I’m a bit biased – I have always been more prone to dwell on written word than visual image. However, written word supplies visual images to me. In many ways, words are my building blocks for an image. When I see an image – I see the words that make it visual. I see “how the butterfly’s wings momentarily kiss when it gracefully rests its body upon the tip of the flower.” When I describe images, I speak about them in a verbally explicit manner. I guess I am not much of a minimalist when it comes to words. I let them fall out of the sky like rain. It is hard for me to stop the flow.
When Calvino discusses visibility, he mentions that visibility can be seen in two ways: the words create an image, or the images creates words to describe it. When it comes to starting a story, an author can go about it either way. In Jodi Picoult’s case, she always comments that the “what if” question is what prompts her storyline. For her, the idea is the seed. And from there, she says the “characters pop up like mushrooms.” Therefore, the grounding force in her mind, is the idea behind everything, and from there, images start to form – characters take shape, and plot lines become more full-fleshed.
Something that draws me to Jodi Picoult’s works is her ability to make her characters seem so realistic, I can see them in my mind. Picoult’s attention to detail enables her to create a psychologically complex world, filled with a multitude of desires. This desire feels almost tangible. It is like, if I just reached out, I could touch it. I can feel it. It is there.
Not only is the book written in a way that promotes visualization, but the themes of this book have to do with speaking and visibility. Here are a few quotes from the book that illustrate this idea:
“Anna gives us a backbeat, and seeing her sitting there unresponsive makes me realize that silence has a sound” (39).
“This is when I realize that Anna has already left the table, and more importantly, that nobody noticed” (40).
Here is the idea that speaking and not speaking can affect an image. Silence can be just as much of a physical space as noise. The absence of noise is felt just as much as the presence of it – maybe even more, because it is unexpected. Speaking can create more space, it can disrupt a space, it can destroy a space. When Anna opens her mouth to assert her independence, she creates a gulf in her family. Through her verbal actions, she physically alters the image of her family. In the second quote included above, there is this idea of invisibility, and how not being present creates an image, as well. The absence of something disrupts the family image just as much as the presence. Giving birth to Anna – bringing her into the picture, was a means of keeping Kate within the family image. Anna is a means of upholding this picture. However, when Anna goes to the lawyer, she is taking steps toward altering this image in the hopes of creating a new one that includes her more, that makes her feel more visible and important. She wants to physically create a space for herself. The idea of visibility, is creating spaces, images. It is about mapping out a world and giving it life.
The idea of visibility is that images are constantly changing. The stability of an image, much like the stability of words, is an illusion. Words and images will inevitably change. To really emphasize how collapsible the novel’s world seems, the mother, at one point, says: “Driving home, I am struck by the sudden thought that the world is inflatable – trees and grass and houses ready to collapse with the single prick of a pin” (Picoult 34). Here in these words, the reader gets a sense that the visible images in this story are blurred and muddied and prone to collapse. What seems more salient in this novel, are the spoken words. The impact of words last longer than the image. The image is subject to change. While the words do, too, the implications of them are felt deeper and stronger. The words create changing images, that help the reader gain a sense of how communication is affecting the image of this world, the self-concepts felt by the characters. Not only is Jodi Picoult opening her mouth to speak and create a controversial image, but she is having her characters do so, as well as challenging readers to follow suit.
As humans, we like when our worlds fit into neat little boxes. We like being able to tie our shoes in perfect knots. We like crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s and lining books up on a shelf in a straight row. It is comforting when we can identify something, someone, ourselves. We like to know precisely who we are, where we are going. Being able to label things precisely, gives us something stable to hold onto in a world that is often hard to hold onto.
