Recently, I was talking to my friend, Camas, at a party when the subject of our college admittance essays came up. I haven’t done a lot of thinking about this particular bit of writing in the past two decades, though at the time, it certainly loomed large. Camas and I had the same English teacher our senior year. Ms. Barbini was a rail-thin woman whose life had dealt her many blows, all of which she told us about with alarming forthrightness and frankness. One of the most severe tragedies Ms. Barbini had undergone was the loss of her sister and brother-in-law in a car accident. Though she already had a disabled son, she became the guardian of her traumatized niece. This niece, we were told as we sat in that classroom, waiting for the ding of the buzzer to release us, while many things (a musician, artistic, resilient) was not a good student. She had outsized ambitions, Ms. Barbini felt, for getting into college. She had her heart set on Reed. With her grades and her SAT scores, she would need to write the end all be all of college essays in order to get in.
I’m going to take a risk and actually tell you what Ms. Barbini told us. You might find it repellent, but the truth is often repellant and writers must be brave.
The niece desired to be more connected to the natural world—and she knew she could be. To achieve this end, she caught her menstrual blood with rags, soaked the rags in water, then used the bloody water to feed her plants. They flourished. She wrote this down, crafted a college essay out of it, and despite her bad grades and faulty test scores, she got into Reed.
This was the only college essay advice I remember receiving.
The story didn’t help me much. I struggled to write my own essay in a way that I had never struggled with writing before. I’d always been a good writer, praised for it in school. It had been easy for me. But this essay—I thought it needed to be a grand thing, filled with theories about life that no one had ever thought before. It had to be my best work, as it would have an audience I couldn’t predict, an outcome that truly mattered. I wrote pages of pretentious ramblings about femininity and the symbolism of silverware. I wrote hackneyed pages about political activism I’d participated in.
I showed these attempts to another teacher who shook his head gravely. No, he said. Not these. And finally, no, Robin, you’re trying too hard.
So, I went home, took a notebook up to my bedroom, and stared at the wall for a while. I felt frustrated. I felt blocked. I felt that writing had led me astray by seducing me and then turning on me, that the world was a cruel place and that I was most likely very stupid. Also, I hated the teacher who told me I was trying too hard. Also, maybe I hated college. And then I looked at a set of glass bangles on my dresser. And the bangles reminded me of the exchange program I had done the summer before in Kathmandu. They had been a gift from my host family there.
That trip to Nepal had been formative. I’d disliked high school, and was constantly fighting with my parents. To be in a house with four rooms and hay beds, no electricity and only occasional running water, gave me a vibrant new perspective, a psychic relief that nothing else had. The colors and sounds were new—bright saris, textured forehead tikkas, tin plates, dal baat, the smell of kerosene and grass. I could have tried to summarize all this into a college admittance essay. What I Learned When I Traveled—your typical, grade-grubbing, five paragraph essay, the essay that, with its formulaic blandness, kills so many young people’s desire to write. But the image, the image that I saw before I really thought about it, was of three skinned goat heads on a piece of plywood.
While it was amazing and inspiring to be so far from home at sixteen, it was also sometimes hard. I didn’t speak Nepalese, and I communicated with my host family in hand gestures and a mix of fragmented English and Nepali. So on my daily walks, I would stop to pet these three goats that lived in front of our neighbor’s house. It turned out that the goats spoke the same language as the goats in Oregon. If you pushed their wiry heads, they pushed back. If you scratched them, they leaned in.
It became my ritual. I would walk down there, scratch the goats, whisper things to them that they’d absorb with their flat-looking eyes. I have always loved animals, but I loved these goats in a particular way. They were my point of connection to the larger world. A goat is a goat is a goat, as far away as you might travel.
But one day, when I was walking home, they weren’t there. Instead, I saw the three white lumps on a board. At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. But then, they crisped into focus—the shine of the blood-tinged bone, the bluish veiny texture over it, the flat, vaguely milky eyes staring unmovingly at nothing. That night, we went next door, to the neighbor’s house, for a celebratory meal of goat dumplings.
