Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Roy Stryker Shooting Script #4

Basic – 409

Sarah Van Name

Dear Mr. Stryker,

I have begun to confuse the words of the script. I wake up not knowing where I am and hear them splashing against the still-lucid edges of my dreams: trees in bud and in blossom, movies, Main Street, “Restless America.” I brush my hair, throw water on my face. My notebook and negatives are overflowing with listed and unlisted images, and before I go to sleep I feel them around me – lifting me up, weighing me down, tattooed on me in invisible ink.

Your scripts have given me direction, and even from the beginning I knew their implications. When we started out it was made clear that we were to record everything. But you never said why, and it took me a long time to understand.

In all of this (mint julep, fences, children at play) I think you’re trying to get at some basic knowledge at the underpinning of everything – not just America, but the world of humans. I bet if the U.S. government had given you money to photograph India, Belgium, Russia, the Congo, you would have crossed oceans without a second thought. What we’re really looking at here are the eyes of people. The moment before the smile, and the aftermath as it breaks like glass upon the cold, bright air.

plains of Illinois

pine hills

river bottom

That’s how you ended the last script you sent out. I’ve done my best to capture these things and the rest. Enclosed you’ll find photos of flat cornfields, horizons broken by single skeleton trees, mountains blanketed in dark green; dry riverbeds littered with stones and plastic cups, and also the dirt and stones that sit quietly as running river water rushes over them. You can have them, to hang on walls or to put away in the ever-increasing File of life on the second floor of the office.

Also enclosed you’ll find a formal letter of resignation. I’ve sifted through all of these pictures, all of these months and months of crooked contact sheets, and there’s something behind all of them that I can’t quite catch. In the girl at the soda counter, the way she holds her hands. In the torn concert posters. It’s that basic underpinning of humanity and it’s untouchable by even the best.

We both know I’m not the best, not even close. And I’m haunted by what I can’t capture. So here, Mr. Stryker, I’m saying thank you and goodbye.



A Year in Prose is done. This is the last one. Fifty-two weeks of writing projects, some on time, some not, but all, finally, finished. It’s going to be a little weird not to go to oneword.com and random.org every Tuesday as I now habitually do, but I’m really proud of myself for seeing this project through.

Even though Stephen thinks I’m going to destroy him when we finally meet at Aaron/Ben/Lindsey/Kevin’s graduation because he didn’t keep up with AYIP, I actually harbor no resentment whatsoever for the rest of the group giving it up. (Although keep this quiet because I told Stephen that I was planning on showing up like this to graduation, my rage vast and unable to be contained.) Our lives are insanely busy, and the fact that this lasted as long as it did as a group project is a good indicator of how much fun we all had with it. I got to read so much good writing because of this. And I never would have gotten to read any of it, much less write at all, if Aaron hadn’t had the idea for the project and started it up and if Ben, Lindsey, Stephen, Mary Loo, and Kevin hadn’t all joined. So, thank you.

If you’re reading this at all (I know this is not many people) thank you too. I would have done this all for myself but it’s pretty cool to had have an audience, even if it’s an audience I can count on one or two hands.

A couple other small things – if anyone is curious about the Roy Stryker pieces that I have finished with, the story is this: Roy Stryker was the Head of the Historical Section for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s. The Historical Section’s purpose was to document the government’s relief programs in rural America, but Stryker was given an enormous amount of freedom (in terms of both funding and oversight) to essentially photograph all aspects of rural and small-town American life.

His photographers took pictures upon pictures upon pictures whose only purpose was to go into a massive file (actually known as “the file”) of American life that Stryker kept simply for its own sake. To help guide their creative process, he sent out his photographers with shooting scripts – essentially long lists of images and concepts, very like poems, which he wanted to capture. An example can be found here: http://americanimage.unm.edu/shootingscript.html

The other thing is that if anyone wants to start another writing project with about the same level of commitment as this one (weekly, not long writings), let me know. This has kept me writing weekly and that in and of itself is a blessing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed A Year in Prose as much as I have.



Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Roy Stryker Shooting Script #3

255 - mango
Sarah Van Name

7. Cloverleaf passes

I want the feel of a full tank of gas and a couple just out of college. These photos should show the fifteen-year-old driving too slowly under his father’s tutelage and the same boy two years later getting pulled over by a state trooper. These are the smaller details, and as you should know by now, necessary: the couple’s hands intertwined, their fingers reminiscent of the loops of the highway that spirals over and around them, the shakiness of the boy’s movements as he pulls away.