To create an exact image, or idea, or mood, is a tremendous feat. The world tends to favor entropy, to head in that direction. Science says that entropy is inevitable, and yet the very idea of exactitude proposed by Calvino, is trying to take away some of this entropy. Calvino discusses that exactitude is a clear and thought out plan, precise imagery and ideas and diction. However, this is not to say it is the opposite of entropy. Instead, exactitude tries to contain a precise image, whereas entropy says that this is inevitably impossible. This being said, the exact image one is trying to capture, might be one of entropy, ironically. This precise image or mood might be one that is gray and hard to contain, and is confusing and broken and all over the place. However, an exact idea of this can be captured, even if the content material seems inherently uncontrollable.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult works very hard to create an exact “what if” question. She is creating a controversial, hypothetical world, and asking readers: “what if this happened to you? how would you deal with it? what would you do? how do you ethically view this situation? is there a right or wrong answer?” By doing so, Jodi Picoult is forcing readers into an exact mindset – one that provokes questioning. She is creating a world that doesn’t make sense, that is hard to map out, and she is challenging readers to engage in this world.
When asked in interviews, Jodi Picoult mentions that all her books start off with a “what if” question. If the question is still in her mind after a couple weeks, then she knows the topic is a salient one, and worthy of writing. Picoult’s method towards storytelling is an exact one. She has a precise goal in mind, and wants to impact her readership in an exact way.
However, the best way in which Jodi Picoult exemplifies exactitude in her writing, is with regards to the mood she creates. She has the ability to sculpt a world that feels so real, a mood that highlights the core of the story. In My Sister’s Keeper, this mood has to do with confusion, cracks, rips, tears. It has to do with a world that is collapsing and scary and hard to define. Through her world choice, pacing, and use of multiple perspectives, Picoult effectively creates such a world for readers. And by doing so, she can convey a precise image, or message, to her readers.
My emblem for exactitude is a musical instrument. With a musical instrument, you can blow in the instrument a certain way, push down on a particular key, make a note shorter, more staccato, or make it longer and slurred – you can control the way in which the sound comes out into the world. The sound comes out in an exact way.
For many years, I played the piano. You can create tone, rhythm, a certain vibe. If you want the music to sound jazzy, certain beat and chord combinations help create this mood. If you want something to sound slow and connected, you can step on a peddle to make the notes blur from one to the next.
I also played the flute for a long time. With the flute, you can blow into the instrument stronger to create a louder sound. You can barely blow in it at all, and the sound will be soft. Based on how fast your move your tongue to create notes, the notes can come out fast and clipped or long and smooth. With this instrument, like with other instruments, you can create an exact sound, emotion, atmosphere.
Much like the E-lit piece that used different texture, or landscapes, to evoke a particular image, an instrument can control mood, as well. To a degree, you can make that instrument obedient, or exact, much in the way Ella behaves in the novel and movie. Music has power in its exactitude – it has the power to move, to sway, to make people think in a certain manner. Like a crystal can create an exact shape and reflect images, an instrument can create an exact sound and reflect a mood. Words, images, music – they speak in exact ways. They say something specific. They say a lot.
This E-lit piece plays with the idea of texture to create certain emotions or thoughts about an image. In Ellen Lupton’s book about graphic design, she writes about how you can use text to create emphasis. She writes: “Used well texture supports the main image and furthers the visual concept” (68). She talks about how the texture can convey a mood. During the “Wordscapes” section of this E-lit piece, for the letter “W,” we are presented with the word “WORRY.” However, it is the texture, itself, that really emphasizes this exact idea. Lines are emitted out of the word, adding tension to the image. The lines ripple outwards in a manner that creates a perpetual anxiety. Hence, we feel worried. An exact mood is evoked.
The tension in this piece is illustrated even more while viewing this E-lit on the actual site. When doing so, the lines actually move outwards from the word “WORRY” in a ceaseless and tedious manner. It is like they are emitting signals that summon the viewer to become worried. There is no relaxation or peace in this visual; it is all about being in a state of utmost anxiety. Nothing stands still and calm.
The section on Texture in Lupton’s book opens up with the following quote by Rick Valicenti (53):
If you touch something (it is likely) someone will feel it.
If you feel something (it is likely) someone will be touched.
In the book, Lupton provides examples of how texture can create emphasis. The visuals she provides, are much like the ones seen in the E-lit piece.
