Writing “Valentine” by Alison Townsend
February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
Alison Townsend on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Valentine”:
I am constantly intrigued by the way the past is alive in the present, weaving itself into a kind of tapestry that at times feels seamless. The moments when I am able, in my writing, to capture that seamlessness, that sense of everything being connected to everything else are among my happiest. This was my experience in writing “Valentine.” As described in the opening of the essay, I was making dinner with my husband one Wisconsin night in the dead of winter. When I broke open the Boston lettuce I was washing for salad, I suddenly remembered my mother’s words, uttered in my early childhood, about the heart being “the best part.” I never knew exactly what she meant by that, but because she died when I was nine, her words, tinted by loss, have always seemed to contain some deep and mythic truth. I’ve held them to my own heart for decades.
Listening to the echo of her words in my head, the entire piece unfolded from there. I’d wanted to write about the heart for years (and had attempted to do so in numerous failed pieces). I’m not sure what confluence of events (or, perhaps, my simply being ready to write the piece) conspired to be present that winter night. But I do know that the fact that I was engaged in a simple domestic task, while my thoughts flew free, had much to do with it. The experience reminds me of something I seem to need to learn over and over in my work; namely, to attend to what’s happening on the seeming periphery. For this is where, released into musing, the heart of things often really lies. It’s really an exercise in alert receptivity, in mindfully attending to the stream of one’s own consciousness, noticing images and picking one to follow. It’s the “thread” poet William Stafford describes pursuing. One holds on to it, walking quietly behind it to a pause somewhere, and then dips a net into the stream of whatever one images one pulls up, gathered together in artful conjugation by the unconscious. Trained as poet, my impulse in essays is always governed by the lyric. So I followed the images and was led by sound. All the different kinds of hearts that exist in the world piled up in my head up, as they do in the second paragraph of the piece, in turn releasing other memories.
Adapting this experience for my students in creative nonfiction, I showed them the essay and then asked them keep an eye on their own peripheral images and involuntary memories, things that seemed to be happening at the edge of things, then picking either one image or word to follow or listing a series of them to pack associatively into a flash-length piece. I suggested that they jump off from whatever they were doing in the present and encouraged them to remain open to seemingly unexpected juxtapositions and relationships, ones that, in the writing, might reveal themselves to be as intentional as those in Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
“Valentine” was also a lesson to me about how many times we must sometimes attempt to write a piece before all those attempts coalesce, powered by a muscle strong enough to push them free. “Valentine” came in a whoosh for me, fluid as a fish swimming beneath the ice in the middle of winter. It was one of those rare examples of completely pleasurable writing, where I followed what Anais Nin once described as “a thread of wonder.” But I know, too, that all the failed pieces I had written were also what made it possible, what contributed to developing the muscle the piece became. The title came last. I didn’t realize it was a valentine to all the hearts, all the plenty, and all the losses in my life until some days after I had written the piece.