Wanted: Intuition

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Today I plead with each you to follow your intuition. The voice that wakes you at 1:00 am and urges to write an important character sketch; or the urge to return to a just photographed spot and explore further.

On my bike ride home I had a flash of inspiration about some street art I had just shot. “Oh! I could shoot it from this angle.”

“You can do it another time, add it to your never ending list of things to shoot.”

Then: “What the heck? Why don’t you go back? Ms. H. isn’t waiting for you at home. You have no other obligations. Go! Isn’t this time about pursuing your creative life no matter what?!? Go. Right. Now.”

So I did and found the lovely moment above.  Inspiration is like a renewable resource, but with a hitch. If I don’t renew it when it tells me to then it becomes nonrenewable.

Once delayed it becomes harder to access and less inspiring when it does arrive.

Right now I am writing this to you all as I prepare for a trip to Denver. I could have waited until my return, yes. But why wait?

Once this story is out, Inspiration will have another for me. But for that to happen I must renew it every day.

So must you.

This One Trick is at the Heart of Writing

In her book, Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway states, “There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing.”

Read the following statement, she asks us: “Not everything that appears to be valuable is actually valuable.” We generally understand it. But if the sentence were to be rewritten as “All that glistens is not gold,” then, she writes, “You literally ‘see’ what I ‘mean.'”

If we use words that evoke our senses – things that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted – then we can create a world our reader can enter. Consider this passage from A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

Would we find an affinity with Hemingway’s statement if it were written in more abstract language? “Within each of lies dormant our future selves, a self that will do better in life if one adopts a healthy sense of humor.” Probably not.

Artists other than writers know they create in the realm of the senses. Musicians create in and with sound, the dancer in movement, the painter in light and color, the sculptor in tactile materials. Writers create with words, which in and of themselves are abstractions.

We must endeavor to remove abstract language from our prose, whether it is fiction or nonfiction (but especially if it is nonfiction). Abstract language works well in legal briefs and business proceedings but not novels or short stories.

For those of us driven to write fiction, we want to thrust out into the world the stories that obsess us, in part because I think we are driven to observe and explain human natures. We best do this through using images. Nonfiction will also become more memorable and appealing through the skillful use of images.

Images are a series of words (or a word) that evokes in us two ore more senses. Again Burroway, “An image appeals to the senses. This is the foundation of all imaginative writing.”

To write images successfully we must use our senses and our mind. We must know when our language becomes bogged down in abstractions. Burroway offers more than several examples.

A thought without an image:

It is best to consider consequences before proceeding.

An image that describes the same thought:

Look before you leap.

A thought without an image:

The situation is being manipulated by peripheral interests.

An image that describes the same thought:

Wag the dog.

This may all seem overly simple. I know, however, I must remain vigilant to creeping abstractions in my writing. And I know even with twenty years and thousands of words written in my past, I never tire of being reminded of the keystone importance of images in writing.

I’ll close with a Toni Morrison quote from her Nobel Prize speech:

“For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

Verb Tense and Writing Fiction

black and white photo of Jean Rhys

Verb tense is a very important tool in the writer’s toolbox. Will you write in the present simple and continuous? The past simple? Both?

Verb tense offers us the unlikely ability to time travel. This becomes particularly important when we explore shifting mental and emotional states of our characters. How authors depict human consciousness fascinates me. As a student of my own mind, I never tire of writers willing to explore this aspect of humanity.

Describing shifting mental states and movement through past and present can be challenging for writers. We must remain vigilant to the need to direct our reader’s attention to the right place (here) at the right time (now/yesterday/tomorrow).

(We need not worry after these details all the time. Sometimes we tell a story using straight past simple. And that’s okay. Really. Not everything need be intricate. Just as it’s fun to read a straight ahead simple romance, it’s also fun to write one. We need that sometimes, so go for it. But I also think it is invaluable for us to push our own comfort zones and use tools we’ve not used before.)

But what do we do when we the right place is in the past and the right time is the present? Why might we want to pursue this strategy as a writer?

Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight uses verb tenses to signal when Sasha Jensen’s fragile emotional and mental state. Sasha has been rescued by a friend from her room in London where she had been drinking herself to death and sent to Paris.

The City of Light overflows with memories. Indeed the novel begins with her Parisian room querying her:

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

That the street outside the room ends in a flight of stairs, ‘what they call an impasse,” signals to us Sasha’s emotional and spiritual state and also tells us there will be no happy ending here.

Rhys’ hops through past and present tense with precision. Some of Sasha’s experiences of people’s hypocrisy and cruelty happen in the past, even though the framing story is told in the present. An interaction with a woman at a bar shortly after her return to Paris leads Sasha to beginning sobbing, which causes the woman to scold her.

Rhys uses the past tense here, which seems natural. We know that Sasha Rhys’ conveys this by having Sasha describe the crying incident as “That was last night.”

But Rhys wants to blur distinctions between nightmare and reality. How she does this is quite something, I think.

In a brilliant passage, in which Sasha describes a past job, she tells us about this past incident in the present tense. The past is living thing in Sasha, as it is for us. We relive with Sasha the cruel treatment from her manager.

Rhys initially frames the story in the past tense.

…it was a long white-and-gold room with a dark polished floor. Sasha begins her memory/story with a description of the beautiful woman’s dress atelier where she worked for three weeks. Her job was to greet customers and convey them to the next floor. “It was dreary.” Management forbade her from reading. “I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.”

(An aside: What a brilliant image, class and gender expectations given to us in such an exquisite manner -dolls versus women.)

Sasha continues to describe a particular day at work in which the London-based managing director visited the Paris shop. She relates her thought process, again in the past tense:

“what’s he like? Oh, he’s the real English type. Very nice, very, very chic, the real English type, le businessman….I thought: ‘Oh, my God, I know now what these people mean when they say the real English type,’

and here comes Rhys performing her brilliance as we shift from the past memory to a current action/memory/story that we are all (re)living:

…He arrives. Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes – I know him at once. He comes up the steps with Salvation behind him, looking very worried. (Salvatini is the boss of our shop).”

And so we are off. Sasha’s descent is harrowing and Rhys’ writing absolutely brilliant. We as readers become ensnared in Sasha’s teetering madness, in large part because Rhys knows when to use the past and present tenses.

Jean Rhys for my money is a more interesting writer than Virginia Woolf. Rhys hailed from Dominica, and her mother was Creole. Her arrival to London’s high society taught her quickly about upper-crust British racism and classism and sexism. Unlike Woolf, who seemed unable to gain any distance between the world and her class standing, Rhys described upper-class cruelty with a keen, brutal eye.

Her most famous book is Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” told from the perspective of Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman locked in Rochester’s attic so fascinating and frightening to Jane. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole woman from Jamaica, is betrothed and married to an unnamed English husband. As their marriage progresses the unnamed husband renames her Bertha, declares her mad, confines her to the locked attic room, where she does indeed go mad.

If you haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea, please add it to your rotation as well as Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys needed, in the words of Diana Athill, her longtime editor at André Deutsch Limited, a nanny. Athill goes on to say in the video below that despite Rhys thorough inability to care for herself, Rhys was someone worth saving. I agree with Ms. Athill. Rhys’ writing was that important.

(This video contains a super BONUS discussion from Ms. Athill about the differences between working with nonfiction and fiction writers.)