What’s Your Constellation of Images? How to Find Your Voice

Last time, I reflected on how writing from your past can help you develop your voice, since you’re the only one who has experienced your past. (I also gave you a few warnings about writing about people from your past.)

I just finished Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively (Revised Edition) by Rebecca McClanahan. She introduced me to the concept of a constellation of images, first described by American poet Stanley Kunitz. He says,

You have at the center of your being a conglomeration of feelings, emotions, memories, traumas that are uniquely yours, that nobody else on earth can duplicate. They are the clue to your identity. If you don’t track them down, lay claim to them, bring them out into the light, they’ll eventually possess you, they’ll fester, or erupt into compulsive behavior. The farther you stray from your center, the more you will be lost. That’s one of the teachings of Lao-tzu. When you’re there, at the existential core, you’ll know it. Hopkins said in one of his letters that he could taste himself, and the taste was more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, or the smell of walnutleaf or camphor. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat. (Source: Columbia Journal.)

In a 2000 interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth on PBS, he explains this a little further:

I think a poem lies submerged in the depths of one’s being. It’s an amalgamation of images, often the key images out of a life. I think there are certain episodes in the life that really form a constellation, and that’s the germinal point of the poems. The poems, when they come with an incident from the immediate present, latch on to those images that are deep in one’s whole sensibility, and when that happens, everything starts firing at once.

I recently experienced this myself. A few weeks ago, I suddenly needed to watch a movie I hadn’t seen in six or seven years. I used to watch it obsessively in my 20s, and I also forked out lots of money to see it in live performances (it was a musical). But for the last six or seven years, I could’ve cared less about it. The immediate desire to watch it really surprised me, so I watched it over two nights that week.

On my 5-kilometre walk home from work, a story suddenly hit me out of the blue, completely unrelated to the novel I’m also working on. I had my smartphone with me, so I recorded my thoughts as I walked. That night, after the kids had gone to sleep, I spent 90 minutes writing down what I’d recorded and then adding to it. I had 3,000 words by the time I was done. It needs work, of course, and much refining, but something was dying to get out. I don’t recall the last time I had so much clarity in creative writing.

Although Kunitz was referring to writing and poetry, this concept can apply to any art form. Perhaps certain motifs or colours repeatedly sneak their way in to your paintings, or you feel drawn to certain moves in dance. Timothy Schmalz, a local sculptor likely best known for his sculpture Homeless Jesus, uses the Gospel as his constellation of images. Mine has always been clear to me, though I only admitted it for the first time that weekend. (Sorry, I won’t share it here.)

If yours isn’t immediately apparent to you, McClanahan has a few suggestions on how to discover it:

  • Reread previous writing and watch out for “successful images or metaphors, those passages that seem to have sprung from imagination, not fancy.” (She means organic images, not ones that are forced or contrived, along the lines of “Gee, I think I need a metaphor here.”)
  • Highlight images, descriptions, even individual words that recur throughout your work. You can even use a computer’s search function if you have digital writing files.
  • You can use online apps that create “word clouds” to help you better visualize your constellation of images.

She further advises, “Repeated patterns of any kind in our work – words, phrases, objects, colors, places, events, people, sounds – are there for a reason. We should pay attention to them.” However, she also cautions about being too objective with this process, with removing the emotion out of it.

By paying attention to the images that have snuck their way into our art, we can more easily find the sources of our originality and therefore our true voice.

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