But we also need the bigger picture. Get the aerial shots, the ones showing the beautiful ballet of the cars weaving in their lanes under and through. In the daytime, in the orange dusk, and at night with the red and the yellow.

8. “Fit for the likes of us”

A certain understanding of what’s suitable and what crosses lines. A blonde girl grows up in a suburb. Her mother works part-time as an office manager, her father makes business trips. For lunch she eats peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese on Wonder bread, with an apple and a bag of low-fat chips. She drinks skim milk at dinner and is asleep by midnight.

One day when she’s fifteen, her mother puts a mango in her lunch instead of an apple. When she bites into it, soft orange juice drips down her chin. This is the kind of thing that leads to the learning of curse words, and music with drums, and unprotected sex.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Roy Stryker Shooting Script #2

328 - chocolate
Sarah Van Name

4. We need more pictures to get the feeling of “Weather” – rain, mist and fog, snow, wind,

This is of the utmost importance. You have to understand that weather is the mother’s morning television before she wakes up the children. It’s the first breath of the day when one opens the door, the feeling of one’s skin as each hour passes, bus stop and dinner table conversation. The final arbiter of bicyclists and lifeguards. Without this, what can we have?

We need more pictures of both the dramatic and the standard – school cancellations, constellations of ice on the windshields of vehicles, and the powdered sugar dustings of snow that leave kids disappointed on cold-window mornings. In sifting through the File I have found also that pictures of girls with their hair whipped back by the wind (in the drivers’ seats of convertibles, silhouetted against the ocean) are absent. Fix this. Above all it is necessary to for us to see, and really see, the pools of sun that coalesce upon the shoulders of these girls.

5. Watering the lawn

The sprinkler system; the garden hose snaking endlessly from the bowels of the house; the splash of water on the sidewalk, yes. But also the anxiousness of the man who wants to keep his lawn greener than his neighbor. The warnings of water shortages. The green of the lawn, then the brown.

6. Soda counter – high school kids

Two boys sit at the left end. Two girls sit at the right. One of them is prettier than the other, her hair dark and smooth. She’s sipping a chocolate milkshake with the slow precision of someone who has a distracted mother and no afternoon curfew. Her friend gazes out the window into the April heat and watches a window-painter on the other side of the street, the muscles in his arms moving back and forth in repetitive motion. She bites her nails. The boys don’t look at either of them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Roy Stryker Shooting Script #1

Fragrance – 186

Sarah Van Name

1. Paper in park after concert

By this I mean the ways the papers fray, rip, scatter in the wind like so many kites. The color of the grass it lands on. The soggy silk of it as it floats on the pond, disturbing the serenity of ducks.

2. Fishing

Here I want poles, hooks, live and dead bait, not to mention the moment in which you take off your shirt and the sting and texture of the sunburn the next day. The chill of your feet in the water, the slipperiness of rocks, how the fish feels as it dies in your hands: the powerful contractions of its muscles. The thrill – the fear.

3. Baker’s bread

I am speaking here of the fragrance that fills the house when it bakes and when it is set on the counter, fresh from the oven, yes. But also the anticipation of that fragrance and the way the kitchen door sticks when you slide it open; the tear in the screen. The scratch of chalk on pavement. The taste and substance of the honeysuckle tucked behind your sister’s ear.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Darkroom - 90 words
Sarah Van Name

Darkroom colors were the ones that kept you, slight and shadowed in the chemical glow. Afternoons and evenings evaporated or were absorbed into you like sugar on your tongue. The play of light, the measure of time, the rich shades of gray in your subjects – they began to replace real sunshine afternoons and river beds. I was afraid that you would transpose yourself into the pictures you made and I would see you again only in negative strips, transparent and dark. Amber, and your fool self caught like a wasp.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mrs. Hirschman

Basement – 129

Sarah Van Name

Mrs. Hirschman was a traditionalist. She strongly disapproved of fast food and did not understand the concept of an e-book. She kept flour stored in bins in the basement and bought vegetables at a farmer's market. After dinner each evening she put tea and a record on, let the rich blues sway her hips, occasionally remembering the awkwardness she felt browsing the vinyl with the young hipsters in the sun-stained record store.

