I heard David Shannon speak last weekend. David Shannon of No David! picture book fame. He's a wonderful speaker, an organic storyteller really, and he held my attention—along with every other person's in the room—for the 45 minutes that he spoke. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that he interacted with my attention for that time, because he didn't keep my attention clutched in his hands, still and silent, but instead, he danced with it: asked questions, made eye contact, created call and response moments, made connections…and asked for the same in return.
One thing David said was that he puts his dog Fergus—this cute little white terrier—into every one of his stories. And so he becomes an interactive game for David's readers. Where is Fergus in this story? Is he in the background? Is he a toy? Is he partially hidden? In a very clear and simple way, Fergus has become a recurring image, a through-line for David—from idea to idea, from story to story, from book to book.
Maybe David draws Fergus because a furry dog is fun to create. Or maybe he includes Fergus because he loves him so. And maybe—just maybe—Fergus has become a sort of gauge, a way for David to mark his growth as a writer.
But like I said, David got my attention dancing, and the idea of recurring images is how I dipped and shimmied and spun. I got to thinking about the objects that repeatedly show up in my stories. (Mind you, I am not an illustrator, so I'm not talking about visual objects but objects, instead, drawn with words.) For instance, I write about trees. A lot. And so, in effect, I have a long-standing relationship with trees as story elements.
I had the urge, after listening to David, to go back through my work and search for those tree moments, to place them side by side in chronological order, and to trace the arc of my growth as a writer along their branched arms, from one to the other to the other. We are drawn to the ideas and images and concepts, I believe, that have the most to teach us. Early on we don't know why we are so curious about them, but, still, we are…and so we play with them, repeat them, explore them. Slowly, though, their meaning becomes clearer. Maybe we connect them, for the first time, to a piece of ourselves. They take on a different resonance. They express more. There is something glorious, I think, in appreciating that progression of meaning. Something sacred and intimate and wise.
What images recur in your work? How have they evolved over time? What can they teach you about yourself as a writer and human being in this wide and wonderful world?