Once when I was struggling with the editing of a manuscript by a well-established scholar who tended to wander and leap through her discussions of art, a colleague said to me, We learn a lot through free associating. I thought about that today because I have been free-associating my way through several thoughts, watching a story develop.
A sculptor in India who is also a friend named her current exhibit in Mumbai “Where the Green Grass Grows,” an allusion to Walt Whitman’s long poem Leaves of Grass (1855). I rummaged through my own library, which includes a small collection of poetry, and did not find a copy of the poem. I found an anthology in the public library and began to dip into it, stopping at a poem by Wallace Stevens, who died in 1955, regarded as one of the most difficult poets of the last century. When I approached his work in college, I agreed. He baffled me. But I turned the page to “Sunday Morning, I.” The first two lines read “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair[.]”
Any mention of oranges caught by sunshine puts me in mind of an incident many years ago when I took a lunch with me during a daylong stretch of work in the Boston Public Library. I don’t remember every item, but I do remember putting things together early in the morning, a few crackers, slices of cheese, some celery and carrot sticks, and an orange. I grabbed it at the last minute, not sure if I would eat it or not. In the library, after a long morning of work, I arrayed my meal on the paper bag and ate.
After a few minutes I noticed a man watching me. When I looked up at him, he smiled and moved away. I finished my lunch, all except the orange, which I slipped back into the bag. At the end of the week I opened the Boston Globe to an article about the simple ways people manage their diet. He described my lunch, listing each item and its nutritional value. At the end, he added, “and the orange for color.” I don’t know if the man I caught watching me was the writer or not, but I blushed as I thought of myself being caught out. I did indeed take the orange with me for its color.
Being observed and observing in turn brings to mind another incident. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts holds an excellent collection of paintings by Winslow Homer. One in particular, “The Fog Warning,” always draws a crowd. A group of about a dozen people standing in front of the artwork thinned out until only one man was left. With his dark beard and cap, he peered at the image of the seaman in the dory, who was looking over his shoulder at the mother ship as he rowed against the oncoming storm. Two young women drew opposite the museum visitor, leaning close to each other as they whispered and pointed from the bearded viewer to the bearded seaman. The similarity between the two men and their postures was unmistakable. It looked as though the seaman’s brother had come to take a last look. No one noticed me, as far as I know, standing a few steps away and taking note of the triangle of art and admirer and witnesses.
These three pieces seem to want to be linked together into a story, and it would be easy to do so. Is the villain the watcher in the library, and is he the man being watched in the museum? Is the woman eating lunch in the library one of the two young women in the museum tracking the watcher from the library? Is there some clue to be found in a book of poetry? Once a decision is made, the writer, like a prosecutor, returns to the individual scenes and shapes the narrative to lead the reader to the predetermined conclusion.
Fiction is everywhere.