It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits
around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might
have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church,
heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his
cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the
tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the
leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible
hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy. “We
all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been
the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that
claret.” — from “The Swimmer,” by John Cheever
We’re going to be looking at the ways that time is shaped by and interacts with other prose elements—syntax, diction, and rhythm, for example—to create narrative tension and stakes. This piece, which opens John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” immediately establishes the tension between the past and the present and uses dialogue and setting in a deft way to draw out that tension.
Write about what happened to you on a given day, in two sentences. Then in five sentences. Then in ten sentences. How does the length of each piece shape how you use time as an element of describing that day? Is the passage of time more present in any? Not very present in others?
Michael Shilling is the author of Rock Bottom, a novel published by Little, Brown. The musical adaptation of the book, which he co-wrote, was staged in 2014 by the Landless Theater Company as part of the DC Fringe Festival. His stories have been published in The Sun, Fugue, and Other Voices.