by Stephen Parrish

grew up among artists who encouraged me to draw and paint. My room always smelled of turpentine, and my pants were often streaked with charcoal dust. Since I write visually—I first see the scenes in my head and attempt to record them faithfully—it was only natural that I come up with an approach to writing that paid tribute to the canvases I sacrificed.

First I scribble the scene by brainstorming, by slapping words and expressions down and trying to empty the vision from my head:

start with where she lived
then the train station at the end of her street
it was where you last saw her alive
something about the dirtiness of the place, for contrast
cigarette butts, old newspapers
the train emerging from the fog
after a pregnant pause, you’re in each other’s arms…

An advantage of scribbling is that I ensure my purposes are comprehensively addressed; I vent everything that comes to mind. Another is that I get to fill up blank paper at little creative cost. After scribbling I sketch the scene, placing elements in the right order, fleshing out, filling gaps:

you start with the street she lived on, how it wound around obstacles long since removed, how the remaining buildings seemed tired, seemed to lean over the sidewalk. at the end of the street was the train station where you last saw her alive. the floor of the platform was covered with cigarette butts, old newspapers, and grime.

as the train approached the station you saw only its distant headlamp through the fog. when she stepped onto the platform the two of you paused as though waiting for enough joy to fill your eyes. finally the joy overflowed and you were in each other’s arms. one last time, you felt her skin beneath your hands.

only time is inaccessible, never place. you can always go back to the place. you write to preserve moments in time.

I write only in lower case, and I use no indentations or quotation marks. Consequently the piece feels like a draft and I don’t have to worry about how it sounds. If you’re a perfectionist like me, this will spare you obsessive tooling. Finally I draw the scene; I go final.

I keep a journal. I think everyone should: a journal is to language what a sketchbook is to art. The scribble-sketch-draw analogy has helped me fill many blank sheets of paper.

But that’s not what this essay is really about.

A painting is a window to a world the artist has created. Likewise when we write a scene we attempt to describe a world in a way readers can grasp. The writer needs to provide just enough detail for readers to connect lines and fill in colors. Some details the writer will insist on: the scar was on the left side of the bad guy’s face; it was rain rather than crickets the lovers heard, or rather didn’t hear.

Most of the details, however, the readers must decide for themselves. I have little patience with writers who want to show me exactly what a character looks like, by inventorying traits and dimensions, by scanning figures from head to toe. If you tell me the bad guy has a scar, I’ll fill in the rest. If you tell me the lovers don’t even know it’s raining, don’t even notice they’re getting wet, I can figure out what they’re doing. A visual artist who skimps on detail risks failing to achieve his or her goal. A writer who is heavy on detail stands little chance of achieving it; the reader might not even make an attempt to engage.

When I paint, I fill my canvas with color. I leave no spot untouched. When I write, I provide as little information as I can get away with; less is more.

Still, that’s not what this essay is about, either.

Anyone who has been moved by a great poem knows the art of language has as much to do with sound and rhythm as visual detail. With rhyme and alliteration. With contrast and other elements traditionally associated with graphic design. When it comes time to draw, after you’ve scribbled and sketched, there should be only one thought in mind: to push your work beyond what you’ve visualized.

You start with the street she lived on, how it wound narrowly around obstacles long since leveled by bankruptcy and wood saw. How it shouldered buildings that retained most of their dignity, except now they seemed to cant forward, like opposing rows of aging chess players.

You describe the train station where you last saw her alive. The paint was yellow with age and smoke and the sour smell of unclean men. It peeled in the damp air and fell to join the cigarette butts, the empty bottles, and the foot-trodden newspapers, litter that clothed the cement floor like the rags on the men who drank and dreamed there.

The first you saw of the train was its headlamp, floating ghost-like over the fog. Then the engine broke from the mist and rumbled into the station where, here, the sun had burned the valley clean and the trunks of the birch trees were amber columns of light. When she stepped onto the platform the two of you stood apart at first and let the smile fill your eyes. Like spring-fed wells. Until the wells overflowed and you were in each other’s arms.

The first time was outdoors, as all first times should be. You felt her flesh beneath your hands, soft, pliable, giving, welcoming. Her voice, its sibilant resonance a tonic, an elixir. An ointment to wash the day of its drabness. The pungent odor of cut grass, of burning leaves. Of moss and humus and primeval soil. A visceral sense of early and distant rain.

You were vaguely aware of the bare ground beneath your back, pine needles pricking innocuously, a jet passing silently overhead. Until she let her hair down and it fell to either side of your face, creating a miniature cathedral, with room enough for a pair of travelers who had beaten staggering odds to share one ephemeral coordinate in space and time.

All these years later you can still taste her lips. You can still feel her skin beneath your hands.

The Ontological argument is valid after all. The universe has architecture. Consciousness is no more than a projection, a glorious illusion, a tribe of shadows dancing on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

And it’s only the time that’s inaccessible, not the place, not even the person. You write to preserve moments in time. That’s what art is for. You write to capture the love you felt before it broke something inside of you. The volume set too high, yet never quite high enough. A timeline, a Cartesian grid, curved space, stars churning like balls of molten lava, and an abacus in the hands of a god gone mad.

That’s what this essay is about.


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