The Truth of Time

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Last weekend I spoke at an event called Dazzle Gradually, sponsored by the very cool people with the Friday Arts Project in Rock Hill. There were poets, musicians, visual artists, and the world’s greatest novelist/peach farmer, Dori Sanders.

Here’s the text of my talk — as always, I changed it around a little in the telling. The Friday Arts Project folks recorded the talk, and if they ever put it online, I’ll share it. The poem at the end is published with permission of the great David Tucker.

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I want to tell you a story.

Several years ago I spent a few months working on a piece for the Charlotte Observer about an old photograph. It was a picture of a young girl, wearing a dress her grandmother made for her, walking up to her new school on the first day of class. There’s a crowd around her. They are screaming at her and throwing things and somebody has spit on that dress her grandmother made. The girl’s name is Dorothy Counts, and on that day in 1957, she helped integrate the Charlotte schools. A great photographer named Don Sturkey took that photo of Dorothy, surrounded by those angry white kids, and the photo ran all over the world.

In the piece I was writing, I set out to tell Dorothy’s story, but also the stories of some of the white kids in that photo. I wanted to know how they felt 50 years later about what they had done. It took a long time to get some of them to talk to me. It took longer still to get a couple of them to meet with Dorothy and talk about how they felt about how they’d treated her. And then after that it took even more time to write the story and try to draw out what it meant. I looked at that photo a thousand times if I looked at it once. And then one day I looked at it and saw something new. Years after I first saw the photo, and months after I started writing about it, I finally saw something that felt like the truth. This is what I wrote at the end of the story.

But surely Dot, and all those others, opened the eyes of white people, too — the ones who saw the pictures, and read the stories, and maybe, over time, were able to see a different image of the world around them.

One last thing about pictures. You know how, when you take a picture of a group of people, somebody’s always got their eyes closed?

Go back to the picture one more time. See if you don’t find every pair of eyes open. And nearly all of them locked in on Dorothy Counts.

This was the gift she gave to the world, and especially to the kids in the picture, the kids at Harding High on the first day of school 50 years ago.

She made them look.

That little bit of insight came to me only after looking at that photo, and thinking about it, for a very long time. That’s what I want to talk about today: the truth of time.

The title of this weekend is Dazzle Gradually – thank you for that, Emily Dickinson. I think everybody in our culture these days is fine with the Dazzle part. It’s the Gradually that gets people all twitchy. Doing anything gradually cuts against every impulse of the way we live now. We can write a tweet in 10 seconds and broadcast it to the globe instantaneously. I’m gonna confess right here this afternoon to being a serial tweeter. I looked it up the other day and I’ve sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 tweets. That’s a couple hundred thousand words – the length of a very long, and very weird, book.

And I’m in the slow lane. I hear complaints all the time that young people don’t write anymore. Actually, they write more than any young people have ever written – it’s just in the form of tweets and texts and Instagram captions. As a writer, this is all to the good. I’m in favor of writing, no matter the form. I love the fast-twitch muscles of the Internet. It’s like shooting an endless series of flares into the night sky.

But at some point you might want to take all that light and focus it. You might want to shine it on something in particular. You might want to angle it a certain way. You might want to be able to see something clearly. The great novelist E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night – you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

What he didn’t add was, that trip takes time.

For most of my working life I’ve been a columnist — what I heard someone refer to one time as a deadline poet. My job, many times, has been to plunge into a news story, talk to people, observe as much as I could, soak all that up, and make meaning of it – preferably by 5:30 or so. I did that for an execution in Raleigh and the shootings at Virginia Tech. I did that when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl and when Billy Graham made his last big speech. I did it for years and years, and the more I did it, the smaller my stories got – not in length, but in focus. Because I came to understand that a tiny bit of truth is all you can get in that short of time, and that even a tiny bit of truth is precious.

There’s an instinctive truth you can find when you parachute into a situation, same as how you can often size up a person by being around them 10 minutes. Through luck and experience, I’ve gotten to be pretty good at reading a room. But even as I grasped the surface truth, I often missed what was deeper. On those days, I always wished for the same thing: more time.

And the longer I thought about that, the more I realized I craved two types of time.

One is active time – the time you use to do things. In my line of work that’s doing a little more research, interviewing a few more people, following up on a few more leads. There’s a great journalist named Jon Franklin who says, “Meaning comes from reporting. The answer to every existential question in journalism is the same: Pick up the damn phone.”

But the other type of time is more important. That’s subconscious time. That’s the time when you might not be thinking directly about your art, but the back of your mind is working on it in the ways the front of your mind never could.

I think of my job as craft that can approach art on a good day. But whether you call it an art or a craft or whatever, I’ve come to realize that the creative life requires a two-way journey – from the conscious mind to the subconscious and back again. One of the best writing tips I got early in my career was this: If you’re struggling with a piece you’re writing, put it down for a minute. If you’re on a tight deadline, just walk away and go get a Coke or something. If you have more time, maybe set it aside for the night and go do something else. Make yourself not think about the work. When you do that, the work shifts to the subconscious. The back of your mind is like this amazing crock pot. You leave stuff back there long enough and it turns into something wonderful.

The problem is reconciling that crock-pot mind with a microwave world. For me, as a writer, I’ve decided it helps me to have two tracks going at once. One is the quick stuff, the tweetable stuff, that puts me in the regular flow and lets me play in the fast-twitch world I enjoy. But I also need to have a couple things simmering in crock pots, things with a faraway deadline or maybe no deadline at all, things that are ready when they’re ready.

I’ve come to think of it like looking out the side of the car while it’s moving. If you look straight down at the road, it feels like you’re going incredibly fast. But if you look way out at the horizon, the trees seem like they’re barely moving. You’re going the same speed either way. But your world moves faster or slower depending on where you’re looking. I think the creative mind works the same way, too. It needs the slow lane as much as the fast one.

Slowing down is hard. In this culture, it’s harder and harder to pick up your head and stare at the horizon. It’s hard to go the other way from where everybody else is going. It’s hard to do something different from what everybody else wants you to do. It’s hard to spend weeks and months on something that — let’s be honest — nobody might care about but you. But doing that seems to be the best way to make something that lasts. It seems like the best way to get at the truth. And the truth is what we’re here for. Truth is the long game.

So let’s be the ones to slow down. Let’s be the ones using the crock pots. Let’s be the ones to dazzle gradually.

I’d like to close with a poem. There’s a guy with the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey, David Tucker, who also writes poems about newsrooms — you talk about a niche. One of my favorite poems of his gets at the idea of seeing some of these slow things in a fast world. It’s called “And This Just In.”

AND THIS JUST IN

By David Tucker

Those footfalls on the stairs when the night shift went home,
the sunlight fanning through the dinosaur’s rib cage,
the janitor’s sneeze – we’re asking questions,
we’d like to know more.

The moth in the clock tower at city hall,
the 200th generation to sleep there – we may banner the story
across page one. And in Metro we’re leading
with the yawn that traveled city council chambers
this morning, then slipped into the streets
and wound through the city. The editorial page
will decry the unaccountable boredom
that overtook everyone around three in the afternoon.
Features praises the slowness of moonlight
making its way around the house, staying
an hour in each chair, the inertia
of calendars not turned since winter.

A watchman humming in the parking lot
at Broad and Market – we have that –
with a sidebar on the bronze glass
of a whiskey bottle cracking into cheap jewels
under his boots. A boy walking across the ball field
an hour after the game – we’re covering that silence.
We have reporters working hard, we’re getting
to the bottom of all of it.

I hope all of you, no matter what you do, try your best to get to the bottom of all of it. Thanks for listening today.

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