Tag Archives: image

… visability – Italo Calvino – imagination – writing …

A tile made for me by E. Cordier for photos in his studio.

In a previous post I mentioned my erratic filing, which, when working on a writing project, results in phases of strolling through my inner jungle in search of a spot marked for attention, often years back, or wandering through a library in a kind of trance, ignoring categories, with only a vague sense of purpose. On route, I explore seemingly unrelated and often incongruous themes, before a match creates coherence in a new context.

While searching for an invisible gestalt, I tend to reread authors that inspired me. Last week it was Six Memos for the next Millennium, by Italo Calvino (translated by Patrick Creagh.) Like him, I’m all for the shared magical. His Memos are lectures he prepared during 1984 for presentation at Harvard University. It was the year when computers moved into our lives. Maybe he was concerned about Orwell’s dystopian Newspeak being just around the corner. In any case, it made Calvino reflect on a set of literary values. His sudden death meant he never presented these lectures, and only five Memos made it later into print:  Lightness – Quickness – Exactitude – Visibility and Multiplicity … keywords, expanding on ways we perceive.

Though it’s a small volume, the material is too rich and diverse for my humble post. Still, I want to share a few quotes and reflections from re-reading the chapter on visibility. Calvino wrote …

… For successful imagery, writers must do two things: convert the visuals of the mind into words, and at the same time make sure that the words are so well-crafted that when read, the reader can instantly visualise every setting, every character, every chosen detail as if they were looking at it directly, and not at a page. It’s a deliberate process, this transmogrifying from image to text and back to image ….

He describes the progression … something that is painstaking but not necessarily painful, from the moment you grasp the significance of a single image and then associate it with other images, forming a field of analogies, symmetries and confrontations, and then organising this material, which is no longer purely visual but also conceptual, to try and give order and sense to the development of a story. Here the writing, the textual product, becomes increasingly important. From the moment you start putting black onto white what really matters is the written word, first as a search for an equivalent of the visual image, then as a coherent expansion of the initial stylistic direction, so that eventually it is the image that is being pulled along by the text, and not the other way around …

My poems, and certainly my first novel, started with a spark, a solitary image, like a cypher compelling me to uncover its meaning. An unfolding message can be drowned or crowned. Writing (like any creation energised by passion and craft) occasionally achieves such a finely tuned nuance that an invisible quality resonates deeply through the visible.

During my recent reading of Calvino’s chapter on visibility I recalled my entry into black and white photographic processing, which, before digital technology, happened in the darkroom  … to start with, in complete darkness, with the celluloid film being developed in a chemical bath, regularly shaken, like the preparation of a homeopathic tincture, then rinsed and fixed in another bath, rinsed again and dried. Creating prints is the next stage, for which red light is allowed. The negative is placed into the enlarger, from where it is projected through a lens with a sharp beam of measured light onto a light-sensitised sheet beneath. Correct duration of the beam results in a positive print that, at best, develops very slowly in a tray of chemical developer.

Watching the print of a well exposed negative emerge under the red light has always given me enormous pleasure. Like a dream emerging from the unconscious and becoming visible.

The image first appears as a sketch, until grey and dark tones assume saturation, ideally without losing highlights. Once perfection is achieved, the print is shortly rinsed and transported into the fixation bath for a while. Only then is it safe to introduce daylight, for further rinsing and drying of the print on a hot press.

No doubt the experience of a slowly developing image in the darkroom influenced my writing. A sketch to start with, suggesting a mood, a lightness of touch, and, with some stroke of luck, an emerging symbolic element, which black & white photography is particularly well suited for. In short, a feast for the imagination, inviting associations for … poems, stories, and even cosmologies.

Are you a visual writer – in Calvino’s sense? Do you bring vision into focus with your eyes shut? Do you use images to think, and words to imagine what never existed?

Back in 2012 I posted a very short review of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos on Goodreads

related post – imagination …





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… what writers can glean from cinematographers …

Like writers, filmmakers manipulate time. They take a story apart and re-assemble it.

