Kelly Coveny, an MFA student at Fairfield University, recently asked me to participate in a project she calls the Turning Point. I couldn't have known how timely it was, as it helped me to think about the panel I was on this past Thursday here at Tomales Bay. The title of the panel? Modes of Meaning: The Narrative, The Associative, The Lyrical. I started off by saying that when I was in grad school we never used such terms. You either wrote Linear Realism or you were wrong--though we never called it Linear Realism. I say that without disparaging my grad school education. I say that simply because the One-Way-of-Doing-Things never felt right to me at all, and set me off on this long conversation (or argument) I've had with form through four books. Of course, as we soon found out, the Narrative, the Associative, and the Lyrical are never all that distinct from one another, which is its own kind of relief.
Anyway, here are Kelly's questions followed by my stabs at answers:
What is it called? What is the 'turning point' or ‘leap of imagination’ or ‘sacred event’ or ‘subconscious flash’ or whatever one is to call that point in writing where the author discovers what he or she is ‘really’ writing about? What name would you give it? ‘Turning Point’ feels so flat, so one-dimensional and unimaginative. What IS this transformational experience that the writer has and then gives to the reader? - this mysterious experience or event or epiphany that ‘surprise’ Robert Frost refers to? This seems important, as ‘naming’ it is the very most basic building block. The ‘name’ shapes how we think and feel and behave toward the concept of it. So what we call it feels critical.
QUESTION: What craft techniques do you use to achieve it?
PL: My first education as an artist was as a musician. So figuratively I think of that moment as a key change, a gesture that lifts and revises everything that came before it. I'm always drawn to music that revises its terms along the way. (Think: certain Beatles songs, certain Laura Nyro songs, certain Tori Amos songs.) I'd like to do that kind of thing in prose. If I find myself extending a pattern, a mode of thinking to the point where the form is doing all the work for me, I try to be open to disjunction. In other words, what happens if I pit this unlikely event, image, meditation up against the matter at hand? Think of what comes after it as a shifting of keys.
QUESTION: What ‘ways in’ do you use to access this experience? (e.g., digging into a scene’s detail, the five senses, personal events, cultural context, dwelling in the moment.) What personal practices, hobbies, etc. (running, meditation, yoga, therapy) do you use to augment access to this sometimes very elusive realization/ epiphany?
PL: It helps not to try too hard. Animation seems to resist deliberateness. Sometimes these shifts take place when I'm not actually sitting down to write per se, but running, doing or something physical. Other times it happens when I already have ten thousand other things going on, and there I am jotting something into my phone on the subway on the way to an appointment.
QUESTION: Are there any writing exercises you give yourself to dig deeper?
PL: I feel a little resistant to the metaphors of "depth" or "digging" if only because they're so entrenched (ha!) in our thinking. I also think we're likely to associate depth with duration, and the gesture we're talking about doesn't necessarily require more words, more pages. If we think of juxtaposition or disjunction, then our work can be thought of as lateral: moving sideways or outward, rather than downward into the ground.
But a writing exercise? How about taking something already written and breaking up the concrete? Using a few existing paragraphs as a departure point to the unsayable, the undefinable. What if it we wrote into a emotional space where we didn't know where we were going from sentence to sentence? Imagine, walking through the forest without a flashlight. Think of the energy that's created when a writer gives himself permission not to know. A book like Nick Flynn's THE TICKING IS THE BOMB wants to do just that. It’s driven by inquiry, but it’s not afraid to dwell in uncertainty for as long as possible.
QUESTION: What do you do when it just isn’t coming together that hour or day?
PL: Well, I don't think it ever hurts to sit still, to pay attention, to try to name and acknowledge even if that naming and acknowledgement isn't coming. I've heard it said that when we're feeling like that, it's usually the case that we have so much going on that we don't know how to process it. That said, I don't think it's the wisest thing to sentence oneself to one's desk day after day, hour after hour. Sometimes the animation we're talking about happens when we get up, attend to another task. Again, when we're not trying too hard.
QUESTION: What do you do if you can’t seem to find your ‘way in’ despite multiple efforts?
PL: I'd work on something else. A different part of the book, or something else entirely different.
Here's an idea: what if you tried to reimagine that troubling passage in another genre. What if you wrote it as fiction, or a poem? What might you learn?
QUESTION: Does it change your mood, outlook, day when you are able to access ‘it’?
PL: Yes! Life is back!