5writers.com is delighted to welcome back Emilia Fuentes Grant as a guest writer for this month!
The Image Abides By Emilia Fuentes Grant
This month is Poetry Month (as I’m sure you are aware) and we five writers are writing on the influence of poetry in our lives and our work. Poetry was my first love, actually. I thought I wanted to be a poet when I started writing. It’s poetry’s fault, Mom. I blame Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver and Lucille Clifton (among others) for deftly, effectively, ruining my life with their devastating and beautiful work. Okay, “ruining” might be a strong word. “Redirecting” might be better. Semantics aside, the truth is: were it not for earth-shattering, life-altering poetry, I would probably have a steady job and a good health care plan right now.
I love poets. They are the best of us writers; the most vulnerable, raw, and gutsy bunch in our strange and diverse community. In my opinion, poetry is the genre with the most visible soul. Poets (generally speaking) don’t get to shield their feelings and fears behind fun genres, twisting plot lines, or “made-up” characters. A poet’s joy, pain, love, anger, fear, is laid bare, in black and white on the page. Non-fiction writers can relate, but even non-fiction writers have the benefit of lengthy prose, like a nice wide walkway, on which they can wander and even stumble without fear. Poets are badasses and daredevils. They walk a tight-rope from one ledge to the next, cutting ruthlessly, constantly taking into consideration the rhythm, sound, form, and shape of their words. Poets, more than any other type of writer, must be constantly concerned with what Cathy Smith Bowers calls the “F” word.
I still remember Bowers’ smooth Southern drawl carrying over the laughter of my MFA seminar when she asked us to consider our use of the “F” word in writing. It was my third semester of graduate school. I was thrilled to be learning from the Poet Laureate of North Carolina but I was completely thrown off-guard by her candor. The introduction to her lecture went something like this:
“Today, we’re going to talk about a word we all know. Most of you are afraid to use this word in your writing. It’s the ‘F’ word. We all know this word! But we don’t feel right, it’s too controversial, using the “F” word. The ‘F’ word. You know what it is? What is it? It’s feelings, y’all.”
Bowers taught me a lot that day. Not just how to work a crowd of graduate students, but how to work without stopping, how to find the heart of a story (or a poem) and to be true to that central beat. Bowers spoke on the importance of letting go and allowing oneself to simply feel and write. To create from a subconscious place where feelings are in control, not the inner editorial voice, not the interior snarky critic with razor sharp wit, but the emotions and needs and desires and feelings.
Bowers’ call to brazen and unapologetic emotion in our writing resonated deep within me. I am my own worst critic. I am brutally critical, in fact. So critical that I continue to struggle to finish any piece of writing that I begin (this one included). Bowers offered a method for avoiding my critic that I continue to use in my work. It’s a concept she calls “the abiding image.” Now, I can’t perfectly recall all that she said that day, but it was something akin to this statement made in an interview with Charlotte Viewpoint around the same time as our seminar:
“In the early stages of writing a poem…we should let ourselves be in that unconscious place where we don’t really know what we are doing. I always begin with what I call an abiding image and then write into the mystery of that abiding image.” (Charlotte Viewpoint)
I love the idea of writing “into the mystery” of an image, or a scene, or a sound, or a smell, taste, whatever concrete and abiding element that I can grasp. I love to fixate on the piece of a story that just won’t leave my head. In this way, I circumvent my inner critic and editor. I let them lurk around offstage while I sing and play and write into the mystery of that persistent image.
But the lesson of “the abiding image” isn’t just about beating writers block. In fiction, as in poetry, the real power of our work is found in the details. Writing on an abiding image forces a writer to pick apart big clunky story elements and hone in on the details. In poetry, as in fiction, success relies on capturing a moment, providing imagery and recreating sights, sounds, flavors and atmospheres. Focusing on one specific image gives a writer time to savor every part of it, revealing it slowly and deliberately, first for the writer herself and then, eventually, for the reader.
An abiding image can be anything: a cracked coffee pot on a kitchen counter, a blood stain on a shirt, a dusty china cabinet, a broken latch on a bathroom door, a brand new pair of shoes, two young girls in conversation in the middle of crowded room. Whatever inspires writing, whatever image is stuck in your head like a bad pop-song, focus on that thing and write it. Just write until you have exhausted the subject. Only then do you let your critical mind take a look at the work, seeing it’s flaws but also it’s strengths and it’s beauty. Cathy Smith Bowers said it better:
“I first let the unconscious – out of which that image has resurfaced – do its work, making its big mess, letting the image go where it needs to go, without any judgment or editing on my part. When the unconscious has had its time, I bring out the conscious part of the psyche to assess the mess and try to make some sense out of it.” (Charlotte Viewpoint)
I love the abiding image for the inspiration it brings and the relief it gives from inner critics. However, it also serves the work beyond the initial stages of writing. Consider that the image and the writing surrounding it exist for a reason. They all came crawling out of your subconscious for a reason. So, once a story is written (or a chapter or a poem or a screenplay or whatever genre in between) I like to revisit that initial, abiding image. I always find that it holds much more depth of meaning than I originally understood. It lends layers to the story that I previously couldn’t see. That image sticks around in my brain not just to help me get a story going. It abides because it means something very real and very powerful. We have to write into that image until we find the meaning (hint: it’s probably got something to do with our feelings).
Happy Poetry Month, Poets. You are the purest and bravest of us all.