My goats! My friends! And to make matters worse, I’d been a vegetarian since I was ten years old. But clearly this was an important meal. I tried, for a few minutes, to explain that I didn’t eat meat. It didn’t go over very well. I felt everyone begin to look at me as the very thing I didn’t want to be: a foreigner, a stranger. So I ate the dumplings.
That was my essay. I didn’t make any intellectual arguments about dominant culture or feminism. I simply described the goats, their flat eyes, their wiry hair, my affection for them, their death, the dumplings.
I told the story.
I did wind up getting into the college I wanted to go to. I even got a compassionate letter from the dean about those dear former goats. But that wasn’t really the triumph.
Looking back on it, as a writer, as an adult, what I see in that essay is something else entirely.
Let’s remember how the goat essay came to pass. I had failed to say anything in previous essays because I was thinking too hard, “trying too hard,” to quote my teacher. And so I went up to my bedroom and, after a solid half-hour of self-abuse, I saw a bangle. The bangle reminded me of Nepal and Nepal reminded me of those three skinned goat’s heads. And this is where it gets interesting: I knew there was a heat to that image, I just didn’t know what the heat meant. But I didn’t overthink it. I didn’t stop to kick it away, to replace it with intellectual ideas about what a college essay ought to be. I went toward the goat heads instinctively, hoping, and maybe even knowing, they would take me somewhere.
Images always take us somewhere. In fact, I would argue that images are the motor of the imagination. They take us to the heart of creativity, they inspire our need to articulate and make meaning from the world. Story arises from images, and meaning arises from story. This is not necessarily true of ideas.
The reason this is true is because images are essentially mysterious. There’s no simple algebra for why we remember what we remember, or why we notice what we notice. But the fact is that if I brought every single one of you on that walk with me in Kathmandu, you all would have noticed different things. You might have seen a bird without all its feathers, a rickshaw missing a wheel, a man without teeth, a too-quiet baby, a ripped sari, a girl staring at a goat’s head looking puzzled and hurt. And whatever you noticed, that was specific to you, to your psychology and the secrets that lie dormant in you. Your mind creates the lens through which you see the world, and so what you see will be different from what everyone else sees. If you follow the images, have faith in the images, if you learn to figure out which of them feel vibrant, attached to something mysterious in you, you will be able to use them later. They will lead you down a road toward your best, most imaginative, most odd and alive story.
There are two ideas at work here, let me be clear. The first is the bangle—looking at it, registering it, and letting it remind me of the goats. This is the associative power of images. The other idea is simply sight itself—noticing the goat’s head, being alert to the world and storing the visual material in my own memory, with enough detail that I could describe it when I needed it. They are both important, but first, let’s just start at the act of sight itself.
Most of us have the luxury of sight. It should, therefore, be simple to take the world in, to register it, remember it, and convey what we see. But many of us stop seeing. We’re busy. We’re in a routine. We have a half hour before work to write and we just really, really want those pages. We stop seeing and we start thinking, doing, producing. But the problem is that once we stop seeing, once we stop noticing, once we replace image with thought, we don’t have access to the tools we will need to make mysterious, convincing, dynamic work.
There’s a wonderful book about animals by the autism and cattle expert Temple Grandin, called Animals in Translation, in which she sites a psychological study called Gorillas in Our Midst. I think it summarizes the problem nicely.
In the experiment, researchers showed people a videotape of a basketball game and asked them to count how many passes one team made. Then, while they are counting the passes, a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, stops, turns, faces the camera, and beats her fists on her chest. Fifty percent of all people who watch this video don’t see the gorilla.
The researchers called this obliviousness “inattentional blindness.”
Inattentional blindness, which for us could be renamed unintentional blindness, means that we don’t see things we aren’t paying direct focused attention to. We see what we expect to see. That means, when we get habituated to our world, we stop seeing it. So, on your drive to work, the nondescript neighbor might have chained Bigfoot to the pole in her yard, but half of you would not see Bigfoot, because you always drive this route, and you never see Bigfoot. It also means that you don’t see other things, like the way your husband or wife carries plates to the table, or the patterns the sunlight makes on the walkway at nine a.m. You have stopped looking, stopped paying attention.
