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A Phrase in the Air

Two women sitting at a kitchen table
Muted light on rainy morning
One has car keys in her hand.

- Robert Haas, from "January"

Today I was musing on inspiration - triggers of creativity. Like wisps of cloud, bits of the passing world that writers happen to hear, read, or notice through the day. This phrase, from a prose poem by Robert Haas, is just that sort of evocative imagery. The imminent action in the detail - car keys in her hand - that leads from awareness and observation into exploration of where the moment might lead. Many poems are born of a phrase in the air. Many book scenes and story ideas come from bits of overheard unhinged conversation, or the sudden "framing" of a life moment wherein clearly lies an unspoken story. In writing, the actual elements of what is present are but a catalyst to what might be, and thus the story is born.

In this scene perhaps the two women are discussing the painful discovery of the infidelity of one woman's lover. Perhaps they are midway between planning and delivering a gift to a friend. Perhaps one has confided a devastating illness and the other is itching to leave, and ashamed of the urge. Perhaps one woman is leaving her lover and the other woman arrived to drive her away. Maybe they are just out of coffee creamer and about to hit the convenience market on the corner. What I love about the human imagination is that it builds from knowledge of the known and then sends scaffolding out into the realm of the purely hypothetical. Possible or not, our imagination takes us beyond the boundaries of our known existence, and this I think is also where the most unsettling emotions lie - fear, anticipation, lust, wonder. In an essay awhile back I talked about the idea that "passion lies in the risk" - yet risk requires departing the known for an unknown we can only hope for. What power the imagination!

Robert Haas ends "January," musing on the twist and stretch between what details and impressions he observes present with his friends juxtaposed against what he knows is actually happening, with a pure "writerly" moment:

Back at my desk: no birds, no rain,
but light - the white of Shasta daisies,
the two red geraniums against the fence,
and the dark brown of wet wood,
glistening a little as it dries.

Details, no story.

What is our reaction? We crave the infusion of the tale. The painter will build a complex image from a detail, a writer a story.
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