Up on the board: visions of future stories

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

Creativity board 004I’ve written before in this space about the creativity bulletin board. I started this version when I turned my oldest son’s bedroom into my office, but in truth I’ve been doing these photo mash-ups for many years. When I was in college, I pinned up newspaper photos of Watch Hill and Misquamicut, to assuage my homesickness, and Bruce Springsteen, well, because he’s Bruce Springsteen. Even as a teenager I would cut out photos and paste them into my journal – paintings of flowers or brooding models or New England scenes.
As writers, we paint with words. But no one really thinks in words. We dream in images. Our memories are not verbal stories so much as collections of images in a certain order. We talk about our mind’s eye because the brain – which processes experience, forms memories, imagines the future – is a visual organ. If you are a memoirist, the stories you are telling started out as pictures of the world, before being cemented into visual memory. Even our fantasies are a kind of experience that gets firmed up into a memory that can be called up, again and again, like a re-run on television.
The creativity bulletin board may seem chaotic, but it holds as much logic as visual memory. Up on my board today is a mishmash of photographs, paintings, maps, postcards, and, yes, even text that is all connected somehow to various writing projects I’m working on. Some of it has to do with a novel I’m writing. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park map, a postcard from 1950s Florida, the painting of vintage gas pumps, a portrait of my Aunt Dot, the watercolor of columbine by the Canadian artist Barrie Rennie, and photos of my mother are tied to this story, as is the word conte: which, in French, means story, and is also the name of the mountain in the novel: Leconte.
Other images are tied to a memoir I’ve started – obviously, these include pictures of myself as a 17- and 19-year-old, but less obviously are models wearing clothes from the 1970s and text from an FBS catalog of that time.
The third set of artifacts is connected to my father: he’s here sawing lumber in the early 1980s, and at a lumberjack competition before I was born. The toolbelt painting, by the artist John Whalley, also evokes my father. I am not explicitly writing about him at the moment, but one function of the bulletin board is inspiration, for writing projects not yet imagined.
The black cat? I don’t know why she’s there, either, but I like the ambiguity of her white paws. The elegant woman, a portrait by the Italian American painter Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988), struck me similarly. You could say she has a Mona Lisa smile, but her gaze strikes me as not only mysterious but confident and self-possessed, even disdainful. Yet, as the Jackson Browne song goes, “there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes”: this woman is beautiful, possibly wealthy, but she has been knocked around a bit by life, I imagine. The contradictions in her face are where character begins.
The wave painting by Connecticut artist Antonia Tyz Peeples is one of the few images I rarely take down. It’s hard not to get caught up in the spell of a wave, frozen in motion, every jump of spray captured as though by a camera lens. Life crashes over us, again and again, yet each arc of spray hits us differently.
There’s nothing difficult about this process. There are no rules. I collect images that I like: postcards, advertisements, snapshots, clippings from art magazines. I switch up the board’s contents every few weeks. At the very least, the board gives me something to look at it when I’m “lost in thought.” At the most, it gives me ideas, connections, a starting point.
A few weeks back I wrote about who we as writers surround ourselves with. Just as we should be spending time with people who are leading creative lives, so too we should surround our writing space with images that appeal to our visual selves. How can we expect readers to visualize our stories if they aren’t born of the visual?

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