I have read Annie Dillard’s classic essay “Total Eclipse” purely for the sake of the story — to stand on the hill beside her while the world howled itself into darkness and then reclaimed the light. I have read it to map its multitudes — the iterative ways in which the total eclipse is summoned and evoked, fantasized and explained. I have read it to track its recurrent images — the “Arcimboldo idea” of a clown’s face, for instance, or the child’s sand bucket and shovel.
But it was only a few weeks ago, preparing to teach the essay, that I wondered what might happen if I read with the singular purpose of tracing the shifting observational lenses that Dillard deploys across her pages. How, in other words, is Dillard seeing as the piece unfolds? What stance does she take in relationship to each moment in time, herself, and the reader? How does the fluid nature of her many observational lenses impact our experience as we watch, with Dillard, the moon come between the earth and the sun?
The margins of the essay soon filled with the dark-ink scribble of my handwriting, and notes, in part, like these:
Observer as gatherer of the odd detail
Observer as rational, orderly person
Observer as measurer of the sky
Observer as one establishing her bearings
Observer as one who believes in what she cannot see
Observer as fantastical seer
Observer as one who, in awe, loses her sanity
Observer as one who, in awe, scrambles reality
Observer as one capable of seeing prehistoric time
Observer as metaphor maker
Observer as one who sees how another sees
Observer as one who finally turns away from seeing
Really? I thought, when I completed the list. One writer, one single essay, and so many ways, to quote John Berger, of seeing? But maybe I should not have been so surprised. Maybe, before I’d gone on my literary expedition, I should have read (again) from Berger’s Ways of Seeing:
We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.
The possibilities of the observational lens and the plastic nature of Dillard’s eclipse became, in class, a conversation of wild proportions. What had I missed? What other ways is Dillard seeing? What happens if we begin to read whatever we are reading by hunting down and naming (at least for ourselves) the author’s observational lens(es)?
And what if, as we write, we become cognizant of our own observational lenses. If we write in other words, keenly attuned to the lenses we are applying?
“Two hundred words,” I said to the class as we closed. “Come back with two-hundred words that are about the act of seeing. We readers must be able to see your object or relationship with crystalline clarity. We must also be able to see, to name, the lens you applied to your seeing.”
In listening, a few days later, to the fabulous prompt-initiated passages, we saw each other newly. We were, we realized, writers looking through the lenses of archeology and symbol. We were writers whose filters were hue and the impression left by footprints in the grass. We were writers who did not just see, but writers who understood how we were seeing.
I never know what’s going to emerge in the wake of a prompt. I sit where I sit — hopeful, awed. In the wake of that teaching week, I began to wonder about my own work. How I see, and how I express my own seeing. Which observational lenses I bring to my telling.
My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera, my newest work, is a book I have yet to be able to explain in a single, clarifying sentence. Sometimes I describe it as an exercise in hybridity — the memoir in essays meets the epistolary memoir meets the amateur artist and paper obsessive. Sometimes I say, in a bid at economy, that it’s a book about how paper holds and shapes our lives. Sometimes I say it’s a book about all the ways I’ve failed and all the ways that I’ve kept trying.
But maybe I should have been saying, during all this time of floundering self-promotion, that My Life in Paper is an exploration of the observational lens.