Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Faculty Voices: "What Are You Staring At?" by Marsha Wilson Chall

In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer states that “…[the writer] very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader… He knows exactly what he’s trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a … coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.” (132)

To paraphrase Lehrer, we can ascribe this problem to neurological pathways traveled too often. Somehow, we writers have to shake it up, to read our prose as what Zadie Smith called “smart strangers,” and what Lehrer refers to as “outsiders.” How? Here’s what Samuel Taylor Coleridge did:

One of his favorite pastimes was attending public chemistry lectures in London, watching eminent scientists set elements on fire. When Coleridge was asked why he spent so much time watching these pyrotechnic demonstrations, he had a ready reply. “I attend the lectures,” Coleridge said, “so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.” He knew that we see the most when we are on the outside looking in.” (Lehrer, 134)

Lehrer concludes that “…the only way to remain creative over time—to not be undone by our expertise—is to experiment with ignorance. To stare at things we don’t fully understand.” (134)
(Click to enlarge image.)

Hence the reason novelist Zadie Smith encouraged writers to put away the draft for a significant period of time, to be allowed the opportunity to see it as alien writing; to see not as its author, but to stare as if we’re trying to understand.

Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to drawing as a way to stare. When I wrote Up North at the Cabin, for example, I wrestled with a legion of words to “show” how a canoe is portaged between bodies of water. I hoped the reader could almost experience it herself if I compared it to something she already knew. What I needed was a fresh metaphor, a way of seeing from the outside to effect something inside the reader. I drew a picture which resembled a banana on toothpicks (the canoe flipped over the portagers’ shoulders, a walking hull). But that was no banana. Its skin was hard, more like a shell. I posed questions about this sketch as if I were a space alien (that “smart stranger” scanning the new world for resemblances: What has a hard shell and many legs? Aha—a beetle!). Aha! I had my metaphor:  
On the portage trail,
we sling the canoe over our heads.
Its backbone to the sky,
we trudge along—
an armored beetle homeward bound.

We must get outside of our own heads by staring or drawing or forgetting it all in a drawer. Dear Writer, what are you staring at today?


  1. Love reading about your process, Marsha! So, yesterday I had to walk away from a deep revision. And, by "walk," I mean drive to the grocery store, stare at produce, lug a load home, and make soup. I don't make soup. Ever. But chopping vegetables and "seeing" a result--something tangible--helped, and now I'm back to revision today. Oh, and I burned the soup. But I suppose that's better than burning Chapter 16. Great post! Lots to consider here!


  2. This makes me think of Ted Talks. These little tiny lectures by every day people, are so exciting. Learning about calculous in African architecture, or how to crochet a coral reef. So many passionate people create a lot of new verbiage for my brain. Do you ever wish you could sort of take the dictionary and just vacuum out all the great words and there they would be, ready to come out in any sort of prose you could wish.