“Our galaxy is but one of an estimated several hundred billion such structures in the observable universe— a volume that now stretches in all directions from us for more than 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (2.7 × 1023) miles.” Caleb Scharf, Scientific American
A few weeks ago, as I drove through the dust-green tones of the New Jersey Pine Barrens toward a workshop to be led by writer, musician and publisher of Scientific American, Jeremy Abbate (which I was psyched about), my thoughts turned back to the profound impact of my fifth-grade teacher.
That teacher’s name was Mr. Henkel and he frequently mentioned that he was from the Pine Barrens. Mr. Henkel loved science, particularly astronomy and his enthusiasm was infectious. He used to hand out magazine-cut images of the planets on slippery paper, as we memorized their order in the cosmos. In my memory, our frequent speed-list competitions on planet memorization (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…I practiced again and again at home) got me thinking about concepts as impossibly large and abstract as the entire universe. The observable universe can be measured but the entire (stars, galaxies, matter, energy, etc.) universe, as far as I know, still has no concrete spatial coordinates. Frankly, his class kept me up at night.
But I have to admit that as enthusiastic as Mr. Henkel was about science, he also lit up our class’s imagination with his descriptions of the Jersey Devil –and if, perhaps his intent was to distinguish scientific fact with impossible-to-substantiate mythological figures –I was not the only one to badger him with endless questions about the rumored creature (half huge dog-goat/ half strange bird, etc.) that sometimes put our class behind schedule.
And yet the juxtaposition of gigantic planets and the Jersey Devil worked its wonders in my mind and provided sparks in my memory decades later. With fluid ease, I was still combining thoughts of the fun memory game, of the hydrogen in stars–of astronomy and physics, in the very same thought-bubbles as I sped by a blur of pine-needles–half expecting to see the “winged biped” my friends and I used to joke about after Mr. Henkel’s class–jump right out in front of me.
After the drive, when I arrived at Minerva’s Literary Bed & Breakfast, I pushed all thoughts of the Jersey Devil and Mr. Henkel aside. After all, the kitchen where we convened at my favorite retreat location was bustling with the vibrant energy of fellow writers and the inviting aroma of soup. We ladled soup for one another and became fast friends.
After dinner, the owner of Minerva’s, Emma Lapsansky-Werner stopped our lively talk and asked us to play her favorite word-play game– a pass the paper slip game, which usually has me scrambling for “Oh no, I don’t know what to write” words.
In the game, you write a specific number of words on each line and pass them around line by line. The idea is to riff, to loosen up and to connect your words with those of others in sometimes hilarious and sometimes profound combinations.
During the workshop, the leader, Jeremy, who exceeded even my expectations with his combination of industry experience, wise guidance on our projects and his own creative drive , talked about his own experiences writing, and how some of his articles seem to bubble up in inspirational bursts out of nowhere.
Yet, I noticed Jeremy also offered concrete suggestions about how to get to those creative bursts when he stressed the importance of employing specificity in every piece of writing as the most powerful way to draw readers in.
Jeremy reminded me that we can create the conditions for an experience as elusive as inspiration–which too often feels out of our reach –by reaching for one image that offers emotional pull. As they say, you have to start somewhere. You have to zoom in on one image with emotional pull and then blow it up as though you had a microscope under your nose–or a telescope inside of you–positioned toward the stars.