writing & time

This week I’m rereading Samuel Richardson’s blockbuster 1740 novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, and it’s got me thinking about temporality. Pamela is an epistolary novel, a story told in letters, narrated by characters who don’t know how the story is going to end. In their definitive biography of Richardson, T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel write that Richardson sought “to present events and emotions with the freshness and intensity only possible while they are still occurring or very recent” (98). Richardson called this “writing to the moment”; things happen to his characters, and almost immediately they are writing about them in their letters. They do not narrate a story from a temporal position months or years later, after they’ve had a chance to sort things out. This results, according to Eaves and Kimpel, in “a great gain in dramatic immediacy” (100).

Not everything reminds me of blogs, of course, but this does seem like an accurate description of blogging: “writing to the moment.” As we write our blogs, which tend to have a biographical quality to them, we don’t know how they are going to turn out. In what narrative do we imagine we’re participating? How does the importance of previous events change as later events occur?A novelist writing an epistolary novel probably has some idea of how things are going to turn out, even if the characters don’t, but an individual writing a blog doesn’t. In that way, we’re more like the characters than the novelist.

For example, I’ve been debating whether to write about the fact that I was turned down for the travel research grant I applied for. Let’s say that five years from now my research is going very well, and I’ve succeeded with other grant applications. What will this rejection look like? Alternately, what if five years from now I’ve been turned down for application after application? This particular rejection will then look very different than in the first scenario.

I think to some extent you have to imagine yourself in the middle of a narrative that has a positive ending. “After a brief setback, I was finally able to…” or “Although this was disappointing, I soon learned that…” or “In the years before I was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant …”

Eaves, T. C. Duncan, and Ben D. Kimpel. Samuel Richardson: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

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4 thoughts on “writing & time

  1. Thinking Through Blogs

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