[This article was originally published in The Crossing in 1999.]
A few years ago “Magic Eye” art became an abrupt phenomenon from galleries to gift shops. People stood staring at posters comprised of little more than spatterings of colored pixels. They’d wait… wait… wait for something to happen. Suddenly, they’d cry “Oh! I see it!” Grinning smugly at each other, they would go on to the next display. I refused to subject myself to this embarrassing hoax. In public, anyway. But in private, when the opportunity presented itself, I stared into an ocean of dots to find out what it all meant. Nothing happened. “You have to relax,” a friend later advised me. “Concentrate. Stare through the picture.” Next time I did, a strange blur of motion caught my eyes. A 3-D image—a scenic mountain lake—emerged. “Oh,” I happily exclaimed, “I see it!” Concentration. Patience. And then the miracle.
Whether you’ve been a whale-watcher on a boat or a child with a hidden-picture puzzle, you know the thrill of seeing shape and form mysteriously emerge from seeming chaos. There’s something there, in the fog. Constellations in the cosmos. Method in the madness. For some, it is enough to observe beauty unfolding from a choreography of disparate elements. My own artistic endeavors are a process of observation, of contemplating elements that grab my attention, anticipating discovery there, and preserving the context in which things are being revealed.
THE ELEMENTS OF AMAZEMENT
Poet Lucy Shaw says, “Usually my compulsion to write comes from my amazement at a striking image.” The things that can inspire us to amazement are everywhere, often hidden in plain view, waiting to suddenly capture our attention. From age seven, I’ve wanted to write about just about everything, to find the stories waiting there.
The imaginations of great artists sometimes awake while concentrating on their circumstances and surroundings. John Donne found revelation—and probably comfort as well—as he contemplated his own suffering while bedridden, and his poems carry us with him through those trials. For the Psalmist, there were God’s mountains, valleys, wars and wounds. For Georgia O’Keefe—skies, flowers, mesas, bones.
Artists—poets especially—are frequently compulsive collectors of souvenirs from everyday life. They clutter their apartments with “ordinary” objects—fragments, puzzle pieces—that stir their imaginations to amazement when they are in the right frame of mind. Autumn leaves. Scribbled lines from overheard conversations. Colorful stones. Postcards. My “toybox” of such stuff holds film soundtracks, newspaper clippings, photographs, poems.
I keep photographs from a 1995 hike through Montana’s Glacier Park. On that adventure, my wife Anne and I discussed how our lives were changing post-college. Anne spoke some unintentionally magical words: “Most people seem to reach an age where they fold up their childlike imagination and put it in the closet.” That statement—there, in those woods—intrigued me. Something mysterious snagged my interest. The other hikers followed my gaze into the trees––had I seen a bear? But what I began to see was a fairy-tale-to-be, where a woods-dwelling community (in a woods quite like this one) fold up their imaginations and bury them out of reach. Why would they do this? What would happen to them? What could it mean? I was hooked by those magic words. It was Anne’s fault. I started writing about it. It wasn’t until after I had preserved the ideas on paper that I began to see clearly. The story wanted to be told. It had been waiting.
A VOICE IN THE WORK
Almost every artist has at some time exclaimed, “And then the work took on a life of its own!” There’s a will in the work. This is the experience that draws me back to writing fairy tales over and over again. Those things we choose at the work’s outset develop relationships we do not expect, like two cats learning to share a space, like chemicals mixing, like a solar system coming into gravitational balance. I live for the moment when characters run off and do their own thing; I can hardly write fast enough to keep up. Perhaps it is God I am sensing through the story darkly”…reminding me that all art is collaboration.
But for a long time I was uncomfortable with letting the story lead me. The right frame of mind––open, receptive, explorative––seemed irresponsible.
Having been schooled and raised to be a Christian “witness”, for years I struggled with a preoccupation to communicate rather than create something. This concern made me self-conscious and nearly robbed me of the joy of storytelling. As an adolescent, I worried about whether my stories would instill “morals” or “share Jesus” with my readers. I shifted from a delight in imagination to a desire for results.
