Evolution of an Idea

A stunning image occurred to me the other day, a movie scene complete and comprehensive: a way to explain how I have felt standing next to various men in my life as they have pointed out the attractions of passing women or movie stars or classmates.

The picture is this.

Imagine a man, any man, every man. Standing next to a horse. The horse is brown, strong, good, solid.

The man points at the wooden horses on a merry-go-round.

"Look how beautiful," he says to the horse.

The horse sees the painted wooden horses and doesn't understand the man. Why look at pale imitations, frozen representations of a horse, when a living breathing horse is standing right next to him, its flank shivering with life, its muscles taut under that chestnut hide, its large eyes searching the man's for some hint of what the man means . . . and then the horse (which is me) gets the flash of an image of a man standing next to a horse, looking at a marry-go-round, pointing out the beauty of the circling pretend horses . . . and the horse (which is me) understands that many men have no more idea of what goes on in a woman's head, or how the world looks from her perspective than they would of how the world looks to a horse. Maybe even less. He believes he is sharing his joy, his frank appreciation of female beauty with a kindred spirit, that this appreciation is like that of any art form, and if she, the woman standing next to him, can't understand the reverence, the awe, the utter fascination that those tricked out, airbrushed, plasticized, hollow horses have for him (and this whether he desires her as "his" horse or not), then, well, she understands nothing of men.

Ah, but she does. She sees that the simplified, linear renditions of horses--minus hair, breath, feed, grooming, mucking out the stall--are infinitely preferable to the living, snorting, stamping version right next to him. Can she explain this to him? Will he understand it only as pawing the ground, rearing back, arching its great neck, rolling its huge eyes? Will the man say, "I wonder what got into her?"

But this beautiful picture, so brilliant, so insightful, so important, has already begun to break down, come apart in my hands, so to speak, as I describe it. Why a horse? Will that image be the best for my purposes? Does it come with too many cultural overtones that will leach out all the significance from my metaphor? Too many equestrian statues, too many Mr. Ed fans among the readership? And see, right there--that sentence, which has equestrian statues reading, when that's not what I meant at all . . . there it goes. The image pixilates, fades, drains from the screen of my mind and becomes one more mental short circuit, bound to come back some day as deja vu, as a scene in a movie I've forgotten the title of, something I'll attribute to someone else, give them credit for, think is brilliant.

So it goes with many of my ideas. Its first flowering in my mind is the best part by far. From there, it's a series of more and more damaging compromises to get the idea from its mental capsule, wrestle it onto the page. And in the process I lose its vividness, the startling thought that anyone else would be interested in this idea, in the beauty of its expression. All of it turns to ashes in my mouth, until I no longer have the slightest intention of bothering other people, snapping my fingers, saying, "Hey, look over here! Let me tell you about a vision I had for how to understand . . ." It all goes. By the time I'm on the third or fourth or eighth draft, this idea which had kept me awake for several nights, which glowed like a truth revealed, has become one more bit of trampled confetti on the muddy highway behind me.

A stunning image occurred to me the other day: memory in our brains as one of those flipping train station signs. Every new event, even every new thought, causes a cascade throughout the entire brain, causes a reordering of all previous experience and then . . .