Practical Directions for Ideal Suggestions
The region that I depict is a border on life, a no man’s land where one hovers between life and death. —Jean CocteauI am more than a little obsessed with the Christmas laser I bought on sale from Fry’s, my undistinguished local grocery store, and not just because I got it for half the price that it is at Home Depot (though the dad in me also half-thrills at this accomplishment, I am sorry to report). It blasts patterns in red and green: snowmen, Santas, Stars of Bethlehem, and randomly, maybe because the Chinese manufacturer didn’t get the memo about the color schemes of Halloween vs Christmas, ghosts and bats. They float through my living room and on the palms outside and on my fifteen-foot inflatable Rudolph and transform any surface into a screen. The best pattern that it makes, however, is this beautiful red and green dot expand-and-contract kaleidoscoping pattern that reminds me more than a little of fields of stars, exploding and imploding over and over again, the sort that you might find in the world’s shittiest planetarium accompanying Vangelis as played live by a one-man synthesizer band.
I sit in front of it most nights during Advent after everyone else is sleeping, reading the essays in the calendar and contemplating the patterns or maybe just hoping for its repetitious quality to spirit me from the land of waking at least partway into sleep. I notice that the lights also play on my body since I’m on the edge of the laser field: green stars elongate and smear across my arm like they probably don’t in space, and they even flash occasionally in the corner of my eye which my parents taught me probably will sear my retina eventually.
Watching their movement gives me that art feeling for a reason I can’t yet explain, and I want to write here about it, by which I mean the uncanny, or maybe I just mean the slippages I sense in moments like this between the perceived and what’s beyond perception. Because I don’t believe in the beyond maybe what I mean is the within: that which we think we see when the rational, expected contents of the world flicker and begin to resemble something else. We’re seeing something, but it may be just our own projections.
I was planning on writing about a super excellent Susan Neville essay tracking her visit to the doll factory: “The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Virginia Ehrlich Turner.” I’ve been getting more enamored of it with every new read and I have an itching to try and tell you about why I like it so much and how it works. But watching the field of laser dots move, I realize I’ll have to write about that later since they are pulling me in a different direction. So instead let's discuss divination.
I’ve been reading Selah Saterstrom’s book of divinations: Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. It contains many fine essays, but the one I’m most taken with is “More Ideal Suggestions Through Mental Photography,” which is part of a longer essay called “On Other People’s Stories.”
In part I’m thinking about this because I had a conversation with a writer I’ll call A who’s working on a nonfiction book about her time teaching post 9/11 in Pakistan. A had concerns about how she had composited a major character, N, from uncollected experiences with about 8 actual people she worked with but did not name. She’d composited the character in part for narrative convenience and in part to hide the identities of those women, since N embodied and articulated many things that were true—actual experiences or conversations with actual people—but that, in part because they were risky things to embody (drinking, taking a lover, being publicly critical of aspects of a patriarchal and repressive culture), didn’t all come from the same person. She wanted to know: How unethical was this? Would the literary police come to throw her in jail?
Well no, obviously, at least not in America, but it’s also true that to operate always-on in defiance to the culture as a whole, single character rather than as occasional modes of defiance expressed from at least eight individual people changes the calculus of what it means to be defiant. To embody all that defiance was an act of existential bravery, one that no one actually embodied. I felt it was misleading, I told her, to pretend that she is a discrete character. And it seems like it’s more for narrative convenience than for the protection of the vulnerable. Better, I thought, to be clear about what you’re doing and why, at least in the chapter after she’s introduced for the first time. There are times for mystery in nonfiction but this did not seem like one of those times.
Just as I don’t believe in the religion behind the ritual but I love the ritual, I don’t really believe in the practice of augury but I do love the idea of it, that by chance (my personal preference for prognostication is randomly drawing cut-in-fourths scraps of card catalog cards that my primary library recycles for making notes or writing down call numbers when we consult the oracle of the digital catalog) some design presents itself to me. I recognize that what I’m probably doing is allowing chance to access some internally stored information or route, but either way I like the feeling of giving up control, and of bringing something hidden out of me that was not previously apparent. Isn’t that what we’re after in essays anyhow?
In my day job I talk with my students about craft and research and material: the intentional part of writing. We discuss techniques and tactics for scene-making and revision, the usefulness of musical prose, how to amplify aspects of the voice, and, as Patricia Hampl puts it, the dark art of description which for some reason I seem to continue pronouncing in a bad Boston accent, though I don’t imagine Hampl does. I believe in all this stuff—the technical operability of language—but the harder thing to talk about with them is the essential mystery of art. I mean not in the sense that it’s a mystery that’s unravelable in the way that we want to unravel mysteries, but an essential, irreducible mystery, the sort that resists analysis, at least if you're smart and don't want to totally kill your process. The kind described in this scene in Melville’s Benito Cereno:
—What are you knotting there, my man?Exactly. That's the only answer.
You know that feeling where you throw something in an essay because you have a vague feeling that it’s somehow related? Maybe it’s just ambition believing that it has that relation, or maybe it has that vibrating feeling and you can’t resist splicing it in, knowing that if you learn to trust it, you figure out why it’s there later? (Or maybe you cut it if you don’t.)
That X-Files “Darkness Falls” CGI effect is is one of those things: my Christmas laser lights do look like its swarming prehistoric alien bugs, but the other aspect of that episode that I forgot is that those bugs—trapped in rings of massive trees and only freed on account of illegal logging—are completely harmless in the day. And even at night they’re kept at bay by virtue of electric lights which, because this is an episode of the X-Files, keep being on the verge of sputtering out as the generators in the logging cabins run out of gas. Once the light goes out it’s their world now: the creatures are everywhere, on everything: we just can't see them until it's dark. And then they begin to swarm. I don’t want to completely spoilerize you, but let’s say it doesn’t go well for Mulder and Scully, refreshingly.
