Be honest: have you lost all sense of time in the last two years? I know I have. Working from home means no commute, means no listening to “today’s newest hits!” on the radio, means not noticing the sun is rising and setting later or earlier, means no casual Fridays at the office because I now wear pajama pants seven days a week. Sometime in summer (or maybe fall?) of 2020, which might be three weeks ago or five years ago, I lost all sense of time.
When time becomes malleable, when our interaction with time becomes wibbly-wobbly, it’s understandable that all sorts of other things, like processing grief, become slippery and hard to navigate.
If you’ve not read Spencer Nitkey’s “Nine Theories of Time”, go get a box of tissues first. Maybe two boxes. “Nine Theories of Time” is not an easy story to read. The first few paragraphs feel unusual and nontraditional. A few paragraphs later you realize what might be going on and what this man is running from. They say time heals all, but what if time is moving too fast and you aren’t ready to be done? Forget the ability to fly, or the ability to be invisible, or super strength. If I was a superhero I’d want the ability to slow down time, so I could stay in certain moments forever.
Spencer Nitkey resides in New Jersey with his wife, where he enjoys writing, architecture, poetry, and particle physics, with the goal of at least 50 rejections every year. His short fiction has been published in Fusion Fragment, MetaStellar, Metaphorosis, Corvid Queen, and elsewhere. You can learn more about Nitkey and his work by checking out his website, spencernitkey.com.
APEX MAGAZINE: This story goes right for a kick to the feels. What inspired you to write this story? What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
SPENCER NITKEY: I think these past two years have really forced me to reckon with time as something tangible, malleable, and squishy. So many routines were interrupted and suddenly, a week felt like three months, three months felt like an hour. Depending on my mood, when I look back at the past two years I can either hardly believe it’s only been two years instead of ten, or hardly believe February 2020 wasn’t just a few weeks ago. For me, time took on a personality, so I wanted to write about all the ways time can be weird, and I found this conceit of theories of time to be an exciting way to do that.
All that kind of lead to my wanting to write a story about the way time functions in our lives, and how a linear (absolute) understanding of time doesn’t map onto our experience of the world. As I looked for a story that needed to be told through this slightly unusual structure I’d developed, the feeling of loss kept arising again and again. Though I haven’t lost a child, like the protagonist of this story has, I have felt the ways in which that loss of someone meaningful can interrupt the steady passing of time and fundamentally change the way you move through the world. Suddenly the fractured, shifting nature necessitated by the form of the story made a lot of sense when centered around this single, tragic loss.
AM: You chose an unusual narrative structure to tell this beautiful story of a man in mourning. Did the unusual structure make this story easier to write, or more challenging?
SN: I love unusual narrative structures and formal experimentation. Often, when I write a story that features one, the structure is actually the thing I arrive at first. The idea of telling a story through theories of time come first, the undergirding story comes next. For me, this makes the story easier to tell, though it usually presents some unique challenges. It is tempting to get fully carried away by a structure and forget the important elements are the story, characters, emotion, and truth. I have more “false starts” with stories like this and sometimes it will take me a long time to discover what story lives within the structure. Once I do discover this—and it really does feel sometimes like a discovery—the form will come alive and its full potential will become clear to me.
Both of my parents are architects who met in architecture school, and I think a lot of their knowledge and love for architectural design has impacted my understanding of stories. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took the aphorism, “form follows function,” popularized by his mentor, and transformed it, saying that to him, form and function “should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” I think when a short story, or maybe any story, is working at its absolute best, this is what it achieves: a spiritual union between the form of the story and its function. The hope with a story like this is that a union between the narrative structure and the content of the story results in something beautiful and impactful.
AM: What is your favorite theory of time?
SN: There’s something romantic, to me, about the idea of a chronon. The idea that there is a discrete unit that is time is so interesting. They wouldn’t be particles in the way we necessarily understand them, but there’s almost a feeling that you could take time and let it run through your fingers like grains of sand. The promise that we could observe time, rather than be observed by it, feels liberating to me. What would it mean to observe an hour, like a quark. The idea that time isn’t just a setting, but an actually physical phenomena itself makes me almost giddy.
AM: This isn’t the first time you’ve written about parenthood. It is a rare and beautiful thing to read speculative fiction about being a parent, the silent fears and joyous moments. What compels you to write about the emotional roller coaster of being a parent?
SN: This was the hardest question for me to answer. I’m not 100% sure why I’m drawn to stories about parenthood. I’m not a parent myself, and I’m young, but my partner and I are pretty sure we aren’t ever going to be parents. To reach that decision, I’ve thought a lot about what goes into being a parent, and all the beauty and struggle contained in such the immense job of raising a person.
