Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How to Tackle Six-Word Memoirs

Three years ago, in 2011 (!), I wrote about six-word stories in the post "Writing Tiny Stories." At this point, many website are devoted to them. The first, from SMITH Magazine, is linked to the 2008 book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, which itself started with a blog in 2006. The editors got a multi-book deal, so there are new books available that focus on different topics or groups such as: I Can't Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure; and Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: by Writers Famous and Obscure and It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure and Six-Words Memoirs on Jewish Life.

In the 2011 post I tried to break it down, to figure out what one needed to write them. I've come up with some other suggested formats. Again, I wonder, can you describe your life story in six words? My first thought was, "This is hard. I am overwhelmed."

The you that is YOU is complex. Where to start? Try focusing on one of these.
  • Character traits (intellectual or emotional: what are you perceived strengths or weaknesses?)
  • Interests and hobbies
  • Physical self-description
  • One moment in your lifetime (a particular memory or story)
  • Dream or dream self
  • Your fears
  • Your desires
  • Your connection to someone to whom you feel close or from whom you feel distant
Some sample formats
  • Cause and Effect: I did this. Then that happened.
  • Comparisons: I'm like this. But also that.
  • Similes: Being me is like ___    ___   (Swiss cheese? Braids undone?)
  • Metaphors: I am a/the/an  ___   ___   ___  (tiger asleep already? shiny beach shell?)
  • Puns or wordplay: Pick a subject. Use double meanings. (i.e. shoes and soles/souls or tongues)
And a few possibilities:

Talks in metaphors. Paints in rhyme.

Told the truth. Lost the "friends."

Throwing out crumbs. Waiting for fish.


School starts today. I'm going to try this with the class as content for the stick scroll.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chinese-Inspired Stick Scroll

A friend was traveling in China this summer and sent me a picture of an ancient almanac from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Bamboo strips were inscribed vertically and joined with strings woven through the strips (much like a sushi mat you might buy today). I realized later that Terry Horrigan of Protean Press in San Francisco had made a book in 2005 with an articulated cover called The China I Knew by Rose Covarrubias, perhaps inspired by this ancient form. Those movable segments have always intrigued me. It was time to make my own version.



I wondered where to get bamboo strips and looked at window coverings and hobby and garden stores. Impatient, and not wanting to buy any new supplies, I got out my 4-ply museum board scraps and found I had several strips I would never use for bookmaking. Until now.

Out came the acrylic inks, of course. I painted a half sheet of Velin Arches. I let the black fade into gray as I went along and used red to color the counters (the enclosed areas of the letters: o and a and e and b have them, for example).

My painting says, in a variety of repetitions, What do you see when you look at me? a scroll a book a sushi mat? What do you see when you look at me? a text a subtext a body? What do you see when you look at me? Look at me.

I wondered what would happen when it was cut into strips, if the text could be read or be understandable.




I wrapped each of the boards as you would wrap separate book covers.
(See instructions for wrapping separate boards in Making Handmade Books.)
And I collaged the backs with scraps of the painted paper I didn't use
but still in keeping with the gradation idea.

Red or black waxed linen? I chose black, leaving the only color
the counters of the letters.

A little over twice the width of the strips.
Three threads this length.
Place the first board in the folds of the threads 
(the fold is shown on the left).

Cross each thread. Arrange one thread left, one thread right.
Lay the next strip on top of the threads pointing right.

Repeat the crossing of the threads and placing the next strip on top of the
threads pointing right.

Tie off in square knots at the end. Do not trim! 
You will use these as a closure when the scroll is rolled.



Back view with random scraps collaged as end papers.


Front view. I kept the strips on order, but they did wrap around the edges
so the lines aren't completely legible.
The final piece measures about 16" square (factoring in the tallest pieces).

Every new structure demands a new way of thinking about text, which is probably why I like this activity so much. Smaller lettering next time will help, I think! Onward to more challenges.

Thanks, Cara, for inspiring this!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sparks: Inspiration

What is that feeling? Malaise? Depressing news? Hormones, again? Don't feel like doing anything? This happens to me often when I am between projects: a restlessness sets in. I have a studio full of unfinished other projects, but nothing there seems to interest me. Then I read a book, see a movie, see an exhibition, or read an article that sparks me to work. I never know what it will be or when it will hit me, and often, I forget that it will appear.

