In a visionary and rather brilliant book, Becoming a Writer, this first published in 1934, Dorothea Brande, offers this advice for writing:
It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.
I think this fresh seeing can be of particular benefit when thinking about forms—whenever we begin (again?) to think, about what kind of form(s) we might like our writing to take. A journal? A list? A conversation? A series of poems? A tale of quest? And I would suggest, in light of Ms. Brande’s advice, that one way to foster this process of discovering form is to take a walk on a strange street—or to visit a place where you do not ordinarily go. A place if possible that has visual interest. A museum? A garden? A wood? A downtown landscape? And while you are taking this walk—or drive—you can draw your attention toward forms.
You can, if you like, bring a camera with you. This can, sometimes, be a way to frame particular forms—a way, perhaps, to pay heightened attention.
After your walk—you can write about what you saw. You can write this as a list or in paragraph form. You can write, in particular, about forms and patterns that you like. What forms and patterns do you find pleasing? What forms in nature? What forms in architecture? Or gardens? Do you like soft rounded forms or sharp clean edges? Do you like formal gardens? Wild gardens? The appeal of particular forms can change over time, so as you write, you may want to focus, in particular, on that which appeals right now.
With what forms right now do you feel a particular resonance?
J., a patient, was telling me one morning about these dishes that she’d bought and she loved them. This was a couple of years ago now. Each of the plates was a different color—primary colors mostly—yellow, blue, red, green. Each plate was also painted with different shapes—stars and spirals—so that a red plate might be covered in yellow stars, a green plate painted with blue spirals. She really liked the plates, she told me, but already one of them had broken. She didn’t intend for the plate to break. She didn’t want it to break. It wasn’t even her fault that it broke. It just, well—broke. She was disappointed at first, but after a while, she told me, she’d begun to give in to it—the inevitability. Plates break. She’d begun saving the pieces, she told me, and when she collected enough of them she was going to make a mosaic table.
In A Community of Writers, this a textbook for writing students, Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff offer a definition of a written collage:
A ‘collage’, in the original sense, as used by artists, is a picture produced not by painting or drawing but by pasting actual objects on the canvas—objects such as theater tickets, bits of colored paper or cardboard or metal. A written collage consists of separate, disconnected bits of writing rather than one continuous piece. Usually there are spaces or asterisks at the ‘joints’ between the pieces of writing.
I like the word mosaic for this form. The image comes closer to what I see when I look at a written collage. In a collage the fragments often overlap—a ticket, for instance, overlaps a piece of colored paper. But in a written collage, like a mosaic, there’s no actual overlap. There’s white space—the mortar. The white space both separates the pieces, and holds them together.
[steps adapted from instructions in the text, A Community of Writers, by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff]
1. Write on only one side of the paper.
2. Choose a point from which to start. Like a word. December. Snow. Wind. Or an image. Broken plate. Fractured bone. Mirror. The more a word or image resonates for you—calls to you—and the more it calls up emotion inside you—the more fruitful and deeper the writing is likely to be. But you don't have to start with the deepest or most fruitful word. You can start with any word or image that feels promising.
3. Write first thoughts about this word or image—whatever comes into your mind. Write for five minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes at a time.
4. Find lines of poetry or song lyrics that speak to this word. Or newspaper headlines.
5. Write moments and stories and portraits. Notice if a particular moment comes into your mind. Or a person or a landscape. Describe these as if you were describing them to a person who does not know you at all. Describe a moment or a scene as if you were trying to recreate it for a movie.
6. Write dialogue. Between two characters. Between two images. Between you and a friend. Between you and an adversary. Between you and a broken plate. The possibilities are endless.
7. Try exaggeration. Write in superlatives. The plate doesn’t just break—it shatters. It was the most important plate. It was a singular plate. It can never ever be repaired. And there will never ever be another like it.
8. Collect all the fragments that you’ve written. If you’ve written on a computer, print the pieces and gather them together. Print or cut them so that each piece is separate and not connected to another.
9. Choose the pieces you like best. You can also choose a part of a piece. You can choose three sentences that you like—or three words.
10. Take several days in which you don’t look at the pieces at all.
11. Then come back to the pieces. Lay them out on a table or on the floor. Move among them and try to sense a kind of order. Try different things.
