Writing Right with Dmitri: The Landscapes of Your Mind
A lot has been said lately about 'mind palaces', particularly by writers of popular fiction. It's the latest trendy idea. Those of us whose personal virtual databases work like that nod in understanding, while chuckling at the idea that 'mind palace' is becoming the latest buzz word for a generation dedicated to the soundbite and the prepaid mobile. After all, this is a world devoted to disposable information. That insight? 'Oh, it's so five minutes ago.'
It's true: the connectivity of information and memory is vital in forming the web of our understanding. As someone who's now spent a bit over 60 years constructing one of these webs, I think I can speak from experience when I say that it's not only the buildings, the palaces if you will, that are important. The view from the windows counts, too. Treasure your landscapes.
Landscapes are the 'found footage' of our minds. Where we grew up, where we've been, the places from which the ideas originated. No matter where we want to go, we have to start someplace. DH Lawrence started in mining country, Jane Austen in a drawing room. They got to very different places from there. But they had to start where their feet were planted by gravity.
When thinking about mental landscapes, I'm reminded of Thomas Harris. Harris is one of those superior writers who combines vision with meticulous technique to give us often breathtaking moments of clarity. Who else could have taken a mundane and otherwise unedifying subject, such as serial killers, and given us this?
Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep up and direct his thinking. He viewed his own mentality as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers. There was nothing he could do about it.
That's a description of a mental landscape, not a 'mind palace'. Something found, lived in, and used, not built. Where did this kind of insight come from? Where was the writer's landscape? In other words, where was this novel born?
Standing baffled in the vast fields outside my cabin in the heart of the night, the sound of breathing all around me, my vision still clouded with the desk lamp, I tried to see what had happened at the crime scene…
It's a lonely landscape. Thomas Harris has explained it in an essay called 'Forward to a Fatal Interview. He's given us a real gift, here, by allowing us to follow his process. I'd like to add a few words in support of the physical landscape described here.
Harris comes from Rich, Mississippi, a small place in the Mississippi Delta. That's in the north of the state, not too far south of Memphis, on the giant river. Back in the 60s and 70s – and probably as late as when Harris is describing it – that area was sparsely populated, isolated, full of dreamy desolation.
The landscape there is flat: in your mind, take a pancake and apply a steam iron. Then set a stack of books on it. I'm talking flat here. Down the middle of this horizon run amok lies a two-lane highway, straight as a ribbon. As you drive down the road, there are waves of heat distortion rising across your field of vision. Every once in a great while, you will encounter a road sign bearing the icon of a slanted line with a vehicle on it, and the ridiculous word 'Hill'. The road will rise imperceptibly at this point, but you have been warned, because if you live in the Mississippi Delta, you might otherwise be alarmed at this sudden increase in altitude. Nosebleeds have been known to occur.
The 'towns' in this area are often what my grandmother referred to as 'a wide place in the road'. On one side of this 'wide place' will be a small house, complete with barking dog and car on cinder blocks, awaiting repair. The other side will be occupied by a grocery-cum-post-office. Stop there.
At the grocery, you will fill your gas tank from the single antique pump, and go in to pay and buy lunch. You will acquire: a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of may'naise, some baloney and cheese from the counter, sliced to order, a bag of potato chips, and some Little Debbie snack cakes. You'll grab a cold Dr Pepper or Nehi cola from the cooler. You will take all of these things outside to eat your lunch.
Beside the store will be a single picnic table, possibly wooden but probably concrete, sitting in the only shade for five miles in any direction – the lone, magnificently spreading tree that looms in solitary splendor over acres and acres of low cotton fields. You will sit down, wipe the sweat from your brow, and compose sandwiches while ruminating on God and man, and gingerly discouraging wasps from investigating the may'naise.
This is the place Harris is describing when he tells us how he sat in that shotgun house – a shotgun house is one with several rooms in a row, from front to back, I've lived in one – in the middle of a cotton field, and wrote his novel. Harris encountered a monster in his mind. He visited dangerous places, over and over, and studied them with courage and attention to detail. And he brought us back the story. But he started from that field.
If anybody who watches TV is interested, that's where those dogs came from, too. The ones the television critic calls 'the most useless pack of dogs in the history of domestication'. Those dogs add a lot to the story. And where did they come from? Rich, Miss'ssippi.
Do you see what I'm getting at? We can learn a lot from Harris and his shotgun house in the cotton field. No, it's not a palace. Believe me. It may not have had a lick of paint on it, even. There is little elegance and absolutely no snob appeal in that image – but, oh, there is power in it. The power to realise that associations come at the speed of light, while value judgements plod along at the pace of a responsive reading. Do you know what a responsive reading is? It's something you do in church, and it's a take-turns kind of reading aloud. That kind of titbit belongs to the landscape, too. Found objects.
What does your landscape look like? Is a wild, bleak moor, like the Brontes'? A crowded city, like Dickens' or O Henry's? When you retrieve your memories, do you have to go up a mountain, or down to the sea?
Grieve not, if your memories are not rooted in king's palaces. So what? Thoreau said he'd traveled far in Concord, which I suspect was a Kuhdorf, which is what the Germans call a wide place in the road. Build whatever you like – shotgun house, mcmansion, or marble halls – but do it in your own personal cotton field.