Ann Beattie

Writing Visually

I am not alone among writ­ers in pre­tend­ing that I have a “very visu­al sense” of what I’m writ­ing about.  Putting it this way sug­gests, even to me, that I have untapped tal­ents – except for the fact that I don’t real­ly have them.  My hus­band, who is a painter, deals more inti­mate­ly with the visu­al world, how­ev­er, where­as I can only describe what­ev­er I see by using words, which, in describ­ing,  often take up too much time, there­fore ruin­ing the moment.  In paint­ing there can more eas­i­ly be the illu­sion (as the observ­er observes) that time is not at issue, but that what has been looked at has been  – oh, do pho­tog­ra­phers ever hate this word – “cap­tured.”  As if to cap­ture took mere sec­onds, and was as easy as drop­ping a but­ter­fly net over what­ev­er was flut­ter­ing on its way.  (Nabokov might have done that, but not with his writ­ing.)

The visu­al world inspires me, of course, as it does every­one.  I doubt that I see note­wor­thy things any faster than any oth­er bear, though I do tend to reg­is­ter details that seem metaphor­ic or just plain sig­nif­i­cant to what I instinc­tive­ly feel I need for what I’m writ­ing.  In oth­er words, my per­cep­tions vary depend­ing on what I’m sub­con­scious­ly seek­ing.  The thing is, since some­thing quite banal is what is often in front of me, I can take it as a point of depar­ture and invent daz­zling par­tic­u­lars (lies) that I might see but actu­al­ly don’t, and give the impres­sion that what I’m look­ing at is sig­nif­i­cant, by hav­ing noticed at all, by being excit­ed by my own words (excite­ment is con­ta­gious; read­ers will prob­a­bly respond), and by doing oth­er things like con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the new­ly found same old item (wheel­bar­row; paper­clip), re-con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing to make it metaphor­ic, etc.  To be hon­est, the Taj Mahal seems like a no-win sit­u­a­tion, but some ran­dom tree out my win­dow seems loaded with pos­si­bil­i­ty.  Such a tree was out­side my win­dow back in the days when I typed on a type­writer that sat on a board stretched between stacked box­es of my remain­dered books, in the mud­room of a house I rent­ed in Connecticut.  “John Joel was high up in the tree,” I began my nov­el, Falling in Place.  Who the hell?  I tend to dis­like dou­ble first names.  And if some­one so named was up in a tree I’d seen every day and had no feel­ings about, well then, My Imagination, prove to me that it can inspire any­thing.  In select­ing some­thing usu­al as my start­ing point, I give myself the task of see­ing any­thing besides the obvi­ous in the ordi­nary.  The tree becomes a prop for the char­ac­ter; the char­ac­ter – who grows there as sure­ly as a peach grows on a peach tree — becomes more cen­tral than the tree.  I’m the only one con­sid­er­ing back­ground and fore­ground, but by observ­ing it, I con­vince myself that what I see in 3-D is more real than I’d ever thought it when I stared dul­ly out the win­dow all those oth­er times.  So that’s an exam­ple of using some­thing appar­ent, though oth­er times I grope for­ward as if fin­gers are eyes, and if I touch cer­tain objects that have a par­tic­u­lar weight and tex­ture, that will lead me to the thing – the impor­tant thing — beyond them.  And then to the things beyond those things, because first things are only first things.  When there is enough weight and mass, I might be sig­nif­i­cant­ly enough bur­dened to pro­ceed with what will turn into the sto­ry.  I’ve nev­er known a plot in advance in my life.  In my long sto­ry, Flechette Follies, the char­ac­ter rear-ends a car in the first para­graph, and paper­clips spill out onto the street, and in pulling the key from the igni­tion, the ser­rat­ed edge cuts his – the bad driver’s — fin­gers and there is sud­den­ly blood, though of course he (so, too, the writer) wants to see if the per­son in the oth­er car is hurt.  It turns out she is.  So the sto­ry will go for­ward, but as the writer, I will con­tin­ue to look over my shoul­der at that ini­tial messy scene seen in gen­er­al, but also in par­tic­u­lar: his fin­gers; blood (= blood on his hands.  Why?); the met­al paper­clips – ordi­nary and util­i­tar­i­an, they are used to hold things togeth­er.  The sto­ry becomes very much an account of the impos­si­bil­i­ty of hold­ing things togeth­er.  (Pax Yeats.)

