Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Picture Can Inspire a Thousand Words

This past weekend I attended the Lilly Conference on College & University Teaching in Greensboro, NC. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of presentations and panels on incorporating meditative techniques into traditional learning environments. One session centered on building a labyrinth with students. Another gave a demonstration of guided and non-guided meditation along with a reflective writing assignment. These reflective writing components incorporated the kinds of ideas we talk about in transformative writing. In fact, Bill, the presenter for the meditation/reflective writing sessions, attended my TW session, and we realized soon how complementary the two sessions were.

One of the techniques that Bill used in his session is one that I used to do with my poetry students. Each participant was to choose a picture that seemed to say something about how the person was feeling at that particular moment. We were able to choose from about 125 glossy 8 x 10s covering a range of subjects. I chose one with meerkats. Something about the meerkats made me think of myself in reference to the conference. There was one group of four meerkats with their backs to us on one side of the picture. Another meerkat stood sentinel off to herself and in the distance another meerkat stood with its back to the camera and its head in profile. I thought of myself as the middle meerkat. I was at the conference with a lot of other people but mostly doing my own thing.

I began my “freewrite” on the picture by describing it, the proximity of each meerkat to the others, the sun light creating a golden halo around their upright bodies, the barren sun-burned landscape where they stood. I wrote about how I related myself at this conference to the meerkat but then my writing took me in a different direction. I thought about the future as I face a transition in my life. Some of my subconscious feelings began to surface as I realized what I wanted from this unknown future. I knew that the meerkat was not going to stay in the vicinity of the other four but had other plans.

I shouldn’t have been but I was startled at the result. Contemplating this picture opened doors in my mind. It was also a profound reminder of the power of image. I think it’s why the tarot has had such a hold on our imaginations for so many years. It’s not that the cards tell us the future but that what we see in the cards tell us about ourselves, our hopes and our fears.

In addition to giving poetry students a similar assignment, I have taken students to art museums. Museums are temples, places where we can commune with images. The images can conjure stories or feelings. They are pathways into the imagination of another and into our own imaginations.

This is a poem I wrote years ago on a trip to the Mint Museum in Charlotte:

Upon Going to the Museum: Sappho, Kleis and Alcaeus (for my daughter)

It is always the pictures of girls
that draw my goddess-worshipping eyes,
or more, they tug the mother in me
or more, they sing to the girl I was and am.
That thick blue is the color of water
I know in my veins, my bones,
the corpuscles of my body,
but it is your gentle hand on my shoulder
blade that (more than the beautiful young
man with his lyre) holds the promise of
our inseparable unity.

I feel the cool marble on my bare feet
and the warm air, the soft sunlight.
Later we will swim and laugh,
your flowered wreath tossed upon a rock,
my friend, the one behind me in this painting,
reciting her poems of love and lust
from the branches of this tree
and into your girl’s heart this music,
those words will find fertile soil,
tilled by me—mother farmer lover
of the moon.

Just as the image can inspire the writer, the writer relies on the image to pull her reader into her world. The following passage is from a story called “The Baby Tooth” by Carole Rosenthal. At first it reads like a description of a painting. Then the backstory is revealed:

“There was a dark wet spot on the rug. A half-sewn glare-white dress sat stiff as a shell on the hassock. Jammed into a corner on the kitchen table was a jar of pickles packed in brine, which Mrs. Rand had taken with her everywhere as camouflage, to smash on the ground in case her water broke, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed in drugstores or on the street.”

This passage wouldn't have the same punch without the picture it paints in the reader's mind.

A few ideas for finding your inspiration in images:

1. Take a trip to a museum. Wander slowly. Find the painting, the sculpture, or the installation that speaks to you. Write about it. Describe it. Tell its story. Tell the story from your life that it brings to your mind.

2. Go to a park. Sit on a bench. Describe everything around you. Imagine you are a movie camera.

3. Look in the mirror. Write a poem or a paragraph-portrait about the person you see there. What do the eyes tell you? Imagine that is merely the picture of a character you are writing about.

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