I have really exceptionally wonderful parents, who taught me so many important things, and thinking about our relationship and reflecting on my childhood now, from a slightly more mature perspective, I’ve really developed an appreciation for how hard a job they had and how well they did it. I think part of my writing about parenthood is an attempt to recognize and see all the labor they put in to raising me.
AM: What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
SN: Ha. I’m decidedly a pantser! My writing “process” is a bit of a mess. Especially when it comes to short fiction. I probably have hundreds of untitled documents with just a first sentence written in them. Sometimes an idea will be particularly hard to wrangle, or I’ll get like 2,000 words into a story and realize that nothing has happened. Then, I’ll try to plot, plan out the story in an outline. It doesn’t come naturally to me, though. It feels much more like “work” than the sentence level writing does.
Most often, I’m writing first sentences with some vague idea around a plot or story or cool conceit and trying to write until it feels like the sentences are coming out ahead of my articulation of them. Once I get into that groove, I try to ride it until the story finishes. Of course, after that, there’s revision and everything gets a lot more intentional.
AM: You studied Creative Writing and English in college. What was the best advice you received during your studies? What was the worst advice?
SN: I received some really incredible writing instruction while in college. I think the best advice I got was less advice than it was a paradigm about writing, a set of questions with which to approach my writing. They encouraged me to think seriously about writing and develop it as a craft. That was more important than any advice.
My teachers were somewhat averse to advice because they felt that every writer and story is something unique and has its own specific project. I think the habit of asking, “What am I trying to do with this story?” was one of the first, and best, pieces of advice I got from my teachers.
In terms of bad advice, I didn’t get this from any of my teachers, but I’m really skeptical of the phrase “show don’t tell,” which showed up a lot in writing workshops. One of my teachers had a whole unit on the role of scene vs. summary in fiction. Both have their role and the balance of writing is figuring out what moments need to be told via scene and what can/should be told through summary. I like that distinction a lot more, because it leaves space for both.
AM: Who are some of your favorite writers and poets? How has their work influenced you?
SN: Samuel Delany—I read Aye, and Gomorrah and have never been the same person, or writer, since. For me, he’s a bit of a northern star, a level of writing that I am desperately sailing towards.
Charles Yu—I once had a professor read a Charles Yu short story in class. Halfway through the story, the professor (and a few students, I should add) began to tear up, and we ended class early because we were all too emotional. We were analyzing the story explicitly as a piece of craft, and despite that, and even though the professor had read the story dozens of times before, the power of the language and story overtook him, and us, and brought us to tears. I was hooked. His writing often experiments with form and his work has been a huge inspiration for ways to combine formal experimentation with emotional resonance.
Octavia Butler—A professor suggested I read Bloodchild and I knew immediately that I was reading the work of a genius. I think one of the primary things her writings have taught me is that complicated, riveting ideas and concepts are best told by exploring the way those concepts and ideas shape the relationships between people/conscious creatures.
Karen Russel—Her sentences are diamonds. She’s one of my favorite literary writers right now. Reading her always pushes me to refine and elevate my sentences.
Danez Smith—I’m not sure how to articulate the ways their poetry has influenced me, but when I find that my prose is feeling stale, dry, or cliched, I often find poetry revitalizes that aspect of my writing, and Danez Smith is one of my absolute favorite poets to read.
Emily Dickinson—Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet of all time. I don’t feel like we have a lot of aesthetic similarities, but something about the sparseness of her poetry, and the power of elision married to the power of rhyme and meter, always sends me reeling.
AM: You started publishing your short fiction just a few years ago. What can you tell us about your road to publication, submitting to magazines, and receiving the dreaded rejection letters? How do you know your work is ready to be submitted for publication?
SN: I started submitting to speculative fiction magazines in early high school when I, naively and hilariously, thought “this will be a good way to make some spending money so I can take cute girls and boys out on movie dates.” I started sending out some really bad stories to the highest paying markets I could find online. I’ve been submitting on and off since then.
In college, I started taking writing a lot more seriously. I stopped submitting for a while, then started again my senior year. I started getting more personal rejections with specific feedback after I graduated, which really helped fuel me to continue writing as I began to work full-time, and I finally got some of my first acceptances a year out from my Education Masters program. Every January, I set a goal for 50+ rejections that calendar year. It helps me focus on the process rather than the results, I find, when the goal isn’t “get x number of publications.” I don’t usually get to 50 rejections, but it helps me feel less defeated when the rejections come. I’ve also found that constantly having a story I’m working on helps with rejection, too. If there’s work to do, I have less time to mope.
As for when my work is ready to be submitted for publication, I still struggle a lot with that question. My wife is an extraordinary writer and gives incredible, honest feedback to me, so I’ll usually run stories by her once I’m starting to feel like they’re in a good place. To be really honest, I feel like that’s a muscle I’m still working on building for myself. AM: Thanks so much Spencer! And now my TBR list is about ten books longer …