None of this is going to con­vince any­one that I’m very visu­al­ly ori­ent­ed.  Because I can see in close-up?  Anyone can.  Because I select judi­cious­ly?  I pick things because coin­ci­den­tal­ly they’re right in front of me, and then I see if they can help me fab­ri­cate a dif­fer­ent exis­tence – a sto­ry.  Details con­ven­tion­al­ly help any sto­ry.  Metaphorically, they’re my still life, though: mine alone, though oth­er peo­ple might have bought the same bananas and bunch of daisies at the store, and might own the same anony­mous glass vase, or also have blue cur­tains.  In fact, writ­ers aside, give the same objects to sev­er­al dif­fer­ent peo­ple to arrange, and they will of course arrange them dif­fer­ent­ly. (Doesn’t every­body love those mag­a­zine pieces where they show pic­tures of apart­ments with iden­ti­cal floor plans, but they look entire­ly dif­fer­ent because of the way they’ve been dec­o­rat­ed?)  Here’s one writ­ing method (mine): The writer assumes an inevitabil­i­ty about an assort­ment of things that are meant to seem nat­ur­al, uncon­trived vis a vis one anoth­er, quite ordi­nary, not con­scious­ly assem­bled.  But at the same time, the writer sees through every­thing, cre­ates back­ground so she can fore­ground what’s impor­tant (or vice ver­sa), accepts the arti­fice of the way the things cho­sen have been assem­bled, intu­its the start­ing point to be indica­tive of some­thing that will move the writer toward what is to hap­pen in the sto­ry, even if the plot is unknown.  Then, I think, you use your hear­ing, your sense of touch – visu­als aren’t the only sense you want to rely on – and trust whichev­er of your sens­es seems to pro­pel you for­ward – some­times see­ing, some­times lis­ten­ing, all but touch­ing, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly drop­ping out what isn’t impor­tant as auto­mat­i­cal­ly as we tune out the neighbor’s lawn­mow­er.

I’m a com­plete suck­er for the artist’s pres­ence not exact­ly seen in the work.  There’s a mag­nif­i­cent, com­pli­cat­ed black and white pho­to­graph by the bril­liant John Loengard.  It would take too long to describe, and words would get in my way, but it can be seen.  It’s of Annie Leibovitz pho­tograph­ing Roseanne, but what we see is the pho­tog­ra­ph­er reflect­ed in a floor mir­ror, exam­in­ing some­thing held out by a per­son I assume is her assis­tant, while out­side the pic­ture frame, but clear­ly present, is Mr. Loengard – who did not orches­trate the moment, but saw it for what it was.  His sen­si­bil­i­ty is every­where because only he thought to stand back and observe the observers in an off-moment (Roseanne looks bored; she’s almost extra­ne­ous, too.  Almost, but not quite) and to take a pho­to­graph of anoth­er amaz­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er not  — in the moment of Loengard’s pho­to­graph — pho­tograph­ing the sub­ject.  Though it’s hard­ly a nec­es­sary anal­o­gy, I can’t resist say­ing that some­times Alice Munro works sim­i­lar­ly.  She does get her sen­si­bil­i­ty into the text, because she can seduce so thor­ough­ly with words that the read­er relies on her as a guide, want­i­ng the exact descrip­tions, the lyri­cal pas­sages, want­i­ng more and move, until sud­den­ly the author under­cuts both her method­ol­o­gy and the reader’s expec­ta­tions by insert­ing a sen­tence that comes right from the fore­head of Zeus.  An exam­ple is in her sto­ry “Nettles,” in which words that have accu­mu­lat­ed par­tic­u­lar mean­ing in the world of the sto­ry appear like twin­kling stars, all in one area of the sky, all in one para­graph (p. 182 of the Knopf hard­back of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage).  We are privy to the thoughts of the first-per­son nar­ra­tor, who thinks – in a tidy one sen­tence para­graph – a rather banal thought about a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion: “It could hap­pen to any­body.”  Then we move to anoth­er nar­ra­tive con­scious­ness, where the first line of the next para­graph begins, “Yes.  But it doesn’t seem that way.  It seems as if it hap­pens to this one, that one, picked out spe­cial­ly here and there, one at a time.”  How aston­ish­ing, and how star­tling!  Feeling wins out over intel­lect.  Two minds are think­ing here, and the pres­ence of the sec­ond – which I take to be Ms. Munro – under­cuts the first and drops the mask, pulls open the cur­tain, so to speak … it’s a dan­ger­ous trick, for a writer.  But, like a magi­cian show­ing the audi­ence where the rab­bit real­ly came from, the act is so con­vinc­ing that it can be repeat­ed, the audi­ence wis­er but soon enough seduced all over again, want­i­ng above all else the return of the mirac­u­lous rab­bit.  Viewing John Loengard’s pho­to­graph, there are so many sto­ries much going on – fore­ground so dis­tinct from back­ground; the pho­to­graph arranged in a series of ver­ti­cals that divide but unite the entire pho­to­graph; the mir­rored reflec­tions of peo­ple; a chaos of pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment; shoes stepped out of – that for a while you for­get that some­one has to be see­ing what no one involved can see (not even Roseanne, who is at the back of the action, rather small, not involved) or ever would see, though we have the illu­sion that we are see­ing it in real time, and that is because some­one had an eye for every­thing inher­ent in the scene that was also evoca­tive of a real­i­ty all its own … though, nonethe­less, one that will be inevitably dis­as­sem­bled when the pho­to shoot of Roseanne is over.

I am no Loengard.  But I’m famil­iar with what it’s like to move around to try to find the right com­po­si­tion, to step into the action or more often to retreat,  to some­times move to a close-up of what I hope will be an appro­pri­ate detail.  It’s a real­ly weird dance – stranger, still, because it’s done sit­ting down — but what the hell: the angels have already tak­en over the head of the pin, and we all have to put our­selves some­where.