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Published on October 26th, 2014

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Priests and Prisoners: The Writer’s Relationship with Time

In a very interesting TED Talks presentation, psychologist Philip Zimbardo (who is perhaps best known for his terrifying Stanford Prison Experiment) discusses time. According to Zimbardo, people’s perspectives of time exist in three categories: present, past, and future. Zimbardo says that the most successful and happiest people are a mixture of these three foci, without too much emphasis on any one of them.

This got me to wondering about what time means to writers. While for Zimbardo (and most people in general), a discussion of time pertains largely to one’s career goals, family, social life, etc., to a poet, fiction writer, or other verbal artist, it means so much more.

The very nature of writing means time. A novel is largely about time, with the character(s) developing according to an internally logical clock that can exist only within that specific story. As a friend of mine, poet Marco Antonio Murillo, has said, the poetic ideal strives to slow time to allow readers to completely be enveloped in the sensations and feelings evoked by each image conveyed. A short story fights against time as its author cuts and cleans it down to the essential information so that the reader can enter quickly and move swiftly. At the same time, the short story must create the illusion of having existed before its first line and existing after its last.

white rabbit

For the writer, time represents the opportunity to write. Writers will sacrifice minutes and hours to the gods of fiction and poetry. They will give decades to their worship, sometimes with no better blessing than rejection, or even worse, a file of unread work. Hours and hours are spent sending out submissions, waiting for that likely no but, maybe, that hopeful yes. Writers spend time reading, and reading, and reading… They are the priests and the prisoners of time.

For those who write, time might well be irrelevant. Zimbardo might call the incalculable time spent by writers to be obsessive, compulsive, unhealthy, a waste. Most writers would probably ask him, “What better waste of time than to write?”

Check out Philip Zimbardo’s TED Talks time lecture below:

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