then

Unless we think about it, time seems pretty straightforward. The future is stuff that hasn’t happened yet, the past is the stuff we remember or can discover, and the present is what we’re experiencing right now. Couldn’t be simpler, unless…. What does ‘right now’ mean?

Let’s look at an example. Lightning splits the sky, two distinct bolts in one flash. Can we say that they happened ‘Now?’ They strike our consciousness at the same moment, so at least in that sense they share a present, but do they share the present?

It’s a matter of perspective.

We see the moon by light reflected over a second ago. The sun we see now has already slipped some nine minutes into the past. The nearest starlight began its journey over four years ago. Everything we sense—the mountain outside our window, the annoying buzz of a fly in the room, the pinch of an uncomfortable shoe, even the screen we’re reading on—exists in our past: the tiny fraction of a second it took the light or sound to reach our nervous system and a longer fraction of a second it took to integrate the sensations into our consciousness. Given all this, what does now mean?

Our intuition is that some magical instant exists in which things happen: stars explode, a planet spins, leaves fall. We see things happen now even as we realize they are already part of then. We assume, when we aren’t thinking about it, that the moment we live in is now, even if we won’t see the star explode for thousands of years, the planet spinning for hours, the leaf falling for a fraction of a second after it separates from the tree. When we do think about it, things get really confusing. Light strikes our eyes and sound our ears a tiny fraction of a second before the nerve pulses can arrive at our brain. Once the signals reach our brain, we spend about a fifth of a second processing them, and then the resulting sensations must be integrated into our awareness. As a result, we have to conclude that the magical instant when things really happen exists just a little way into our future. In other words, if we define now as the moment in some universal time when the different things we experience actually happen, we have no direct evidence that now exists. We only reason that it must, that the sequence of sensations impinging on our awareness must have a source in the external world, a source hidden a few hundredths of a second in our future.

This conclusion becomes even more troubling if we ask a physicist for clarification. It might have been easier when we lived in a nice, simple Newtonian universe and time flowed smoothly from past to future, second by second. Einstein changed all that when he announced that time moves at a different pace depending on how fast we move or how strongly gravity curves the space-time continuum around us, and it moves at a different pace for everyone. We might see two lightning bolts as striking simultaneously but, for an astronaut speeding by fast enough, one bolt would strike a tiny, but measurable, time before the other. And we’d both be right.

What does that mean? We can accept, sort of, that our psychological present is not exactly the same as the real present, what is actually happening out there in the real world, but it is disturbing to realize that scientists, who should know, admit that real time is relative. It depends on where you are and how fast you’re moving. Then we realize that while all those scientific equations describe how a system will change over time, they have no preferred time. No now.

For a physicist, time is what clocks measure, no more and no less. Their theories are expressed in equations that describe change over time and are evaluated on how well predictions match measurements. It makes no difference what time is entered into an equation or if the time variable increases or decreases. The equations are just as accurate when we look back in time as when we look forward. We can measure the mass, location and velocity of a comet, for instance, and be very sure where it was yesterday and where it will be tomorrow, but only have a general idea where it was a hundred years before our measurement or where it will be in another hundred years. For the purpose of tracking comets, at least, now is not the moment the light we observe left the sun, and it is not the moment it was reflected from the comet. For the scientist, now is the moment we take the measurement, the moment we have maximum information about the system. That is time zero in the equations. Not the moment the comet was actually at the place shown by the measurements and definitely not the approximate location projected by the equations a day or a week later.

Like our psychological now, the scientist’s now lags behind events. Both incorporate sensations on the one hand and measurements on the other that presumably originated sometime between a fraction of a second and 13.8 billion years ago. Events inform our psychological now as they enter our awareness, our memory. Events impact the scientist’s now as they are measured. In both cases, they have already passed into then by the time we can think now, and everyone involved, scientist, philosopher, or man on the street, takes the existence of a magical intersection between anticipation and memory on faith.

Writing the women of Jennifer’s Weave

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Jennifer’s Weave is technically a sequel to my first published book, Monkey on a Chain, but it is a bit more closely tied to Monkey than is usual for series books. That happened because the main character, Jennifer Murphy, first appeared in Monkey as a stock figure designed to emphasize Porter’s isolation, but she kept pushing back into the story, until by the end of it she was helping April count a fortune in jewels on Porter’s kitchen table.

