Following Golden Threads
I feel ready to follow even the most trivial hunch.
The term “golden thread” was coined by William Blake but developed as a theme in writing by the poet William Stafford, someone whose poetry I like very much.
To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels. Light pours through a window in a particular way, a person moves their body slightly, you enter a summer field and experience it as a property of mind. Something inside those things brushes against you. . . . Ripples flow up from the depths of the unconscious and touch your conscious mind. A particular feeling envelops you and you stop and focus your whole attention on what is right in front of you. Notitia. The touch of a golden thread.
You can begin to follow it then by simply writing down as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as “following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.” It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement.
It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. You lift your nose to the slight breeze, a delicate touching. Seeking. Ah, there. Your feet move of their own accord as you trail what you have sensed through the meadow in front of you. You twist and turn slightly, following where the scent leads, adjusting your movements to the rise and fall of the land through which you walk. Following the scent home. Finding the core that gives rise to it. Following tiny impulses through the meadow of language.
It begins with the simplest of things: A tiny, odd feeling in a social interaction or elephants walking, holding each other’s tail. Anything can become a door into deeper worlds. Stafford comments that “the artist is not so much a person endowed with the luck of vivid, eventful days, as a person for whom any immediate encounter leads by little degrees to the implications always present for anyone anywhere.” Golden threads touch all of us, every day, but most often only artists and children take the time to follow them.
The initial touch of a golden thread is always attended by a specific kind of feeling. Experience will bring trust in that touch and the feeling that accompanies it, familiar recognition at its emergence. You feel the touch of the thing, it captures your attention, then you work to encapsulate it in language. Working to describe it, of course, causes you to step back slightly from the experience itself. You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.
You look at the lines, focus on them with the whole of you, ask yourself “How does it feel?” and a certain emotional tone emerges. Then you step back inside the thread itself and feel it. Then you compare that feeling to the feeling of your written words. You are going for congruency, for identity.
You can get an experience of how this works from a simple exercise. Say you are sitting at a table. Place something on the table in front of you, perhaps a cup or a pen. Look at it intently, at its placing, its orientation with the other things on the table, its relation to you in space. Anchor that location in your memory and experience. Now . . . move it six or seven inches, to a different location on the tabletop.
The goal is to move it back to the exact spot it was in originally. But .. . do it this way: first, move it halfway back and then ask yourself, is this in the same spot? Notice the feeling that arises within you when you ask yourself that question. There will be some sort of uncomfortable feeling, a lack of rightness. Some part of you will say no, but it sends the negation as a particular kind of feeling. It’s not in words. Yet, you know at a deep level something is wrong. This isn’t it. You feel twitchy. It’s wrong. Now, move it a bit closer to the original spot and ask yourself again if this is the right spot. No, it’s not. That part of you is still telling you that something is not right.
Now, finally, move it back to the location in which it began and ask yourself, is it the same? The feeling that comes now is specific. There is a sense of rightness, a kind of yes occurs. Instead of an uncomfortable feeling, there is instead a good one, a kind of internal joy or sense of rightness. . . .
When a writer compares a written line to the experience the line is intended to describe an identical process takes place. You write the line. Then, you touch it and compare it to the golden thread you are following. If it is not right, there is a sense of wrongness, an uncomfortable feeling. So, you change the line. You feel into the meanings that are held in the words. You feel how the words sit with each other. You listen to and feel the sound patterns of each individual word and the sentences they create together. And you make slight adjustments, shifting meaning by altering the container. Micromolecular adjustments. The tiniest of shifts. Now, how does it feel? . . . Eventually, a sense of rightness occurs. A yes comes from the deep self. Ah. This one is done.
Before Buying This Book
I--The Touch of a Golden Thread
1. The Bookman
2. The Secret All Beginning Writers Want to Know
II--Inhabiting the Word
3. On the Art of Nonfiction
4. You Must Begin with Something Deeper in the Self
5. “The Road of Feeling”
6. “It Burns the Blood Like Powdered Glass”
7. The Skill of Duende
8. Following Golden Threads
III--Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal
9. “A Certain Adjustment of Consciousness”
10. “The Secret Kinesis of Things”
12. Synaesthetic Writing and the Beginnings of Analogical Thought
13. Analogical Thinking
14. The Dreamer and the “Secret Room where Dreams Prowl”
15. The Imaginal Realm
The First Draft, Revision, Clarity, and Refinement
17. The First Draft and the Beginnings of Revision
18. Problems and Further Revisioning
19. Clichéd Thinking and Killing the Genuine
20. Hidden Baggage
21. Some Subtle Refinements of the Art
22. Grammar Nazis and Editors-from-Hell
23. Some Final Words on the Writing Life
The Appendices--On the Business of Writing
Appendix A. The People in Publishing and the Business End of the Profession
Appendix B. The Art of the Book Proposal (Training in the Big Lie)
Appendix C. Further Reading, Resources, and Recommendations