It’s my pleasure to host a guest post by Cliff Garstang, author of In An Uncharted Country. I’ve been a reader of Cliff’s blog “Perpetual Folly” since back in the days when I was the cofounder and fiction editor at Paper Street and found his annual ranking of literary journals based on Pushcart Prize awards and special mentions. A big thank you to Cliff for contributing this essay (see author bio below).
Images: Inspiration in In an Uncharted Country
While working on drafts of a couple of novels, where a handful of characters and a single place remain central to the narrative over the course of a few hundred pages, I’ve found it useful to keep images—photographs—at hand as a starting point for fictional creations. For the characters, the images help me visualize and then describe physical attributes, especially faces. I used postcards I’d purchased for one project—portraits of various celebrities whose faces came close to the look I wanted for a character. For a recent long project, I used photographs clipped from magazines. I tacked them to my bulletin board where they gazed at me while I worked, reminding me of who my characters were, or at least what they looked like—bearing in mind that no plausible fictional character is as flawless as a fashion model. When it comes to place, I’m often a little more specific about my story’s needs. I may have a particular style of house in mind where the story is set, for example, and I’ll try to find a photograph of just the right house. Or I may have envisioned a landscape that’s important to the book’s setting. If I find it, that image is helpful as a constant reminder of the environment in which the fiction exists.
But image in two broader senses will also at times inspire story, not merely reflect the story or characters I’ve already imagined. Two examples come to mind from my linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country.
My favorite use of image from the book is in the story “The Clattering of Bones,” a tale of a marriage that is struggling to survive both alcohol addiction and a miscarried pregnancy. The story—its imagery, but not its plot, at least not directly—arose out of an incident that occurred shortly after I moved from Washington DC to rural Virginia. I got up one Sunday morning and came into the kitchen to make coffee. Standing over my sink, looking out the window, I noticed movement in the yard. Because the trees were in full leaf, I had to shift to get a better view, but when I did I was shocked by what I saw: a deer stranded on the barbed-wire fence that separated my yard from a pasture. I wanted to help the animal, but, as a city boy, I had no idea what to do. I thought I might be able to lift it off the fence, but the deer wouldn’t let me get close; her twisting and thrashing was only making the predicament worse. I called various agencies for help—the sheriff, the wildlife rescue center—but they couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, the poor thing died—what a slow, agonizing death!—and then its disposal presented me with a different problem that I was also ill-equipped to handle.
The deer on the fence—that was my working title for the story—is both an extended metaphor (the troubled marriage suggested itself almost immediately) and an image around which the story is organized. Because I had taken notes about the actual event, when it came time to describe the image of the deer—its legs twisted between the wires of the fence, the struggle to get free, blood trickling down its leg—the work was already done. But, of course, there was still the little matter of the actual story about the conflict between husband and wife, which alternated with the image that the husband saw out his window: how it changed over the course of the day, how his wife reacted to it, how he dealt with it and was influenced by it. While I don’t have a photograph of that deer, her image is still sharp to me.
Another story in my collection uses a completely different sort of image, one that I didn’t see but only read in a poem. Probably my favorite poem of all time is “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens. It’s filled with glorious images—images in the sense of vivid description—and for my story “Savage Source” I borrowed from the poem’s last two stanzas, in which “a ring of men/ shall chant in orgy on a Summer morn/ their boisterous devotion to the sun,/ not as a god, but as a god might be,/ naked among them like a savage source.” I also incorporate into the climactic scene of that story references to the “windy lake,” the “trees, like seraphin,” and “echoing hills” and other images from the poem. I’ve always been able to picture that scene without the aid of a photograph. The narrator, a girl named Tina, has been brought to an isolated hillside by her boyfriend, Ben, in the middle of the night. Both teens are disaffected and long for acceptance. She thinks she has found what she’s looking for in Ben, but he has turned to a mysterious group for comfort. As the sun rises, the presence of others—all men, shirtless, similarly tattooed, facing the sun, chanting something Tina can’t make out—is revealed. When Tina tries to flee, Ben won’t let her go because he wants to share his salvation with her. The entire story was written so I could have the couple arrive at that moment in the sun.
There are many kinds of images: photographs; mental pictures; metaphors; vivid descriptions; apparitions. In my work, at one time or another, I’ve employed them all for the same purpose—to help me put on the page words that will evoke the world that exists only in my imagination. And yet the images are only the beginning. Invariably, the fictional world and the people who inhabit it take on lives of their own, moving far beyond the images that helped create them
CLIFFORD GARSTANG, a former international lawyer, earned his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in 2009. Recent work has appeared in Cream City Review, FRiGG, Los Angeles Review, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere. He is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine. His website is http://cliffordgarstang.com. He blogs at http://perpetualfolly.blogspot.com.
Photo Credit: Author Photo by Carol Turrentine