Normally, that would be a good enough ending for a minor character, but it wasn’t enough for Jenny. When I began planning Rainbow’s second adventure, she pushed her way into the new story. It wasn’t hard. Her character was intelligent and just as far from conventional society’s norm as Rainbow himself, though in a different direction. After all, when she pushed into Rainbow’s house at the end of Monkey and found April, stark naked, happily running her fingers through a mound of diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, she didn’t apologize and run. No, she asked, “Can I play?”

She was a puzzle I had to explore, so when I needed a convenient spot to drop the corpse that triggered the next book, I picked her kitchen floor. But no dead man exists in isolation. Each lies at the heart of a constellation of questions: Who was he? How did he come here? Who loved him? Who hated him? What part did he play in the life of the woman who found him and ran?

That was enough for a start, anyway. I began writing, and within a few pages a detective with the NM State Police gave the dead man a name: Juan Murphy. Suddenly there was a connection between Jenny and the body, and her character became far more complex.

As I wrote, the first part of the story reflected my interest in Jenny. I’d made her a weaver without knowing why, but that occupation suddenly made sense. What had been a random choice became a metaphor, and Porter’s search for a killer hinged on his ability to read the warp and the weft of the choices that formed the fabric of her life.

I’d always seen Rainbow Porter as a damaged character. In Monkey, I imagined him as damaged by the war. With the new story I realized that the war was just the blow that fractured him, much as a sculptor’s hammer will break a marble slab along a hidden fault. In Porter’s case, that break didn’t weaken him so much as it left him with sharper edges. He became more dangerous, less human. Jenny was affected differently. What shattered her psyche left her unable to accept a complete human connection; she could love, but she would not be loved, and the two flawed characters were not compatible. As you might imagine, this sort of realization can complicate the process of writing a book.

When it became obvious that Porter and Murphy had no future to offer each other, I began to wonder what kind of woman could fit into his life. About the same time, the book started feeling like it was running a little short. The search for Jenny had Rainbow running all over central New Mexico, but all sorts of clues were pointing to California. Jenny’s father and brother lived in Santa Barbara. Her first husband and the daughter she abandoned were there and her third lived in the San Francisco area. Questions needed to be asked and Porter couldn’t ask them, so he hired a P.I. in Los Angeles to do the job. That’s where Sharon Coulter came in. Like Jenny, she also started as a character of opportunity, an ex-cop from LA working as a P.I., but she quickly became an opportunity to explore another side of Rainbow Porter.

Suddenly I had a new subplot. Porter and Sharon replaced Porter and Jenny. My problem with a short word count disappeared, but the new character was a cipher. All I had was a rough description and her name, Sharon. That was enough to keep me typing, but the woman still needed a character and I had no idea how she’d fit into the story. Then Sharon and Porter walked into a restaurant in Sausalito and Sharon limped as she walked.

Why?

When I asked her (and, yes, authors do talk to their characters) I learned about the car thief who’d run her down, destroyed her hip, and ended her career with the police force. More important, I discovered her anger and her regret, not that she’d lost her job, but that she’d missed her shot at the man who took it. The injury left her with a wound and an obsession. Both helped her stand out as a character. That made writing her easier. She and Porter shared an understanding of violence, violence tempered by a rough appreciation for justice. Both had been damaged by their histories, and both had healed themselves to the extent that they could. More important, just as a broken bone is stronger along the old break, they each gained a strength Jenny could never match.

Where did that leave Jenny? She remained the heart of the story but she was finally free of the plot constraints created by her relationship with Porter. She could return to her loom, to continue that metaphor, and examine what she had made of herself in the light of whatever self-knowledge she’d gained from the deaths and betrayals. She hadn’t lost anything to Sharon Coulter because Rainbow Porter had never been more to her than an occasional companion, a sounding board, and a bit of comfort when the nights grew too long. What she’d found far outweighed that: a fresh chance with the daughter she abandoned, a renewal with her discarded husband, and even a chance to reconnect with a father who’d never forgotten her.

Epiphanies and Profanities

Ten thousand hours. I did the arithmetic once, when words were coming hard, and that’s about how long I’ve spent at a keyboard, trying to pound some sense into the lives of imaginary characters. It’s a respectable number. Others have done far more, of course, but ten thousand hours represents an investment in the craft that I look on with satisfaction until I ask myself why.

No one has ever asked me why I write. How I write, sure. Where I find plots is a popular question. Where the characters come from, even what time of day I’m most productive, but no one, reader or writer, has ever asked why. Maybe they think they know.

I don’t.

