Words and Time

Words need time. This is, however, not just a way of saying practice your writing. Words need time in all its simple forms: past, present and future. Words need everything we have been to come to the surface of our pages. Words are creatures, things-in-themselves, taking us by surprise; they need to exercise their independence. Words need space to settle. Words need all of these.

In the first instance, in the past tense, words need all the time you’ve had so far. That is, not only do all the words you’ve read so far fill you but all that you have been rises to the surface of the page. This much is not so new a thought; however, a favourite teaching method of mine is what’s known as the ‘spiral curriculum’, and it’s this that I draw attention to in this thinking on words — when we write, we draw on fractions of experiences, moments, again and again. In teaching, in the spiral manner, we revisit concepts as we progress, building and building. In writing, we colour our words with the moments and fragments we revisit.

Memory is a curious affair. What our eyes see is warped by our brains, which over-compensate, which fill in the blanks in information with best guesses. Our brains are trying to help us, but they ultimately deceive us. What we end up with, in time, are memories that may not be real at all. In writing these fragments, time and again, in their many forms and various colours, we sometimes preserve and we sometimes contribute to the fictions of our lives. Eventually, words congeal into stories. The stories become things-in-themselves. Words need time.

In the second instance, in the present tense, words can be unpredictable creatures. They creep up suddenly. The writer is caught unawares, spontaneously afflicted with an urgent line or phrase, or an idea that just won’t wait. Words are scratches that need attention: red and sore. The present tense often catches us off-guard. It is infuriating. No matter how well prepared we may think we are, words are our children: they appear when they want to, how they please. We develop ways of pinning words to the boards of our memories until we can quickly get them down: mnemonics, focused repetition, linking the words to a visual snapshot of the place where they first appeared, and other methods. It takes focus, personal training and dogged application to dedicate the string of moments of the now entirely to the words’ retention. Words are time.

In the third instance, in the future tense, words need as much time as necessary to settle. I’ve known this for many years. Words mature: the intensity or any other emotion of their creation shifts — in time. Words sometimes become pale, sometimes become dry; words sometimes become richer, crisper, and any number of other ways of seeing, feeling, engaging with them. Words, which we read from undated papers — words forgotten and now chanced upon, divorced from their original emotion — take on different forms in their maturity. They become, again, these things-in-themselves.

As space and time are inter-related, so too are words and time: if we are all stories in ourselves, and if language is what defines us, then words cannot exist without time. Perhaps time cannot be without words.

Where are your words in time?

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