AUGUST 20, 2019
ONCE UPON A BLEAK set of years, I did nothing but drive back and forth across the country. It was just me and the dog in a VW Rabbit packed to its haunches. I’d resigned from a dream job turned nightmare because of a bullying boss and the disheartening fact that none of my colleagues were willing to get involved, even just to say: “Ease up, man.”
There was no sex; just sexism — a gendered abuse of power that was much tougher to explain before #MeToo became part of our vocabulary. Plenty of this bullying had taken place by email, so when I finally filed a grievance, I was given a settlement and never had to see this jackass again. But I was supposed to keep quiet about it, which meant there was no way to explain why I’d left the job without it seeming like I was hiding something — because I was: his shame, which thus became mine.
The job was a tenure-track position teaching creative writing — such a plum job that I’d given up the last affordable apartment in Brooklyn in order to take it. I’d been driving toward that teaching job for so long that, once knocked off the path, I couldn’t imagine how to go forward. At the same time, my father happened to be dying in my childhood bedroom, so there was definitely no going back. Thus, I drove.
On one of these junkets, I pulled over at a rest stop in Kansas. The landscape reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World. I grew up in New York, not far from MoMA, and I vaguely remembered the painting hanging by the stairs — a painting you passed on your way somewhere else. I had no idea that the image had taken up squat in my mind until I found myself in Kansas trying to reconstruct it from memory. With the whole world out of reach, I tied the dog to a picnic bench, set up a timer shot, and spent hours crawling around, trying to get it right.
I had nowhere to go and I didn’t give a fuck if I ever got anywhere. Yet despite this fatalistic fact, I’d fashioned a sort of budget GoPro, attaching my camera to the dashboard with hot glue and Velcro in order to avoid the reckless move of holding it to my face while driving. Instead, I drove state after state with a finger on the shutter button. This effort to capture the ever-receding horizon was something of a hopeful act — a promise that, someday, I’d actually land somewhere and look back on these images.
As for the Kansas rest-stop pics, I tweaked the color on a single image, posted it to Facebook, and then the series of shots was absorbed into my hard drive like so much rubber into road. In the two and a half years I spent driving back and forth, I put a hundred thousand miles on the car and took thousands and thousands of photos.
2. Suspension: To Show or to Tell
When I finally stopped driving long enough to unload the car, I extracted my novel-in-scraps from its various tote bags, laid the scraps across a giant table, and promptly walked out of the room. My father had just died, and after three years of chasing freelance gigs and an ever-shifting horizon, I couldn’t concentrate on sustaining the world of a novel. I could still see the yellow highway lines when I closed my eyes. My father’s brain surgeries; the 10 years I’d spent on the path to academia; the thousands of miles I’d driven feeling exiled from it — these were the things I’d write about.
We all know that the first rule of creative writing is Show, Don’t Tell, which is essentially a call to make the world of a story — and the experience of it — vivid for the reader. For years, I’d been telling writing students that the key to accomplishing this is to lodge themselves behind their protagonist’s eyeballs — to see the world as this particular character sees it at this particular moment. Occupy point of view, I’d say. Infuse your descriptions with your character’s desires. Let every line echo her greatest hope and worst fear.
But I could not do such a thing with this material. For starters, I wasn’t sure if it violated the school’s non-disclosure agreement to declare that I still woke up each day with the immediate and pressing desire to look my mentor in the eye and say: Why the hell didn’t you stand up for me against that bullying jackass? Shame, too, was its own constraint. If they believed in my work, surely my colleagues would’ve protected me. Obviously, no one believed in my work. Whether I wrote myself as self-righteous or self-pitying, the memoir form was making me self-conscious in ways that fiction couldn’t. This character was pathetic, and it was me.
I tried to describe the world as I’d experienced it, but everything I wrote felt overly confessional, heavy-handed, or cloying. Every effort to show felt like telling. The horizon was bleak. The road was empty. The Waffle House was closed.
Words had never failed me before, but I couldn’t make them evoke experience or emotion with half the efficiency of the photos I’d taken. Sitting down to write came to mean scrolling through photos, viewing the fragments of those years of driving, trying to figure out the story behind all that motion.
I knew I wasn’t the same person as when I set out on the road — certainly not the optimist I’d been when I gave up that Brooklyn apartment to take the dream/nightmare job in the first place — but I couldn’t figure out what had kept me going, where the story started, and what I’d gained and lost along the way.
I kept thinking about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who had set up a dozen cameras and trip-wires in order to prove that a running horse does, indeed, lift all four feet off the ground at the same time. Whether looking at horse, dog, or human, Muybridge’s photo series chronicle a span of time — one fragment after another — and the cumulative effect of viewing such fragments has forever changed our understanding of motion.