Around the world, billions of people live full and satisfying lives without writing books. A case could even be made that the average non-writer lives happier and dies easier than the average writer. Writing has nothing to do with love, children, or any of the truly important things in life, and while, for most writers, the compulsion might pay for a Christmas turkey, the February pot roast requires a day job. So why do it?

Sam Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason but money. Of course, he did non-fiction and there’s good money in non-fiction, though writing it is about as futile as sex without reproduction–there’s the pleasure of the act, but it lacks issue, extension. It doesn’t reach outside itself. In non-fiction, a line about pruning a tree, for instance, speaks only of pruning a tree. It implies no thought of pruning a life.

But who am I kidding? There’s no pleasure in writing, not the way I do it. Others may have a different experience, but for me writing is painful. The words pour out, but then they must be examined, each one, with suspicion. Does this define the character? Does that fix the setting? Why isn’t there a word for the way an unrelenting wind can sharpen anger into a howling rage? Or for that helpless guilt I feel when my best intentions have done an injury? And how in hell can I tell a story by wrapping words around a vacuum? For, make no mistake, the heart of fiction is emptiness.

The characters don’t exist, the events never happened, and even the setting has usually been changed to some degree, if only to avoid lawsuits. Only the words exist. They wrap the story’s empty heart, defining it much as the invisible man was defined by his bandages.

This grows worse and worse.

Now I begin to wonder why anyone would read fiction, much less write it, and yet billions of people around the world do. They read the wrapping words and are enrapt. They hunger for more. They refuse, for instance, to allow Conan Doyle to kill off Sherlock Holmes, and when, a hundred years later, other authors resurrect the character, readers flock to their bookstores.

Why?

It has to be the stories, the shape of the emptiness the words define. Perhaps I focus too much on the tissue of lies, the character that isn’t there, the fundamental falsehood in the events and the setting. Perhaps the story should be viewed, not as a vacuum, but as a container, an empty vessel into which the readers fit their own life experiences. There is extension in that, a stepping outside of Self that allows escape from the tyranny of the day-to-day that grinds away at our lives, and there’s also a kind of resonance that promises new perspectives, new meanings, and an opportunity for re-evaluation and redefinition.

But what does it offer the author?

What was there about Rainbow Porter, Nick Cowan, Helen Daws, or any of the other characters I’ve mid-wifed, published or unpublished, that drew me back to the keyboard for those ten thousand hours? Why did I want to know what happened to them badly enough to make that kind of investment? Because I really didn’t know, as I wrote, what was coming next. Not for sure. No matter how carefully I plotted, the characters always took over, and by page one hundred or two hundred or three hundred I was just typing. I moved my fingers while the characters told the story of their lives–each a life I never lived, but could have, in a world God never made . . . and no, I didn’t make it either. We collaborated in the creation, God and I. He provided the model, I supplied the words, and the meaning arose somewhere in the gulf between model and writer, writer and reader.

Still, why do it?

Ego enters into the answer, but a technical writer sees his books on the shelf as often as those of us who devote ourselves to fiction. Power? Try politics or business for that. Money? Programming computers pays far better than writing, and the paychecks arrive more reliably. Sex? Ambition in that arena would have led me in other directions: politics, perhaps. So eliminate pride, power, money and sex. Pride falls, power crumbles, money wastes, and the hot urgency of sex fades quickly to indifference.

What remains?

Back to the stories, those ineffable silences we somehow fill with meaning.

Meaning. That’s a nice, glib answer, and I’m tempted to leap on it. We all hunger for meaning in our lives, but there’s a problem here. Look, for a moment, at the creative process, the act of laying words down on paper and then revising them until they are lined up right, until the emptiness they wrap holds a firm and satisfying shape.

The words come from the author. They must. There’s nowhere else. How can writing them offer the author any meaning, any insight, that he does not already possess? That’s the central problem, the underlying mystery.

Stories are built of words, so let’s consider words, and let’s get particular. Lay down a few at random. Rose garden, for instance. And since this is a mystery, let’s add death and surprise. Each word has a specific meaning surrounded by a constellation of associations that belong, at this stage, exclusively to the author. A rose garden can be a bright and cheery place, full of scent and remembered labor. Death evokes loss, grief, perhaps horror. A surprise may be pleasant or unpleasant–the word is full of birthday parties, Christmas presents, chance meetings . . . but when they are juxtaposed, something happens. They feed off each other. Each shrinks and the combination grows.

