Thursday, September 13, 2007

Okay, the moment has finally arrived...

when you get to find out what in the heck I was getting at on Tuesday.

I know you've been holding your breath.

The thing is, as writers we paint images with nearly every line, and the best of us do it in such a way that the reader feels like he's right there in the scene, seeing it happen instead of reading words on a page. But sometimes, the images we evoke aren't the ones we intended. Sometimes, they have more to do with associations in the reader's mind than the pictures in our own.

I really was barefoot in the kitchen making coffee on Tuesday morning, wiping the counters with an orange sponge and waiting for the coffee to brew. And I really was in a gold-trimmed building in the Chicago Loop, and the coffee I was brewing was in an urn provided by our coffee service. There's a health club in the basement and an underground pedway to Macy's, and I really did pause for a moment and wonder whether it was legal to be walking around barefoot.

But when I had that thought, a funny thing happened. I thought the first line I wrote in that last blog post: At 10:56 on Tuesday morning I was barefoot in the kitchen, making coffee. I think like that; it's a hazard of being a writer, I guess. I often hear people comment on the difference between the way people talk and the way they write, but for me it's different. The way I write is the way I think, and I sometimes have to translate into more casual, less image-laden language in order to converse. And condense, of course. I tend to think in paragraphs.

And the crazy thing was that when I thought that sentence, I pictured myself barefoot in my kitchen at home, mid-morning, my daughter at school, wearing a sweatshirt on a just-turning fall day.

I was at work. I was wearing a skirt. My high-heeled shoes were under my desk. But the image that sentence evoked in my OWN mind was entirely different.

I read that last blog post to my daughter who, though only eleven, is also a writer. She knows where I work and what it looks like. She knows that I was at work on Tuesday morning. And yet she, too, pictured me in our kitchen. When I got to the orange sponge and gray counters--things we don't have at home--she started trying to picture some previous apartment I might have had, and when I said that I shared the kitchen with a hundred people, she wondered about my college dorm. It wasn't until the last paragraph that she realized that I was at work.

Barefoot in the kitchen making coffee evokes home, apparently--at least for some of us. Even when we know better.

That's an important thing to be conscious of when we're writing--not the coffee thing, but the way that associations we may not even be aware of can color the images our readers will conjure up at our words.

It's a challenge, but it also has great power, if we know how to use it to evoke the images and associations we hope to convey.

Many years ago--I think it was 1986--I went to an art exhibit in the Student Center at Northern Illinois University (NIU). I didn't plan to go, and I didn't know anything about the artist. I was just passing through the Student Center on my way back from class, saw a painting that caught my eye, and walked over. I liked the exhibit, but twenty years later I only remember one painting. It was a small painting of an old pipe sticking out of a wall. Just that.

The wall, if I recall correctly, was that pale green halfway between malt and mint, a shade that hasn't been seen since lead-based paint went out of style. It reminded me instantly, overwhelmingly, of my grandmother's house. I'd never seen such a pipe at my grandmother's house, and she had nothing I could think of in that color, but the association was as clear and strong as if the painting had been of dotted swiss curtains blowing in the breeze over a flower garden or cracked red and black floor tile.

Later, I mentioned the show to my roommate, who was an art major. I thought she might want to see it, but it turned out that she already had. When I told her there had been one painting that had reminded me powerfully of my grandmother's house, she put her hand to her mouth and said, "Was it just a pipe sticking out of a wall?"

Turned out she'd had the same reaction.

My grandmother lived in an attic apartment on the south side of Chicago. My roommate's grandmother lived in Italy. Imagine that. This artist...this stranger...painted a piece of pipe sticking out of a wall and, with an image unfamiliar to both of us, evoked the same childhood memory from two people with very different childhoods. Two decades later, that's still vivid in my mind. That's the goal, isn't it?

Or was she thinking of a pipe in the alley behind an abandoned public school building where she hung out with her boyfriend as a teenager?

1 comment:

Theresa111 said...

Wonderful Tiffany, just wonderful. Careful, your intelligence is showing. But really, I have been away for the better part of three weeks, with a computer crash and working on an old replica iMac, which I have to bang on the side, in order to keep the sometimes flickering screen from extinguishing itself. After a year of putting off going through my late Mother's belongings and shrugging off the despair of mourning, I then had to go through the entire house to rid us of accumulated junk. The things we hang on to! With working on refinancing and praying a lot, I return to find this article, explaining the post you discuss. It was manna for my soul. You have a real talent and I, for one, appreciate your God given style. Bravo!