Why I Went to New York to Write About Michigan
A few years ago my sister visited me in New York and we decided to get facials. We went to a swank salon on Fifth Avenue and ordered the full treatment. We walked out of there with our pores wide open, skin as fresh and tender as children. We walked right into a wind storm coming up the avenue. Dirt and dust flew along the street and straight into our open pores. Our skin was blackened when we got back to my apartment: open, vulnerable, loaded up with dirt. This is my favorite metaphor for good writing.
I cannot write fiction well unless I am writing in a subjective vein. For the purposes of this essay, I define ďsubjectiveĒ as directly linked to sense memory. For example, the unexpected smell of rhubarb on a corner of upper Broadway will place me immediately and viscerally in my grandmotherís back yard where the poisonous leaves are as tall as my belly button. I pull out the notebook and describe that back yard. I write a full page of detail from memory: the snowball bushes to the left of the sagging clothes line, the secret patch of cold, dark violets between the garage and the chain link fence. The power of such a moment comes from the fact that, in reality, I am on a crowded city street. The richness of detail is a result of the way I feel about the snowball bush and the violets. And this is the test of subjectivity: if I were seated in that back yard right this moment with pen and notebook, nothing would be written. Faced with the fact of the place, the magic evaporates, which is why I had to move to New York in order to write about Michigan.
There are notable examples to the contrary, including two of my favorite writers. Jane Austen was up to her eyebrows in middle-class Regency England and wrote about it until her death. Faulkner, whose stream of consciousness subjectivity is almost too painfully vivid to read, lived and wrote in the Mississippi of his fiction. I have no explanation for this.
In 1997, I went home for the first time after being away for a few years. I was working on my first novel, still thinking of it as a short story that wouldnít end. It was set in Michigan, in the area where I grew up. I took my motherís car, a camera, and five rolls of film. I also took a box of Kleenex. I visited every house weíd lived in during my first eighteen years (fourteen in all). I photographed elementary schools, auntsí and unclesí homes, favorite childhood haunts like the mill, the lumberyard, the Platt Road bridge. I had been prepared for an emotional firestorm; it was barely a drizzle. Even back in New York, the developed photographs evoked nothing at all. The reality of Michigan left my creative imagination cold.
But ask me to describe, from memory, the bedroom at our familyís cabin: the black metal lamp with the red roosters on the lampshade, my bare feet on the damp green carpet where the clothes washer leaked, the plywood paneling painted white and warping slightly in the corners. I could fill pages, and it would be good writing.
The quality of a personís memories depends on how the impressions are first received, how the initial information is stored. If the first experience is absorbed wholly and purely, it will remain in the memory with high emotional potency. If the information received in a given moment is of significant impact, at least one of the five senses will kick in overtime. For example, I had a pan of brownies (fresh from the oven) in one hand and the phone in the other when I heard the news of my grandmotherís death seventeen years ago. The smell of warm brownies and a feeling of sadness are forever linked. Now if I write a character who smells brownies in the other room, there canít help but be a touch of sadness to the moment. Not because I wrote it sadly, not because the character has an association herself, but because it is powerful and subjective for me. The reader may not even perceive sadness. But I guarantee the moment is richer than if my character smelled apple pie, a food to which I have no emotional reaction.
I tried to write a story about a woman who worked in an insurance company in Manhattan. There was plenty of detail, all of it flat. I donít know how it read to others, because I never showed it to anyone. I gave it up after 20 pages of lifeless, objective writing. I was writing details from the outside, reporting facts, because at the time I saw those donut carts each morning in midtown; I smelled the subways, heard the car alarms. There was no magic association because I was walking around day to day, absorbing it through my distracted, adult mind. Perhaps if I had been looking at a donut cart moments before being struck by a New York City bus, the description would have carried a little more emotional resonance.
Where do these intense initial impressions come from? One source, mentioned above, is during emotionally charged events. Funerals (the sight of Aunt Jenniferís slip showing beneath her hem), car accidents (the feel of dirt and grass under your fingernails), awake in your bed after a nightmare (the sound of distant trucks on a wet highway). During these times we are open, receptive. Our defenses are momentarily stripped away; our adult shell has been cracked. Sights and sounds impact themselves like dirt into an open pore.
Other times that sensations are received deeply and purely? Of course, in childhood. Children feel so much, so directly, because their defenses have not yet developed. Their shells are still soft. When I see a jar of arts and crafts paste, I can smell andóI admitótaste it as if I were still in first grade. The call of a Mourning Dove brings back the empty, early mornings after my father came home drunk the night before, the desolation of temporary peace. I was too young to describe that sound when it first entered my consciousness, and I still lack words for it today. But I know which of my fictional characters would notice the call of a Mourning Dove, and which would not. I wrote a one-act play about a stockbrokerís inability to articulate his response to the sound. It is a play that people unfailingly respond to.
I know what the sight of hawkweed means to me. Could I make the reader feel something about it, too? What about the sound of a lone cricket behind the refrigerator? The feel of a hot Styrofoam life preserver at the beach? I have to write with detail that is loaded with subjectivity for me. The reader may feel something very different from my emotional response, but he or she will probably feel something.
Emotion is pure. We donít experience emotions objectively, yet we often objectify the experience later. When someone asks, ďWhatís wrong?Ē the objective answer is, ďIím angry because I missed my train and now Iím late.Ē The subjective answer is to scream and throw oneís backpack against the wall. The latter is more charged; itís certainly more interesting to watch or to read about.
Emotion is irrational. It seldom follows from A to B. If a character is driving down the road and smells cotton candy for no reason, then let it go at that. She smells cotton candy. Maybe itís physically impossible, maybe itís irrelevant and is never mentioned again. If you know what it means to smell cotton candy out of the blue, then that moment is good writing.
Wouldnít it be great if we could always be as emotionally raw and vulnerable as we are after a tragedy? Or as present and open as we were at age six? But I donít want to spend my creative life mining the details of my personal tragedies or even my childhood. The goal is to absorb the present as purely as weíve absorbed portions of the past. Not only to use it in writing (though I am a complete cannibal in that respect, and donít pretend otherwise), but because it would keep us more fully alive. That is what good subjective writing does: keeps both writer and reader more fully alive. That is why I write.
Achieving this state of openness and receptivity is an ongoing struggle. To allow oneself the freedom to experience the sensory variety and vagaries of a six-year-old, thatís a rare gift, something to work at daily. I quit smoking three years ago, which tore down a huge barrier between me and the rest of the world. Meditation brings some success, as do long walks each morning. There is another possibility as to where the magic of subjective writing comes from. It could be a question of time passing. Childhood memories were produced thirty years ago. Maybe in another thirty years, I will write about the rain dripping from the bodegas along Broadway, the speed with which the line moves at Tal Bagels, the way our ancient toilet spontaneously flushes itself in the middle of the night. With that in mind, Iíll keep my eyes open when I leave the apartment this morningÖand my ears, my nose, my taste buds, the pores of my skin. I will keep my senses alert enough to record the moment, try hard to keep that other, intangible, writerís organ wide open so that I may be more fully alive each ordinary day. And, if someday I move to Idaho to write about New York, Iíll marvel at how vividly the city reappears at the end of my pen.
Lisa Reardon is a playwright and novelist who lives in Chicago. Her third novel, The Mercy Killers, appeared in paperback in September. You can find out more about Ms. Reardon at www.lisareardon.com.
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