I wasn’t looking at fragments to see how many hooves I had off the ground; I was just looking to understand my own motion. In other words, I was looking for story.
3. Image as Summary/Image as Scene
Me and the dog and the open road. With a finger on the scroll button, the images breezed by in a blur, a thousand vanishing points conjured and bleeding into one another. I scrolled until I was hypnotized and spacey, distracted and impatient, as if waiting for someone to get to the point of a story. Where to begin?
Start with a particular moment, I say to students who are hot to write about that summer before college, that winter of the divorce, that sprawling season of angst. Ground your character in a particular place at a particular time and unfold the story in scene.
And so it felt lucky to find the series of photos from the Kansas rest stop. These forced me to forget about the hazy vagueness of writing about an extended time period and to pick a specific day/moment to unfold in scene.
The Kansas rest-stop images are poorly lit and lackluster, and they certainly don’t get into the logistical grit of the drama going on in my life at the time, but, true to the old creative writing adage Show, Don’t Tell, the photos conjure the emotional truth of the story without explicitly stating a thing.
The isolation is clear in the landscape. The repeated attempts to get the perfect shot reveal a mounting desperation. The light changes; the sun fades. The sheer number of shots belies the fact that I had nowhere to go and no burning desire to get anywhere. I wrote a brief-essay-sort-of-piece as if captioning a contact sheet, and though this was an unfamiliar format with unfamiliar components, the building of narrative became suddenly familiar.
In writer-speak, Show, Don’t Tell often means filtering a narrative through a particular point of view, making the description vivid and meaningful to the story. Show, Don’t Tell is unfolding a scene, conjuring a particular experience rather than summarizing it.
The rev of the road is summary, but the hours a character spends at a Kansas rest-stop reenacting a painting from memory mark the unfolding of scene — an emotional progression grounded in space and time and experienced by a specific someone.
4. Creation of Character/Point of View
With or without the use of images, to enter story is (generally speaking) to enter point of view.
In fiction, I’m willing to reduce any tangle of issues and emotions to a single defining characteristic or desire, understanding that if I simply commit to writing from this reductive viewpoint, I’ll usually discover what’s really going on within the character. Doing this in memoir made me want to puke.
This was a dilemma.
Writing about sadness felt melodramatic, but inserting an image of a sad landscape corroborated the emotional terrain, legitimizing the impulse to face it on the page. The use of image made point of view accessible by allowing me to reclaim the literal vantage point I’d occupied at the time I was writing about. Serving as documentary evidence, thereby “objectively” validating emotion, the photos are infused with my bias and convey my feelings — without me feeling like I’m spilling my guts.
As Muybridge’s photos of the running horse were evidence enough to win his commissioner’s racetrack wager, my photos were conclusive enough to win this writer’s empathy for the tormented perspective of the blurry character she’d been.
5. The Economy of Incontrovertible Proof
Obviously, we rely on photographs as evidence, as incontrovertible proof. Take one particular shake-up in the Trump White House, for example. In the course of his vetting for a security clearance, Rob Porter’s two ex-wives reported domestic abuse to the FBI. This became known in the White House and understood as the reason that the assistant to the president couldn’t secure a clearance, but the information could be minimized and ignored until the reality of the abuse became absolutely clear through the release of this photograph. (What does domestic abuse even mean? someone must’ve wondered. Here’s what it means, assholes.)
While I’m willing to fight to the mat to defend the power of language to conjure imagery, sometimes you want to save your words; sometimes you just want to show and move on.
I did not want to write about how lonely I was, but I had to show it.
6. Image as Vocabulary
Of his 1969 book Four Basic Kinds of Straight Lines, Sol Lewitt said, “These drawings, using parallel lines closely drawn, were used to make a finite series. They also provided the vocabulary for further series.”
Just as Lewitt’s introduction of the vertical, horizontal, right- and left-leaning diagonals establishes a progressive vocabulary, the introduction of a particular image (or type of image) within a written work can also serve to establish a dexterous narrative vocabulary. First defined by its initial context, an image absorbs a sort of root meaning — and, through repetition, juxtaposition, variation, association, and, of course, text, the image can take on weight and progressive meaning. Essentially, the inserted image can function as a sustained metaphor throughout a narrative.
As a point of comparison, consider the image of Laura Brown’s cake that’s conjured throughout Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours. The cake is introduced as an object — a birthday cake that must be made — and, throughout the novel, Laura Brown’s greatest hopes and worst fears are baked into it. By the time the candles are lit and the thing is set before her husband (who sprays spittle across its surface as he blows his wish), that cake resonates with Laura’s ambivalence about domesticity, her reverence for Virginia Woolf, her desire for a life of the mind, and the urgency of her need to be more than a homemaker, to be an artist.
