Caroline Goodwin: Wintergreen

In Charles
Baxter’s book The
Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
he claims that “Between staging and subtexts a bewildering relationship seems
to exist. Writers must often use a staggering amount of surface bric-a-brac to
suggest an indistinct presence underneath that surface. The stronger the
presence of the unspoken and the unseen, the more gratuitous details seem to be
required, a proliferation that signifies a world both solid and haunted.”

In my teaching,
I start out by harping on this idea, encouraging students to go ahead and write
like crazy, including as many tiny details as possible: the names of streets
and plants and trees, the image of the sun behind the black spruce, the
specific sound of a truck on the street, etc. This is to encourage the
exploration of that surface, that “bric-a-brac” (a word from the French and
according to Wikipedia: first used in the Victorian era, refers to lesser
objets d’art forming collections of curios such as elaborately decorated
teacups and small vases, compositions of feathers or wax flowers under glass
domes, decorated eggshells, porcelain figurines, painted miniatures or
photographs in stand-up frames, and so on.) By claiming the freedom to explore
the bric-a-brac, I believe that the other world is invited to the surface. This
can be done by writers of any level of experience, at any time (and is a great
antidote for writer’s block).

I am obsessed
with this concept of the surface and the subtext… I adore anything made with
seed beads and quills, little bottles or plants in windows, and I am fascinated
by the windowsills of houses… what people choose to put in that clear space
that defines the limits of the home. People can see these displays from both
inside and outside which seems, to me, completely amazing. What is the
relationship between exterior and interior? How do we choose to decorate that

Early in a
class, I ask students to answer the question “I don’t know why I remember…”
and then write a very freely-constructed list of objects, images, memories,
names, places, etc. even if they don’t make sense at all. Under the surface of
this list is the presence, whatever it is that haunts the
writer, that emotional truth that will continue to provide inspiration. Dylan
Thomas wrote about the process of an image being “made” in him, and a
different, contradicting or destructive image being “made” as a consequence in
a different part of the poem, so the writing embodies the dual forces of
existence: construction and destruction. All quite abstract, I know… but
fascinating nonetheless. A central question for any writer: what haunts your
imagination? What bothers you?

After I was
born on July 7, 1964, my parents brought me home to their little house on
Wintergreen Street, which always seemed to me a gorgeous name. Wintergreen:
what better embodiment of this concept? Winter (white, cold) green (living,
growing). My parents had re-built the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that had
toppled over on March 27 in the Good Friday earthquake (my excuse for all bad behavior:
I was seriously shaken up in the womb). Mr. & Mrs. Massey lived next door
with a wiener dog; the first video ever taken of me was in our little back
yard, McKinley chain link fence in the background where I threw a red ball into
the air and shrieked when it landed on my head. 

When I was five
we moved to Dimond Drive, another compelling name (to my ear), and I grew up
watching the Campbell Creek Classic from my back porch, ice skating with my
neighbors in the winter, hanging off the “round & round” at Wickersham
Park, paddling out into the pond at the gravel pit on our makeshift raft… My
next-door neighbor Skip had a beautiful collie named Lady and a variety of
muscle cars, the neighbors on the other side had four kids and are now my
Facebook friends (I spent a lot of time at their place after school playing
“poison shooters” when the street graders came, or seeing how far we could get
around the corner before the dog, Stranger, heard us and came howling around
the corner right up to the fence). Our side yard was a tangle of red currants
and gooseberries. In winter I walked to school in the dark and walked home in
the dark, a fact that fascinated my new friends when we moved to suburban
Maryland in 1976.

I haven’t spent
much time in Anchorage since we moved away when I was twelve, but the sensory
images of my childhood sure won’t let me go. I can’t wait to walk down Dimond Blvd again, smell the November air, and experience whatever memories my body
and mind have retained these fifty years. What specific images haunt you?

Goodwin moved from Sitka to California in 1999 to attend Stanford as a Wallace
Stegner Fellow in poetry. She is currently serving as San Mateo County’s first
poet laureate and teaching at California College of the Arts in Oakland. Her
book is Trapline from JackLeg Press. Register today for her three-hour 49 Writers workshop “Composition by Juxtaposition,” for writers of poetry at all levels of experience, to be held on Saturday, Nov. 22.

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