Writing from Autumn: Contrast and Transformation Or, Yellow Leaf, Blue Sky

02 November 2018 on Storystorm  

While running the Sweet Trail through Longmarsh, I watched a yellow leaf tumble from sky to still, blue pond. I stopped, let myself linger there, with fingers balled for warmth inside the palms of my gloves. Sweat cooled under my jacket. The puff of each breath mirrored the fog-ghosts rising from the pond. I had run here under the excuse of hunting inspiration.

When I had sat to write earlier that morning, ground and trees and brook outside were indeterminate grey. The characters I wrote, too, were grey. I tried to show them through action, dialogue, and description, but when I asked, “Who are these people? What do they want?” My characters did not answer. And I did not really care. So, I slipped out into the cold.

By then, sunlight gilded treetops along the road. I crunched onto leaf-littered trail. Yellow beeches in the mid-ground flamed like stained glass against the lead panes of trunks still in shadow, the brilliance and darkness startling. In visual arts, we are taught to observe the dance between dark and light, shadow and illumination, before all else. We understand the world of sight through contrasting values—boundaries of objects defined by where shadows fall.

I held up fingers to make a rectangle viewfinder, composing scenes I longed to paint.

It seemed obvious to me, then, that writing fiction also draws on contrast. Readers take interest in a character who glitters with complexity of good, evil, and shades between, whose facets of self differ from each other. We want to see contrast between who she is at a story’s beginning, and who she is at its end.

On the trail, colors, too, burst into wild contrast. I gloried not just in the fluorescence of sumac and sugar maple, but in the juxtaposition between their red and the evergreens, between orange oak and the blue above. There is balance between warm and cool, through colors—and through the day’s temperatures. Likewise, a balance of moods and emotional notes draws us when reading. In the same way we appreciate a vermillion leaf spattered with green, can we draw deeper truths from a melancholy story threaded with humor, or redemption?

Deeper into the marsh, I noted not only contrast in singular leaves, but a wood-wide arc from warmth to cold, daylight to darkness, color to grey. Readers, too, want transformation. No matter how subtle, we long for a character’s inner self to shift over a story’s course. We want what I saw on the trail: hints of what came before in summer-green mosses, and hints in of coming ice in the brittle trickle of water under rock.

Returning home, I heard the sound of fall: Canada geese, their throaty echoes pulling me back to every autumn I have circled through. I stopped again, and watched dark bodies against the sky. I knew I am one of countless billions who have seen the seasons through some lens of personal creations, and yet I felt here, now, within this endless cycle, the specificity of my own transformation.

Charlotte Gross is a fiction reader and one of Barnstorm's two Arts Editors.

 

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