• Jan Carroll

Riding the Ricochet--and Beyond--in Our Writing



For Love, for Justice, For Vision Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman explains in an interview he loves getting an idea from another band member while playing together, then that musician gets ideas from him, and they ricochet back and forth like that.


I think of Ricochet Rabbit from my childhood Saturday morning cartoons. A sheriff in the Wild West, he’d ricochet off objects in his surroundings in pursuit of justice, to catch the bad guys, yelling, “Bing, Bing, Bing!” His deputy, Droop-A-Long Coyote, was slow and clumsy. His bullets, when they finally exited his gun, just fell to the ground.


Art photographer Rudolf Steiner’s book Ricochet is the result of using a digital camera to take several dozen to up to hundreds of shots of a scene within a ten-to-thirty-minute time frame. He then merges those photos into one composition through a computer program. While the term ricochet means “rebound” or “bounce back” and is generally associated with gunshot, Steiner is drawing on Plato’s theory of “ray of vision,” which says that the eye sends out a visual ray that explores the environment something like a blind person’s tapping cane communicates back a picture of the surroundings. For Steiner, the many photographs taken act similarly to the “visual ray” by bouncing off the alterations in the light and weather, and the camera records these “ricochets.” The term is also used in art photography books to describe how one picture refers, or ricochets, to another.


Usually Occurs within Boundaries A friend lends me a book on jazz, shows me how on each jazz standard’s sheet music, at the bottom are the ranges within which, for that song, a soloist could, once the melody had been set down, craft variations on a theme. Jazz innovation bounces around within a given framework, a certain scale or chord. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau explains, “We could think . . . in terms of building a house. In theme and variations or jazz soloing, the frame of the house has already been built, and the composer/soloist can decorate all he wants, without worry that the structure will collapse. However—a big however: He cannot stray from the frame of the house; he must work within its borders. . . . Theme and variations make a concession—they relinquish the autonomous act of building that house from the ground up, and follow that pre-existing template. They make this sacrifice in the service of a more immediate kind of expression. The urge to make variations is a pragmatic urge—the urge for a quicker means to an end; the desire for a template that one can open and start filling with the creative, chattering stream of material rustling in his or her head; a template that will then quickly organize that chatter. The necessary dichotomous identity of musical expression is then quickly established—the fixed identity of the thematic structure announces itself to the listener repeatedly, giving him or her a continual reference point, and the drama and flux of difference and variety play out within that structure.”


In another example, what is an eventually productive brainstorming session but ideas caroming off the participants ears, minds, and verbal responses within a meeting room? But one hundred people on a Zoom call ends up more chaotic with few solid ideas generated.


Or kids are told: Play whatever you want but stay in the fenced back yard. Checking on them later through the window, they remind their parent of those numbered ping pong balls being mixed up in the lottery tumbler, but these are all winners!


At the pool hall, you can only score consistently by first comprehending best angles to drop numbered balls into corner or side pockets, by staying within the defined playing field of the (usually) green felt game table. Ricochet within the table’s shoulders.


Ricochet’s lines, back and forth all over the place, run up against some kind of barrier, limitation, wall. Can you identify with that? Has that angled map been your experience—in life or in your writing? Do you sometimes find yourself a little nauseous at these abrupt turns? But is this the way we continually echolocate the shaky, temporary, contextual truth? If so, maybe it’s good we have confines, hills, dilapidated barns, road blocks, and thick bridges for our wild seeking, our thought patterns, our creative juices, to run up against and then angle off into other directions, rather than just careening out into open space, leaving no discernible trace. Maybe it’s good things sometimes unpredictably change course.


Credit Due the Straight Line Sometimes a straight line, clean and uncomplicated, is your best bet. Sometimes you can’t go wrong with that. Sometimes as-the-crow-flies, the shortest distance between beginning and end, is a sound decision, concise and to the point. But I tend to lean toward ricochet, my go-to preference.


