Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #2: On Detail and Deduction

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG186

Last week’s assignment was to take a look at an image and attempt to deduce and interpret what it is about from the details one can see. I went for the image above, Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Arnolfini. Here goes.

***
What strikes me the first time I look at the picture is how young and frail she looks. With eyes looking downwards and away from his face, as though in deference, one gets the impression that she feels entirely in his power, her demeanour almost apologising for intruding into his space. He, on the other hand, has that stance that screams importance, eyes forward, looking towards the one who has crafted the scene, seeming to declare that he owns everything in sight. I am here and in charge. All this is mine, notice me!

From the rich green of her thick dress, and the fur that lines its neck, hem and sleeves, I imagine they are well off. The pet resting in the foreground of the image suggests daily sustenance is not a problem, as do the finely decorated bed, the ornate chandelier,an exquisite rug and what seems to be solid oak floors; all trappings of luxury. The folds of her dress bunch together, held by her hand which seems to protect what looks like the beginnings of a baby bump. In the mirror behind them a woman lurks, her gaze matronly, a hint perhaps of motherly pride in her eyes at the scene which unfolds before her. She is not the only one looking on, various religious inscriptions adorn the rim of the mirror, suggesting this is a devout house, perhaps one that has unfettered access to the parish priest and is a patron of the local assembly.

I imagine all of this is the crafting of the man who hides in the shadows in the mirror behind everyone else, the signature on the wall the only thing that identifies him. If The Man is his patron, perhaps this is the artist’s gift, his art offered up to the service of the one who gives him sustenance.

6. Light

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

For Day 1 of Week 1 of the #LiveLent devotional for Lent.

***
Bless our broken
and our breaking,
these bodies creaking
beneath the pressure
of a living daily eked out.
Bless our riven hearts
in all their parts, strewn
as it were along the paths
we once trod in hope.
Let light,
by your speaking
bring peace
Let our shattered things
be whole again
let hope with light
spring, again.

4. Reconciliation

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

For Day 4 of the CoE #LiveLent Devotional.
***
All things –
the frail
and the sturdy,
the weak
and the strong-
hold together,
and consist in You
Who leaves
the saved
ninety-nine
to find the one;
lost sheep
who slips
into the dark
and unclear paths
where fear thrives.
You offer
redemption
and finding
and saving
from the miry clay.
Save me.

2. Dance

Image from the CoE’s #LiveLent app, Day 2

***
I come
to lose myself
in the brightness
of the King, to
join the crashing waves
the whistling winds
and glistening leaves
in joyful adoration,
to raise a song,
like a string quivering
at the strumming
of the maestro,
a tune pregnant
with desire
its purpose revealed
in the reveling
of those who hear,
many voices,
all together
resounding
as one.

1. A Poem For Remembering We Are Dust

Photo by Kelly Kiernan on Unsplash

For Lent this year, I’m choosing to reflect via the medium of poetry, inspired in part by Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poetry Unbound podcast and an inability to pray, in any formal sense of the word. What started as a season of uncertainty has evolved into something bigger, hence this, an attempt to use poetry as prayer. These will be a response to the daily reflection from the Church of England’s LiveLent app which this year encourages us to reflect on creation and how we can be better stewards of it. Here goes! NB for a version in which I attempt to read, visit the anchor.fm page.
***
The bright gleam
of sunlight reflecting
in the glass and the steel
of the hills we have built
lull me into forgetting,
that this – these monuments
to our power and resolve
which wrap themselves
like a shroud around
the horizon, a scar from
a wound revived in the present,
tethering us to the certainty
of the things we think we know-
is but a moment,
fleeting in its existence.

The beauty
of things which are unseen
is their intricacy,
how closely knit together
they can appear,
how easy it is for them
to unravel like a slip
of fine cashmere, once
a string begins to slip.
This is what beauty is,
observed in the frail,
reminding us that we are dust
and from dust
to which we must return
when time untethers us
from this rock
to which we cling.

Week Two

Between a super busy week at work and beginning to pack up my life for an upcoming move, I made slow going of studying this week, hence the lateness of this week’s wrap-up. A highlight was receiving largely positive feedback on my first assignment, an exercise in people-watching which took me to a city centre Burger King.

This week’s learning focus was research; tips and tricks for getting beneath the skin of a place to understand the wider context behind the story we’re trying to tell and to ground it in facts and truths. Memory being as fickle as it can be, there was rightly a focus on building systems for capturing details about the people, places and things we write about. Upon reflection, some of the great essayists who have inspired me on this journey have documented their own systems for doing just this including David Sedaris and Ryan Holiday (both of whom have inspired Austin Kleon) to name a few. Also introduced this week were a number of tools: brainstorming (a la mind maps of ideas around a central topic) and foot stepping, physically visiting the area one wishes to write about to absorb its very essence into one’s mind. That I suspect will be very useful over the next few years as I travel more.

More imminently though is the small matter of the next assignment, to apply the tools discussed over the course of the week to observe an object in great detail to see what deductions one could make about it from that… Hopefully, I find enough time in these last few weeks to deliver on that…

Wafting

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #95.

***
It thunders,
and then it wafts,
its wispy tendrils
slowly rising like
the white smoke
of incense from a censer,
held aloft by a priest
intoning a muttered
prayer. Behind,
a bridge to the past
hides, disappearing,
as it were, into
the haze of memory;
ahead, the future –
not yet glimpsed
but in the moment
frozen – and enjoyed.

Lift Off

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

One of my objectives for 2020 is to complete a Creative Non-Fiction course, which is how I signed up for the National Centre for Writing’s Start Writing Creative Non-Fiction course. Once a week, or so, I’ll drop a few thoughts on exercises completed, thoughts and progress on here. Here goes the first one.

***
The focus of this first week has been pondering the question ‘why?’, exploring the motivations for taking on the course, and perhaps the underlying book project which it is assumed one is working on. For me, the course is an attempt to go beneath the surface and understand the techniques behind good writing, in keeping with the theme for this year of Delving Deeper. Progress on that elusive memoir, The Small Light in Things. will be a very welcome bonus.

In my head, The Small Light in Things will focus on the last ten years of my life, ones in which I upped sticks on the cusp of turning thirty and began life anew on a new continent along with all the change that instigated. It will be a story of surviving – of navigating a culture shock, the first tentative steps on a journey of evolving faith and changing, by degrees as it were. It might be cathartic, or not, but my hope is that I get to properly process all of this with hopefully the benefit of some distance and detachment.

Three books come to mind as exemplars of what I am trying to achieve here: Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, all of which reflect on times of change and evolution with the benefit of some distance. What resonates with me in these books, particularly Every Day is For The Thief and Hunger of Memory, is the lived immigrant experience -both in the other country and in the country of birth. Time, life and the experience change us in ways which are not immediately obvious, that is what I’m hoping to tease out from the past ten years of my life.