Abiding Image

It’s seven in the morning. Coffee steams from my cup and I’ve been up for nearly an hour. I’ve already been out with the dog. It’s cool today, a good break from all the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had. The drought has lifted for a little while. My rain gauge, unemptied, still tells me last week we had over an inch and a half of rain here east of Spartanburg. It’s felt like the South again for a few days-moist and verdant. Now autumn has suddenly arrived, and the dry weather will likely return if the patterns hold true. The sourwood trees are turning that burnt red that for me signals fall. Winter is only 12 weeks away.
People often ask me how I write these columns. They seem genuinely interested in my creative process. Well, this sitting at the desk is the most of it-discipline and repetition are the most common elements on the periodic table of creativity. If it’s Monday morning, I know where I’ll be, sitting here in my study tapping a keyboard. For over two years I’ve risen on Monday, sat down, faced the computer screen, and shaped a 700-word column out of something I’ve heard or thought or imagined. I’ve written about what makes me mad, and what makes me laugh, or what I don’t seem to understand, or what I can’t ignore. This column happens be number 123.

Discipline doesn’t explain where the columns come from though. It only explains how they get typed out. They come from attention, a skill I’ve tried to practice for most of my adult life. Natural history taught me this skill. I might forget to take out the garbage, but I look and listen and smell for the details that will end up on a page every Monday morning. I follow my attention to the edges of my environment. This is something I learned from my field scientist friends. When I’ve tagged along with field scientists they are always tuned into signs of the life around them. They see things first, and they see what they see in relation to all that has come before. This is good training for a writer and great training for a columnist.

I started out my writing life 30 years ago as a poet, and being a columnist is more like writing a poem than you might believe. A draft of a poem is usually short, something you can do in one sitting, and it’s often focused on a picture in your mind, or something you’ve heard, or a sensation, what my poet friend Cathy Smith Bowers calls “an abiding image.” By an abiding image Cathy means a haunting, something you can’t seem to let go, that returns no matter what you do with your day-to-day life to forget it. The image abides, and as a poet you work with it until you have a draft of a poem.

As for me, sometimes on these Monday mornings I’ve got notes scrawled on the back of a used envelope, and other times I have an issue in my mind-landfills, clear cuts, 4-wheelers, migrating butterflies, community vision.

So, all that said, there’s a single abiding image, a story actually, that has seized me this morning. It’s a white tail deer story we heard while out walking the dog in our neighborhood yesterday:

One of our neighbors was out blowing leaves. We stopped to chat and somehow the subject of deer came up. Our neighbor has a fenced backyard and two boxers. One day last week he was looking out the window and a deer had paused at the back fence staring at the dogs. The boxers were barking, but the deer wasn’t spooked. It began to run up and down the fence line, the dogs running with it, back and forth. Our neighbor called his wife, but by the time she got to the window the deer had bolted at a full run.

A few minutes later the dogs were barking again. Our neighbor looked out and the frisky deer was back, running the fence, then took off to circle through the neighborhood at a full run. “To make a long story short, the deer returned five times,” my neighbor said, smiling, the leaf blower hanging at his side.

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