12. Consider a title.
13. If you like, write one or two more short pieces. Linking pieces. One way to do this is to ask the question, “So what?” or “What does this all mean?” and then write to try and answer the question. A title can also help guide these linking pieces.
14. Put the final pieces together in the order you choose, and with spaces between and around them.
15. Save your work.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has (I just discovered) a rich and informative website, which includes, among other things, an interactive zone—for children actually—but maybe not just for children. One of the activities available is something called a Collage Machine. It offers 105 small graphics that you can combine in different ways—overlapping or not—repeating or not—rotating or not—making some of the graphics more transparent or not—in order to create a collage. It’s kind of fun to play with. (And it even includes a link with instructions of how to take a screen shot of what you’ve created in order to save it.) The site looks like this:
Playing at the site got me thinking more about collages and mosaics and written collages. And it occurs to me that one of the nice things about this little Collage Machine is that there’s a limit to what graphics you can use—105. Not infinite. Just 105. And within this limit of 105 the play happens when you combine and recombine the graphics in different ways. Different juxtapositions. Different patterns. (And because it’s just this fun little site, you don’t have to have any expectations of what you’ll make from it. It really can be play—no expectations—just fooling around.)
When it comes to considering resources for a written collage the potential resources are infinite. The entire web for instance is a potential resource. Libraries. Bookstores. Newspapers. Overheard conversation. And perhaps it would be helpful and meaningful in writing a collage or mosaic if, at the outset, one were to limit oneself to one particular resource. Say a resource with 105 or so parts. Maybe a bit more—or a bit less. Maybe doing this as an experiment.
You could choose one resource. One book of poetry. One small novel. One anthology of stories. Or you could choose one of your own journals. Perhaps an old one—or a newer one. And you could look through any one of these resources for particular passages. You could look for passages that surprise you. Passages that resonate with you. That please you. And you could circle these passages—or highlight them. You could copy them. And somehow separate them into individual pieces. And then you could place the pieces together into new juxtapositions and patterns. You could play with them a little. Maybe with no expectations. Maybe just fooling around a bit.
And it would be like having your very own collage maker. Wouldn’t it?
This book is the most beautiful example I know of a written mosaic or collage. It began, as near as I can tell, in September of 1987 when Raymond Carver, a gifted writer of both short stories and poems, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The following March the cancer metastasized to his brain, and, then in June, lung tumors recurred. These are the facts that initiated his illness and which Tess_Gallagher, his wife, and a gifted poet herself, describes in the introduction to this, Carver’s last book: A New Path to the Waterfall. Tess Gallagher also describes in her introduction the literal making of narrative in the grip of these facts.
First, there are the poems—the elemental pieces of the narrative. Some of these poems Carver had written before the onset of his illness. Many, like “What the Doctor Said,” and “Gravy” and “Late Fragment,” were written and revised during the illness itself. Also during his illness, Tess Gallagher began reading stories by Anton Chekhov and then she began sharing the stories with Carver. During this same time, Carver was reading a book, Unattainable Earth, by Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet and Nobel laureate. Milosz’s book is a kind of patchwork quilt which incorporates passages from other poets, and this book, according to Gallagher, was key in inspiring Carver to want to find for his own book “a more spacious form”. Then, at some point, something clicked. A new path? First Gallagher, and then Carver, began to see how certain passages in the Chekhov stories could be reconfigured as poems and how these pieces, as well as pieces from other writers, could serve as elements in the narrative that he was trying to make.
Finally, the last step: taking all of these pieces and putting them together to make a narrative. In the introduction to Carver’s book, Gallagher describes spreading poems out on the floor of their living room and literally crawling among them on hands and knees and beginning to arrange them into a pattern: “reading and sensing what should come next, moving by intuition and story and emotion.” It’s a vivid and tactile description of finding a pattern—finding a form. And the result—this book—illustrates (among other things) that a narrative does not have to be linear in order to be beautiful. The gaps become part of its beauty. The breaks. The fault lines. The juxtapositions. The pieces reflecting and refracting, one off of another. And all of that white space around and between.
Over twenty years ago now, when I was in medical school at the University of Missouri, I wandered over to the main campus looking for a writing class, and, in a stroke of good fortune, found an excellent writing teacher, Janet Desaulniers. She was all the good things you want a writing teacher to be—smart, funny, attentive, encouraging, dexterous with language and form. She teaches now in the MFA program in writing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Last year she did an interview with Alex Shapiro which appears in the on-line magazine, Identity Theory. The entire interview is worth taking a look at, but the bit I want to draw attention to here is the bit, about halfway through, when she begins to talk about writing the story, “After Rosa Parks,” which appears now in her fine collection, What You’ve Been Missing.
