I No Longer Saw Faces

Blinded by an accident when he was six years old, the French memoirist Jacques Lusseyran learned to prefer his blind life over his previous sighted experience. “I no longer saw faces, and knew in all probability I should go through life without seeing them,” he wrote of those early sightless days, in his book And There Was Light.

Lusseyran’s greatest challenge wasn’t the lack of sight, but a world of confounding new messages encoded in sound. Without the distractions of vision, he could now hear what sighted people couldn’t. “People were not at all what they were said to be, and never the same for more than two minutes at a stretch. Some were, of course, but that was a bad sign, a sign that they did not want to understand or be alive . . . not having their faces before my eyes, I caught them off guard. People are not accustomed to this, for they only dress up for those who are looking at them.”

Sound changed for Lusseyran, forcing him, at first against his will, toward a secret entry into the world: “How should I explain to other people that all my feelings toward them, feelings of sympathy or antipathy, came to me from their voices? I tried to tell a few people it was so, that they could do nothing about it and neither could I. But soon I had to stop because it was clear that the idea was frightening to them.”

This hard-won ability to navigate the hidden psychological landscape of voices led him, at the age of 17, to become the leader of one of the largest French resistance organizations during the Nazi occupation of Paris. He was present at every recruiting interview because he alone could determine who could be trusted to join the cell, as he writes in his essay collection What One Sees Without Eyes: “Each new applicant was introduced to me, and to me alone. It was much easier for me than for anyone else to strip him of all pretenses. His voice betrayed his inner being, and sometimes it betrayed him. Finally I could make use of that inner life which fate had forced me to discover so early and so thoroughly.”

Only once was he overruled, and when that new conscript betrayed the underground cell Lusseyran and his comrades were sent to Buchenwald. Where, remarkably, he—a blind man—survived. In his essay “Poetry in Buchenwald” he explains that he did so by reciting aloud, from memory, poetry, and teaching others to do so as well. “Poetry chased men out of their ordinary refuges, which are places full of dangers. These bad refuges were memories of the time of freedom, personal histories. Poetry made a new place, a clearing . . . I learned that poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine. I learned that poetry is one of the rare, very rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred. No one had taught me this.”

Over the years I’ve found that I keep coming back to Lusseyran’s writing, for the particular mix of clarity and spirituality that marks his vision of the world, and his simple but powerful credo of paying attention. When Lusseyran could summon his concentration, he could, sightless, identify nearby trees, even small details of the landscape around him. “Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects . . . the seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes . . . permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew.”

This sort of deep attentiveness is a discipline a writer can direct not only outward, but inward as well. In creative non-fiction, in memoir, you write about what has happened to you, and how you have happened to others, but that is only the merest beginning. What is most important in non-fiction is how you tell what happened. And that brings us to voice, the creative nonfiction coin of the realm.

Voice is, in many ways, the written equivalent of your speech patterns, or the shifting landscape of your thought, or some combination thereof. One way to discover your own pattern would be to close your eyes, though not to imagine what it would be like to be blind. Instead, imagine what someone who is blind and attentive, like Lussreyran, might hear in your voice. Try listening, when you speak, to what your voice reveals and tries to conceal of what you know of yourself. If Jacques Lusseyran were listening to you, what do you think he would hear?

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May 23rd, 2010 by admin

The Chaos Game

We all know just how messy it is to write, how much guessing, and chance, and simple due diligence through an intractable problem will get us to where we need to go. But through all the joyful and painful mess of creation, structure somehow does get its say. Patterns do begin to emerge, and it’s good to know what to look for, and what is possible, when those larger units of meaning need to be paid attention to as our writing progresses.

Out of chaos does come order. An interesting way to think about this process is to examine the work of the English mathematician Michael Barnsley. He studied the “patterns generated by living organisms,” which he called “the global construction of fractals by means of iterated function systems.” Barnsley also called this “the chaos game.”

Here’s how it’s played, and I’m quoting from James Gleik’s book Chaos: Making a New Science: “To play the chaos game quickly, you need a computer with a graphics screen and a random number generator, but in principle a sheet of paper and a coin work just as well. You chose a starting point somewhere on the paper. It does not matter where. You invent two rules, a heads rule and a tails rule. A rule tells you how to take one point to another: ‘Move two inches to the northeast,’ or ‘Move 25 percent closer to the center.’ Now you start flipping the coin and marking points, using the heads rule when the coin comes up heads and the tails rule when it comes up tails. If you throw away the first fifty points, like a blackjack dealer burying the first few cards in a new deal, you will find the chaos game producing not a random field of dots but a shape, revealed with greater and greater sharpness as the game goes on.”

This is something you actually can try at home. The results can be pretty freaky, and remember, as Barnsley says, “if the image is complicated, the rules will be complicated.” While Barnsley’s game does depend on a formula of advance planning, the process looks remarkably like what we all go through as we write and revise, write and revise, as what seems obscure at first becomes clearer and clearer with each successive draft. Structure is what you make it, and the structures you choose (or choose to discover) become embodied by the individuality of your creative vision.

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May 9th, 2010 by admin