“[The ragpicker sees fragments], incompleted worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.” (Nin, “Ragtime”, location 715)
A while back, someone posted on a writer’s Facebook group Stephen King’s idea that the mind of a writer is like a junkheap. I explained in my post about the artist as observer that artists tend to trap all kinds of experiences (their own and others’) in their psyches in ways that non-writers do not. We don’t filter out what most people consider nonessential ideas and observations but absorb them in both conscious and unconscious ways to use later in our work. I believe that the psychological reality of the artist contains the things that we are both aware and unaware of that make their way into our work.
The idea of the junkheap is fitting because not everything artists absorb is useful to them. Each person finds what is truthful and honest to their belief and experiences and make a choice (again, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) as to what goes into their work. Sometimes what they discard they give away, as when a writer relates the anecdote of an experience or observation that wasn’t relevant to their work but the other person does. A college friend of mine once came to me with the story that she had discovered that an incoming first-year student was in fact the girlfriend of her first love with whom he had cheated on her. We got to know the girl and my friend didn’t give this past connection another thought but the idea of the past girlfriend discovering the current girlfriend was studying with her and their becoming friends fascinated me enough to put away in one of my “to use in a future story” file.
It’s not enough for an artist to collect scraps from the junkheap – he or she must turn the junk into gold. Anais Nin talks in her book The Novel of the Future about the artist’s job as the filter and connector of random and seemingly insignificant details to works that we create:
“The creation of a story is a quest for meaning. The objects, the incidents, the characters are always there as they are for the painter, but the catalyst is the relation between the external and the internal drama. The signiﬁcance of this relationship is the drama.” – (location 2035; emphasis added)
Nin relates the genesis of her short story “Ragtime”, from her collection Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories. The story began with Nin’s description of the rag pickers selling the odds and ends they gather from the streets of Paris in the flea markets, recording the details faithfully in her diary. But, as Nin points out, “[d]ocumentary writing ends… where the poet begins his work, for the poet is by nature a transcendentalist: he sees the symbolic story.” (“The Novel of the Future”, location 2041). Nin’s story transforms the idea of the rag pickers searching the streets for the things that people discard in order to salvage the past to make into something for the future:
“The ragpicker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else.” (“Ragtime”, location 703-715)
In a similar way, a strange image of an abandoned ship became a symbol I use in my current novella series. When I was a teenager, my father used to take my sister and I to the beach near Palmachim in Israel very early in the morning before the sun became too strong. The beach was deserted and primitive then with no boardwalk or amenities – just sand, shells, rocks, and seaweed. One morning, we saw an abandoned ship had washed up on the shore near the cliffs, stuck in the sand and rusting from the salt water. We couldn’t find out how it got there or from where it came. The image of the huge ship against the cliffs never left me. I was intrigued by the way it was immobile in the shallow sand unable to escape.
In the first book of my series, The Order Of Actaeon, Jake, the main character, discovers a ship one night and becomes mesmerized by its tragic greatness:
“The ship’s mast flared up like the arms of a beautiful woman. Its massive height made him cringe and his chest tightened, expecting the rusty railing to topple down on him at any moment. But most of all, he felt the seductive power of the nautical monster try to sweep him into its unhappy entrapment in the shallow waters.”
Throughout the series, the ship remains frozen in the sand and becomes symbolic of the entrapment of the characters.
The artist’s mind is full of useful and useless images, memories, ideas, and impressions which can sometimes become overpowering. But at the same time, there is the joy of discovering that these enslaved ideas have meaning when we put them inside a story or poem or painting or film.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. “Ragtime”. Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2010 (original publication date 1944). Kindle digital file.