The “One-After-Another” and the “Side-by-Side”

If eternity is life at rest, unchanging and identical and already unbounded, and time must exist as an image of eternity . . . then we must say that there is another lower life without distance or separation, a . . . unity . . . by continuity; and instead of a complete unbounded whole, a continuous unbounded succession and instead of a whole all together, a whole which is and always will be going to come into being part by part.

- Plotinus, Enneads, III, 7, 11; cited in Edward Edinger, The Aion Lectures: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung's Aion (Inner City Books, 1996).

It occurs to me that there’s a significant parallel between this neo-Platonic idea of eternity in relation to time and the mental phenomenon of a writer weaving their ideas into a narrative.  In the writer’s mind, a story is held all at once, rather than in successive stages; the reader/viewer (whether we’re talking about novels or film, or any storytelling medium really) experiences that total image incrementally, in stages, as it gradually unfolds before them.  Though it sounds like a simple point, it seems to me to spell out a significant reason for believing the writer and the reader/viewer experience the same story in markedly different ways.

A Writer’s Perspective

In my own experience, when envisioning a story, it doesn’t typically present itself to me as something sequential.  The idea can begin as a general feeling (for example, the melancholy of a post-post-apocalyptic world that’s already rebuilt after disaster, in the case of Infinite Zero), or it can be a brief glimpse of an entire world in a certain state; maybe it’s just a singular situation (as another example, stumbling upon a hibernating alien and her super-weapon, in the case of Though the Heavens Should Fall).  But from there, the question is seldom, “What happens next?” and more along the lines of “Why does the world feel or look that way?” or “What was she doing there, why did she have that weapon, and how did he find her?”  From there the idea blooms non-sequentially; though narrative sequence is obviously not entirely absent from this process, it doesn’t take center stage.  A singular emotion gives rise to world-building, which then begs the question of what kinds of people might live in that world, which then asks how they might conduct themselves in that world, which then leads to exploring how they might interact with one another.  The more and more that world is fleshed out, and its inhabitants with it, the wider that neo-Platonic “eternity” expands.

I’ve sometimes taken to exploring my own older work (notes and outlines, ideas that either disintegrated or were repurposed as components of later work), and I’ve had the opportunity to see other writers’ work as well.  One thing I’ve noticed over time is that writers don’t tend to struggle with this process of generating their own “eternity”; in a manner of speaking, it comes somewhat easily the more they learn to simply let it come to them.  What tends to be most difficult (at least for me) is then translating that whole: “instead of a complete unbounded whole, a continuous unbounded succession and instead of a whole all together, a whole which is and always will be going to come into being part by part.”  This is the point when most writers seem to feel they’re muddling their own work, as if their making a mess of what was previously pristine, or even dirtying something that was otherwise beautiful.  Perhaps therein lies much of the hesitation many writers feel in transferring that vision of the “side-by-side” into the “one after-another” of a sequential narrative.

The truth is there are more than a few ways to do this, yet that doesn’t seem to help.  More options seldom mean easier decisions, and not all options are created equal.  Even so, the goal of a storyteller, even when telling another’s story, lies more at this juncture between “eternity” and “time,” it seems, rather than in its generation of the former.  Thinkers conjure up eternities, and that’s certainly critical; but writers and storytellers render them into time.

The one-after-another is a bearable prelude to the deeper knowledge of the side-by-side.

- Carl G. Jung, C.G. Jung, The Collected Works, 14, par. 206; cited in Edinger, The Aion Lectures.

Some Practical Consequences

I think most writers who get to the point of sharing their work with others learn (if not immediately, then certainly eventually) that their own experience differs markedly from that of the reader/viewer.  This is yet another deceptively pedestrian point, but it has significant repercussions.  The writer sees the story from the perspective of “eternity”; the reader/viewer sees it from the perspective of “time.”  Or, more precisely, of those two expressions of their story, the writer sees its “time” from the position of “eternity” while the reader/viewer sees its “eternity” from the position of “time.”  These are two very different perspectives, and they often tend to yield very different visions.