Like the callback in comedy, the motif, or the sustained metaphor conjured on the page in every genre, the inserted image becomes more than just shorthand but a vessel for complex meaning and resonance. It becomes a code.
7. Code + Summary in Cumulative Effect
You can see this sort of visual code at work in writer/illustrator Maira Kalman’s 2007 collection, The Principles of Uncertainty. Her illustration of a woman in a pink hat standing before a tumble of bougainvillea spilling over a wall carries this caption: “I photograph my sister and think she looks so beautiful in her pink hat. What will happen to her? What will happen to us all?”
This pairing of image and text makes it particularly clear that readers have entered Kalman’s point of view: we’re seeing what Kalman sees and we know what she thinks as she sees it. We know that she is the person photographing her sister; we know that Kalman thinks her sister looks beautiful; and, if we assume that this illustration depicts the photograph, then we probably understand that Kalman has spent at least enough time contemplating this image to render it as an illustration. The thought conjured for Kalman by this image is: What will happen to us all?
This question continues to resonate throughout the essays in the volume — as it certainly does through a series of photographs and drawings of people walking away from the viewer. The receding figure becomes a key word in the narrative’s vocabulary. Each iteration adds dimension to its meaning — and Kalman’s question sustains its echo: What will happen to us all?
Without explicit reference or ponderous musing, the sequence conjures mortality, impermanence, and human connection, all grounded in Kalman’s point of view and charged with her characteristic voice.
While “voice” in writing can be slippery to define (Is it the sound of the language used? The sound of the author’s voice?), in this piece, voice is largely a product of text and image working together. Juxtaposition and repetition convey Kalman’s attitudes toward the subject at hand, bringing humor, heartache, calamity, and awe to the inevitability and mystery of death — and to Kalman’s question, which sustains its echo throughout: What will happen to us all?
Kalman’s work also prompts a quick note on summary. Generally speaking, summary enables a writer to speed through time, which often has the surprising effect of slowing down story. While Alice Munro can pull off a winning compression of decades, summary often can leave a reader unsure where to focus. Though my Kansas rest-stop photos snapped me into scene and away from the hazy vagueness of summary, Kalman’s series of images serves up summary with potency, conjuring a general habit and creating a cumulative effect.
8. Vision, Revision + Technical Difficulties
Figuring out what to do with my photographic road-trip material has been one kind of problem; figuring out how to do it has been another. I should admit that it takes me four hours to resize an image in Photoshop and that I can’t open InDesign without my computer crashing. I’ll also admit that it was only after the captioned contact sheet of rest-stop photos got accepted at an online journal that I realized it would be impossible for anyone to actually read it on a small screen.
I thought a slideshow might work in service of both image and text — but then I realized how much clicking it would require. And so, with all of the practice afforded by a 14-day free software trial, I turned my PDF into a video essay. Lackluster video skills aside, like all rigorous revisions, this one changed my understanding of the piece and its narrative possibilities.
Some shots were taken in such rapid succession that by setting them in video sequence, it was almost as if I were reset in motion. This animation, along with my voice on the audio track, brought to the project an intimacy I find both strange and pleasing. The dog was the only one to hear my voice not just for those particular hours in the field, but for days at a time. The multimedia form does more than just capture the experience I had with the dog that day we got stuck in that field; by offering a belated chance to both speak and move, it somehow seems to release us from it.
9. Form + Function
As a teacher, I’m all for encouraging students to play around with form, but I’m quick to remind them that it has to function. So I’ve been riding myself throughout this project: Does this form function? Are the images serving a specific function? This is what I tell myself:
- The photos function by reflecting point of view.
- The photos function by introducing an emotional and logistical shorthand, which, like any sustained metaphor, can take on a cumulative resonance.
- The use of images in general functions by reflecting a theme central to the narrative — that the images we harbor can sustain us. In the Kansas piece, for example, the image of the painting lodged in my mind is as much a part of the story as the photos of the reenactment.
As I see it, these three factors grant me permission, proving that the form functions. But forget about all that. Whether or not the form officially functions, I couldn’t even begin to write through this material without the photos — a fact that should have been permission enough from the get-go. And so I’m reminded of the following quotes:
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth,” said Kurt Vonnegut.
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know,” said Diane Arbus.
“I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave,” said Mary Ruefle.
Which is to say that sometimes every quote seems to serve the same function, to say: Just go on. Just do whatever it takes to begin.
Merrill Feitell’s first book, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. She earned her MFA at Columbia University and has been a fellow at MacDowell, Yaddo, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts.