An Essay on Writing by Way of The Time Traveler’s Wife

I have just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Some months ago I co-founded a rather studious book club, and this one has been nominated a number of times without ever being selected for group discussion. I had a vague understanding of the premise, and it sounded appealing. I decided to pick up a copy and see what all the fuss was about.

My goodness, there is a lot to fuss about.

Just to emphasize my emphasis, I bought the book less than twenty-four hours ago. Fifty pages in I knew whatever else I planned to do with those twenty-four hours was going to have to be put on the back burner. I needed to see this thing through as quickly as possible.

The book was published in 2003 to rave reviews and was made into a movie I’m told I shouldn’t watch in 2009, so I imagine many of you reading this already know what it’s all about. For everyone else, the novel is about a man named Henry DeTamble with a rare genetic disorder that causes him under certain stimuli to become unstuck in time, flashing forwards or more usually backwards through a span of roughly a century to any number of places throughout the United States’ Midwest. He cannot control where or when he appears, naked and disoriented, but the journeys are guided in some way by his subconscious. More often than not he appears in the vicinity of people and places who have great importance in his life: His mother who dies in a car wreck; himself at a younger age; the Art Institute of Chicago, but most often –or at least it features most prominently in the novel– in the meadow behind the house where his future wife lives.

Clare Abshire first meets Henry at six years old, and over the next twelve years their friendship evolves from an almost imaginary friend through to a guardian angel, and then eventually and inevitably into a crush that moves through her teenage lust into something adult and mature. On her eighteenth birthday he tells her they will not see one another again for two years and two months, and the Henry she meets at that point will be the Henry in the here and now –a Henry only eight years older than her who lives in Chicago– and he begs her to have mercy on him. He isn’t the man Clare knows yet, but he will become that person with her help.

Clare does meet the contemporary Henry after beginning university in Chicago, and their life together begins in both an ordinary and extraordinary way. Throughout their lives together it is understood that at any point he might disappear almost without warning, leaving a puddle of clothes behind. Sometimes he’s gone minutes, and sometimes hours, and sometimes days. When he reappears, he often bears the scars of his misadventures. She likens the waiting to women of previous centuries who married men who went to sea and spent long periods waiting and worrying and watching the horizon for a distant sail.

More than that I will not say. Read the book. You will not regret it.

Now I entitled this blog post, “An Essay on Writing by Way of the Time Traveler’s Wife,” and I do want to talk about writing in some depth. Many of you know that I’ve written a couple of novels myself, and when I read a book now, I read it as an author admiring another author’s craft. There is a bit of armchair quarterbacking involved, of course, but there is also a deep appreciation for the process and the art. I once had a trumpet player tell me I couldn’t be a real Beatles fan because I wasn’t a musician. I find that a laughable claim, but I will admit in the same way musicians can enjoy music with a fuller understanding of the mechanics involved, so too do writers appreciate books in a different way than other readers. We ponder motive, pacing, plotting, character arcs, prose, perspective. We wonder why something was done this way and not another. We peer between the lines to look at the author on the other side and ask, ‘What are you really trying to say?’

This is Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, and she’s been very open and honest about her process. This book revolves around Chicago –her current home– and South Haven, Michigan, her childhood home. Clare is an artist whose principle medium is paper, and Henry works as a librarian specializing in antiquarian collections. Both of these are passions of Niffenegger, who is herself a professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts and a faculty member of the North Shore Art League where she teaches intermediate and advanced printmaking. Clare was raised Catholic, and Henry hovers somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. The two together are how Niffeneggar describes herself.

Going further, in her acknowledgements at the end of the book Niffeneggar thanks a record store and book store owner –both of whom appear briefly in the novel. The Chicago hot spots and neighbourhoods and landmarks come thick and fast, because they are her world as much as Henry’s and Clare’s. She admits she wrote the novel as an extended metaphor for her own failed love affairs. “I had kind of got the idea that there’s not going to be some fabulous perfect soul mate out there for me, so I’ll just make him up.” She has said in an interview. She drew in aspects of her own childhood, her own parents, and then used the idea of time travel as a vehicle to talk about love and loss and faith and perseverance.

It is an achingly beautiful story, well crafted, well told, with room for the reader to find a place in an intimate world between two friends and lovers. There is triumph. There is tragedy. There is conflict, and turmoil, and there is an eventual acceptance of the things that cannot change and will have to be lived around.

I am deeply moved, and I’m also deeply moved to consider my own writing process in contrast to this fine novel.

I have never been interested in writing things from my own life. My geography, my upbringing, my friends and loved ones do not factor into my storytelling except in the most passing of ways. I’m tempted now to trim my sails somewhat and see where that takes me. I have half a dozen projects in the works that I refer to as my third novel. The one I’ve been working on most lately is built around the idea of a man who has a genetic mutation much like Henry, except instead of flashing forward and backward through time my protagonist has the great misfortune to live for thousands upon thousands of years. An embarrassing early draft of the first couple of chapters appear on this blog from my NaNoWriMo 2010 attempt. The short strokes of the story as it is evolving is that this man –who has lived quietly as best he can from the last Ice Age until today– knows he will finally die in a few days time. He has a tape recorder. What would he want to say, now that there is no fear in sharing the truth about who he is and what he’s seen? What is the legacy he would leave for the future to contemplate?

I have the history down, and I see great opportunities to tie in any number of great little stories I know about our shared human experience that I couldn’t write a whole book about but that a chapter would come free and fast. My trouble is that devolves into a mess of short stories, and I’m not a great short story writer. I need an overarching narrative, and I’ve been fumbling that for two years now. I wonder if The Time Traveler’s Wife has shown me how to take a story of people at different points in time interacting meaningfully over an immense span of history. All drama worth a reader’s time is about characters in conflict, but how can I keep that relevant to someone who will outlive everyone he ever knows and loves? I’ve struggled with that question for a long while, and I’m still not quite sure I have the answer.  I’m going to chew on it for a spell longer, but I suspect very strongly Audrey Niffenegger’s work has given me the germ of an idea.

Anyway, I’m excited about it, and this book helped. I wanted to blog about it.


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