Lois Farfel Stark
The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times
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What is your book about?
In something as simple as shape, we can read the past and glimpse the future. Shape is a key—hiding in plain sight—that reveals the mental map of an era. From the round-thatched huts and pyramids of history to gravity-defying buildings in China today, our mental map has gone from seeing the world as a connected web to a linear ladder to a reverberating network. What’s next? Doughnut-shaped buildings are popping up on every continent—structures that allow us to see things from all sides. Living in new shapes reshapes our thinking.
What inspired you to write your book?
In the forests of Liberia, I filmed a girls’ initiation ceremony where women danced in a circle, in the hub of a circular settlement, surrounded by round-thatched huts. They were imitating nature’s circle. The next day, in the city, I filmed a military parade where soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder in straight rows and perfect pods, marching like graph paper being turned in a book. Our worldviews have shifted from circles to straight lines over the centuries. Writing this book was a way to understand what triggered such a dramatic change.
Can you describe your writing process?
I scribble notes to myself on whatever paper is at hand. Weeks later, I sort through the tidbits and usually a few of the scribbles stand out. Then I go to the computer and try to flesh out the ideas. Sometimes the right words flow in the right order. When they don’t, I leave them and return a week or so later to begin writing the same idea as if it struck me for the first time.
How did you come to do what you’re doing today?
In my early career I made documentary films for NBC News covering countries in tension and transition like Abu Dhabi, Israel, Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Cuba. Other films I produced were on architecture, globalization, medical research, and social issues. These experiences led me to my current book, which has 200 images. So, you could say it is a documentary film on paper. It’s entitled The Telling Image because the right image can sum up a situation, giving you the context, emotion, and ingredients all at once.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
A typical week offers a better picture than a single day. Ideally, I write on Mondays. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are for dealing with image permissions, text corrections, marketing, and research. On Fridays my writing group meets and we share commentary and feedback on each of our excerpts. On good weekends I write more—sometimes at night; sometimes during the day.
What do you most enjoy about what you do?
I am thrilled when a good sentence is born. As well, I enjoy the moment when I read something that confirms a wild idea I’ve had—it gives me self-permission to go public with the zany notion. I also love it when I find an image that encapsulates exactly what I want to say. But above all, I relish the feeling when someone says they see the world differently after reading my book.
Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?
My deceased father is still my lodestar. He was a visionary and encouraged endless questions. I’ve also always been drawn to mythology. Myths are the fiction that tells the larger truth about our human nature. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are insightful guides to these worlds.
Can you share something that people may be surprised to learn about you?
In the early 1960s, I was interested in the birth of space law. This was just after Sputnik had launched. My dream was that this new, common supra-territory—called space—would spur humans to work out agreements without war. My hope was that space exploration would be the trump card that could bind humans into cooperation.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book about desks being the homes of our minds. Desks are where we sit down to figure out what we are thinking as we write. The book will cover desks from known writers, artists, and scientists. It will also compare old roll-top desks to cloud storage, and work at-large on mobile devices or new co-sharing workspaces popping up around the world.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
When I was a child, I remember being excited when I wrote a poem I liked. A wise person once told me, “Notice what makes you smile.” This is as sure a guide to your purpose as any I know.
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