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.