In the 1980’s, singer/songwriter Leslie Phillips became popular communicating the gospel through pop music to an enthusiastic Christian audience. When she suddenly began exploring difficult questions, and her own doubts, many of the faithful disapproved. Fans walked out on her shows. Disillusioned, Phillips disappeared. But there was honesty, beauty, and resonance in this complicated new poetry. Later, when Leslie resurfaced in front of mainstream audiences (using her childhood nickname “Sam”), preaching was no longer the focus; exploration became prevalent. Her recent works reflect her faith and echo her Creator through balance, beauty, bravery, and originality. This decision to be an artist rather than a spokesperson had a great impact on me as I struggled to regain the state of wonder in artmaking. Certainly, artists who set out to preach or teach sometimes achieve incredible things and their work is alive. But like Jesus, the best storytellers leave room for their audiences to discover the truths of the work. I still wrestle with this, but I am finding the courage again to explore, to play, and thus—to discover.
When I try to guess or predetermine how a story will turn out, the work resists me. Once as I followed my story’s hero to an old-fashioned showdown with his worst enemy, I found myself less and less satisfied with the story. Unanswered questions disrupted my efforts. I ignored my discomfort. For goodness sake, I was going to make sure good triumphed over evil! But nothing worked; the story was failing. It was not time to resolve the conflict yet. It was the villain himself who beckoned to me…he wanted me to understand him before I annihilated him.
Considering this villain’s fall, I found he had transgressed, in the beginning, quite simply, with sins as unspectacular as my own frequent failings. This transformed my perspective of him. I felt like Tolkien’s humble hero Frodo when he finally looks on the miserable monster Gollum and exclaims, “Now that I see him, I do pity him.” I could no longer revel in a conventional finale where justice demands the bad guy’s swift execution. Such crowd-pleasing would express a self-righteous “Ha! So There!” rather than an honest contemplation of what was really happening. An engaging story emerged on its own, unexpected, and I learned a thing or two about patience and compassion.
THE DANGERS OF DISTRACTION
The trick to a Magic Eye picture, I learned, is to train your eyes and your mind to concentrate. Don’t let anything distract you when you start to find the image in the chaos. Likewise, distractions can ruin the right frame of mind for the artist at work.
Distractions hail from all corners of my room. A stack of unpaid bills. A hungry cat. Chores.A leaky faucet. Migraines. But there are internal distractions as well.
If I am happy with a reader’s response to my writing (or to some other writer’s work, for that matter,) I can be distracted by a desire for similar successes in new projects. If I attempt to follow a formula and focus on recreating that effect, I fall into the trap of focusing on the audience instead of the work. Consideration of audience might be appropriate during the second draft, but creation is a private, intimate matter between the artist and the emerging work.
And that charged experience of beholding mysteries can itself become a distraction. Too eager for “the rush” of imagination, I have abandoned promising first drafts because I prefer to work on newer, more immediately exciting ideas. My energy becomes thinly spread over too many projects. Creative friends can be a threat in themselves; it’s easy to get caught up in their endeavors while my own passion remains perpetually postponed due to a stall or an obstacle. I have a lot to learn about patience. Good things come to those who wait. Sometimes a watched pot does boil.
And waiting can be an activity; it doesn’t have to be just sitting and hoping an idea comes along. When a work gets difficult, sometimes it’s because I’ve stepped too close to it. When I can’t figure out how to end a scene, or where to begin, something as simple as a walk around the block can help. Breaking a routine can produce surprising new ideas. I try to write in all sorts of unconventional places, to unusual music. Writing without puncutation, with a different color of ink, on a different paper or surface, using ten words randomly chosen from a dictionary in an experimental paragraph. There’s no end of tricks for learning more about the work. Like children turned loose with paper and crayons, artists can be at their most inspired when they’re not distracted, when they’re free of pressure, self-inflicted or otherwise, when they’re attentive.
Perhaps this doesn’t sound like “work.” But “play” is the best way to learn, the best way to discover. It teaches us to focus. It opens us up. Milton writes: “Thousands at his bidding speed/ And post oe’r land and ocean without rest;/ They also serve who only stand and wait…”. The artist is a servant that stands and waits, and then—disciplined, focused—captures in some form whatever he beholds.
The right frame of mind, ultimately, serves the artists’ audience.
Photographer Alfred Stieglitz wanted viewer sto have an experience equivalent to his as he watched clouds. He titled some of his cloud photographs “equivalents.”
Poet Jane Hirschfield, in her book Nine Gates: Opening the Minds of Poetry, shows us how the reader enters with the author into the experience of the work. “Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently… we breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of the writer’s physical experience comes into us….”
When an artist’s skill and an audience’s discernment meet, the artist has the pleasure of saying, “You’ll see something here if you look carefully.” “Oh!” they say. “I see it!”
Concentration. Patience. And then, the miracle.