On Photography and Mrs. Dalloway

When I was working on my MFA at Bennington College, a teacher there was reading some of my poems when he looked at me and asked if I was a photographer by trade. I laughed a little and said no, but that I had a degree in cinematography. “Interesting,” he said, “because your poems are very visual.” He didn’t know me very well at that point and so I took at as a sort of direction and validation of how I have put what is in my head to paper.

I am lousy at remembering names or numbers or facts. It borders on irrelevance to me. But images stick in my brain for years. I remember everything that way and reorder their timelines, density and clarity to fit the needs of what I’m writing. Lately, photography has been a conduit for creative output. Thus, the many photos posted on Facebook. In lieu of having the time to write and/or compelling myself to write, I’ve devoted myself to carrying around a camera everywhere I go, whether it’s my phone camera or the “good” one. I’ve been a picture taking fool lately, which has fed my head with wonderful imagery as I await the time to be able to write again.

A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I were watching the film, “The Hours.” I’d been searching for an idea for a new novel for many years as I finished up the third one. A key visual in that film, sparked the idea for a new writing project. It was interesting that it wasn’t anything anyone said, but something I saw, could process the granular light and shadow, and come up with, as Virginia Woolf had, that great first sentence of “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

From there you can conjure many things: self-reliance, disappointment that she was the one who had to do it, a flower shop full of flowers, the streets, Mrs. Dalloway getting ready to go out, her shouting to no one in particular, or to servants, a lover, a husband, who knows? The point is, that this sentence is rife with visual meaning, coming from a mind, who has sat for hours, even days, perhaps even years waiting on the one moment to create a line that an entire novel hinges on. It is one of the great first lines in literature.

I do not compare myself at all to Virginia Woolf, but to the experience of visualizing a sentence that can come out mathematical in nature and feeling, tonal setting, and with the click of meter. It is what starts most things for me when I write: That crucial first line. Because everything flows from there.

If you’re on Facebook, I hope you’ll enjoy the photographs in the meantime!

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