On Writing "The Datura" in Issue 299.1

Toni Mirosevich

“There must be some reason why we look where we look when we look.”

This quote, from Graham Swift’s book, Last Orders, is a favorite of mine. I’ve used the quote as a epigraph, scrawled it on the blackboard hundreds of times for the students to puzzle over, taped to my desk to remind myself daily that there’s something just beyond my own efforts that brings a piece of writing into being. Some days I believe there has to be some reason we select out of all of that comes which into our visual field—that particular view, that moment, that light, that image—and on other days I believe there’s no reason whatsoever why this image, this object, this view versus that. On days like the latter, I think that what I look at and subsequently write about is nothing more than where my eyes have rested.


After writing "The Datura," I began to think about the quote in a new way.  First, a quick synopsis of the piece: I arrive early to a friend’s house. We’re going out to a play, a revival of Our Town, and I can tell by her empty driveway that she’s not yet home from work. Imagining that when she comes home and sees me waiting there she’ll feel bad (Oh, I’m so sorry I kept you waiting!) I drive past her house to another street a few blocks over and park. And wait. Before long a man comes walking down the sidewalk. I watch as he gets into a truck parked right behind my parked car. Instead of driving off he sits in the cab of his truck and lights up a cigarette.

Was there a reason, unbeknownst to me, I chose that street to park and wait? Or a reason I chose that parking space, or chose that moment to look up and see the man walking by, or chose to arrive early to pick up my friend? I don’t know. Before the man came into view, I’d been looking at the houses, at the gardens in the front yards, then zeroed in on one particular yard and at one particular plant: datura plant, also known as “angel’s trumpets.” A memory popped up. Years ago, my wife advised me to “take a moment” during my days working long shifts at a fruit and vegetable stand in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Well, that’s what I was doing in the car, taking a moment, and quickly on the heels of that memory another memory followed, a story she once told me of watching her father drink medicine from a cobalt-blue bottle when she was a child.

What happens next and next and next in the piece is better read than told but let’s just say images and memories and ruminations begin to gather.  The Datura plant—similar to the belladonna plant with its poisonous properties—soon links up, in my mind, with the cancerous effects of smoking cigarettes, which connects up with the radiation treatments my wife was currently undergoing after receiving a cancer diagnosis.  Next, it wasn’t a big leap to remembering that her father received a cancer diagnosis a few years after drinking from that blue bottle. Now the connections and associations come fast and furious. Miles Davis’s trumpet solo in “Kind of Blue” blows into the scene and links up with the trumpet shape of the datura flower. In an imagined garden scene, a blue bottle dragonfly appears.

What occurred in the writing of "The Datura" is what often occurs for me when a story gets rolling. Images and memories and fragments of stories begin to beckon to each other, as if to say include me, include me. These disparate yet connected sets of images and ideas call to be closer, nearer to each other, to share the landscape of one piece.

Back to the quote. Is there a reason I chose to lock eyes with that Datura plant early on, a look that started it all?

Maybe the reason why we look where we look when we look is that we need to find something for all the images and associations to circle around, to attach to, which then creates a pattern or web of connections that lead us to something we can barely acknowledge, something residing just below the surface of any given moment.

What was lying just below the surface that evening?  An uneasiness. A sense of not being able to predict what was around the next bend. My wife and I were in that waiting period of not knowing what would happen next, post radiation. There was no certainty, just as I couldn’t know whether the man walking down that unfamiliar street was threatening or benign, or that my wife’s father’s cigarettes contributed to his death (was it what was in that little blue bottle? She’d heard it included tincture of belladonna), just as I can never predict that whatever I’m looking at whenever I look will yield a piece of writing.

So, was there a reason I selected the datura plant to start the story, or to watch the man walking down the street and wonder about him, or a reason the memory of a blue bottle and later a blue bottle butterfly would fly into the story. Imagined? I don’t know. Maybe not. Or maybe, “the world is bound with secret knots”, another favorite quote attributed to the 17th century Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher. Maybe we need to light on something to start the process, to narrow down the visual field and do what I often suggest to my students: find the smallest door into the larger story. To look there, look there, no matter the reason.

If I remove certain words in Swift’s quote, this refrain remains: we look, we look, we look. That is true. That much I can be sure of.

Toni Mirosevich is a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her most recent book of poetry is The Takeaway Bin (Spuyten Duyvil).  Her collection of nonfiction stories, Pink Harvest (MidList Press), received the First Series in Creative Nonfiction Award. She lives in Pacifica, California. "The Datura" is published in North American Review's Winter Issue 299.1.

Image: Public domain by Neelix