Obviously, if you aren’t paying attention, you aren’t seeing enough of the world to keep images in your mind’s image bank. As writers, we have to undo this.
In her phenomenal classic essay, “On Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor argues that the use of sensory imagery “is something that can’t be learned only by the head; it has to be learned in the habits. It has to become a way that you habitually look at things.” This she calls “the habit of art.”
She writes: “There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”
The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it. That is really such good writing advice, the best jumping off point for an aspiring prose writer.
But let’s not take her word for it. I love her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which a mother accidentally sets up her mentally disabled daughter with a thief and ne’r do well. Let’s examine how she describes the villain, Mr. Shiftlet, in this story.
When he arrives at their house, the old woman asks:
“Where do you come from Mr. Shiftlet?”
And O’Connor writes:
“He didn’t answer. He reached into this pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip. Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin.”
O’Connor knows how to see the entire world within an image—but she also simply knows how to see the world and describe what it is that she sees. Shiftlet looks at the flame as if he were studying the mystery of flame, and the flame—the flame is as crucial here as Shiftlet is. It travels dangerously toward his skin. The entire world is alive, quakes with possible meaning, but O’Connor knows this, and she allows it to quake. She does not deliver meaning dead on a plate. She did not tell us about Mr. Shiftlet’s abusive dad and alcoholic mother. She did not diagnose him, just as she never names and reduces the ailment of the mentally disabled daughter. Meaning is alive in the images because of their precision, and the reader’s mind sparks to life because of that gap between the image and its meaning—because of what she allowed us to see, and what she didn’t allow us to know.
Flannery couldn’t be here tonight to tell us how she got to these images, but I believe we can see her process in her description of “the habit of art.” I believe she saw images like them in the world, even if not exactly, and she screened these in her own mind as she was writing. I believe that she had to see and notice this level of detail—really see and notice it—to be able to recreate it.
It’s true that in my goat essay, I wrote about a world that wasn’t familiar, Kathmandu, a world to which I had not become inattentionally blind. But the everyday world is just as rich as Kathmandu, or Paris or Singapore. The room in which you are reading this right now is filled with usable images. Your commute to work, the interior of your car, your bedroom, your daughter’s bedroom, the face of your ex-boyfriend, the gestures of your father-in-law. These are rich territories, but only if we notice them. Only if we can wake ourselves up, if we can improve our habits.
Try doing this all the time, when you are standing in line for dinner, when you are in the car, when you are spacing off during a faculty talk: look around you as though you are new to the planet, as though you have never seen this place before. Forget your familiarity with it all. Familiarity isn’t your friend. Familiarity desensitizes you and makes you bland. Familiarity tricks you into believing you know and understand your surroundings. It lulls you into thinking you lead a predictable life. You don’t. You have no idea what’s coming. And you have no idea, unless you defamiliarize yourself with your world, what it truly looks like, or is like. See the distinctiveness everywhere, and it will lead you into the potential you constantly live next to.
Is it really only images that have this power? Well, not exactly. I’m focusing on images because we can see them, because the bangle led to the goat head, which led to a story, but what I mean is that we should notice everything. We should notice the sounds, the smells, the odd bits of dialogue. We should notice the way people behave in situations. Human dynamics, like images, will really serve your writing. And the good news is that you are always in a cesspool of human dynamics. This week, there will be glorious dynamics that leave you proud of your species, and I guarantee you that there will be dynamics that do not leave you feeling this way. But no matter what they are, try to notice them, hold on to them.
Images, smells, textures, dialogue, gesture, human dynamics. It will make your mind hurt at first—our brains are actually built to filter out the information we don’t immediately need, this is a service biology provides us to keep us from going insane. But you need to talk to your brain and retrain it. If you’re going to write, you must teach it that a little insanity is going to be important.
