"Life is one big transition." - Willie Stargell
As a writer, when I read and listen to books on CD, I do so from a different vantage point than someone who does not write. Part of me reads for the story, but another part, the writer part, searches for technique. "How did the author do that?" I ask as the narrative moves forward.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the book I'm currently listening to on CD, tells of author Cheryl Strayed's adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to get over her mother's death and her recent divorce. As the story unfolds, I'm struck by the ease with which she weaves different time periods together. Transitions always interest me. They are not easy even though authors like Strayed make them look deceptively so. "How does Strayed do this?" I ask as I listen. I've observed her success at using the following two methods.
The first technique involves the way she moves into flashback. When Strayed wants to move the reader back in time, she uses, from the past she is about to reveal, something that resonates with the present time of the book. For example, early in the book Strayed checked into a hotel near the Mohave desert to spend the night before setting out on her hike. She unpacked some of her newly purchased backpacking equipment:
I reached into one of the plastic bags and pulled out an orange whistle, whose packaging proclaimed it to be "the world's loudest." I ripped it open and held the whistle up by its yellow lanyard, then put it around my neck, as if I were a coach. . . .
Would I need it? I wondered meekly, bleakly, flopping down on the bed. It was well past dinnertime, but I was too anxious to feel hungry, my aloneness an uncomfortable thunk that filled my gut.
"You finally got what you wanted," Paul (her now ex-husband) had said when we bade each other goodbye in Minneapolis ten days before.
"What's that?" I'd asked.
"To be alone," he replied, and smiled, though I could only nod uncertainly.
It had been what I wanted, but alone wasn't quite it.
With this transition, Strayed begins to detail the unraveling of her marriage. Her feeling of aloneness in the motel and her ex-husband's use of the word "alone" make the connection between the two periods of time.
Strayed uses a second technique to bring the reader out of a flashback and onto the trail with her again. She does this by grounding the transition in detail in order to bring her readers back into the story. Strayed handles this beautifully in the prologue. There she explains how she accidentally knocked one of her heavy, expensive hiking boots over a cliff while standing on a crest on the trail. Then, in a sort of summary, she turns back in time to explain how she came to be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the first place, taking the reader to events that happened years before. When she's done with this summary and ready to bring her reader back to her lost boot on the trail, she uses sensory detail to plant the reader back in the present moment:
I looked down at the trees below me, the tall tops of them waving gently in the hot breeze. They could keep my boots, I thought, gazing across the great green expanse. I'd chosen to rest in this place because of the view.
In that instant the reader is back behind Strayed's eyes seeing the Pacific Crest Trail as she does in the moments after she lost her boot. She has moved eloquently through time.
These are only two of the many techniques available to move through time. Strayed uses these and others well. I hope to emulate them in my work.
How have you learned to read like a writer? I'd love to hear about it.