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Let the Crazy Child Write!
Finding Your Creative Writing Voice
By Clive Matson
New World LibraryCopyright © 1998 Clive Matson
All rights reserved.
Without ... playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.
CARL JUNG, Psychological Types
We begin with "image detail" because it's essential for strong writing, and because it's fun. Every moment of our lives we are surrounded by sensory information — the stuff of image detail. Your Crazy Child delights in it.
An image detail is that small part of an image that sticks in our minds. The worn green fabric on the end of a diving board, the pearly scar on a lover's neck, a piece of chewed gum in the boss's ashtray — these are image details. We remember the object, or the person, or the feeling of an entire scene from one detail.
The details that catch your attention in life are the same ones that catch your attention as a reader, and the same ones that work for you as a writer. Much of the adventure of writing is discovering which details are most gripping for you, the observer. As you look around, some details will strike your eye, and some of these will tug at your breastbone.
You are starting a journey and it is filled with fascinating images. What about that boy leaning out of a car window with a green carnation in his teeth? What about that peculiar interview with your boss? Maybe her eyes teared up, and at the same time she unwrapped a fresh piece of gum.
Writing is largely a matter of paying attention. You need to see, hear, taste, feel, and smell details in order to write them. You might notice them instantly and choose them in a snap — because they rise unbidden from your unconscious. Or you might turn a scene over and over in your mind, getting to know it well, before you find the appropriate detail.
Either way is fine. Whether you write slowly or rapidly is simply a signal of how your Crazy Child works. It's the part of you that feels. Those twinges and gasps are from your creative unconscious, from your Crazy Child. So are the sharp, brittle facts that come from deep inside with an utter clarity, the ones you know must be true.
The goal of Let the Crazy Child Write! is to help you establish a working relationship with your creative source. In this chapter you will be introduced to your Crazy Child, and you will become familiar with the kinds of details it sees.
How Image Detail Works
Small details provoke our minds to fill in the entire picture. Especially effective are odd or dissonant details. We remember the experience of diving when we remember the worn fabric of the diving board under our toes. We see the entire blue plate when we remember a shell-shaped chip on its edge.
These small, odd, or dissonant details work because of the close attention that is required to see them. You need to be quite near the plate to notice that shell-shaped chip in the first place. You can do this by moving close physically, or by zooming in with your imagination. The reader, by taking in your words, comes as close to the object as you are.
If you write that you had your elbow on the boss's table when you saw that gum in the ashtray, the reader imagines being in that same position. If you write that you see a pearly scar when your cheek is on your lover's shoulder, the reader's cheek is there too. The reader's nervous system is automatically present, and fills in the scene as the words are read.
This picture-making might sound rare or exotic, but it is neither. Picture-making is automatic in every human being. It is the job of the human imagination to make images. By "imagination" I mean more than simply dreaming something up willfully. I mean the automatic imaging process that goes on beneath our awareness.
Creating and processing images — sensations, feelings, thoughts, observations, memories — goes on all day and all night. We might notice images only a few times during the day or in the morning when we remember a striking scene from a dream. But our imagination is always busy.
An old saw about a three-legged dog states, "You can't imagine a three-legged dog running." But as soon as you read that sentence, your nervous system contradicts it — you do see that three-legged dog. And it's running. The dog is ridiculous, clumsy, endearing, inspiring, or even oddly graceful.
You have at this moment demonstrated how the human nervous system works. Your nervous system began to register the three-legged dog, and your Crazy Child made an exact picture. Your nervous system and your Crazy Child did their everyday job. You were stimulated by an odd detail — the dog with a missing leg — and your imagination filled in the picture.
Powerful Image Details
I have already talked about small and odd details. "Small," however, does not necessarily mean physically small. An image may be small only in comparison to the larger picture. On the roof of a Los Angeles nightclub is a neon martini, and in the martini is a blinking pink olive. That olive may be two feet across, but it is small compared to the cocktail glass.
Any picture that the reader can complete by imagining part of the body is also powerful. One writer uses hands to convey an image when she says the afterglow of lightning "looks like fingers poking down from the sky." I instantly imagine my fingers hanging down.
The shape and motion of the fingers mimics the shape and motion of the lightning. The technical word for this comparison, using the word "like" or implying its use, is "simile" (pronounced sim-i-lee). A simile works when the image and reality both contain a similar feature. Both "simile" and "similar" come from the Latin similis, meaning "like."
Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" is almost a cliché because it has been quoted so often. It's widely quoted in the first place because it's so appropriate. Long, thin clouds stretched across the dawn sky do look like fingers tinted with a rosy color, and the fingers reach into the day. The image fits the event.
We feel anything strongly that relates to the body. The body is, after all, where the nervous system resides, and any detail that in some way touches the body becomes vivid. When we hear of children in our cities moving their beds out of the line of gunfire, we see this clearly — very clearly. We do not have to be there.
We imagine the scene. We move the bed, with the child, in terror or in a nightly numbness. We imagine the bullets angling through the window, we hear the thudding sound and see the shards of glass — our nervous system makes sure we do this. We see the entire scene, just as we see that three-legged dog, loping awkwardly down the street.
Images Other Than Pictures
The term "image" applies to any sensory impression, and every sense receives and creates images. A particular smell is an image, a sound is an image, a taste is an image, and so is any particular touch. There is also an important sixth sense — the kinetic sense — that gives us images of motion and momentum.
So far I have discussed images as visual impressions — images that we see with our eyes or imagine with our mind's eye. Images from other senses work in the same way. Small, odd, and dissonant details are vivid, and so are details that relate to the body.
Repeated Image Detail
It may be powerful to repeat an image detail. This is especially true if the detail is changed slightly when it reappears; it has a way of adding meaning to itself.
I have already repeated a few details, on pages 1, 2, and 3. That chewing gum in the boss's ashtray might mean more on page 2 than when you first read it. It might be disgusting, instead of a curiosity — it has accrued feeling with repetition. You can forge a unique sensation by repeating a detail in a story, poem, play, or essay.
Image Detail in Stories
Linda Cohen uses image details in the following excerpts from her novel-in-progress about early twentieth-century immigrants. We can read how revealing her details are, and also, when she repeats them, how they gain power. Her main character, Rose, has just met Sal in the restaurant where Rose is waitressing:
She finally looked up into the man's broad face. He smiled at her and a reddish-brown scar formed a little diamond under one of his eyes.
She looked away as she spoke, outside the front door as it opened again. "We have very good hamburgers here." All that hair he has is frightening, she thought. I've never seen anyone look so much like he came right from the animals. Darwin was right. Except this man came direct from a bear.
Rose pushed past the cook's station through the swinging doors and into the bathroom. She put down the toilet seat and sat on top of it.
The reddish-brown scar that makes a diamond is an excellent detail — small and odd. It brings me right next to Sal's face. Cohen also shows us Sal's hairiness, and, in the last sentence, shows an odd detail about Rose. When Rose sits on the toilet seat, it's a purposeful action: she is using the bathroom as a place to be alone and think.
... it's so hard to be a waitress and think at the same time. She put up their orders, then rushed over to where the cereal was and poured out two bowlfuls and a pitcher of milk. She carried it all on a tray to Sal. His legs were stretched out onto the seat of the chair across from him, and he was reading the newspaper again.
"I'm sorry I took so long with your cereal." Rose extended her neck to see the newspaper open to the business section, with a banner at the top of the page that read: "Coolidge Prosperity: Unemployment Way Down/Production and Consumption at an All-Time High."
Notice how the phrase "extended her neck" gives a precise feeling about Rose and about her relationship to Sal. It's a small, odd, physical action, and others will follow:
... Sal sat up straight and confident as he poured milk into his second bowl of cornflakes. He took a spoonful of cereal and watched it move toward his mouth. The scar under his eye formed a little diamond again....
There's the scar again, and in the next excerpt two new details appear. The reader is becoming acquainted with Sal one detail at a time, just as you do in life. Both the reader and Rose get to know Sal at an equivalent pace:
A sharply chipped tooth peeked out from the side of Sal's mouth. He was smiling at her with wide open eyes, his long eyelashes nearly touching the eyebrows on his low fore-head....
He took Rose's hand, wrapping his big fingers around her smaller ones.... With her free hand Rose fidgeted with the narrow brim of her hat. She let her other hand hang limp in Sal's, unsure of what to do next. His hand felt bumpy and hairy, like a paw.
Sal's hairiness has become a singular attraction and it comes up again, bearlike and sexy. The next image gives another detail we can relate to our bodies:
... Rose's bloomers and waitress skirt were hidden under-neath her coat as it flapped against her calves....
The reader gains a sense of the styles of that time. As we stand with Rose, we can feel the wind on bare calves. Rose and Sal then go to a social meeting:
"How do you do, all of you." Sal gave a little salute with his hand and took a slurp of coffee.
