Imagemaking

How do writers construct worlds where objects become hinged openings, doors, invitations to enter and speculate? In a way I might already have answered this question. Images occur when a mind is closely attending to some object or event in its surroundings. To elaborate, the mind is in an unusual state of attention, so that a once familiar state or condition of things appears to be unfamiliar, surprising, joyful or hazardous. This view will not appeal to everybody. It assumes, it is argued, a 'moment of vision' theory of creativity. It depends upon an abnormal state of emotion, as if real writing happens involuntarily, under pressure, or is induced only in the presence of certain quite specific groups of objects—mountains or glaciers or the moon. In other words, it shows a dangerous tendency to Romanticism, an approach to writing developed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the final years of the eighteenth century in England— dangerous because it limits our scope of response, directs it, favours a notion of mood as opposed to intelligence. But if we are going to allow imagination a free hand, we don't have to follow Wordsworth's theories. Nor do we need to embrace an opposing alternative. A number of early seventeenth-century poets in England believed that the ultimate image-maker was God, and that symbol, image and metaphor act as echoes of His divinity, or at least derive their power from a connection with it. We don't have to believe that either.

Another approach, based on experiment, takes nothing for granted. Next to me in the room where I am writing is a square, red table, about the same height from the floor as my chair. You can get such tables cheap from IKEA. On this table is an orange tree plant (with fruit on it) and a white circular plate eight inches in diameter. On the plate are flakes of a sausage roll I've just eaten. I am in a moment of now, whatever now is, along with chair, table, plate, oranges on a tree. What holds my attention is this plate; why, I don't know. Is it the absence of glaciers or mountains? I don't think so. The question seems irrelevant. As well as flakes of pastry the plate has two areas of shadow—one made by two leaves from the plant which seem to merge on its white surface, the other by the frame of a window interrupting the sun and so holding a third of the plate in shade. So far I have tried not to use metaphors. Even so, the longer I look, the more these start to emerge or become possible. I'm not in any unusual state of emotion, just looking at what is in front of me in this now I occupy, noticing white on red, circle on square, flakes, shadows. The flakes are scattered randomly, like. I want to use a metaphor. The shadow of window frame darkens a gradually smaller section of plate. This is because the planet moves in an orbit, signalled by light. The plate has a flat surface centre and a raised area all the way round. Between the two is another shadow, curved dark like a new moon curved bright. I start to think what else this plate might have held: a melon slice, or an orange—not just the shadow of an orange; I also consider how quickly, unquietly, the plate would shatter. When I look at the flakes I see randomly scattered clumps inside a circle, as if somehow moved around by it. They seem random, yet suppose I were now looking at a map of the universe scattered with clumps of matter, accidental, not accidental, some sticking together—as if I could read its meaning, as if I were looking directly into its future. Everything is evidence, nothing random. The key to physics is in the tiny details of an eaten sausage roll.

What I aim to demonstrate here is the mind's tendency to make images even in the most ordinary of circumstances, under no emotional pressure, only by means of the act of attention itself. Under attention things start to transform, become significant, link up with sets of preoccupations you might not know you possessed. Metaphors happen uninhibited. I make no apologies for the moon. Under different emotional circumstances I might have produced other metaphors—or my attention might have been interrupted.

The aim is to explore what happens in practice—by researching the issue, and to write in such a way that readers share the experience. By careful looking, alert response, objects emerge from their ordinary background, start to induce a gradual widening out of associations. What these will be is hard to predict. At the very least you will have encountered a bit of the world as real, made it more real than it would be seen through usual functional perception—sausage roll eaten, paragraph finished, time for a cup of tea, etc. The presence of images implies readers will not feel left out. The point at which an object becomes an image: this is the moment of fascination, discovery, more so if the process is shown to us. We need to feel how significance accretes and why, and one way to experiment is with images in the making.

Icons, signs, logos: Eagle signifies USA; 007 a gun-barrel filling with blood; North Sea Gas a trident sprouting flames; the Cross, Golgotha; images of redemption, power, licence to kill, money; yin and yang; pictorial plaque of the Pioneer spacecraft; hammers, sickles; scythes; locks and doors; mother and child in paintings; sculptures; sexual images; the exotic; a Playtex bra ad in Times Square New York—all of these we might call received images. We do not meet with them in their process of making, yet they confirm our sense of shared worlds. Writing frequently draws on images received, while it also renders them as subjective. Sometimes the process of making is close at hand, almost seems to happen before our eyes. The black British poet Fred D'Aguiar describes a return to London, his home city:

from 'Home'

The cockney cab driver begins chirpily but can't or won't steer clear of race, so rounds on Asians. I lock eyes with him in the rear-view when I say I live with one.

He settles at the wheel grudgingly, in a huffed silence. Cha! Drive man! I have legal tender burning in my pocket to move on, like a cross in Transylvania.

At my front door, why doesn't the lock recognise me and budge? I give an extra twist and fall forward over the threshold piled with felicitations of junk mail, into a cool reception in the hall. Grey light and close skies, I love you, chokey streets, roundabouts and streetlamps with tyres chucked around them, I love you.

Police Officer; your boots need re-heeling. Robin Redbreast, special request—a burst of song so the worm can wind to the surface. We must all sing for our supper or else.

Get Fred D'Aguiar to an interview, ask him what he thinks about England. Something like this will be his answer. There are no words for any exact, named, specific emotion, only images: 'I love you, /chokey streets.' The poem records a series of awkward obstacles—the taxi driver, the lock, junk mail stuffed with the type of received images we can imagine, a 'cool reception'—meaning the weather? Something else? The image of that 'burst of song/so the worm can wind to the surface'. Is this how the poet/singer feels, is made to feel—victim of a predatory capitalism rendered somehow lyrical: 'We must all sing for our supper or else'? Notice, too, the received images: 'a cross in Transylviania'—held up to ward off harm (held in the form of money), and the lock that has a mind of its own. The poem is so rich in images they become increasingly difficult to count. Some are just recorded observations: 'Grey light and close skies'. Others derive from English folk song tradition, singing 'for our supper', implying in passing a familiarity, revived by love but also alienation. And all these images occur just by putting himself in the mood of return, giving that his attention. We feel them being generated as he speaks, also as we read, and this is the huge advantage of writing—that readers share in the process as it happens.

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