In these images, you can see how feelings of hope and anxiety are conveyed through the texture of the image. In “Wordscapes,” the following technique is being utilized to form an emotional landscape that mimics the meaning of the word, itself. There is definitely this idea in the E-lit that the texture of the piece evokes certain emotions, as well as this idea that if you feel these emotions, someone else will be touched by them. The idea of texture is that touch is related to feeling something – whether it is physical or emotion, or usually both. You will feel something. You will be touched.
When I think of exactitude, I think of language that is precise. I think of carefully formed thoughts. At the core, I think of specific attention to letters, word choice, sentence construction. I imagine a keyboard laid out on a table. I can see the letters on the keyboard, the “G” and ‘H” in the middle and how a sort of letter hierarchy has determined that these letters are important ones and deserve a prime time spot on the keyboard.
Exactitude of language implies an exactitude of thought. Words have been carefully sculpted. They have been set, left to dry, harden, and form. They say something specific.
Calvino defines exactitude as the following:
1. “a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question (55)”
2. “an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images (55)”
3. “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination (56)”
Successful exactitude in literature can create clear images of the idea trying to be conveyed. This goes along with Calvino’s idea that the crystal is an emblem of exactitude. A crystal is geometric in form, precisely faceted. It can reflect a clear image of the surrounding environment. It creates a sort of clarity, a sort of exactitude.
Calvino wants a story told as straight-forward as possible. He wants it all laid out and out-lined. It is planned. Exactitude is not gray and murky. It is clear. It is about pushing that exact key on the keyboard to form the exact word you want, the complete thought. It is about knowing what you want to say and how to say it.
As a writer, myself, I know how hard it can be to find that exact word, or words, that will create the image I want. It is about figuring out how stringing certain words together will create sounds, images, meanings. It can be hard to have a certain thought in mind and try to find a way to write about this thought to make sure it is clearly portrayed to an audience. But that is sort of the fun, creating a sort of order out of chaos. There are so many meanings, words, thoughts, that can be formed. But figuring out a sort of order to all of this, and being able to convey it in an exact fashion, now that is skill. Crystals might cost a lot to buy, but precise language – to me, that is priceless.
Grounding Calvino’s definition of Exactitude in my own experience with print literature, an author I think really embodies this quality is Jodi Picoult. Her novels have clear goals – they are controversial, they make you think, they address something sticky, and make you go on in there and take a stand. There is a precise goal in her work. She has a way with words, where she can create vivid images, which she has researched, thought about, perfected. She uses, which Calvino says is “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” She pays special attention to the subtleties of thought and imagination. She may have a precise idea she is trying to convey, but she is aware that thoughts and imagination also come into play. She is very aware of the psychological implications of her words, of the psychology of her characters, her readers.
The cover synopsis for the book entitled Nineteen Minutes starts off with the following paragraph:
In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five…. In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.
Jodi Picoult is creating an exact image here, an exact tone. We get this idea that a lot can happen in just nineteen minutes. She provides us with precise examples. And yet, she lets us use our imagination. She tells us you can stop the world, jump off it, get revenge. She makes us wonder what someone could do in just nineteen minutes, besides the obvious activities mentioned above. She plants a precise thought in our mind, and then lets us do with it what we want.
An analogy for the idea of multiplicity can be found in a game called Bananagrams. This game is somewhat similar to Scrabble, but different in the sense that the pieces on your imaginary board – there is no actual board, you just use a desk or table, or some sort of surface – can move. Each player starts out with a determined set of letters. Then one player shouts out “split,” and all the players flip there letters over to reveal what they have. Once their letters are determined, a player has to start forming words. The words must connect to one another. For example, if you used the word APPLE, you could use the “P” to form PEAR underneath. Once you use up your letters, you shout out “peel,” and everyone must pick up another letter and somehow make it fit on their board. The idea is that you have to constantly move the letters around on your board to accommodate the new ones you are adding. Therefore, while the words, or the meanings, are constantly changing, they are all interconnected in the sense that the letters are not changing, only more are being added. The amount is being “multiplied.” People keep shouting “peel,” until there are no more letters left. At that point, when someone has used all of his/her letters to form words that are interconnected, he/she would shout out, “banana.” The game would then be finished.