She talks about how when she was first trying to write “After Rosa Parks” she would start with a piece of something—a strong something—a moment or a snatch of dialogue—and then she’d find herself forcing it, trying to make it into a scene, trying to make it become a story. She says this:
It was so utilitarian. Not to mention agonizing. I kept killing each spark of promise because I kept pushing each one past what I knew for sure. And that’s how you end up telling the kind of lies fictions cannot tell. Anyway, enduring the pain of failing and failing that story, which I very much wanted to tell, opened me up to seeing early composition in new ways. Now I start with collecting things. I don’t try to know anything and lead anything.
Seeing early composition in new ways. Collecting. And she goes on to tell how she started this process of collecting with one of her students. He was a talented writer, had been in the writing program at Chicago for three years, and he was feeling this kind of suicidal desperation because he hadn’t yet written anything he felt was good enough. And she made this deal with him—1666 words a day. For a month. That was the deal. Not trying to make these words be anything yet. Not trying to write a story—or a poem—or even an essay. Just collecting things. She describes it like this:
. . . once you start collecting things you come to respect discrete units of significance for what they are. You don’t say, Oh, I own this really good interlude, now how can I hook it up with something else? Because you’re not making. You’re collecting. So it’s all about listening to the sound of matter. Of significance. It might be an observation; it might be a piece of dialogue. If you have to write 1,666 words a day, everything’s game. At breakfast my husband would say, “You know, I think this sweater’s going to change my life.” And after I finished laughing, I thought, Right, I’m taking that.
Discrete units of significance. I like that. Later in the interview she talks about the next steps—taking these units and using craft to create and discover form in these units. But I’m interested now, and first, in the units themselves. The early stage of composition. And I’m writing about this here because I’m trying to write this month about finding forms for writing in the wake of loss and illness. (It may not be entirely obvious that this is what I’m trying to do, but it is where I’m aiming with all of this.) The way it sometimes happens that loss and illness can disrupt old forms—interrupt them—or sometimes make it seem like the old forms are not quite so relevant as they once were. Or maybe not as feasible as they once were. I’ve seen recovery from addiction disrupt old forms. I’ve seen serious illness do this. I’ve seen postpartum depression do this. Even childbearing can do this. That ironing board [from my last post] in the middle of the room. The ordinary—and sometimes not so ordinary—interruptions of young children. Any one of these things can interrupt old forms—can interrupt a formerly coherent story—or what seemed to be a coherent story.
There’s actually a piece research on writing and health that shows that finding and creating coherence in a narrative can promote health—and I’ll have to get to that this month—but first I think it’s important to celebrate the pieces—to not aim for coherence too soon. There’s that bit above from Janet’s interview: when we push something we can end up telling lies. The kind of lies fiction cannot tell. Yes. Yes. To refrain from forcing narrative is a way to keep from telling lies. It’s a way to tell the truth. One piece of truth and then another piece. And not even trying to figure out in the early stages how these pieces might fit together. Not forcing them into a form that doesn’t fit them------
Thus. . . collecting. Perhaps collecting as a way to begin (again) when something has been disrupted or interrupted. Just collecting. Nothing more than that and nothing less. Maybe 1666 words a day. Or maybe 606 words a day. 106? For any given person it might be different—how many words are enough. But, in any case, collecting. Gathering the raw material. And with a hunch, perhaps, that the gathering itself might matter.
Foggy this morning. I’m thinking (again) about those pieces and images that can pierce through fog. For a writer. Or for a reader. The kinds of things that Janet Desaulniers is talking about, I think, when she talks about collecting. In his book, A New Path to the Waterfall, a book about, among other things, navigating loss, and navigating the approach of death, Raymond Carver includes an apparently simple poem: “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”. The poem is made up of of thirteen fragments. Here are three:
Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up
the house after being away for three months.
“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able
to maneuver.” Spock to Captain Kirk.
The rabbi I met on the plane that time who gave me comfort
just after my marriage had broken up for good.
