Saturday, September 8, 2007


An icon is an important, often enduring image, a definition that can be extended to include persons, places, things, as in nouns. While perhaps not appropriate to mix the genres of icons (lest you appear to be unintentionally demeaning the greater at the expense of the weaker) it is fun to take a personal inventory of one's own icons (Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, John Coltrane, Kansas City barbecue, South Carolina barbecue, Bill Evans, Lorez Hart).

I did not consider windows as icons until late in life, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, at which point I came upon the word defenestration, which began as so many things do with a political/religious vector. The word means "throwing or thrown out a widow." Having learned of that w
ord, I have subsequently defenestrated razors, mushy peaches, a cell phone, and an manual Underwood upright typewriter. Hearing about defenestrations and indulging my own gave me a new respect for the window as a portal, not the portal some writers of fantasy employ to gain access to another world or time dimension, but rather a portal to the imagination.

One of my literary icons, Raymond Chandler, extended the concept of window for me in an observation that has often been misquoted or misinterpreted. Chandler did not suffer simple plots lightly. Writing about his specialty, the murder mystery, he inveighed against the plot-driven notion of getting out of a boring patch of writing by having some new character burst through the window, waving a gun.

As a fledgling mystery writer, I was entranced by the notion, Chandler's admonitions to the contrary notwithstanding, and so many of my early attempts had such duplicitous activity, adding yet another layer of respect to my growing admiration of the window.

Some years later, my connections with a massmarket publishing house led me to be in an editorial meeting when the sales manager announced the results of an experiment conducted on the covers of various Gothic and romance novels. Same book, same author, same moody background, same building featured in the foreground. But in each case, half the edition had a window that was either open or rendered with light emanating from it; the other half of the edition showed the same window either closed or with no backlighting. His moustache twitching,the sales manager went on to report that the copies with the open widow or the backlit window outsold the closed or unlit window by a
factor of three to one.

Years down the river, I recall the sense that I had learned something about literature, readers, and the human psyche that trumped all my undergraduate years in the English Department at UCLA. I could not have told you what precisely it was that I learned as I took this information in. I still may not be able to impart the iconic sense of importance the awareness gave me.

Thus, when I looked up this morning and saw this image before me, this open window, I was once again transformed and transported, simultaneously recalling all the personal background and attachment I bring to the icon of the open window and adding the sense of curiosity I bring as well. Who lives or waits or works or lurks just beyond that open window?

As it happens, I know.

Beyond that window is a splendid office belonging to a sincere, devoted, and talented writer. The fact that I know the writer, have indeed edited his forthcoming novel, and have been a guest in this remarkable George Washington Smith house cuts no ice. The imagination rules with a service faster and surer than Roger Feder; the imagination trumps reality.

The open window is my icon for successful fiction. The open window makes you suspend what you know to be so and what you believe to be so, then gets you to use your frequent-flyer miles to transport yourself to another place, where another, more compelling set of realities obtain.


John Eaton said...

The iconography of place and memory, the sound of writers walkin' the dog, the flavors of sky and brick and window, open from the heart, open from the mind. You gift these wanderings so freely, Shelly.

Faulkner and McCullers, Jim Dickey and Dave Bottoms, Little Richard and the Braves, Bly and Stryk, just a few of the icons past and present for this 'ole country boy.

Farm children, wild to travel, and write, and sing, and take lots of pictures,

John :)

Lori Witzel said...

As ever, so well and beautifully said.

My personal affection for windows? Their subversive possibilities -- if one isn't allowed in the front door, for example, one can always shimmy in through a window.

And what does it say that so many of our climate-controlled office boxes, er, buildings have no openable windows?