Childhood offers most of us ample trauma and exuberance and discovery for several lifetimes of writing. Folks say that Gabriel García Márquez told his friend Mario Vargas Llosa, “Everything I have written I knew or I had heard before I was eight years old.” (We will assume that his awareness of sex perhaps showed up a little later.)
But there’s a catch. Our lives are not automatically interesting. On the page, our lives are not interesting at all until our language comes alive. So how do the best writers transform what happens inside them into compelling poems, stories, essays?
Close observation often comes first. We might return to a moment, to an image. The muddy drawers of a girl sitting on a branch in a pear tree. A handbag the shape of a hippo’s head. The aromas of stables, before and after mucking out. The haunting rhythms of a song in a language you and your best friend invented. What scared you. What still scares you. Your secrets. Your greatest sources of shame. What you can’t make better. What you’ll never understand.
From a mindfully observed moment, we select evocative details, the ones filled with an energy we can’t quite comprehend. Often these are images that return to us, again and again, though we don’t always know why. Know that we can’t exhaust any image. If we stick with it and go deeper into it, it will lead us places we never planned to go.
Heading willingly into the not-knowing—that’s one sign of a writer whose work will nibble at the edge of something vast. Vast and beyond control. This is scary. And exhilarating. “If you have only one mind, or one cooking pot, you will be forced to entertain a hodgepodge,” writer Amy Leach reminds us. From our hodgepodge, we must select. How we select will determine the structure of our lines and sentences, the quality of our thought, the depth of our emotions on the page. Selection might also determine tone, and reshape the world. Amy Leach again, from a different essay: “In the seventeenth century, His Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish.” That’s wild enough right there to keep this reader reading. Then Leach offers this: “In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision; but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish.” This sentence begins quite reasonably, but ends with something nobody could ever know. (It’s also a delicious sentence to read aloud.) Deep play disguised as a straight-faced proposition intrigues. The essay continues as if this were a perfectly rational way to proceed, comprehending the inner lives of beings whose lives have been misconstrued by some authority. And who are we if not beings whose lives have been misconstrued?
Taking things literally creates a torrent of boredom, not to mention emotional shallowness. Literature leans toward mystery. Here’s G. K. Chesterton, giving instructions that apply to writing as well as drawing: “When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and has seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts.” As writers, we are wranglers of that mystery.
The not-knowing might begin much more simply, with something we remember. The first time we realized mom was lying. A child’s sense of justice, violated. A world no one else can see. A grandfather’s favorite split-handled ball peen hammer. A hated neighbor’s simpering turn of phrase. The writer places us clearly in a scene. But why are we there?
What occurs to us because of what happens to us? That’s at the heart of the inner life and also at the heart of literature. This is the realm of the imagination, where we reflect and make connections. This is the so what, the part that matters, the part that sticks with us. In many early drafts, we get the what, but not the so what. We see the event, but never get close to the inside story.
In strong writing, we expand the range of human perception. Here’s an example. The image of an old rug gnawed by rodents is one that anybody paying attention might notice, might jot down. But look what happens when it’s in a poet’s hands:
When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice…
The juxtaposition transforms the image into metaphor, allows it full power, and creates connections found only in the imagination. Most humans could stand a hundred years before those tattered fibers and never link them to a disease that eats away at a loved one’s brain and mind. The fully engaged poetic mind leaps.
The poem moves from this image into a comment about what remains and then an image of what remains in geologic time, far beyond our brief spans of life—another metaphor. (And upheavals happen even in stone, even in earth.) After a three-word editorial, the poet allows us a glimpse of what’s left of the fine old carpet of this man’s awareness:
When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice,
the colors and patterns
of what’s left behind
do not change.
As bedrock, tilted,
its purple and red striations unbroken.
Unstrippable birthright grandeur.
“How are you,” I asked,
not knowing what to expect.
“Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.
Writing comes alive most often when carefully chosen evocative details, clearly rendered situations, distinctive characters, musical language, repetition and surprise, vibrant thoughts, and a healthy dose of imagination swirl together. (Okay, maybe not all of those in each stanza or scene, but all of them in your book, for sure.)
Often images that work best seem both surprising and ancient, as if what we’re seeing has been there always but we needed the writer to point them out. Alberto Ríos opens “The Purpose of Altar Boys” like this:
Tonio told me at catechism
the big part of the eye
admits good, and the little
black part is for seeing
evil—his mother told him
who was a widow and so
an expert on such things.
That’s why at night
the black part gets bigger…
How we figure out what we think might be true—that’s complex. As writers, sometimes we have to write toward it, into it, to find out. Often, it takes several tries. (As Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”)
Very often in drafts that play dead on the page, our loyalties remain misplaced. We stay true to “what actually happened” (as if memory could recall even one moment in toto). We get stuck in mere factual accuracy, which is never enough, even in nonfiction. Accuracy resides squarely in the category of “necessary but not sufficient.” When we get the facts wrong, our credibility evaporates. When the laws of physics go wonky, the whole piece refuses to fly. So we get right what we need to get right. And then we face deeper concerns.
As writers we have stronger loyalties—to metaphor, to language, to the line, to the scene, to the lyric moment, to the narrative, to the made thing. We need to listen and to be loyal to the music of our language. Our first loyalties must be to craft, to making, to imagination. Our loyalty must be to serious play, to language made new, to words. We need to revel in words as if we’d just met them. The Argentine poet Juan Gelman suggests that words are immortal. They await us beside dark waters that bear our names. It’s our job to show up and meet them. And to be patient if they take their time.
is not just any word,
it doesn’t resemble the body that spoke it,
it doesn’t have hands, or feet, or loves
like a mortal. What it names
holds oceans that take one far away.
All may enter its house
and its time never ceases
in each mouth. It awaits
journeys by dark waters that
bear your name.
~Juan Gelman, translated by Dan Vera
Chesterton, C.K., quoted by Frank Key in Mr. Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives
___(Constable UK, 2015).
Gelman, Juan. “Divergencias,” translated by Dan Vera as “Differences” (posted on Dan
___Vera’s Facebook page, May 3, 2016).
Hirshfield, Jane. “Alzheimer’s” from Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011).
Leach, Amy. The openings of “Pea Madness” and “In Which the River Makes Off with
___Three Stationary Characters” from Things That Are (Milkweed, 2012).
Alberto Ríos, the opening of “The Purpose of Altar Boys” from Whispering to Fool the
___Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982).
Peggy Shumaker served as Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 2010-2012. In 2014, she was the Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist and the Artsmith Artist of the Year. Her work has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has published seven books of poetry, two chapbooks, and a lyrical memoir. She is professor emerita from University of Alaska Fairbanks, and she has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop since its inception. She’s at work on a new and selected volume of her poems. Shumaker edits Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press; and the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press. Her website is www.peggyshumaker.com.