I know this is an odd analogy for the idea of multiplicity, but as I sat at my desk thinking of ideas, I noticed my Bananagram set next to my foot on the floor. And suddenly I remembered playing the game with my parents – feeling this rush of adrenaline as I shape-shifted the letters to form new words, that really weren’t all that new, only a variation of what I had already had.
Now that I am thinking about it, I think the most obvious example of multiplicity is the alphabet. I guess this is what I was trying to illustrate in my Bananagram example – this idea that we have only twenty six letters. We sculpt them, mix them up, manipulate them – we have a limited source, but endless possibilities. The English language, itself, gains no new letters. But from these letters, arises “multiple” meanings.
I wrote this in my other blog a couple weeks ago:
There are only twenty six letters in the alphabet. I read in a book the other day how Newton, or maybe it was Galileo – I can’t really remember – likened letters to atoms. He said they are the smallest unit of communication and spin in circles forming new combinations, new meanings. In a way, words create a body, an object, something tangible, in the same way that atoms give weight to the world.
But, since there are only twenty six letters, there are only so many ways in which we might sculpt them, use them, manipulate them to say something we think is important, or maybe not important, or only of semi-importance. We can decide these things, to an extent. The audience, though, will take out of the words and the letters and the passages, what he or she pleases. A writer only has so much control.
With twenty six letters, a sort of cycling will occur, much like the circular image of a clock. Imagine, instead of numbers on the clock, 26 letters. And then imagine several hands on the clock moving from one letter to the next – forming new combinations with each tick or tock. So, while words may be timeless, there is also the sense that they cycle over and over again and maybe it is this cycling that is timeless. Maybe history repeats itself not just because of our actions, but our words.
Like the “I” is the grounding factor in the ever-changing cube of this E-lit, the alphabet, or the limited possibility of letters one can use, is the grounding factor in Bananagrams. Despite a changing board, the letters don’t change, only the combinations do. The letters are interconnected on a sort of grid, must like the “I’s” and “You’s” and “We’s.”
There is this definite symbiotic relationship between image and words. They need each other and could not exist without the other. However the formation of both is interesting. The E-lit I chose illustrates this idea of visibility – the dependence of visual image on words and vice versa. This piece is entitled “The Sweet Old Etcetera” by Alison Clifford. In this work, we are first given a sentence that is formed sideways, as if it is reaching upwards toward the sky. Once you click on the sentence, four more branches of words reach upwards from the original branch. Therefore, we have a core of words with four outgrowths on top of it. If you click on one of the four upper branches, two smaller branches of words emerge from the top of that particular branch. You can click on the other three branches, and the same thing will happen. Now when you click on the whole image, the tree fades away and letters start falling from the sky. Looking at these falling letters floating through the sky of white, you see they form the word leaf. The letters no longer form full words, just like the leaves are no longer part of the entire tree. However, from these parts you can get a sense of the greater whole. You can tell the letters spell the words leaf, just like you know that a leaf at some point was a part of something larger and grander. If you click on the leaves, they gradually disappear and instead, we are presented once again with the image of the “word tree”, except now it is planted in a ground of words and letters. The leaves have fallen to create a floor of words. The cycle of life, and the cycle of words, is being epitomized.
In this E-lit, the visual screen is presented in black and white – the color of text on paper. The words, themselves, illustrate the visual image of a tree, of life, of leaves falling, of rebirth. However, this E-lit also uses these words, to form the literal image that they are trying to portray. The words are sculpted in a way to visually portray their meaning – they hint at growth, Spring, lightness, nature. This is making the audience chose whether the word came first, or the image, for we are being presented with both simultaneously. Did we read the word Spring and think of a tree growing, or did we see the tree growing and think of Spring?