There’s no limit to your imagination? Jacob White disagrees.
“The idea that our imagination is infinite is a kind of optical illusion, like one of those endless swimming pools you see on the oceanfront — it looks like it just goes on and on,” said White, the Week Three prose writer-in-residence for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. “Our imaginations are quite limited, and yet when we practice deliberately paying attention to our experiences and to the world around us, I feel like you discover so much more.”
To White, the writerly focus on attention — as opposed to intention — is one of his guiding lights as an educator. If a person can let go of their preconceptions for how their writing ought to be structured or stylized, they can discover “new ways of telling a story.”
“And yet I feel like it’s very hard for even experienced writers to let go of their vision, or to allow it to break,” he said. “I’m at the point now as a writer where — while I used to kind of hammer at it, like banging my head against a glacier — now I just sit back and breathe and stare at it a while. I allow myself to break it, so that whatever kind of shadow story beneath it can come to the surface.”
At 12:30 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on the Virtual Porch, White will deliver a Brown Bag craft lecture on how to create “The Breathing Story.” White, an assistant professor at Ithaca College, is the author of the story collection Being Dead in South Carolina and has had fiction or essays appear in places like The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner and New Letters.
White grew up in South Carolina, a setting that he said influenced his decision to become a writer because of the people who surrounded him.
“The thing that made me want to write was not so much the stories people were telling, it was the way they told them,” he said. “The sound of their voices really got its hooks in me. That was really my beginning: trying to locate that muddy speech.”
Like a lot of writers, White said it became clear to him early on that he didn’t experience the world in the same way people around him did.
“Part of what you figure out you can do in writing is focus on capturing the ‘experience of experience,’ which is John Ashbery’s term,” he said. “Once I realized that I could write about my confusion and write about my inability to understand the world around me — that was hugely liberating. I leaned into that as a college student, and later on, too.”
White said he’ll attempt to formalize that process of attention-based writing in his lecture.
“It’ll move through using fieldwork and reflection, and eventually toward selection and shaping,” he said. “(I’ll be) walking us through the kind of messy, slow-cooking way of discovering a story, and trying to move that toward something that is shapely, something that you might call a work of fiction.”