By APRIL SERR, student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program
This post was written as an assignment for professor Cindy Shearer’s Aesthetics of Value course. In Aesthetics of Value, students explore their arts heritage and inquire into the values that guide their creative work.
When I entered into the Writing and Consciousness MFA program I thought I wanted to learn how to write stories. And I did. I already had an understanding of how to write essays, but I had these incredible scenes swimming around in my mind. Oh, I thought, if only I could capture these scenes into words that tell a story.
What I did not understand was that the yearning to tell stories was all tied up in a deeper yearning to understand my own place in the world. And that this would require bravery and tenacious grit, the same qualities I wanted my heroines to have. I found myself writing lines and lines of abstract scenes because I was afraid of the details. In the details lurked sensory memory, and sensory memory evoked my own repressed memories, both childhood ones and adult ones. Not just the mental memories; oh no, those I had categorized and filed in safe form. I mean the in-the-gut, sensory experience of grief, loss, shock, love, awe.
When I finally sat my butt down with the focused determination of a stubborn cat and sunk into the details of the scenes, I found myself carried away into the life of my characters. I cried and laughed for them and with them. It all happened by paying attention to how the details of life evoked experience, memory, emotion, and action in a character. In paying attention to the details of my character’s lives, I find myself ever more present with the details of my own life.
I feel a certain vulnerability allowing these sensuous, lively details to surface into my writing, as if I’m allowing myself to be revealed naked before a world of people I do not know. Perhaps this is because, as Patricia Hampl says in her essay “The Dark Art of Description,” “in descriptions we hear and feel the absorptions of the author in the material. We sense the presence of the creator of the scene.” By writing the intimate details of a story I am revealing something intimate about myself.
This is frightening in its vulnerability yet beautiful in its revelation. For not only am I revealing something of myself to others, I am revealing something to myself. The details of my character’s lives allow me to step out of the way of what I think I think and what I think I know. It is there that I have moments of letting go, or surrendering into a creative expression that teaches and informs me. This aspect of my creative channel expresses for me that which my own thinking mind cannot describe. I learn something about myself, or life, and I am changed. I know now that this change is the source of the yearning that pulls me into writing stories. While I want my stories to be admired and loved, I see now that it is the moments of realization and understanding that come to me through my characters that will keep me engaged in my writing. And it all happens in the details.