One is the brilliant, beloved Richard Wilbur’s Love calls us to the things of this world, from the poem of the same title, a gorgeous meditation on the difficult (but desirable) balance between concerns of the physical and the spiritual in the human heart. The other, from the equally brilliant, beloved William Carlos Williams, is the phrase No ideas but in things, which was, as I understand it, a kind of rebuking manifesto to other poets of his time (quoting online analysis here), urging “simplicity of language” and the “precise placing of each visual element [as] an argument for clear sight in poetry, stripped of conventional symbolism.”
Those two lines re-awaken me, by dint of their beauty, simplicity, and joy, to the artistic fertility of objects, places, weather—all the physical incarnations of life on earth, including the inanimate—in writing. The way written things can embody what a writer strives to convey, relieves that writer of the deadening effort to spell it out conventionally; to tell instead of show.
This is why I exhort myself, in the raw hours of making new work, to pay ravenous attention to the physical world of my stories, to rove my imagination’s eye around the street or room, and (like a Ouija board’s token) see where it alights—more accurately, what it alights upon. Curtains, walls, chairs, paintings, photos, trinkets, laundry, beds, food, flooring, light through windowglass—a wealth manifests before the mind’s eye’s slow-panning camera.
The writer’s job is to transcribe what she sees as fast and capably as she can.
Somehow in the very mundane-ness of those objects, qualities, and surroundings, dwells a kind of gold: what playwrights sometimes call the reflector, or (more simply and usually) concrete details. They help the story tell itself. Their effects carry the story into the reader’s body—because the reader’s body recognizes the things of this world, and gladly (in Sven Birkerts’ words) “bustles about” furnishing its vision of the story with those items. And once inside, like a Trojan horse emptying itself of secret soldiers, the inanimate thing releases its cargo of emotion: sadness, jubilation, bewilderment. A writer learns to trust her instinct to deeply (if selectively) involve the life of objects in her storytelling. Magically, she is made larger for it, right along with the reader.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.