Robert Bresson, inquisitor and humanist, stimulated filmmakers and enriched the experience ofrobert-bresson2 viewers. With a tiny leap of the imagination his ‘Notes on the Cinematographer,’ publ. by Quartet Books in 1986, transl. from the French by Jonathan Griffin, also offer inspiration to writers of stories. Here are a few  brief notes I collated during my vocational film degree in the early 90s:

An image is transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours. A blue is not the same blue besides a green, a yellow, a red. No art is without transformation.

For the writer – this would apply to action and reaction, resonance or dissonance, anything that develops the dynamic interactions of a narrative.

img108 adjustedTo create is not to deform or invent persons or things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.

This equally holds for writing. Characters discover themselves through relationships.

Something that failed can, if you change its place, be a thing that has come off.

If a writer’s darling idea distracts in one place, in another place it may earn its stay.

One dismantles and puts together till one gets intensity.

This reminds me of a Goethe quote … Dich im Unendlichen zu finden, must unterscheiden und verbinden … To find yourself in infinity you must differentiate and combine … Details works best if they have a purpose in the protagonist’s quest, especially when it comes to turning points.

An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it.

This is what creativity is all about. Entrepreneurs seem to grok this.

What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear (within.)

This serves as a reminder not to overwhelm a reader with sensual information.

The cause which makes him/her say this sentence or makes that movement is not in him/her, it is in you. The causes are not in the models. On the stage and in films the actor must make us believe that the cause is in him.

A one-up on the ‘show don’t tell’ writing mantra. Both telling and showing have their place, though we connect to a character more intimately through being shown the interactions with him/her self and others.

The omnipotence of rhythms – nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms.

We love rhythm. It measures time and gives coherence, while a counter rhythm can surprise and quicken our heartbeat. In film as in writing this might be the repetition of quirky character traits, tone of voice, tempo, mood, atmosphere, or reoccurring shifts in style and perspective, in the way we enjoy how adagio and presto in music enhance each other.

P1090890 - Copy (2)Translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.

This ventures into the domain of poetry …  the ongoing challenge to find ways to express in words or images what rushes past us in daily life, but nevertheless affects us deeply.

The eye is (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive whistle imprints in us a whole railway station.

This is about trusting the imagination of the viewer, or reader.

Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.

Robert Bresson shares: The other day I was walking through the gardens by Notre-Dame and saw approaching a man whose eyes caught something behind me, which I could not see: at once they lit up. If, at the same time I saw the man, I had perceived the young woman and the child towards whom he now begun running, that happy face of his would not have struck me so; indeed I might not have noticed it.

Build your film on white, on silence and on stillness.

Profound. Allowing a unique story to emerge requires intuition, and an inner kind of listening.

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A touching interview of R Bresson. And some video clips relating to cinema, including hand gestures R Bresson used in film.

As writers, how do we move a story from one setting to another?

In film, a sudden jump of scene is kind of lazy, unless intended to shock. In writing, too, there are more elegant ways to transit from one place, or time, to another, mainly through matching parallels or correspondences. This could be: A keyword in a dialogue repeated in the next scene, or a similar action, direction of movement, speed, light, colour, shape, sound or mood. It could also be an artificial device, featuring a narrator, or a recurring (out of time) interlude which can form the spine for the narrative.

I have time-jumps in my novels (yet to be publishend.) It remains to be seen whether they work.

Regarding spatial/temporal suspensions of linearity, I remember the beginning of the film Space Odyssey 2001. A victorious ape, having discovered a bone can be a weapon, spins his tool high into the air … time leaps … and next we see a spinning space station, shaped like the femur bone.

More recent, in the TV series The Last King – 1st episode, a time leap works well … The Saxon boy, Uhtred, captured by Danes and taken under the wings of Earl Ragnar, is pushed by him playfully into a river with the words ‘You’re as a son to me.’ In the next scene Uhtred steps out of the river as a grown man, albeit with conflicting localities.

*    *    *

On a personal note, as my life’s narrative is concerned, having made professional sacrifices ten years ago, in order to write, I wish I could shift to a scene and time that did not involve worrying about keeping my roof over my head.


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