Doing Time

* Story illustration from Punishing Ugly Children.

Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations. -- Faith Baldwin

Lately, I've been thinking about time. I've been thinking about the way time moves, how it moves differently for different things. It moves especially different for art -- and for all things that are created, and can be recreated.

When we immerse ourselves in works of art, time -- like disbelief -- is often suspended. When that feeling gets pulled tight (or taut), we are said to be in a state of suspense. For me that moment is when Ripley discovers that the Alien has nicely tucked itself into her escape pod, or when Bourne jumps through that window in Tangiers to stop Desh from killing lovely spoony-faced Julia Stiles. For someone like my wife, it's less of a moment and more of a running current: it goes from the point where she was merely watching Dexter to where she was racing ahead in the rented episodes, one after the other, and then, when those were done, to reading the books, including the last one, in hard cover, and then circling the date on the calendar when the new season would come out on dvd; one pulls the thread until it finally breaks.

It is fiction, especially, that explores the stresses and pressures of time ... all the time. Sometimes it messes with it directly: in the Martin Amis novel Time's Arrow, time moves backwards (and so does the story), while in Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut's hapless main character repeatedly becomes "unstuck in time." Fiction is filled with stories told in fragments, in episodes, obliquely or incompletely, by unreliable narrators, and so on. The very nature of stories is shaped by our grasping experience of time, with the same problems of vantage and understanding and motive. Time passes quickly, time stands still, time becomes a blunt instrument for Stanley Kubrick to beat us about the head with at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Visual art, while not nearly as slippery or fast, is at least playing the same game. A work of art exists in time, certainly. It is dated. It is also timeless. It exists in a static dimension (here, now) but its existence is informed and transformed by the time it finds itself in. Take the abstract expressionists: they were like rock stars in their day. Now their works are as well behaved as china plates, hanging squarely in the burnished light of the biggest museums.

What am I saying about seeing? I'm saying that it's mostly about perspective, and the greater part of perspective is ownership. Who dares to say that my baby isn't beautiful?

I can hang a painting in a gallery, in my home or lock it away in a vault. If it becomes successful, and crowds come to see it, does that make it more beautiful? Hidden in a vault, does it cease to have meaning? What if it's never seen again? Does it fall out of time?

When I make a painting, I can change it whenever I want. I might work on it, off and on, until the day I die. It might never be done. Does its incompleteness suspend it somehow? If my widow destroys it (using it as a liner for a cat's litter box, most likely), and it was never photographed or otherwise recorded, does it still exist? If it was photographed, can a reproduction replace the original?

Drawings can be erased. Or edited. Or updated. Their place in time ... shifts, according to the state they're in.

These and other gangsters of thought began to circle round my head as I assembled the illustrations to go with my first book of short stories. The work in this collection spans over ten years. I've *always* done drawings to accompany my stories (I'm one of a handful of writers who do this, but that's another story) but my style has changed considerably since I began. Indeed it's changed more in the last three or four years than over the rest of my life (part of this is down to a change in perspective, to doing it seriously but not seriously at all, if you know what I mean).

And now suddenly I needed everything to make a certain sense, to belong together, to look like a collection. Here and now. This, despite the fact that certain drawings were undeniably dated to certain stories (you could almost say they were "stuck" in time ... which is why artists sometimes burn their work, I guess, to get unstuck, and be liberated from their past).

In the end, all the artwork became line drawings, and almost all of them were re-drawn. Several times. And then some things were re-drawn and then thrown away again, in favour of the original, because every so often you get it right the first time (but need some convincing of its currency).

The book is now going to press. I guess this will be the official 'record', full stop. Hopefully, for the reader, it will come alive seamlessly, like some wonderful red dress, and only I will be aware of all the awkward stitching along the way.


  1. loved this post and love your work - congratulations on your book, wonderful :)

  2. Anonymous5:17 am


  3. What's it called, when's it out, how much?

    I love that feeling of time suspended when I'm really work/play-ing. Oddly that happens less now with writing and more and more when I'm taking photographs. I think this is because writing has begun to feel more like work and photography is absolutely an indulgence.

  4. wonderful. completely wonderful!

    *even the word verification was rated i as in i love it*

  5. exciting about the book ... and yes bendy, squeaky time hmmm...

  6. Anonymous6:32 pm


  7. speaking of word verification.... disco... really...thats fabulous. There was a time in my life decades ago it would seem when disco was what we were into...
    Great to read this post.
    Last week I got into a long drawn out pondering about time... whilst painting. The studio often transports me away - time suspended ... but than it can snap one back too.
    ...could say more but i want to wish you really well with the sounds excellent - and love the illustrations...


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