Jumping the Bounds It’s one thing to recognize ricochet’s intriguing ways and all the hairpin-curve gifts that yields in our work. Yet another to notice one of ricochet’s rays escaping the limits of an established paradigm and recognize the value, the gift of that, cherishing it, mining it for all it’s worth. For surprise, for depth of perspective (that small white dot in the black half of the yin/yang symbol, or vice versa?), for something suddenly turning up in a serious piece like a good joke’s punch line.


What if Ricochet Rabbit, in one episode, flies off to the moon, lounges there on the beach a while (or encounters an alien with whom his “superpower” doesn’t work), then bounces home? Or tries to but can’t?


What if Steiner’s photography book ended with a photograph noticeably incongruent to the others? Maybe one taken when he thought the equipment was turned off and he was carrying it home, all of the preceding photos ricocheting off each other and ultimately to this one, this odd duck. What might that say? How might that change the whole gestalt of the collection?


A jazz improvisationalist wouldn’t likely go to notes outside the given scale or chord. Unless . . . the goal was to create a marked dissonance? I’ve read stories that Coltrane sometimes hit a “wrong” note the first go-round, but then the band adjusted to it more and more on successive passes, taking that waywardness in as a then key component.


If the delivery guy drops lunch off to the brainstormers, how does one of those floated ideas land on him, not having the background info, the context of everything that’s already been said? Does it just go in one ear and out the other, not registering anything, as he’s waiting for his tip? Or does that fragment, like happy shrapnel, hit him unexpectedly and propel him in some new bizarre yet exhilarating direction?


What if the kids’ ball bounces out of the yard and into the street and they run after it? How does that reshape the story of their playful afternoon? What tension grabs hold?


Pool shark who shoots one of the balls off the table will probably be made fun of, though, I suppose, he or she might have a reason for doing so. To grab the attention of a certain someone chatting at the bar with friends? To distract a bully long enough to maneuver escape? To make everybody laugh with a class-clown antic to lift an atmospheric gloom descended on the room?


Practically Speaking Over the days I’m writing this, I go back and forth between three or four projects in progress, the parting-with and returning-to seemingly lending quick, new fresh looks at each piece in fairly rapid succession. I start to see how they are all related in a way, one generating clues or ideas for another, strengthening each. More specifically, as I’m writing this essay, it doesn’t evolve linearly; I jot down ideas all over the page, with only a turning-this-way-and-that thread connecting them. I keyboard all these disparate yet synergistic thoughts into one Word document. Still not able to make good sense of it, I print it out, cut out each paragraph (sometimes extracting a sentence or two from a paragraph and rehoming it), and spread them out on the table. They sit there for a few days. One morning I come up with the three line sketches above, which seems to me like a helpful outline. I place each paragraph under the line sketch that seems apt for it, taping them together with new connective material, the results roughly resembling Steiner’s book cover art. THEN I go back, rearrange the text in the original document. Though still the residue of ricochet, the thread through now makes more sense.


What About You? So what are our tools? The more-or-less straight line point A to point B, the wild ride of ricochet, and the seemingly errant, dislodged train-off-the-rails flying into who-knows-what—that completely unanticipated new way of saying something, of living it, not necessarily choosing it, but being thrust into that milieu.


Now, put all that into how you think about poetry—both writing and reading it. What then?! Where might that take you?! How can you steer through such Space-Mountain (Disneyland) rollercoaster rides and live to write about it, to bring a piece to ripe, fresh (even weird) fruition?


Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” says, “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I'm falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil, I say, ‘Whoa, so this is what she means.’ She means we're bouncing into Graceland.” Are we always or at least often potentially ricocheting into some kind of heaven, some state of grace? Some sweet spot some might call “good writing,” innovative, unexpected, thought-challenging? “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland,” the song adds. I do too.


Ride the ricochet, then write, your words, all ricochet wrought.


Yes, you can think of it as a superpower. Go for it! Bing, bing, bing!

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This essay was written way back in 2001 or 2002 for a really great class by Kate Hale Wilson at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire. Now, under our stay-at-home order, I have been missing seeing t