A Pigment of My Imagination

How to paint pictures with words? How to bring a concrete object to life? One, the use of sensory details (sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell), if noticed, can engage not only the mind of the reader but the emotions as well. Two, using sensory detail, we begin to paint an idea, using imagery.

In Rebecca McClanahan’s book Word Painting, Chapters 3 & 4, she discusses the power of prose using description and the organization of details as being as important as the details themselves. She expertly describes with examples the five senses and the strength they give to writing. For those of you who are writers, you have an idea there is actual work involved. I can truthfully say I will never be able to write with my ‘eyes closed’ so to speak. The process and command of the page is never completed.  

The following example from one of our writer’s group prompts used sensory details to help bring a concrete object to life, and to show personal possession of the thing itself revealing an attachment by the use of memory. (In my case, it was the barn that withstood three generations of my family).   

The prompt was to be titled, Last Chance. We had to figure out a short story, pick an object that was familiar to us (mine was the barn), and bring it to life using sensory details and descriptive imagery. Once again, we could go with this prompt however we wanted if it took off on its own.

Last Chance

I wanted my barn to be the color of cherry cola. A dark, brownish rich red, the same shade that filled the tall clear glass at the café when I was nine. My grandparents took me every Friday afternoon for lunch during the summer. At the rear of the dining area, farmers scooted chairs around a big table where they told of neighbors’ woes, tales, and gossip. We always sat at the same smaller round table in the center. A plate of hot sizzling French Fries would be placed smack dab in the middle of the table where we all could reach and loads of ketchup on the side like a healing bundle of red clover. I loved the taste of fries with cherry coke.

I moved the ladder further over to begin painting the other side of the barn. The top all the way around had been finished, the hard part. These boards were weathered, and smooth, peepholes here and there. Not one nail held these boards together, but hand-made wooden dowels did. As I painted, I noted how the barn began to breathe, to move under the big wide paint brush. It relaxed under the constant massage of the brush stroke, limbered up and its spirits seemed to rise. Starlings flew in and out of the open windows, intermittently resting on the edges to chatter about the facelift.

Now and again a car or truck horn honked from the gravel road. I never turned but held my brush hand high in the air, paint dripping past my wrist in acknowledgment. The barn was getting attention and creating a fuss in the quiet countryside.

I climbed down the ladder to inspect the last bit to paint. Two large partitions were attached to a metal runner for doors in the center front. What color? Green, brown, a French Blue? A horn suddenly tooted and realized I had heard that particular ‘beep’ several times over the last two months. I turned to see who it was. It was Wade in his ’56 Ford pickup. He turned into the long lane and headed my way. I never noticed the color of his truck before. My, it was pretty. Sort of a French Blue, like the color of mist pushed from the ocean to gather around a little village on an early Sunday morning. As he turned off the key, the truck took two short steps forward, almost like a fox trot.

The barn on the farm reflecting in the pond.

He walked over to look at the barren sun-washed barn door. “Well,” he says, his hands on his stern hips, “I see this is the last of it.”

“Yes, it is, sort of like a last chance you might pitch in to help.” He turned a shade of…um, that would be it…the color Embarrassed, not the French Blue I was hoping for.   (end)

I thought I would end up writing more about the barn and its past meaning, but my short story took a turn when the color of Wade’s truck entered the scene. After our time was up we read our pieces over a slice of warm apple pie and whipped cream. Once home, I continued with several more pages of Wade. One never knows where a story may go.

Healing Moments

I am in my space, please do not talk to me. In June 1998, I attended a weekend workshop called Solstice Retreat. Each of us attendees was given a piece of red yarn. We were to lay it out when we were writing and did not want to be interrupted. Since one of the instructors was a poet, and the other non-fiction, images were used to springboard our writing. I adore imagery. Diana recently brought memories through images of grandparents, and Jackie uses memory and images of farms and animals quite often.

On a hot and sunny afternoon among the boulders and cactus at Picture Rocks west of Tucson, and using the tools given for a quiet writing morning, I laid my piece of red yarn across the top of my notebook. I took a deep breath and went back to a memory of when I was nine. One can write a piece using several memories formed into one tidy ball of yarn. All to be valid.

I stood on the wooden porch, stomping my booted feet. The fire from within steamed the door window pane and caught the colors of the stained-glass border. I drew a kitty with a happy face and long fluffy tail on the glass. Grandma opened the door, rushing me in so the late afternoon cold January wouldn’t invade her warm family room. I kicked off my rubber boots and the snow and mud immediately began sliding into puddles on the newspapers. I tossed off my wooly gloves and Grandma shuffled me in front of the warm stove.

