“I Wish I Had a Timeline”

Just reviewing notes from a workshop with novelist Jane Hamilton presented by Chautauqua Poets and Writers and the English and Writing Program at Southern Oregon University.

This one sentence is scrawled across the top of my page: “I wish I had a timeline.”

Hamilton was talking about the things she wished she’d learned before she began her writing career. “The timeline orders your mind,” she said. “It illumines what you know.” She drew a long chalk line on the board and made a mark for 1960, the date the birth control pill became available. “It changed the world,” she said with her characteristic humor and invited us to add our own dates:

“The FreJane-Hamiltonnch Revolution.”

“Assassination of Martin Luther King.”

“Bombing Hiroshima.”

She didn’t need to explain more as she added mark after mark to the line. Anyone who has wrestled with the angel called The Novel understood what she meant.

It’s not enough that novelists hear voices in their heads–those voices want their stories told. They have names, birth dates, and histories, and a novelist must know everything about a character. If characters lived through the 1960’s, the Birth Control Revolution is just one of the cultural phenomena they would have encountered. Did your character burn her bra or did she buy another girdle? Where was he on the day that President Kennedy was killed? Did he burn his draft card or go to Viet Nam?

To further complicate matters, your character has a father who was born in 1921. Did his family lose money when the stock market collapsed? Did he fight in World War II? Where? What battles? Was he injured? Captured? Is that what drove him to drinking? Made him withdrawn?

You get the idea–these questions can’t be asked without a timeline.

The quality of your timeline both permits and restricts access to your characters’ lives. And that process can seem infinite to a novelist exploring the convoluted human condition. A good timeline is the only way through the maze.

the dreaded semicolon

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve had to circle too many semicolons in my life, making the requisite marginal note: Review the uses of a semicolon.

The truth is: you could finish a PhD in English, write and publish in any genre, even win the Nobel prize for Literature, and never once use a semicolon.Emily in Orange

While it works for joining complete sentences, conjunctions and transitions are the better choices because they make connections clear and are easier for your reader to follow.

If you want the more fragmented effect in joining sentences, nothing beats the dash–like a breath of air, the dash can lift the text off the page–it adds a lively immediacy to the text that Emily Dickinson understood. By contrast the semicolon feels old-fashioned; its form looks formal, and somewhat Victorian.

It does come in handy as a kind of super-comma when you have a long, convoluted list with too many commas in it already, but as a reader, I’ve always found those semicolons surprising–they stop me in my tracks. I have to go back and read over until I remember the rule and the semicolon makes sense.

By all means, if you feel you need to use the semicolon–and sometimes I do–review the uses and be consistent.

“A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown –
Who ponders this tremendous scene –
This whole Experiment of Green –
As if it were his own!”