A list can be a kind of form. A list can be a way at getting at something that might be hard to get at in another way. Consider this list from Tim O’Brien’s story about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” from his incomparable collection by the same name. Perhaps you are already familiar with the story.
Here’s the second paragraph. Page 4. A list of the tangible things that the men carried:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney.
Here’s a paragraph from later in the story. Page 20.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.
You can make a list of the things you carry or that you have carried. You can write about the balance and posture required to carry them.
There are two pieces of research I’ve been thinking about this month. Both are about the struggle to make meaning through language and both, I think, are relevant to this whole question of what kinds of forms healing writing can take.
The first study, conducted by James Pennebaker and colleagues in 1997, shows that when people used increasing numbers of insight words or causal words in their writing they showed improvements in health. Examples of insight words are realize, understand, think, and consider. Examples of causal words are such words as cause, effect, reason, and because. In a discussion of this study, Pennebaker writes: “The present analyses indicated that changes in thinking patterns—as opposed to static thinking patterns, which do not change over time—predict improved health.”
I find this study terribly interesting. The researchers weren’t trying to measure how insightful these narratives people wrote were, or whether or not they were “good” narratives. What they were measuring—and what seemed to matter—was this process of finding meaning—this indication that, over time, thinking patterns changed. And this process of finding meaning is suggested by sentences that included cognitive words and that might look something like this:
I’m beginning to realize . . .
I think perhaps . . .
I thought I understood what had happened, but now I'm considering . . .
Changes in thinking patterns—as opposed to static thinking patterns, which do not change over time—predict improved health.
It’s the kind of statement that’s worth considering, I think, and coming back to. It’s the kind of finding that has implications not just for writing and healing, but for healing itself-----
[I’ll be continuing this post—putting up Part 2—another piece of research--later this week]
Here's a second study relevant to struggling, this one conducted by psychologist Eugene Gendlin in the early sixties, and discussed in the first chapter of Ann Weiser Cornell’s book, The Power of Focusing. Apparently, Gendlin, then at the University of Chicago, was interested in the question: “Why is psychotherapy helpful for some people and not others?” What he did, first, was to tape hundreds of therapy sessions, gathered from many different therapists and clients. Then he asked therapists and clients to rate whether the psychotherapy had been successful. If both agreed, and if psychological testing supported this finding, the therapy was deemed successful. This successful therapy was then compared to therapy that was considered by the participants to be a failure.
When researchers listened to the tapes of successful therapy vs. unsuccessful therapy they noted one key difference. Clients in successful therapy struggled more. Ann Weiser Cornell writes:
. . . at some point in the session, the successful therapy clients would slow down their talk, become less articulate, and begin to grope for words to describe something that they were feeling at the moment. If you listened to the tapes, you would hear something like this: ‘Hmmmm. How would I describe this? It’s right here. It’s . . . uh . . . it’s . . . it’s not exactly anger . . . hmmmm.’ Often the clients would mention that they experienced this feeling in their bodies, saying things like, ‘It’s right here in my chest,’ or ‘I have this funny feeling in my stomach.’
In contrast, clients who felt like the therapy was a failure didn't struggle in this way. They were actually more articulate—or more apparently articulate—in the sense that they spoke in smooth, less interrupted ways. (They were, it would seem, more glib. They had things figured out--but nothing changed.) I find this comparison fascinating, and not inconsistent with what I often see with patients. This week, for instance, it often seemed like we were all struggling to make meaning--patients as well as myself. And I love how this study offers a rationale for not only tolerating such struggle for meaning but in fact encouraging it and perhaps celebrating it.
I find myself wondering about this question: Why is writing more healing for some people than it is for others?
Could it have something to do with how much a person is willing to struggle on the page? A kind of willingness, perhaps, to be initially inarticulate—and halting—and groping—in the service of eventually coming to a new understanding—perhaps a new story—or a new form for one’s story.
The book, What the Living Do, was written by Marie Howe in the wake of her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s a book that, perhaps better than any other book I know, walks that delicate balance between making memorial—remembering who and what has been lost—and choosing life in the wake of such loss—figuring out, day by day, what it is that the living do (after). There’s joy in the book—and in the poem—but it’s that bittersweet kind of joy—
The poem, “My Dead Friends,” can be found here.
The poem consists of only thirteen lines. Here are six of them:
I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question
to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear. . .
They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer. . .