Edmund, the college graduate, took a sip of black coffee from his cup, then set it down so loudly and casually on the saucer it nearly spilled.
Sal's wariness and Edmund's uneasiness are displayed as they drink coffee. Next Rose and Sal are outdoors, and we read details about their bodies, shadows, the air, and a leaf:
"But you embarrassed me." The breezes were coming out of nowhere, finding the only bare skin on Rose's neck.
"Your mama doesn't go for Italians?" Sal grinned and glanced over at Rose's house, then he moved away from the streetlamp until he was under a tree. The shadows of leaves bounced around his face and coat.
"Rose, you're a beauty. I saw it right away. I've gotta tell you that." Sal reached up and pulled a leaf off the tree. He began ripping it apart.
We see a new facet of Sal as he tears up the leaf and we see the tree anew, just as we would in life. Throughout these excerpts Cohen brings us next to the characters and directly into the scenes. Her details have this effect because they are small, odd, and dissonant.
Imaginary Image Detail
Image details that you imagine work just as well as those you see. Cohen was born after the days of Rose and Sal, so she could not have seen the details she writes. They are from her imagination, but that doesn't make the process of finding them any different.
Cohen must imagine the scene so deeply that the details come alive, and then she must write them down. Or she could have gone to a restaurant in present time, seen someone remarkable, and given his characteristics to Sal. In both cases, writing vivid details is a matter of seeing.
Image Detail in Poems
Image detail is basic. It works at the automatic level of the nervous system — in any form of writing. It works in poems, plays, and essays just as it does in Cohen's novel. The only difference is in the play of the imagination: you might go to a more inventive place when you write poems.
An example is on page 69 of this book. When Mary Oliver writes, "the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes," she creates a fanciful image. It conveys a magical, bell-like sense of the scene.
On pages 81–82 Christopher Russell recounts that the poet "becomes brittle and suddenly / collapses in a pile of shards, / like a Ming vase dropped on a garage floor." We feel the poet's disintegration with all the impact of a precious object hitting cement.
When Sharman Murphy observes on page 31 that she "cracked my elbow / scraped my arm / I ripped my shorts," we get an ample sense of the event. This works especially well because these details come after she has averted the accident. She didn't have time, earlier, to notice her abrasions or her torn clothes.
In the love poem on page 32, when Michael McClure writes "your backbone line," I am drawn into the special state of mind which saw that detail. It's a detail that would be seen with an attentive, appreciative eye — a lover's eye.
Image detail, in these examples, has filled in the scene, brought us deeper into each piece, and made the poet's point more lucid.
Image Detail in Plays
Plays benefit from image detail in two important ways. As a playwright, you can describe your scenes and your characters in a detailed fashion. You can dress your characters, give them mannerisms or funny tics — whatever you like — and you can give them revealing things to do as they speak.
If Cohen's novel were a play, for instance, Sal could tear up that leaf on stage. The playwright could set it up quite simply:
Sal: Rose, you're a beauty. I saw it right away. I've gotta tell you that.
[Sal reaches up and pulls a leaf off the tree. He begins ripping it apart.]
The audience gets to see, live on stage, what Cohen presents to our imagination. I am using the same words she uses, changing them to present tense.
A second important place for image detail is in the speeches. Almost any character's speech can be expanded to include sensory details that are natural to that character's style. You have a lot of leeway; audiences are hungry for detail. As you include image detail, the audience will find the scene enriched and the characters deepened.
Image detail can make a story powerful, and your characters probably know this. In these speeches from Sam Shepard's play Buried Child, physical details add texture and impact:
Vince: ... What is this anyway? Am I in a time warp or something? Have I committed an unpardonable offence? It's true, I'm not married.... But I'm also not divorced. I have been known to plunge into sinful infatuation with the Alto Saxophone. Sucking on number 5 reeds deep into the wee, wee hours....
Halie's Voice: Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest takes care of itself. You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. It's all unseen. You just gotta wait 'til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle....
The image of sucking on those reeds lets the reader imagine Vince late at night. And Halie's description of those hairy roots, in their various aspects, conveys a feeling of mystery and power.
Image Detail in Essays
This chapter is an essay. The first details I used were the fabric on the diving board, the scar on the lover's neck, the gum in the ashtray, and the green carnation in the boy's mouth. They illustrate how we fill in a scene from a single detail.
Excerpted from Let the Crazy Child Write! by Clive Matson. Copyright © 1998 Clive Matson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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