Current sparks:
The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen. I read an article in the NY Times that mentioned it was the 50th anniversary of O'Hara's book, Lunch Poems, which, although I am pulling fifty myself, I have never readExamples were included in the article that were so lively they made me want to read more. Lunch Poems wasn't available in the library, but the collection was. I skip over some, but some just tickle or electrify me, such as "Les Étiquettes Jaunes" (21) and "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" (449) and "To Larry Rivers" (128) and "Digression on Number 1, 1948" (260) and "Why I Am Not a Painter" (261). Very fine observations and injections of feeling in his poems. I find I'm drawn to the shorter, lively ones that are more about the day. I did not know he worked at the Museum of Modern Art (which is where he wrote Lunch Poems), or that he made 26 poem-paintings. You can see four poem-paintings here. (Format issue: I think I might like just the Lunch Poems, alone. This volume breaks the poems willy-nilly, as the page suits, in half, or even one last line gets pushed onto the next page!) Reading the poems, however, jump-started my poem writing again.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. A friend gave me this book of little mini-biographies of well-known writers, artists, musicians, composers, scientists, etc. Each describes his or her daily routines. Some forced themselves to sit at their desks, others delighted in writing and needed no discipline. Many took long walks, many were tea drinkers, others used amphetamines or alcohol or sex. Although I am disappointed that the list is mostly men (27 women out of 161), reading about these creators is still nicely energizing. This book got me to pay attention to every moment and think about what I'm doing.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Another book that turned fifty that I had never read. There has been some recent controversy about her science and some of her examples, but so far, I'm finding the overall philosophy to be something I want to think about. One sentence to think about: "We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons [pesticides] without their knowledge" (12). She goes on to mention that the Bill of Rights does not specify our right to know because it never occurred to the founding fathers that people would do such a thing. It sparks me to think about responsible action and what that means. 

Reading Carson's book, along with a recent visit to the California History gallery of the Oakland Museum, where I always enjoy looking at the Indian baskets and objects (and this time fixated on a necklace made of tortoise shell segments and beads), renewed my interest in painting paper based on nature.

Gift: Trade: Commerce: Did Anyone Ask the Tortoise?
(threaded accordion book in progress)

Monday, August 18, 2014

What Does It Mean When They Say "Read the Magazine?"

If you submit work to literary magazines, you will note that the guidelines almost always say something like, "To get an idea for what we like, read the magazine." And you read a few pieces and you think, "I can write as well as that," and you think that's the end of it. But, in fact, the editors are asking you to do some research. It's hard to know what questions they want you to explore, but here are some possible items to consider when you are trying to figure out what they like.

Genre. First make sure you know what your piece is. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Westerns, and Folk Tales are probably going to be accepted by different magazines than creative nonfiction or literary fiction. Poetry often has its own constraints.

Length. Is most of the work short or long? Does the magazine take work over or under a certain length?

Format. Do they handle unusual spacing or shaping of poetry? This is really hard in html, and your poem will not look good across all platforms, particularly mobile, if it has tabs. Print magazines may be able to accommodate format issues.

Subject. Have they taken work with a similar subject to what you are considering submitting? If so, they may not want a similar piece unless you have handled it from a different angle. Do they like subjects on the edge? From the heart? Conceptual? Ironic? Do you see violence? Judgment? Grief? Everyday problems such as divorce and death? Interior dilemmas such as guilt or shame? Moral choices? See this post for subjects to avoid, or at least to be careful of.

Tone. Does the work you see come from anger, love, curiosity, bewilderment? Is it written in a clinical manner or informally? Does it sound like it is trying to teach or show or preach? Authoritative or exploratory?

Language. Do they pay attention to the sound of words? Does every word seem to mean something? Do they like heaped-on images? Surreal and stream-of-consciousness? Matter-of-fact descriptions? Big words? Natural-sounding words? Creative metaphors? Simple similes? Clichés disguised as poetry (as in "the grass was a green carpet")?

