MFA Nugget: Taking Your Reader on a Journey Through Time

Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Douglas Glover has a single question he likes to ask his students, repeatedly. At his lecture here in the MFA in Writing residency Thursday, he said he fills his students’ manuscripts with one word: “When?”

“Where are the time markers?” asks Glover, a teacher who also finds time to publish Numero Cinq Magazine, write craft books such as Attack of the Copula Spiders, and also write short stories, essays, and novels. (Before I chose VCFA, I read his novel Elle, and it left me haunted and disturbed; that made me want to attend VCFA all the more.)

I am loathe to provide too much detail from Glover’s lecture–he gave us a taste of what he called a work-in-progress, and I want to respect that and not document it here–but I’ll point out some of the works he highlighted as providing masterly movement through time. These writers, he noted, will move readers forward and backward in time smoothly, sometimes on multiple occasions in a single sentence, through the use of shifts in tense–past to past perfect, say–or through short, simple transitions at the beginning of sentences.

Look for the time signposts in work such as Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; Ted Kooser’s “Small Rooms in Time”; Annie Dillard’s “Seeing”; Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh”; and Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung.” (In that last example, Glover highlights a single paragraph that seamlessly moves through at least five distinct points in time. Let me further note that it’s no surprise to me that Glover, a Canadian, included Munro, another Canadian.)

In our workshop the other day, someone commented that it was interesting how someone’s memoir excerpt moved around in time, but that it was hard for her to know where she was in time at any given point. Our workshop co-leader, Patrick Madden, said this is easily fixed with short, transition phrases. I don’t recall his examples, but think “Five years earlier,” or “The following Tuesday.” In other words, his advice meshed perfectly with Glover’s lecture three days later. (Ah, I’m framing them in time.) One student said you could also try to show time through cues such as what season it is via weather or some such subtle literary technique. Madden shrugged and said, “I prefer the direct approach.”

I should note that in the Annie Dillard passage provided by Glover, she begins with direct ques as per Madden, then folds in an artistic approach: “It was sunny one evening last summer at Tinker Creek; the sun was low in the sky, upstream.” She first tells us it was evening, then shows us with the sun’s placement.

I’ll pass on one final piece of advice from Glover that I don’t believe will undermine his ability to deliver this lecture fresh in the future, because it is advice he gives freely and frequently: You need to know your base tense. Since tense shift is one method of transitioning time–it can be done with a change in one sentence, followed by a return to the base tense–if you don’t know where you’re starting from, it’s hard to then move someplace else and back again.

Do you make an effort to provide time markers in your work?

14 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Taking Your Reader on a Journey Through Time

  1. Thank for this timely (sorry!) post. I’m midway through a memoir that opens the day my elderly father went missing. Throughout my story, I go backward and forwards in time. I’ve been using dates/times of day as markers to keep it all straight for myself, and I find that I’m keeping the markers because they ARE direct. I want my readers to concentrate on the story (and the stories within my story) without having to try to figure out “when” they are.
    The last few days, I’ve been in revision of what I have so far, and I’m adjusting tenses as I go.
    BTW, this is a fabulous blog and I am so happy I subscribed. You’re generous with your observations. I like that.


    1. First, kudos on your time approach. I find prose fascinating when an author moves me around in time, provided she doesn’t let me get lost.

      I’m so glad you found this blog and find it of value! To me, it’s strength is the conversations that occur in the comments.


  2. Pingback: MFA Nugget: Taking Your Reader on a Journey Through Time « The Artist’s Road » Numéro Cinq

  3. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

  4. Anne-Marie

    Temporal markers can be more than bare markers. They can be images and become part of the poetry.

    “She stands up in the garden — has sensed a shift in the weather — Every four days she washes… — She has nursed him for months — She unskins the plum [plums are ripe: late summer] — He [goes] into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died. — How were you burned? It is late afternoon. His hands play… I fell burning into the desert.”

    (from the first few paragraphs of Ondaatje’s The English Patient, a book famous for its temporal shifts)


  5. I did make an effort with “Reinvention” since it spans a year in the protagonist’s life. The seasons were important to me, the milestones of her biannual visits to relatives etc. I will keep in mind his words, “I prefer the direct approach.”


  6. Pingback: Get Ready for another MFA Brain Dump | The Artist's Road

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