Starting with an Image

Trees 5. Troncs noueux (1938) detailI’ve been haunted by an image of a forest.  There’s a bare tree, lots of dead leaves.  A man’s shoe. A child’s shoe. The feeling-tone is ominous. I suspect what the images relate to, but I don’t know the story. Yet.

And that’s how I write. A compelling image obsesses me. I’ll see a scene, or a character will appear before I understand who he is or why he’s buying ten cans of Chef Boyardee! And then I’m launched on a process of discovery—with joy and trepidation. I’m like a bloodhound sniffing out the story, literally sensing my way into plot lines, eyes, ears, and intuition geared up to answer these questions: What’s going on here? How do I take this image and expand it into narrative that unfolds into its best possible form?

El EncuentroI’m also acting as translator working from the visual into language. Seeing where I’m going with the image. My training as a poet has everything to do with how I write fiction, but then I came to poetry before prose because I saw things rather than heard stories. Part of the task of any writer is hold the intention of creating something glorious, something valuable, and accepting the hard work it will require. Keeping the love of the project alive and palpable despite the struggle to give it form. The writer is on an adventure and has entered the zone of the unknown, which is where original art hangs out.

Cultivating stillness is essential. It invites the magic. Art and magic are one kind of sister!  When I’m engrossed in a project, I enter an energy field where wild can things happen, like the proverbial book that falls off the shelf just when you need it. 1 Energía cósmicaOr, a new character shows up in a dream and tells you her heartbreaking story. Insights drop into your consciousness from odd places—bits of conversation overheard at the market, NPR stories—I’ve had to pull off the road when listening to Iraqi war veterans speak of their experiences, my mind/heart brimming with their graphic tales.

Wild things happen when you welcome the muse: synchronicities, a receptivity and shared sensitivity with others.

The spiritual side of this is that you can’t will the magic, the story, or the novel into being, though sincere attention and hopefulness attract the little iron filings of images and insights to your magnetic pull. roethkeOf course, you need to have the craft in place.  It’s a self-educational process. As Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Waking,” “I learn by going where I have to go.”

So you need to know the tools of your craft and to be able use them skillfully: dialogue, narrative summary, description, backstory. But even though storytelling is a more or less linear process, we writers spend a lot of time hanging out in our associative minds, in dream time, in the emotional limbic brain. We’re conjuring characters who display complicated and complex behavior, and we, their creators, have to know, understand, and embody on the page their complexity. And we hope to put this all together in a seamless way so the reader doesn’t notice the author’s presence. Writing a novel is world-making, in which we, the writers, welcome readers into the timeless worlds we devise.

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How I write; love and forgiveness

frostwritingdeskI began to write and publish poetry in my thirties. Soon, the word went out among my family members—Dale’s a poet!—something Robert Frost advised against calling oneself, claiming it to be a rather self-indulgent title. But to my family a poet I was, certified (by an MFA) and published.

My first writing assignment might have been my sister’s second marriage for which I was asked to write a poem. The sorts of poems written for weddings, birthdays, retirements, funerals are referred to as “occasional poems,” that is, composed for specific occasions. My sister requested I write a poem, and a poem I did write, though I cannot now recall a single line, nor how I felt composing it. The poem must have passed the mustard since I’m sure I would have remembered any negative comments, as these seem to have a longer shelf-life than praise. Fast-forward a few decades: the poem and my sister’s second marriage have both vaporized.

The next occasions I must have written poems for were birthdays, my Aunt Ann’s retirement, and maybe a Mother’s Day or two. I disliked having to create on demand but understood how much it meant to others to be the focus of an original piece of writing dedicated solely to them. And so I obliged. My father’s funeral is a blur. He died instantly in a car crash while I was camping with my family at a remote site above Lake Superior accessible only by canoe. The outfitters paddled out to find us, and we made it back in time for the funeral, but my poet-mind seemed gone for good. Of course a year later I was writing poems about my father, poems filled with memories and questions about who he was to me and who he was to himself, poems I couldn’t have written while he was alive.

Wordsworth portrait by Richard Caruthers 1817Which is to say I’m in complete accordance with Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’ve never been a writer who cozies up to writing on command. I do know plenty of writers who swear by writing assignments—Wake up at 6 AM for a week and write a poem before you get out of bed—and others who like to goof around with exercises at the back of writing books. And while I certainly see the merit in this and wish I had the inclination, alas, this way of writing is not for me.

But why not, I wonder? Here’s my guess: to generate my enthusiasm, I need to be empathically connected to the material. Empathy and not just interest means I need my heart and my mind engaged. The mind lines things up, makes a list, gets bossy. The heart insists on value. “Hey, why do you care about this stuff anyway? What’s it mean to you?” The mind and heart are a bit like a comedy duo, the mind played by Stan Laurel, the sourpuss realist, arms crossed over his chest, taking account. Sweet, dumb Oliver Hardy’s stan-laurel-oliver-hardy-1the heart—that fool, that big buffoon, ever-loving and always trying to connect.

I’m kidding, of course, stretching the truth (and metaphor) beyond its ken. But let me come back to my original subject—writing on assignment. Sometimes an assignment comes along that provokes heart and mind, and that’s exactly what happened when Justin St. Vincent asked me to write a piece for his terrific eBook,  Love, Live, Forgive.  Justin had gotten my name from The Fetzer Institute, where I had participated in a writer’s retreat on Love and Forgiveness.

justin st vincent author_photo_2014I knew Justin’s assignment was one I could accept with pleasure. I wrote about compassion and healing. My offering includes lines like “Every piece of art is a statement about the human condition, every effort to create, a reflection of our tender, brutal, poignant selves.” And what I’ve discovered reading the other entries is that I am no rare bird in the art world in exploring love and forgiveness and compassion as themes. I’ve been hugely intrigued and inspired by what I’ve read by the other writers, musicians, and visual artists. Their words are insightful, surprising, original, pithy, humorous, wise and absolutely worth reading. There’s a sampling below. Hope you’ll download this free book and dip in soon.

nicol_ragland_bio_picFrom photographer and filmmaker Nicol Ragland:

“My most recent fine art series, ‘Between Two Worlds,’ is meant to subvert separatist thinking by reflecting back the destruction of life amongst the speed of our industrialized society. . . . We live in a culture that perpetuates turning a blind eye away from our fear, our grief, and destruction while in that same place is a tremendous amount of resolution, love, and truth.”

From DJ, producer and photographer Moby:

“To me, the opposite of love isn’t necessarily hate. The opposite of love is judgment, and the opposite of forgiveness is bitterness and resentment.”

Rakha_NaseemFrom author, speaker and storyteller Naseem Rakha, a friend from the Fetzer Institute:

“For me, there is no creative life or noncreative life. There is just life, and each day I create what I can of it.”

From poet Demi Amparan:

“If we can relate to a person’s perspective and differences, it’s then hopefully possible for us to begin the process of love and forgiveness.”