I want to return for a minute to the bangle in the bedroom—to the first image, the triggering image, the one that activated the associative part of my brain. Obviously, I didn’t write about this image (the bangle itself), but it remains a crucial part of the essay. If I had not been beaten down by all my attempts to write something smart, if I had not been tired and spaced out, I might not have allowed my mind to do the thing that it did with that bracelet. But I was in this beleaguered and weirdly open place, and it allowed me to get to the next step.
Some of you might remember playing a game when you were young, a game in which one kid shouts out an object and you shout out the first thing that pops into your head. Even a second of a pause disqualifies you for good reason. If I shout apple and you think about it, you might shout orange or slices. But if I shout apple and you don’t think about it and shout hurt feelings, then you have a story, or at the very least, a question to get you started. How did you get from apple to hurt feelings? What is the curious connection?
This little game engaged our associative, rather than analytic, minds. This is how I got from bangle on the dresser to goat’s head, and then from goat’s head to my essay. I didn’t outline. I didn’t make a plan. I wrote into a triggering image (the heads), and the image dictated the story. I didn’t sit there explaining the concept behind the holiday for which the Nepalese people slaughtered their goats, I didn’t belabor how comforting I found them and discuss their profound symbolism, I did not go into my reasons for being a vegetarian or raise questions about the power of community when we are far from home. But I let these ideas and questions lurk within the images themselves.
Maybe you are thinking, that’s nice, but I don’t want to write a college essay. You are a little skeptical about this associative leaping thing. So let me give you an example from literature. Some of you might remember a little trivia, tucked into the afterword of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece. He writes that the first shiver of the idea for Lolita came to him when he read a story about an ape that was coaxed, for months, by a scientist, to draw with charcoal. After months of cajoling this ape to draw, it finally did. It produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal. And what did it draw? It drew only the bars of its own cage.
Let’s just think about this for a minute. Here was its chance to draw anything at all, to express anything it might express, and it drew only the bars of its own cage.
The image of that ape drawing its own captivity led Nabokov to Humbert Humbert and Lolita, two humans that try as they might, cannot imagine themselves free of the bars of their own cages—at least until quite late in the book.
I firmly believe that images will lead you to such rich ideas and questions—different questions, of course, because you are you and not Nabokov. But I believe strongly that if you pay attention to the world around you, if you make a habit of it, if you can allow the images to guide you, a story will eventually arrive. It might not be the story you wanted to tell, or thought you should tell, the treatise on femininity and silverware. It’s likely to be a much stranger beast. But good writing must have blood and guts and oddness and mystery and aliveness, and to get there, well, you must be brave.
It’s hard to let the mind dance around without wanting to seize at it, grab for clues, interrogate it. Most of us have a real love of control. Language organizes the world. Images don’t.
But the paradox at the heart of writing good fiction or creative nonfiction is that it is about initially losing control. It is about your ability to use instinct and observation to create rich associations, and then to pick up that more controlling side—the intellect, the critic, the editor—later, when you are revising and shaping this odd, marvelous animal that your imagination gave you.
Let’s return, for a moment, to the story of the Reed applicant with her bloody plant water. Think what you will about the topic of her essay, you can’t argue with the fact that it was original, vivid, or brave. It has been almost two decades since I heard that story, and I can conjure the imagery in a split second. There are so many ways our young protagonist could have stopped herself from writing it. Obviously, it was a terrible idea to write it. It’s weird. It’s biological. It’s about menstruation.
But our young protagonist didn’t let her inner critic come down and stamp it out, or tell her she should really write about grief or being raised by her weirdly honest aunt. But I like to imagine that somehow those things informed her telling of the plant story. I like to think that her plant story was probably about loss, actually—and about belonging to the world again after something terribly traumatic happened to her. And that even if she never said these things, the committee felt them, there in the images that essay called forth. They imagined the plants growing and growing in that girl’s bedroom, getting larger, maybe, than the girl herself. They saw the world distort for a moment, nature looming large, the mysteries casting shadows on the girl’s carpet, and they felt chills up their arms.
Grandin, Temple. Animals in Translation, Harcourt, New York, 2005.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mysteries and Manners, FSG, New York, 1957.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories, FSG, New York, 1946.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita, Vintage, New York, 1991.