Reflections: Skull Photo

I am pleased with today’s photo of an empty tattoo studio in Bogotá, Colombia. A painter has left an easel with a canvas showing severed heart valves growing from the top of a pink skull. The skull appears to be held up by a living hand, and there is an urban background. My own reflection is caught in the mirror. A passing taxi, and the elevated platform of the bus station behind it, are reflected in the mirror and in the window glass.

The photo plays on the theme of reflection. The absent artist is reflected in their work. I am reflected in the mirror designed for that purpose. The taxi, also reflected but more accidentally and transiently, connects my body and the artist’s work.

2018-11-09 pink skull.jpg

Your Audience: ‘Market’ or ‘Gremlin’?

Writers are often advised to identify their audience. What does that mean, though?

Suppose I’m writing a grocery shopping list because my roommate is going to the store for me. My “audience” ought to be my roommate. He shares much of my background knowledge and many of my assumptions (for example, our dietary preferences, whether we are likely to share a meal and who’s going to cook it, what the food should cost, whether our refrigerator is working, etc.). I might simply write “tomatoes for lasagna” and expect that he will decide on the appropriate number of tomatoes to buy, along with remembering to check if we already have onion before he leaves for the store.

But suppose I write that he should buy “lots of small tomatoes so we can make a lasagna that is actually good”. My roommate scratches his head. Was there a lasagna I once didn’t like? Am I criticizing his cooking? Is bad lasagna the result of not buying the right kind of tomatoes, or not enough of them? What will happen if I’m not satisfied with the tomatoes or the lasagna? In this case, I still “know my audience” insofar as I give the shopping list to my roommate, but somehow I haven’t quite written it for him.

gremlinIn this situation, my roommate is the “market,” the one I’m selling or distributing my writing to. But in the second example, I didn’t write to my market. I wrote to my “gremlin.” The gremlin is some other entity in my imagination.

If I suffered a tomato fiasco years ago, I may still have strong tomato gremlins in my imagination, and my roommate may be unaware of them. Writing a shopping list may dredge up those memories. If I start talking directly to my personal “gremlin,” however, I must notice that I’m doing so and stop myself because my “market” won’t make sense of what I’m saying. It would be as if I were talking to someone in my mind who is no longer present, and the person who is present may think I’m a little crazy. My opinions and arguments will seem mysterious or random to him. They are not shared assumptions, so I either need to explain them more fully or hold my tongue entirely.

There’s a real-life audience to whom you ultimately plan to show your work, and there’s a shadow audience in your imagination while you’re writing each word. The shadows are full of gremlins. Make sure they don’t lead you too far astray. Your shadow audience should resemble your intended real-life audience as closely as possible. Let this be a cautionary tale.

Writing the negative space

Holocaust Memorial. Artist: Andy DeComyn.

When we set out to draw an object, we usually imagine the object in the foreground of the picture, draw its outline, and fill it in. This is a representation of “positive space.” It is also possible to represent an object in “negative space” by drawing everything that is not it. This is less frequently done, so it often surprises us.

This can happen in verbal descriptions, too. Psychotherapy clients often talk about everything except what’s most important to them. The absence of the important theme may become noticeable to the listener, who is then able to fill in the gaps.

Fiction can be written in negative space, perhaps. But whether you write in positive or negative space, you still need to know what you are trying to communicate. If you don’t know what your image, idea, or message is, you can’t identify “everything that isn’t it.”

Photo: Holocaust Memorial at Church Green, near Redditch, Worcestershire, Great Britain. Artist: Andy DeComyn. Photographer: P L Chadwick. Creative Commons license.

My favorite books

From my reading list over the past fifteen years, here’s some the books I’ve most enjoyed.

A touch of magic: Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves; Carol K. Mack’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits; Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant; Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; Willow G. Wilson’s Alif the Unseen; Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden; Matt Haig’s The Humans; Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness; and Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.

On getting in touch with ourselves: Kathleen Dean Moore’s Riverwalking; Stephen Batchelor’s Living with the Devil; Thomas Dumm’s Loneliness as a Way of Life; Adam Phillips’ Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life; Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You; and Dag Hammarskjöld’s personal reflections, Markings, adapted for English by W. H. Auden, after which I found a desire to have my own journals adapted by a poet.

On processing difficult experiences: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Personal Matter about the birth of a disabled child; Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon (an interview in 1927 with the last survivor of a slaveship from West Africa to antebellum America); and Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz (also known as If This is a Man) and his sequel The Reawakening.

On ethics: Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity, Joshua D. Greene’s Moral Tribes, Nikki Stern’s Because I Say So, Mary Midgley’s Wickedness, and Eric Felten’s Loyalty.

On literature: Anatole Broyard’s New York literary scene memoir Kafka Was the Rage, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, Lee Siegel’s Falling Upwards, F. González-Crussi’s On the Nature of Things Erotic, and Robert Bly and Marion Woodman’s Maiden King.

On understanding the mind: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, Robert A. Burton’s On Being Certain, George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody.

And a few that are hard to classify here but that thrilled me nonetheless: Anita Amirrezvani’s historical novel about Iran, Equal of the Sun; Jacqueline Woodson’s poems Brown Girl Dreaming; Douglas J. Penick’s The Brilliance of Naked Mind; and Patrick Harpur’s The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the ImaginationSurprises can impact us most.