By SARAH STONE, faculty member in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry, and author of "The True Sources of the Nile"
“Aunt Margaret had one single piece of jewelry, besides her fat gold wedding ring. This was a curious necklace which she wore on Sunday afternoons after lunch, when she changed from her drab, black, weekday clothes into her best dress. The week’s work was done and she waited for another hard week to start in this ugly, holiday dress...The necklace was a collar of dull silver, two hinged silver pieces knobbed with moonstones which snapped into place around her lean neck and rose up almost to her chin so that she could hardly move her head. It was heavy, crippling and precious and looked as though it might be very ancient, pre-Christian or possibly even pre-Flood although, in fact, it was not. Topping off that scrawny, grey dress, the collar looked almost sinisterly exotic and bizarre. Wearing the collar, Aunt Margaret had to carry her head high and haughty as the Queen of Assyria, but above it her eyes were anxious and sad and not proud at all.
“On Sundays, she did her hair with far more care than usual, arranging it in smooth red coils and loops, and, with her un-customary neatness and her grand necklace and her look of youth, she acquired a startling, hare-like, fleeting beauty, pared to the bone; a weird beauty that lasted until bedtime, when she took the necklace off and put it away again. Because she possessed this eldritch beauty so briefly each week, it was almost shocking. With Victoria on her knee and her head held regally erect because of the pressure of the collar, she looked like an icon of Our Lady of Famine, pictured as a spare young girl.”
This passage, from Angela Carter's "Magic Toyshop," captures just a little of a four-page exploration of the dress and necklace, an obsessive and mesmerizing passage which ranges from what the family had for tea, to the jewelry that Aunt Margaret would have chosen for herself, to her orphaned niece’s thoughts and conversation with her about it, to the terrifying artist-husband who has made the collar and who requires that she wear it on Sundays when they will be having sex. These pages circle around the central image of the necklace, an object that embodies art as imprisonment, the artist as kind of Bluebeard/magician, an object worn by a woman more captive than queen. Among the frightening, memorable images of the book, this one stands out in its piercing juxtaposition of the ordinary and the surreal.
At this year’s AWP conference (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs), A. Manette Ansay, Peter Turchi, and C.J. Hribal talked about “The Virtues of Obsession.” (Lan Samantha Chang was supposed to be part of the panel as well, but was caught in the blizzard that shut down much of the country.) Here’s the panel description: “Writers often worry about saying or writing something new, about not repeating themselves—but a lot of wonderful writers return to the same essential material, and find new angles, new aspects to explore. Four writers will talk about the virtues of obsession—whether in process, content, or themes—and the value in recognizing and working (and reworking) the material one finds most compelling.”
In the course of their splendid talks, which I am not going to attempt to capture in any detail here, and which I hope will be published in some form soon, Peter Turchi talked about the artist Charles Ritchie who “recorded a few simple objects dozens, even hundreds, of times.” He said, “Dare to be a specialist,” and described “an intensity of gaze that will let us see beyond what we’ve already apprehended.” A. Manette Ansay discussed the process of creating "Good Things I Wish You," the story of a novelist “trying to get traction on her latest book, a novel based on the 40-year relationship between 19th-century German pianist Clara Schumann and her husband’s handsome young protégé, the composer Johannes Brahms.” She said, “…readers think about what characters desire long after other details have been forgotten.” And C.J. Hribal talked about the way a writer might return to material, how situations and characters may show up again and again, how the painter Eugène Delacroix wrote in his journal, "What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."
For the writer who might want to explore the possibilities of developing the kind of intensity of gaze that Angela Carter shows, or who may want to revisit old material through a new door, I’m including an exercise I’ve occasionally used in nonfiction or multi-genre classes, though the exercise can easily be adapted to become part of a story, poem, or text-image piece. It can be a way to bring unexpected elements into a story or memoir.
Start the exercise by choosing at least a couple of objects that fascinate you – whether for their shape, their history, their function, their cultural context, or their emotional weight for you. For each one, write a freewrite: set the clock for 20 minutes (or half an hour, if you can, or an hour, for that matter), and write everything you see about the object, everything you know, everything you guess, everything that relates to it in any way. Giving yourself this much time lets you get past the first level of what you know, see, or remember, to inhabit the object and surprise yourself with your discoveries.
What stories does this object remind you of? What conversations or moments? Keep the memories and observations as specific, sensory, and detailed as possible (there will be time for reflections or analysis later – don’t let them take over the freewrites).
When you’ve done both freewrites, choose the object that seems most interesting for further pursuit. Do whatever research seems necessary to learn more. Once you have some material to work with (your freewrite and your research), write as many versions of the exercise as you can. Here are some possibilities for experimenting with forms:
Segment the piece: try turning it into nonlinear, titled sections (if you’re having trouble with this, you might try cutting up a linear version into pieces and rearranging it as a mosaic);
Use the objects in a narrative (try this with a narrative that seems naturally associated with the object, then try this with a narrative that has nothing whatsoever to do with the object);
Braid the piece: come up with three threads, perhaps narrative, imagery, and information, and weave them together;
Borrow the form of any essay/story you admire and see what you can do with your own object in a similar form. Or find "The Magic Toyshop" and the pages I’ve quoted from (111 to 114 in my Virago edition) and see if you can weave the object into a mixture of half-scene and vivid, charged exposition.
When you find a form that feels alive and somehow related to the object (how does the form of your piece relate to its content?), pursue it. Revise your piece. Play with it; polish it. A single object can open unexpected, locked, or painted-over doors in your mind.