Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Ways of looking -- Opener #2

Time for another writing opener.  I got this exercise from a writing workshop years ago.  It helps me break open my ordinary ways of looking at the world, always a good start to writing.

1. Begin by reading aloud the startling poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."  Click on the title to go to the Poetry Foundation webpage version.  For convenience, I've reproduced it below:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
By Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he  mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be  flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

2. Next, choose a concrete object that prompts different emotional responses for you.  Write an imitation to “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” using your own item.  Try changing perspective with each section.  Number each one.

3.  Here's an example of one I started when I looked out the window a while ago.  Try it yourself to get your eyes seeing through a different lens.

Thirteen ways of looking at a cloud
 by Wendy Phillips (with apologies to Wallace Stevens)

Cheerful puff of friendliness
Cloud against the blue sky.

In the dark of night the cloud hides the full moon
Light pulses within
I think
I hear rumbling.

As the jetliner climbs through the rainclouds
Into the thin sunshine
We cry in rapture
At the sight of God.

O Joni Mitchell
Clouds, love, life
It’s all so

Only 9 more stanzas to go!  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Devil in the Details

Sometimes when I walk in the forest, I keep my eyes on the trail ahead, the climb up the steep hill, the splendid view when I get to the top.  But the other day I decided not to focus on the goal or the panorama that awaited me, and to stop and focus on details.  I noticed the drops of water on the bramble, the gleam on the blackberry, the colours of mushrooms.  Suddenly the world was filled with small miracles.

After my walk I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, marveling at the way I could be transported into the bizarre underworld, feel the character’s pain.  Neil Gaiman’s focus on carefully selected details was what created that sensation for me.  He didn’t include every detail – that would be a tedious reading experience – but he focused our attention on details that brought the world alive.

When I was younger, I loved writing descriptive paragraphs, amazed at my own ability to notice little things and put them into strange and (to me) wonderful contexts and metaphors and similes that no one else might have thought about.  I filled my paragraphs with everything, and if I thought of something new,  I would rewrite to pack it in. 

Soon, though, I noticed the story began to bog down.  When I described every detail in a setting or a character’s clothing or physical sensations, I lost momentum, and couldn’t keep the narrative going.  That’s when I discovered the importance of selection.  Every detail had to contribute to the overall effect I wanted to create.  Would I describe eyebrows or nose?  Would I focus on the painting on the wall or the crack in the leg of the coffee table?  Which one would push my story forward?  Now the challenge is not so much the noticing of details – after all, that’s the thing that nourishes the sense of miracles, the seed that bursts into bloom when I fit them in where they belong – but the selection of which details are the best of the best. 

Reading theory suggests that the act of reading is a series of intuitive leaps.  I like to think it is also a series of sensory leaps, from one image to the next, a sensual feast of mushrooms and blackberries and water droplets.