There is something about the night in which, perhaps just by virtue of our visual limitations, slippages occur. All the good monsters come out at night. Shit gets weird at night. That’s because unlike cats we’re biologically unprepared for it: we can’t see as well as we’re used to, or maybe we’re just worn down from long days of making sense of sensible things in our sensible jobs and explaining sensible things to mostly sensible students in our sensible lives in which we perceive stuff more or less rightly and act on it and don’t question our perceptions, because it would be too exhausting to do so. But night falls and the story changes.
The movement of the laser lights is predictable: they begin as points, and when they expand, they become repeating grids of 40 or so red and green dots. They expand and expand and expand and overlap and interact, and at about this point in the routine it’s become so complicated-looking that I can’t track its many interactions—it feels like and might as well be complete chaos—it might as well be alive—and then they pull back to that signal, single point. Order returns, and the process repeats. I know there’s order under it even if I can’t see it but I’m damned if I can’t see it, and so all I’m left with is believing as the lights skitter across the ceiling.
I mean, I know there is a difference between a truly unknowable thing and a thing that’s knowable if I only had the computing or observational power to be able to track all its moving parts, but to me functionally they’re the same.
So it’s with an open mind that I turn to Selah Saterstrom. This essay comes out of an act of synchronicity—a perceived connection between two relatively contemporaneous events. She is commissioned to write an essay “about the process of making poems through the transgenerational margin of this ancestral text,” Ideal Suggestions Through Mental Photography (1893), a book that she has a first edition of via a series of inheritances. She works on it for a while and finds herself, completely unprompted, writing “about [her step-father] Charles in the past tense even though he was very much present and, in fact, a cause of considerable stress. Then the phone rang [and] Charles was dead. He had laid down on the couch and shot himself in the face with a .357.” After dealing with the aftermath of the suicide, she goes “to the Arizona desert to heal.”
This is my desert that she’s in, so she’s in my proximity as she’s healing, though I’ve never met her, I don’t think (hey, Selah!). “Meanwhile, in an attempt to finish the essay for the literary foundation that had commissioned it, I began asking friends for stories…I ended up submitting, as my essay, a bunch of other people’s stories.”
The essay proper consists of found text from the Ideal Suggestions book and a series of apparently unconnected stories told to her by friends, edited a bit by her “by some admittedly bizarre and intuitively regulated process,” and presented as her work “only in so much as I made decisions in fields of existing language.” This is sounding more and more like an augury, I want to say, as she’s finding order in disorder, whether or not she’s conscious of it. She tells us that she is grateful for “the ways stories—seemingly innocuous stories and shattering stories, love stories, funny stories, horror stories, unfinished stories—how they can, at times, divine us back into our lives, which we sometimes lose.”
That line stands out: that others' stories can divine us back into our lives, and that we sometimes lose them.
The essay itself is made of these funny, bizarre, a little spectral, and domestic stories. I don’t know how much it matters, even, what the stories in the essay are in themselves. Each has its own integrity and they're largely told in serial, not interconnecting. There’s one notable exception, in which a story that was begun earlier comes back late in the essay, and that provides for a kind of movement and sense of pattern amidst apparent patternlessness. That little act of splicing in a late update on a story we were told earlier gives us that sense of perceived control, that bit of pattern recognition that’s enough to carry me through this art experience. Cool, I think, seeing that authorial presence assert itself in this small way. You got this, Selah. And thus she does.
It’s ballsy to pretty much completely abdicate her authorial responsibility: did she even write it if it’s all other people’s stories, arranged?
But then what are we doing when we're writing anyway? Haven't you at times felt like some kind of vessel, she who holds an open door and lets some aspect of an unknown entity or thought pattern come through? How much do you really want to think about it?
I'll do a little of it for you, at risk of tarnishing whatever store of magic I feel like I'm sometimes tapping. Consider the little intuition of throwing this X-Files episode in this very essay: to what extent can I say that I even made that decision? Am I writing my memory or is it writing me? Is all I have to do perceive the patterns between things that show up on the edges of my vision? Even the card catalog cards I mentioned that I like to use as auguries: I noticed now in this revision that the most obvious thing my laser blasts its lightshow across in my living room is the old Western Michigan card catalog I acquired around 14 years ago. Is its inclusion another example of the subconscious working underneath the surface of my intention or just a happy accident? Does everything I notice register on some surface of my brain? Am I (and are you) the kind of person on which nothing is lost, even if we don't perceive it? Is that glorious or terrifying? Do even these tiny moving points of light somehow leave an infinitesimal mark on their canvas, scorching it microscopically?
I look out the window and see the outside lasers (yeah I bought three: I wish now I'd bought even more) move across my two big palms that shiver in the wind. It’s cold out (by cold I mean Arizona cold, like 50 degrees, but with the sun down what seemed during the day like not all that cold feels pretty cold after all: is that me or it I'm measuring?). When the canvas moves unpredictably against the palms the pattern’s even harder to discern, and now that it looks even more like magic I can convince myself that it is. And then I’m not again. I’m not sure what of this writing is my intention or to what degree that even matters. A good reader, perhaps like you, will perceive patterns in the work or in the world that the writer may not even be smart enough to articulate. Who cares if they’re there or if they’re in here? I’m just glad you notice them. Go read some Selah Saterstrom.
Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site. Two new books are forthcoming from Graywolf in 2020.