I started out writing fiction—short stories and then an attempt at a novel. Then, without having planned to, I found myself committed to write a nonfiction book about “shopping bag ladies,” and when I sat down to think about what its focus might be, the image of the witch popped into my mind. At the time I was doing a Jungian analysis, which uses dream images to investigate the contents of the unconscious, so it was natural to me to follow the witch image wherever it led. This method felt not just congenial but deeply satisfying; right away, I was hooked. An image constrains and focuses thoughts while still allowing great freedom in moving around within it: you can come at your material from many different directions without losing coherence, since the analysis acquires its form from the structure of the image.
I used this method for both my literary nonfiction books:
- For The Women Outside, a study of homeless and marginal women, the witch figure.
- For Slaying the Mermaid, about women and self-sacrifice, Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid.
While in the process of developing my witch image, and feeling doubtful whether using a single image to organize an entire book was really kosher (what about logic? rational analyis?), I asked a panelist at an academic seminar about it. She recommended a book called The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan D. Spence, a historian. It was an academic study of a Jesuit missionary in 16th- and 17-century China, who undertook to teach the Chinese the European system of building a “memory palace” or mental construct of images, a method in use since classical antiquity to help people organize and remember large amounts of information. Adapting the memory palace theme to his book, Spence built each chapter around an image, as expressed by a Chinese character. He didn't use his images in quite the way I was using mine, but his book made me feel much more comfortable about what I was doing.
Actually an image like my witch or mermaid is rather like a memory palace in reverse. In the original version, you build your palace as a way to store specific data. You add one room after another, and as you create them, you furnish them with objects, attaching a particular datum to each object. You can store different categories of information in different rooms. To remember your information, in your mind’s eye you move through the rooms and look around at the furnishings.
For me the process is precisely reversed. The image is already there, and my job is to explore it. As I move through it, I discover new wings, levels, ells—all sorts of additions, which furnish new components and additional layers of meaning for the conceptual structure of my book. Either way, I think, images are magical.
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless