Opinion » John Rember

Creative Writing Lesson

Seeing what sticks


If you haven't read Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, you're in for a treat. It's a book about being an artist, among other things. One of its central images is a moth that flies into the flame of a candle and burns for hours because its charcoaled body has become a wick. Dillard says that being that burning wick is what it's like to be an artist--in her case, what it's like to be a writer.

A couple of things come to mind. One is that if I'd read Holy the Firm early enough in my writing career, I would have become a fireman instead. The other is that Dillard turns image into metaphor, and the metaphor gets its authority from the image. The moth burning in the flame is something we can see with our eyes closed, and that causes us to buy into the metaphor more readily than we might otherwise. It's rhetoric, but there's no rule saying rhetoric can't be truth.

In this case, it's not truth, although a lot of artists think it is. They seek out the flame, even when convinced it will destroy their bodies and, in some cases, their souls. In Dillard's vision, you can't expect a normal life if you're an artist, because the energies involved will consume the human material that handles them.

I dearly love Holy the Firm but I don't buy into writing as martyrdom. The involved energies are considerable but seldom lethal. Writing is a human activity, not a form of black magic that leaves you lifeless in front of your computer with the last page of your novel illuminating the inhuman and ecstatic grin on your face.

Being demonically possessed by writing is a fond fantasy for those of us who find that every paragraph demands as much painful consciousness as we can muster. It's tempting, in life as well as art, to let the unconscious take over. But you don't write much when you're unconscious.

However, you don't get much writing done without the unconscious. If a moth hadn't flown into Dillard's flickering candle, there would be no Holy the Firm.

Without the image, the energy to write a book wouldn't have been there. Holy the Firm would have gone back to the unconscious, there to reside timelessly in the Great Library of Unwritten Books. That's where I store the biggest part of my oeuvre.

Anyway, the image of the moth in the flame will stay with me long after I've forgotten that it ever had anything to do with writing or even with Annie Dillard, and what makes it so durable is its ability to still thought.

We're reduced to throwing words at such breathtaking images, hoping that if enough of them stick, our readers will think we have named the unnameable, given language to something bigger than language, made the unconscious conscious. We haven't, and never will, but the words we put on the page pull something—maybe it's just a little heat from an infernal candle—into this world. We can warm ourselves with it, thaw a few metaphors with it, and after awhile, when it's spent, go out and start looking for another thought-stilling image hiding somewhere in the ugly gray haze of postmodern culture.

How can you, as a writer, find an image like the one that inspired Annie Dillard to write her best book? Here are a few things to remember:

1. It is a hunt. It involves luck, but you won't ever have luck unless you put yourself in a position to get lucky. That means looking outward into the world, because that's where the unconscious lives. Anyone who says that the unconscious is internal does the world—and the unconscious—a disservice.

2. It is a skill. The name of the skill is perception, and it can be trained. The philosopher Roland Barthes offers training in his work on photography, Camera Lucida, where he describes how to find the part of a photo that betrays it as artifice. In a similar manner, you learn to look for the image that betrays the world as anything but artifice.

3. Scary stuff if you take items 1 and 2 seriously. The image you're looking for has the ability to disorient you and tear the covers off your world, and even eat its pages if it's hungry. If you get close to such an image and you're not scared, you should be. Think of Robinson Crusoe finding a human footprint on his lonely beach.

4. If you experience a shock of recognition when seeing something you've never seen before, you're getting close.

5. Images never get to the page. Words—the ones you throw at those images to see if they'll stick—get to the page. Don't ever confuse word with image because you'll lose the ability to tell if the word is sticking or not.

6. Holy the Firm is a book that explores the limits of human perception in a world that exceeds those limits in thousands of ways. It's a Job-staring-at-Leviathan experience. Needless to say, a lot of writers—and readers—aren't ready for that kind of thing.

I'll leave you with:

7. Images aren't always apprehended by the eyes. Think of the kiss that burns on the Grand Inquisitor's lips at the end of his scene in The Brothers Karamazov. That image has outlasted Dostoevsky and might even outlast the Grand Inquisitor.

Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.