A bucket of wood with a few lumps of coal sat in the corner next to the recently vacated chair. Grandpa, whom we called Pop, usually sat there stoking the fire, keeping the door open against Grandma’s wishes. He liked to flick his cigarette ashes into the stove. A habit Grandma tolerated. His stale smell of whiskey hung in the air and mingled with the ashy mustiness of the black coals. This habit she quietly fought. 

My hands warmed and I rubbed my sock toe over small burnt craters sprinkled across the linoleum. I smiled hearing Grandma say, “Lee, now you keep that door shut or you’ll burn the house down.” Twice Grandma had come downstairs in the middle of the night to find bits of clunky ash smoldering on the floor while Pop dozed with his head bent over on his chest. She’d give him a swift kick with her small foot and help him to bed.

Each time I came to my grandma’s and stood before that stove, I would count the new little craters that tattooed themselves into the worn linoleum floor.

Sometime after Pop died, the stove was replaced with a floor furnace, and a new carpet was laid. Grandma was so humbly proud. Yet, each time I looked, the corner seemed so large and empty and not quite as comforting, or interesting knowing a threat or thrill no longer lingered in the evening shadows.

Her house still stands. When she died in 1982, her house was left to her three daughters and one son. All had long been settled in their own homes and properties, yet Grandma’s home would be kept in the family. An older cousin, a granddaughter, did want the two-story house and lives in it still to this day. The original colored beveled glass remains on the doors and over the picture windows, and the kitchen and downstairs bathroom remodeled along with minor upkeeps and major when needed. The gingerbread facia in all the peaks of the roof has been carefully redone and beautifully in place. Wild blackberries and raspberries still climb and produce lush berries and her favorite daffodils still come forth each spring. I am always looking in a corner, climbing the stairs, or picking and plodding in her garden. In my heart and mind’s eye, these images continue to bloom and produce whenever I choose.

Images are like a salve for writing.     

…to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.” Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

Painters to Poets

In July 2002, seven of us were fortunate enough to have a workshop at a private home in Tucson taught by the poet, Gina Franco. She teaches poetry writing, 18th & 19th-century British literature, Gothic literature, poetry translation, Borderland writing, religion and literature, and literary theory at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She was awarded the Philip Green Wright-Lombard Prize for distinguished teaching. She earned degrees from Smith College and Cornell University.

I recently pulled out my files of classes and workshops and thumbed back to 2002. (My writers’ group jokingly refers to me as ‘the historian’ of our writing life.) I read through my notes from this workshop. I also tend to scribble notes not relative to the topic at hand or draw sketches of other classmates if I get bored, but in this file, there were none of those side tracks.

The content was a very intense route of the historians up through the modernists and how these poets were influenced by St. Augustine’s confessions, and how others used it to fit or create a new style of poetry. Post-WWII, many moved into abstraction vs. concrete, wanting to get away from the ‘feeling’, the deep-down confessional and traditional way of expression. Long story short—loose, individual culture, voice, and finding that individual voice on the page came about. Gina then compared short story writing to poetry, using omniscient, an exaggerated first person as in ‘I”, reactionary, stream of consciousness, arbitrary, conflict, and many more.

Alas, during this workshop, my head ached at the end of each meeting. In some of the discussions, I was crystal clear on structure, enjambed, stress syllables, expository, juxtaposition, and other times, my brain crinkled up like a small paper bag, and I down shifted to neutral to coast to the next refreshment break. I did not even have the energy to doodle.

At the end of the workshop, that last night, I was far too overstimulated, at the same time, far too exhausted I could barely drive home. One thing stuck, what the expressionists were doing with paints, the poets wanted to do with words. Images by painters were coveted by poets. As an artist, I got this transition. 

Poetry as I know it is an elegant dance. Strokes and splashes make meaning from memory and makes meaning from objects, and art into words. Like brushstrokes in a painting, words can transform onto a page to create a multidimensional world. With words, a poet can create crisp images and evocative descriptions that capture sensory perceptions in the ‘mind’s’ eye.

The few workshops I have taken on poetry have always drawn something out of me. On the last evening, I was thrilled when Gina gave us another prose poem to study, then pick five words that resonated with you personally, and write.

The birch sways with an imbalance

and I worship with a prayer of wild violets.

The darkness rises above my head

and the trunk of the birch splits dark red.

Rising is unreachable, filling my eyes

with evening rain, and peace wanders in

like a garden.

Give poetry another look.