Monthly Archives: November 2017

Vintage Holiday Images from the (Great) Pacific Northwest

This week I went to the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington. They have a several shows there currently. Territorial Hues: The Color Print and Washington State 1920-1960 is an excellent exhibit of mid-century Northwest printmakers.  The pieces by Glen Alps were some of my favorites.

The museum is also showing their third annual display of Vintage Christmas Cards.Many of them are done using printmaking techniques (always good for reproducing images in multiple). Here is a small sampling from the display.

Glen Alps, 1954.

George Tsutakawa, 1967.

Danny Pierce, “Christmas Trees”, 1986

Danny Pierce, “Cockle Prober”, 1990

Danny Pierce, circa 1990.

LaVerne Fromberg, 1958.

Artist Unknown, circa 1955.

William J. C. Klamm, 1949.

William J. C. Klamm, 1964.

William J. C. Klamm, 1955.

Stephen Dunthorne, circa 1952.

Katherine Westphal Rossbach, 1948.

Jacob Elshin, circa 1929.

Artist unknown, circa 1951.

Richard Kirsten Daiensai, Ancient King and Calling Bird, 1955.

Here are two decorated envelopes from Orre Noble that remind me of my trans-continental correspondence with Julie Paschkis.

I like how many of them have more to do with what the artist was currently doing with their work, than Christmas itself.

Seeing them makes me wonder what I might do for a holiday card this year. I hope they inspire you as well!

And if you are in the region, go see the exhibits! They are there till January 7th.

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What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

Altered Books

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Altered book created in Debra Goldman’s workshop “Story, Art and Transformation.”

Well, this post is not about writing books but unwriting them! Or re-writing them. Re-imagining them. Turning them into something else, even when that something else is another book.

I took an “altered books” workshop the other day, led by the muti-talented Bellingham artist Debra Goldman.  It’s clear to me that altering my book will take a long, long time, because my approach to creativity seems to be so verbal. What I want to do is push myself into more visual territory, and that’s going to be a challenge for me; it will take real pushing…and maybe more than one workshop session. But I imagine many moments of surprise ahead, and surprise keeps a writer — and most artists, I believe — attentive.

My inspiration – my models – were two books, one by Tom Phillips titled  A Humament, and the other A Little White Shadow by the poet Mary Ruefle.

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A Humament is filled with pages where most of the text has been painted over, leaving only words that Phllips conceives of as a new narrative. He used a forgotten 19th-century novel titled A Human Document, written by W. H. Mallock, and “plundered, mined and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories…which seem to lurk within its wall of words.”  The text of every original page has been painted or transformed in some way, leaving only the words Phillips chose for his “alteration.” Here is part of one page looks like:

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So the text which descends down the right-hand side of the page reads “memory, turning seventy, renewed with a muse of quaint treated news.”

Another page, which lets quite a bit more of the original text show through, looks like this:

imageIt reads, “I could be a book, explaining everything on margins / I could be a photograph lifted from his heart, /  Ah! Tomorrow”.

Mary Ruefle’s book, A Little White Shadow (the original 19th-century novel’s title was used), is equally interesting: only 56 pages long, it’s more like a chapbook of selected pages from the original (Phillips’s book is small but hefty – 368 altered pages!) The poems Ruefle finds are delicate and haunting, and the sense that these poems represent a palimpsest, a fragment of something washed or scraped away, gives you an extra little shiver.

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My beginnings are pretty clumsy, but I’m going with the idea of found poems. So far, I’ve cut to pieces the cover of Sandra Cisneros’s book Woman Hollering Creek, eliminated one word fom the title, and added a question mark. My altered book will be titled Woman Hollering? Here’s the unfinished title page:

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The found poem on the title page is a little strange, but I tend to like strange:

What they don’t understand
and what they don’t tell you —
in just three paragraphs —
is how a girl can “go bad”
while selling cucumbers,
and why she wants to yell.

That’s taken from the front flap of the cover. The cucumbers on the left-hand page were colored in with green pastels, and the text underneath is gibberish – machine language, not English. Maybe that’s what hollering is? Anyway, I’m having a ball finding the poems within the original text…but the visual imagination is still lacking. Debra Goldman’s suggestions and advise will help, I’m hoping to fill the spaces around the found poems with metaphorically connected images and shapes. We’ll see if I can do it, and I’ll post more about the book/experiment as it develops. Meanwhile, here’s my advice (to myself, as well as to you): Surprise yourself by doing something new. It’s like mental yoga – it stretches you.

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

1.winsor, side,sleigh

The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

4.corner,chip, gill

As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

2.un-id

For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

victorian

Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.