Jan 17, 2022

What Time Does The Bus Come?

Did you ever wake up to find

A day that broke up your mind

Destroyed your notion of circular time

When one of our kids was young, we discovered a medical condition that required years of visits to dozens of medical professionals, hundreds of tests, and many more phone calls and emails. My wife Susan took copious handwritten notes of these sessions. It was natural for her, as an English lit major and teacher, to then organize the notes into a narrative. She would sit at the dining room table at night, papers placed on the table like a tic tac toe board, entering them into a word doc. We would then show up at a new medical visit with this “essay” in hand. “Please read this, it will be easier to understand” she would say, handing the printed-out 20-page narrative to a perplexed-looking doctor.

I often wonder if they ever read this essay.

These were, well, dark times. The essay allowed us to make sense of the darkness, the information, to have something more bright and solid to hold onto in the swirl of the vague diagnoses.

The essay also got longer and longer. At one point a friend read it and said “you have a book here.”

Susan spent the better part of the next year evolving the essay into a book - a memoir of a few years’ time, a tale about the intersection and dysfunction of medicine meeting humanity. As memoir the manuscript was written in chronological order - from day 1 of our son’s life through year four.

She printed out this timeline-based memoir on a stressed-out HP inkjet printer that rattled like the subway as it printed, and walked it around Manhattan, dropping it off at agents and publishers alike. Rejection after rejection followed. 

* * *

David Epstein, the author of Range, writes about how a simple change in perspective can unlock craft, quality and creativity: 

When I worked as a fact-checker earlier in my career, a colleague gave me the excellent advice to go backward through any article I was checking, ticking off each fact as I went. When I only went the usual direction, I found I always just unconsciously glanced over something.

By reviewing the articles backward he noticed more things.

Tony Fadell, the founder of the Nest thermostat, similarly describes that invention as a way of looking at something familiar in a new way: 

You see, when you're tackling a problem, sometimes, there are a lot of steps that lead up to that problem. And sometimes, a lot of steps after it. If you can take a step back and look broader, maybe you can change some of those boxes before the problem. Maybe you can combine them. Maybe you can remove them altogether to make that better. 

What did they do? Put an algorithm in that would simply watch to understand the temperature you used - when you got up, or when you went away - and program the thermostat automatically. 

* * *

I backpacked through Southeast Asia when I finished school. I found myself in a town called Surat Thai after spending a month on the islands off the eastern coast of Thailand. While these islands were a paradise of white sand beaches filled with British and Australian ex-pats, I was ready to go visit Malaysia. My friend Keith and I walked from a hostel one blistering humid morning to a shaded bus station half a mile away, looking to board a $5 bus towards a town called Hat Yai. We couldn't find a posted bus schedule anywhere in the weathered wood bus station. There were a few locals meandering around, including an older gentleman wearing a blue hat and vest, official-looking clothes we presumed. In broken language with our Lonely Planet pages open to our destination, we asked him what time the bus might be coming.

“Yes, the bus south is coming” he kept replying to our questions in his likewise broken English, listening intently each time we repeated ourselves over and over.

We were perspiring as if we were still swimming in the oceans of the beaches we just left, as we pointed to our wrists, some kind of universal signifier for “what time.” He just shook his head. “The bus will come, the bus will come.”

Two days later we finally caught the bus south simply by showing up, sitting down and just waiting for 90 minutes. The man was right - the bus did come, just on a more organic schedule than the rigid one we expected. We got to Hat Yai hours later.

* * *

With some mixture of perseverance and passion, Susan kept sending the manuscript to people even in the face of rejection. Months later, one agent responded excitedly. She offered to attempt to get the book published. She had, though, one requirement: rewrite the story in a non-chronological order. Susan was confused.

“You’ve written the story in a logical forward timeline“ agent said. “You instead need to write it about the feelings you were having. Organize it that way. Each chapter does not have to follow the previous one in time. You experienced all this in forward time. I need you to look at this in a different way - as a set of feelings and associated experiences..”


Susan rewrote the story from the point of view of a collection of emotions. It read much, much better. It had flow, more like a novel. Agent pitched the book to publishers for a second go around. The publishers finally jumped; the book got published.

* * *

What if you looked at things backwards? Or out of order? What if you zoomed out and noticed something that was right there that you didn’t at first see.

What could you discover by doing that?

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