Her car had been bereft of air conditioning for some time, and in the syrupy Carolina summer, paused at stoplights for too long, she would sometimes start to feel ill. But something kept her from getting it repaired – a comfort in discomfort, maybe, in the trouble and triumph of keeping cool, and the quaintness of paper fans.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Recipes - 197 words

My family has never been about great-great relatives' customs or the old country. We make the new – sparkling wooden floors and good college education – and leave the old to fade. The rituals we practice are wholly our own, warm and sweetened with the knowledge that they belong exclusively to us. So I never received recipes on crinkled yellow paper, and I am fairly sure that the songs my parents sung to me were chosen for me alone.

I love this way of being, tradition rooted in creation. But a part of me hopes that when I have a daughter, we will sit at the kitchen table kneading bread – her small hands learning to turn and turn again – with Baking With Julia sitting in front of us vanilla-stained and stiff, and I’ll be able to look at her and say, “Look, this is the same book I used when I was a little girl.”

She won’t understand, I think, and maybe by then she will be part of a generation that knows books as mine knows vinyl, as a rich but inconvenient bygotten technology. But I hope not. I am keeping the book for the both of us.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


229 – blotches

“…happy birthday to you!”

I blew out the candles without stopping for a wish and, laughing, reached for a knife to cut the cake. I stretched out a plate to James, but he wasn’t looking. His eyes were caught on my sister’s hair. I set the plate down and kept cutting. This had happened before with other guys, and now it was happening again.

As the birthday girl, I really should have been the one getting drunk, but at the end of the night James was tipsy and I was sober, so I drove him home.

“Your sister’s hot,” he shouted over the music.

“I know,” I said, but I don’t think he heard me.

“Not even hot. She’s beautiful,” he screamed. I turned off the radio.

“You don’t want to get involved with her,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“She’s a psychic. She reads your future in, like, blotches of coffee you spill on the newspaper. I don’t know, she’s crazy.”

“That sounds cool,” he said. I glanced over at him. His eyes were red and glassy and the blinking yellow of the stoplight played on his face like a candle flickering. “That sounds really cool.”


A month later he knocked on my door looking five years older. “Your sister’s crazy,” he said. “She told me all this terrible shit. Freaked me out.”

“She does that,” I said.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

An Ocean

477 – phrase

Sarah Van Name

When the lights dimmed for the first warning, I was already in my seat. Josh and Thomas were sitting beside me, fighting over Fruit Ninja on Josh’s iPhone. Above us the chandelier crystal sent mosquitoes of light flying over the room, and on the stage, techs tuned guitars and kicked aside cables. The guys were talking next to me, their voices muted and intimate, so I just looked out over the crowd. Beards and plaid flannel; people laughing at themselves. The lights dimmed and brightened again.

Thomas hadn’t wanted to come to the concert. “I don’t know any of the music,” he'd said, but Josh had convinced him somehow and now he was here and in as good spirits as I’d ever seen him. His voice was raised, something about Fruit Ninja, but as the lights dimmed for the final time, the projection screen on the stage turned purple, and Josh hushed him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw their hands move together and interlock.

The audience stood in unison when the band walked onstage, bathed in black and purple light. A low, sweet fuzz of guitar, the barely beginning of drums. The lead singer stepped up to the microphone.

“It’s a terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders,” he sang, and that was the moment when I should have exhaled, but I kept holding my breath. That’s how he sang. As if with each new phrase he were recalling an old goodbye. I mouthed the words along with him, and they made more and less sense on my tongue than ever before.

His voice, deep as a cello, moved through the air like clouds in a cold winter. I looked to my left. Thomas and Josh held each other, swaying as if moved by a gentle wind and peaceful. I held my own hands and wrapped my arms around my own waist, moving by myself. “It takes an ocean not to break,” sang the man on the stage, but I did – tears were blurring my vision before I realized anything, but I let them drip down my cheeks. I was holding myself too tight to let go.

A part of me wanted Josh to look over and offer a hug, give me something, some gesture of friendship. But he and Thomas were too much absorbed in each other.

When we left the auditorium, it was cold and I had no jacket. We walked across the street to the McDonald’s for hot chocolate, and I rubbed my arms.

“That was the saddest concert of my life,” I said into the air.

“Why?” Thomas called over his shoulder.

“I miss my boyfriend,” I told him. “He’s five hundred miles away.”

“At least you have someone,” he told me. “That’s no excuse.”

So, wrapped in my own terrible love, I stayed quiet and held myself close.