Let’s add a character and start a sentence: Death surprised Henry in the rose garden. . . .
What do we have now?

More than a string of words. I wrote them. Each has meaning for me. But once I put them down, maybe just because I liked their individual sounds and flavors, the combination implied a direction. It shouted questions. What brought Henry to the garden? What manner of death did he find there? His own? Another’s? Have the roses some meaning or connection to what will come?

Each following word must flow from the answers to the questions I perceive consciously, and probably from my unconscious reaction to the emotions they provoke. From the first word, my choices for the next are limited. Beyond that, they have begun probing me, pulling memories that have never touch each other together. I can plan the next sentence, plot the rest of the story carefully, but with each word I lay down I limit myself and I must wrestle with each word I’ve written as I search for the next. I’m still in control, of course. I can change a word or throw away the whole string and cast another, but the new words will interact with each other just as the old ones did. They will ask new questions, lead me in another direction, and in the end it still comes to a wrestling match, me against the words.

We shape each other.

That’s the point. I tell myself that I control the words as I might a spirited horse: I have a destination in mind — the plot points, resolution, anticlimax, and so forth — and that while the words might, like a team of spirited horses, pick their own path, the destination is of my choosing. I tell myself that, but then the words take me somewhere surprising, or they lead me nowhere at all, and it is hard to continue the fiction that I’m in control, that whatever the story contains is there because I put it there. As often as not, I’m learning from the words even as I write them. The differing strengths of the verbs, the grace of adverbs, the adjectives’ furtive collusion and, best of all, the bump-patter-BAM-patter beat as the sentences drive the plot, whip the tale this way and that, alternately hinder and develop the meaning of–

Well, there it is again. Meaning.

It pops out of nowhere. The words conspire to limit what the author may say. The author fights their tyranny to say what he originally intended, or at least come close to his first mark, and both change. Each layer of words is limited by the last and transformed by the next. It’s a shifting architecture, right up to publication date. You’d think that would fix it in place, but we haven’t considered the readers yet. Each of them will read a subtly different story into the same string of words. Worse, if the story’s any good, the same reader gets something different from it with each re-reading.

Don’t believe me? Try Moby Dick at twenty and again at forty. Don’t like the classics? Read the Travis McGee series at fifty and try to remember what you saw in it at fifteen.

The author has it worse.

The first time through the manuscript, nothing lies ahead of the last word but white space. It isn’t a space of infinite possibilities, however. It is full of invisible lines, walls erected by the work already done, and these constraints narrow as we move through the book. The second pass is even harder. That’s where the gulf between the vision and the accomplishment appears, and where the real job begins. Actually, I should say jobs, because there are two of them. The easier is identifying the shortfalls in the work and kneading it into the desired shape. That done, I’ve generally got a decent story. It isn’t enough though. There’s still that second job, the hard one.

Each of those words I’ve written so far speaks to the others. In most cases, the dialog is slight, but sometimes, sometimes . . . take that rose garden, for instance. It may call up something in me or, more important, in the character of Henry, that opens a window I’ve never looked through before, or have only glanced through with dull eyes, and suddenly Henry, and death, and roses, are all transformed. A resonance appears. The story begins working on a level I never intended when I first plotted it. Dizzy, caught by the revelation, I catch my breath. The story changes and, believe it or not, I change too. The words have taught me something I didn’t know, revealed something about the characters or the setting or even life that I didn’t put in the story, and now I have, have, to develop, no matter how many rewrites it takes. Where once my job was making the words live up to my vision, now my vision must live up to what the words have taught me it could be.

There’s an alchemy operating here.

The grand goal of the alchemist was transmutation–lead into gold, base element into pure. The great secret, however, was that the work transmutes the worker. The alchemist is transformed by his hours, his devotion, and by the recalcitrance of the medium, dull matter or dull words. Never mind that the goal is ultimately unreachable. Never mind that the perfect story cannot be written. The work is the thing, and all else, ego and money and all the rest, is puffery, insubstantial and inconsequential.

Monkey on a Chain, is far from perfect, though it is the best story I could write at the time. The goal Barbara Peters set when she asked me to write this for the Poisoned Pen Press edition was to tell you something about the work or something about myself. I hope I’ve done a little of both in the last few pages, but in case the words foiled me or, more likely, I failed them, let me summarize by saying that, because I wrote it, I could never write it again. It changed me, and that made the time I spent on it worthwhile. That made the rest of those ten thousand hours worthwhile.