The writer and the reader/viewer differ in what they bring to the story, and that goes far beyond the difference between an architect and a voyeur.  Experiences and beliefs, backgrounds and even life choices, all of a million different variations, all conglomerate into a singular reader/viewer and a writer, coloring not only how they see things but how they experience them.  And when a writer and a reader/viewer collide within a story, something which exceeds the sum of its parts is created.

To paraphrase an old Whiteheadian idea in process philosophy: 1 + 1 = 3.

In plainer terms, the story isn’t complete until it’s experienced by another, someone other than the writer.  Because storytelling isn’t just an abstract practice of a writer translating an “eternity” into “time,” but of doing so for the sake of a reader/viewer.  The reader/viewer is the critical conclusion to the writer’s task—the story doesn’t fully translate from “eternity” to “time” until it is experienced as time by another.  Often, I think, writers perceive themselves as having full custody and responsibility over their stories, and it seems to contribute to that anxiety of transferring their “eternity” into “time”; how could it not, when you feel you’ll be called to account for every last iota of it all?

But that’s simply not the case.  The writer has a critical job, but so does the reader; the story doesn’t ultimately derive from the writer, only half or so of its pieces.  The story is ultimately generated in the encounter and interaction between the writer and their reader/viewer.  The writer creates the story, but so does their reader/viewer; what the latter sees will in some respects be entirely different from what the former intended, and it’s learning to acknowledge and embrace that that seems to free many writers from the tyranny of their own self-imposed, illusory perfectionism.

Certainly there are generally agreed-upon rules (formatting, for one, but even that seems to be up for negotiation; spelling for another, but even in that there seems to be room for creative license); but realizing that a story is something a writer creates with another rather than simply for another is a profoundly liberating realization.

My Own Challenges

As I mentioned in my previous post, with this website I’ll be releasing my work incrementally rather than all at once.  In the past I’ve had the benefit of attempting to somewhat privately render my own “eternities” into “time” (of course never escaping the editors), then to drop the finished project in toto onto the laps of my own readers.  Yet this new arrangement presents a unique set of challenges, one of which being that, with the exception of Infinite Zero, perhaps more specifically to do with Aeon, I’ll be writing this one as I release it.

There are a few practical issues this seems to present, including going back and revising older material.  Extending my metaphor a bit more, at the risk of tiring it out, I’ve worked more or less from the privileged perspective of the “side-by-side”; so, even when I had to revise something in the “one after-another,” it made no significant different because I could then adjust the rest of the manuscript to fit the changes to earlier chapters.  However, in the case of this site, editing may take a somewhat different form.  Part of me feels that I can’t very well go back and alter chapters that I’ve already posted (more than editing typos or the like, anyway).

A couple ideas come to mind, but it’s new territory I’m still mapping out for myself.  One possibility is to release the chapters as something of a stream of consciousness, come what may, and if significant changes must be made, consider making them for the finished product I publish in the end.  Another possibility is to put more emphasis on initial outlining, then to follow that outline faithfully, ensuring a more or less stable narrative that doesn’t need to be ret-conned every dozen chapters.

All that aside, it also strikes me as pretty thrilling to consider my own decisions more permanent, challenging myself to stick with them when they’re made.  Ideally that would inspire more sincerity in me, pushing me to consider my creative choices more carefully and deliberately than I may otherwise.  Worst-case scenario, I end up with something I’m personally not in love with—and yet that doesn’t mean a reader might not fall in love with it in my place.

We’ll see how this plays out, but I’m optimistic.  I’m also grateful to have this blog to flesh out my thoughts.  I’ve found that writing (and even speaking with others in general) forces me to articulate my thoughts in a way that helps me to see bad ideas more clearly, to envision better moves, and to get fresh ideas from others.  I can already feel that coming together.



Image credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash