Thoughts on Writing about Time Travel

Mike Nees Thumbnail

The following is a guest post by Mike Nees, whose story “The Shifts” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

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How many times have I wished that I could revise the past? More than I can count. And yet, it’s not until the late 19th Century that anyone seems to have fantasized about a mechanism through which one might do this. No shortage of ancient tales explore other aspects of time’s relativity; Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish stories all send figures into distant futures, for example, where time has passed without them. So why did it take so long for anyone to explore the idea in reverse?

Did God know in advance that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree? I think it’s a very different kind of story if so, and I can see how one would get caught up in the question. Omnipotence is the kind of conceit that I’m happy to indulge in a good story, provided I’m allowed to scrutinize it, and the author is willing to think it through. Like time travel, it requires the author to make bold predictions about how reality works. I love to see what authors do when out on these limbs.

So let’s say we create a protagonist and send her back in time to stop a disaster. No matter how modest our literary intent, we have to make some bold decisions. Does our hero find that fate is unbendable, and that everything—including her own time travel—is the predetermined course of a clockwork universe? Or does she discover the opposite scenario, in which her every actions triggers a butterfly effect of staggering consequence? I think these are the two extremes that we see most often. Both fascinate me, personally, but both have some significant trappings.

On the deterministic end, we risk revealing our own crass sense of omnipotence. We risk writing the Architect scene from the Matrix sequel, in which the audience is expected to have their minds blown by a pompously delivered diatribe about how our decisions have no meaning. I have no business saying that to a reader whose struggles I don’t know. And yet, I would argue that a skilled author can pull it off to great effect. Ted Chiang invokes this premise in “Story of Your Life” to contemplate the nature of grief. Kurt Vonnegut does it in Slaughterhouse Five to criticize America’s self-assuredness.

Whenever an author speculates on something unknowable, they expose—above all—themselves. We see their fingerprints riddling the worlds they’ve created. In fiction, that can be a problem. But sometimes we crave a glimpse of God’s fingerprints—even if they are those of a lesser God. A mere, mortal author.

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Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City, where he also hosts the city’s Story Slam series. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, and Heavy Feather.

Adding a Bit of Quirk and a Bit of Me

The following is a guest post by K.B. Carle, whose story “Paper Darts” appeared in Issue 16 of Typehouse.

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With every new story I write, I try to include a bit of quirk and a bit of me. “Paper Darts” is no exception to this rule.

My bit of quirk appears within the first line, paragraph, or the form the story takes such as a receipt or recipe. The most important role of the quirk is to entice the reader. I consider setting when experimenting with quirks: how a story’s unusual location—inside a cabinet, an eyeball, on an imploding star—might transform a common occurrence such as a marriage, dinner, or a job interview, and encourage readers to read one more sentence. One more paragraph. One more page to see what happens next.

Then, I consider the emotional resonance. Something in my stories that will make readers cringe, cry, or laugh. Something that readers will carry with them even after they’ve finished my story. My “bit of me” is oftentimes the source of the emotional resonance in my stories and in “Paper Darts,” it is my fear of forgetting.

I’m terrified of memory loss triggered by dementia: my earliest introduction to memory loss was witnessing the slow deterioration of my grandmother which prompted me to explore this experience and why dementia frightens me in my writing. Her love of food transformed into forgetting she had just eaten, as evidenced by the crumbs on the plate balancing on her lap. She remembered the names of her children but could no longer remember the faces those names belonged to. She knew, once relocated to a nursing home, that she wanted to return to her bed and chair by the doorway so she could wave to all the cars that honked when they drove down the gravel path.

But she couldn’t remember where she lived.

I observed this deterioration of the mind with my mother during extended stays at the hospital to ensure my grandmother always had someone to talk to. I witnessed her moments of clarity as they were tinged with pitfalls of forgetting. I was fascinated by the life she had lived but frightened by all the moments her mind could no longer grasp.

I try to include these moments when writing about the mind’s decline. My goal is to provide readers with the emotional resonances I carry within me in hopes that they will reflect upon a moment in their life and consider a new angle. Awaken, in their memories, the slightest of details they might have missed.

Combining a bit of quirk and a bit of me is my way of searching for something I might have missed. I encourage all writers to experiment, inserting quirks into their stories. A plant that offers unsolicited advice regarding parenting or a break up between a laptop and USB, making everyday situations more enticing to read. I encourage all readers to take a moment to reflect upon these quirks and emotional resonances within the stories they love, and to remember the reasons why these stories or moments remain with them.

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K.B. Carle lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned her MFA from Spalding University’s Low-Residency program in Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in CHEAP POP, genre2, Jellyfish Review, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She can be found online at https://kbcarle.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @kbcarl.