Monday Motivation: Time and the panicking writer
Science tells us that at the normal speeds at which we live our lives, time passes as the clock ticks – at an invariable rate. At our velocity approaching the speed of light, Einstein said, time slows down. And yet we don’t need to consult Einstein’s equations to agree that our subjective experience of time can vary enormously, as even a child is aware.
As writers, as I’ve pointed out before, we have the power to manipulate time on the page. We can speed it up, and we can slow it down to suit our dramatic purposes.
Here’s something that happened during our recent writing retreat in Croatia* that brought home to me just how much can happen in the space of seconds – and how, if a writer were to render it in words, he’d have to slow time down to make sense of the drama.
The mentoring team lodged in a house that neighboured the villa in which the retreaters luxuriated **. Every morning, we drove up to the main house to join our mentees for breakfast.
Our house stood on a fairly steep slope. A gravel driveway ran up to the front door. On the morning in question, I took my place on the back seat of the van, leaving the sliding door open. Neither the driver nor I bothered to buckle up because our journey was such a short one.
The driver – no names here, to protect the innocent – started the engine and put the van into reverse.
Now you need to know a couple of facts about both the vehicle and the driveway. The vehicle was a Mercedes Vito. One of its features is a “handbrake” situated in the footwell. It is, in short, not a handbrake at all. So arrayed across the footwell are four pedals: the “handbrake”, the accelerator, the clutch and the brake.
My driver wasn’t accustomed to this unusual feature of the vehicle.
And as for the driveway, well, as I said, it was fairly steep. It ran down to a gravel road that led off to the left where it joined the main road. If you’d asked me what there was at the foot of the slope, I’d have said, Mmm, perhaps a couple of bushes and a low stone wall.
But back to the action. As I said, the driver started the engine and put the vehicle into reverse. Actually, later, he confessed that perhaps the reverse gear probably hadn’t engaged at all.
And we started rolling down the slope.
“I can’t find the brake,” he said.
The speed of the van crunching over the gravel increased.
The driver turned to me. His face was white, his eyes wide, his nostrils flaring. “I can’t find the brake!”
By now we seemed to be hurtling down that slope. He couldn’t find the brake? How was that possible? Oh my God, we were only metres from our front door, how could we have found ourselves in this impossible situation so quickly?
“Push the brake!” I yelled.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t find it…”
I braced myself for what I was sure would be the crunch of our rear into the wall behind us. An image flashed through my mind of me being thrown out through the open door, of…
And then our tyres dug into the gravel, pebbles flew out behind us and we slithered to an abrupt stop.
For a moment, there was utter silence.
“I found the brake,” the driver said.
We got out of the van and stumbled to the back of the van to see how close we’d come to the wall.
And discovered that there wasn’t a wall at all – just a single flimsy chain looped from one flimsy garden stake to another, and beyond that… a three metre drop into an open field.
We’d stopped fifty centimetres from the brink. Had our driver stamped down on the brake a split second later – or chosen the wrong pedal to push – we’d have plunged over the edge into the abyss with who knows what consequences to the two of us.
The entire experience lasted four or five seconds. Our panic lasted for a fraction of that. I’ve just read this account of the incident. It took me two minutes and ten seconds.
I think even Einstein would have been impressed.
* We held our inaugural writing retreat on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula in November. It was so successful that we’re already inviting writers to book a place on the next, in May, next year.
** The writers’ house is truly very luxurious.