To open a writing class at a recent conference of New York City high school newspaper kids, I wrote this sentence on the board:
The woman stood on the hillside and looked down at the valley below.
Then I asked the many kids who spoke English as a second language to read the sentence aloud in their native tongues so everyone could hear the melodies of several languages saying the same thing. As the kids spoke in Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, and French, I felt vividly what I often feel vaguely: writing is magic! Make a few black marks on a white surface, and a world comes alive. My imagination instantly painted pictures suggested by but not in the words: a river's lazy curve, a town here, a village there, steeples, smoke from chimneys — all conjured up from those little black marks.
The delight of the experience stuck with me, so a week later I gave the same sentence to my regular writing students to see what their imaginations would conjure up in three minutes, ready, set, write! In a moment I saw what every writing teacher loves to see: students bent over their desks, pens and pencils flying. Here's a sampling of the results.
Chris Amaya made the woman "fragile" and the valley "deep and endless." Three years ago her father had died in a climbing accident; now she's trying to conquer her fear of heights:
She stared into the dark abyss. With a great gasp she ran and jumped down. About halfway the rope caught her and she hung suspended in the air, looking down at the jagged-edged valley filled with frozen icicles. It was beautiful to her very sight.
Ryan Rodgerson, like me, saw a meandering river, but his river "cut the valley in half like a scar." On the far side of the river stretched fields of flowers, "burning red and orange as though a fire was torching the grass." Ryan's woman has "deep set eyes," and at the end she runs barefoot down the hill, her dress "rippling in the breeze like the sail of a ship."
Vincent Morgardo painted a scene as cold as Chris' but a woman decidedly more primitive:
Echoing off the hill and clouds drifted the howl of a wolf. Clad in simple furs and skins she fell backwards into the snow, her dark brown hair spread out behind her like a fan. Closing her green eyes, she thought, "Home sweet home."
Melissa Halkovic saw her valley at sunset, "painted with all the colors of autumn"; her woman looks like a Greek goddess:
She was fair-skinned with modest features, and golden blonde tendrils flowed over her shoulders. Her silky white dress hung down to her feet.
Michel Stango's woman, green-eyed like Vincent's, looks "aged and overworked," and the wind tangles her "silver-grey locks." Yet "the heat of the sun warmed her body" and "she felt peaceful." Nicole Hanna's woman feels so "bewildered by the beauty" of the "baby blue" sky and the "rainbow flowers," that she doesn't "bother to wonder how she got there." Pete Colacci made his woman a farmer's wife named Paula and put her in "a straw hat and overalls"; Paula looks over "green Wisconsin pastures" on which "cows stood out like randomly placed land mines." For Paula, too, the sun is setting, and she feels relieved: "Her day was done."
Maura Reilly's woman feels a wide spectrum of emotions:
She took in the beauty of the sight, and her heart felt heavy. She thought about her life and both the joy and sadness it had brought her. The vast space in front of her made her feel more alone than ever. But the sun, the beautiful sun, crept out from behind the clouds and kissed her face. At that moment she felt happy to be alone, happy to be alive.
Hana Mura, alone among the students, did more than paint a picture; she started a story:
The woman stood on the hillside and looked at the valley below. Then back to the mountains, clear on the horizon. "This is it," she said, "it was here."
She waddled heavily downhill and felt the wet grass dampen the hem of her skirt. Past the rocks, across the brook, then she stopped at the tree, sank to her knees, and started digging.
These examples suffice to make my point: reading ordinary words strung together in ordinary sentences can give our imaginations extraordinary charges of energy. When we understand what we read as plainly as we understand "a woman stood on the hillside," the writing enters us, acts on us, stimulates us. Depending on our unique temperaments, life stories, and the shifting moods of every moment, the same words may whirl you and me, as they whirled Vincent, Hana, Nicole, and the others, to far distant places. What's universal about the experience is the vital spark that leaps up from the little black marks, slips willy-nilly through our eyes into our minds, and sets the whole process going.
When we can't understand what we read:
Calpon traltander tud spolhert, kirmple sebe rabsent ip horlgot.
— nothing happens. But when we do understand:
The bright-eyed monkey held an orange in its paws.
A stocky little boy stood on the sunny beach, his feet in the lapping waves, a red bucket and shovel in his hands.
— we leap to paint pictures from the writing, filling in the blanks by making imaginative but reasonable inferences from the details that the words spell out. We put a ring tail on the monkey, sharp claws on his paws, and see him sitting in a wicker cage or on a Persian carpet; we see others kids on the beach, families on blankets, a dog paddling after a ball, sailboats on the horizon — even though they are nowhere in the words.
This is the magic of writing: a few words — woman-hillside-valley, boy-beach-bucket — can conjure up full-fledged and believable worlds in our minds so quickly as to bypass volition. We read and the pictures come, a slide show ever shifting to fit the flow of images in the writing. When a fat clown with the red nose and huge shoes throws the monkey a peanut, we see it happen, and when the little boy scoops water into his bucket, we see that happen too.
Writing magic makes the pages of books translucent screens hovering between writers and readers. Writers, following their own imaginations, project black marks onto the screen: woman-hillside-valley. On our side of the screen, we readers read the black marks and see in them full-color, three-dimensional worlds, places bustling with people, all moving ahead in time, all enmeshed in the life surrounding them on every side. Writing magic, in a word, creates brain movies. Chris Amaya's striking description above:
...the rope caught her and she hung suspended in the air, looking down at the jagged-edged valley filled with frozen icicles. It was beautiful to her very sight.
— could be a still from an Alfred Hitchcock film — do you see Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest?
Writing's magic movies may be tremulous visions, their details dependent on each reader's unique imagination, yet when well constructed and true to life, these moving word pictures can unspool forever, their colors never fading, their images ever stirring our imaginations, ever touching our hearts:
Hector stretched his arms towards his child, but the boy cried and nestled in his nurse's bosom, scared at the sight of his father's armour, and at the horse-hair plume that nodded fiercely from his helmet. His father and mother laughed to see him, but Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods...[Then] he laid the child again in the arms of his wife, who took him to her own soft bosom, smiling through her tears.
—Homer, The Iliad