Expanding the Moment

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Sometimes I come across a passage of writing that stops time. It’s a magical moment where the writing creates a strange paradox: the words go on but time itself stops long enough for me to observe this expanded, intense and magnified moment. It feels as if I am looking into the space between seconds.

This happened to me when I read the following passage in Janette Turner Hospital’s The Claimant. It shows a simple action where Cap’s father is candling an egg. The experience had for me the vivid clarity and intensity of a mindfulness meditation.

“Cap buries her face in the pillow. She sees the gently way her father lifts eggs from warm straw, she sees his thick gnarled fingers, the delicate way he holds each egg above the candle flame, the way he studies the dark fertile spots, the way he slides the fragile sheath of unborn chick back under the hot cushion of mother hen.” (p168)

Time stopped while I watched the sharply defined details of the scene. I was there, seeing the father’s rough hands gently handling new life, and observing how he did it with such careful cherishing. What was significant about these details was that this was the way he took baby Cap from the basket when the priest delivered her to him. A lifetime was encased in this moment when one man performed one action.

I had this experience again recently when I read the long-listed Mann Booker novel, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

“The house was still. Dog stood by the closed door, looking at the space underneath, his hackles up and his legs straight and stiff, his tail rigid, pointing down. And then one creak, on the ceiling, like someone walked there. I held my breath and listened past the blood thumping in my ears. It was quiet and I pulled the covers up under my chin. The sheets chafed loudly against themselves. Dog stayed fixed on the door. A small growl escaped him.” (p21)

In Wyld’s passage time paused while I held my breath. I concentrated intently on the dog’s reaction to the strange sound. The fear I felt came from my experience of ‘seeing’ these carefully chosen details, but also my interpretation of their significance, what it meant that the dog was behaving in this way. It was only a moment, but it felt endless.

Both these authors held back time to show me something crucial to the story. They were saying, Hey, look at this important thing! See what this character is doing, and how he is doing it, and what it means that he is doing it like this.

They’ve painted an intense intricate and vivid world of significant detail to tag the scene’s importance. They held the moment still so I could completely absorb myself in it.

Think about doing the same next time you write an intense crucial scene.

The reason Evie Wyld or Janette Turner Hospital can show the world in such fine detail is because they consciously observe the small details.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.”

I believe that teaching ourselves to observe is one of the greatest skills we can develop as writers.

Next week I’m going to explore how we can train our observation skills. Come over and visit!

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20 Responses to Expanding the Moment

  1. Tony Harris says:

    Is there a right way to observe? As an author, participant, bystander, bypassed?
    I anticipate a great lesson…

  2. dianathrelfo says:

    Karen, I am very pleased you have so clearly shared your observations of how these two authors ‘held back time’ with intricate and vivid details that draw attention to crucial scenes. ‘Looking into the space between seconds’ is a perfect way to describe the experience of being so totally involved and present in the moment. And I am definitely going to try to employ their tactics when I next attempt to write a scene that warrants it. Thanks.

    • Diana, I intend to do the same. And I think you hit on an important point – to employ their tactics when a scene warrants it. It would be too intense and bog everything down if the whole story was written like that.

  3. Marg jackson says:

    Thank you for this wonderful teaching/showing moment, Karen. these descriptive passages are very reflective of mindfulness meditation. I will work on using this in my writing. Looking forward to the next promised lesson.

    • I’m reading a fascinating book, The Zen of Creativity, by American Zen master John Daido Loori, at the moment. I was struck by the similarity between mindfulness meditation and the passages, too. I hope to talk a little about his meditations next week.

  4. Maree Gallop says:

    Thank you for this blog post, I have learnt something special from it. I love the concept of holding the moment still and seeing in between seconds. It’s a reminder for all of us to immerse ourselves in the moment. So much can happen in just one moment. I’m looking forward to your next lesson. Thanks again.

    • You’re so right, Maree, one moment can stand for a lifetime. Quite a few authors and artists are working on that idea of what’s between moments of time. Virginia Woolf was a master of it in ‘To the Lighthouse’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway.’

  5. I love the link you’ve observed between the stillness in the writing (the encapsulation of that “now moment”) and its role in meditation. The scenes I love writing most are those where there is nothing but the sensing and the experience of that particular moment, and/or its energy. Life as it breathes, moment by moment.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  6. subroto says:

    Lovely post Karen, expanding the moment is such a nice way to convey what great writing is about. It’s about vividly describing those pictures in the writer’s mind that the reader feels like being right there in the thick of it.

  7. johnlmalone says:

    I lilike what Susan Sontag said about paying attention to the world, about noticing the small details. I enjoy your blog. Although I write everyday in the way a gardener gardens I like to think about what I am doing. I like to reflect upon y craft.

    • I liked what Susan Sontag said, too, John. I’m convinced the story is in the small details. I loved your link between gardeners gardening every day and writing. Thank you so much for your comment.

  8. Pingback: Writers are Observers | The Writers' Life

  9. Irene Wolczak says:

    Hi Karen, I finally got to your Blog…and I’m hooked! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m looking forward to the day it all (or some of it, at least) falls into place for me and I can say: ‘Got it!’…

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