Humor. I think the kind of humor appreciated by the magazine is the ultimate key. Is there any apparent or obvious humor? Some magazines are very serious. Some want broad comedy. Is the humor silly or clever, witty, sly, self-deprecating, or mean? The kind of humor is a clue. Does your humor match? Do you laugh at the work that is meant to seem funny? Your work might match, too. If you cringe, don't bother, this magazine is not for you.

Even after you go through this list, it may be hard to tell. But it is worth reading a large sample so you get some kind of intuitive feeling. You might even find some other writers you like. See how a magazine describes itself. Pankfor example, likes the gritty, experimental, sometimes shocking, Word Riot wants "forceful " "edgy" and "challenging." Generations is interested in "encouraging conversations across the generational gaps." Blackberry wants to "expose readers to the diversity of the black woman's experience and strengthen the black female voice." You've got to know what the magazine is about before you submit, or you are wasting your time and the editor's time. You can find a listing of magazines and their calls for submissions here.

Lastly, be aware that most magazines accept only 2-10% of the work they receive! It may be that you did your homework (You did! You did!), but your piece just doesn't fall into that acceptance category.

No matter what, good luck and keep writing!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Void: Book without the Letter E

After I wrote (in an earlier post) about OuLiPo and constraint-based writing, I decided to read A Void, a translation by Gilbert Adair of the French novel La Disparition by Georges Perec (1936-1982), which avoids all words with the letter E: a lipogram. I expected the language to be stilted, that perhaps this book was a novelty at best. Surprise! It is funny and witty, and the plot kept me keep reading. Not only was Perec a masterful writer, but so was Adair (1944-2011).

The summary on the back is also E-less, but I have neither the patience nor the skill to write this post as a lipogram. So, there shall be Es.

Opening the book, I was wary: would I be able to read it? Would it make sense? I was worried about archaic language used as work-arounds, and I was completely conscious of searching every word for Es. It began violently funny and funny how violent: a description of starvation that could be humorous? "You'd kill your own kith and kin for a chunk of salami, your cousin for a crust, your crony for a crouton and just about anybody at all for a crumb" (viii). Welcome to this world. Could Perec/Adair refrain from using the pronoun "he" for the first protagonist Anton Vowl? He does. The only noticeable word replacement is "whilst" for "while." We see the sly writers' workings with, "'And now for a public announc—'…Damn that static!" (4). And we're off!


Insomniac Vowl is searching his rug for a "missing strand" (6), and he hallucinates or dreams of a bookshelf with 26 numbered books, but number 5, of course is missing (E), and there is no gap for it. This is "a void," (13) or one of many. The number 5 becomes symbolic, the pivot for many of the following plot twists. Suspicious, I went back to the table of contents and mai oui! There is no chapter 5 here, either. Vowl keeps a diary, which lists many activities that seem strange to him, including, "a compositor at a printing plant wilfully [sic] vandalising his own typographic apparatus" (26). French and Italian phrases are employed to avoid the words "yes" and "me" (28). Vowl disappears. Aha! 
It is a mystery. The hunt for the missing person is on, and along the way we discover complications and new plots.

Vowl's diary is the source for numerous texts within the text, primarily rewrites of famous poems and stories sans E. Moby Dick is one of the first (short! 69-73), later we find "Living, or Not Living" by William Shakspar, "Vocalisation" by Arthur Rimbaud ("Vowels," with reference to the E omitted) and "Black Bird" by Arthur Gordon Pym (104-108). When you get to "Quoth that Black Bird, 'Not Again,'" you realize where you are. But how is Arthur Gordon Pym a stand-in for Edgar Allan Poe? I chased AGP down to a novel by Poe: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which turns out also to have been an inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick  (1851). This is way too clever for me, and I know there are other literary allusions I am missing. Ah, so perhaps that is part of the conceptual point: finding the void in the reader's knowledge as well. Even if you don't get them all, the allusions are fun.


A "zahir" appears, definitely (more sleuthing here) in reference to a 1949 story El Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges: the translation of "zahir" is "the surface, or apparent meaning of things" or "something that creates an obsession," which is the subject of this entire book.


The book even refers to itself (or its author) as one character expounds to another, "It was born out of a mad and morbid whim: that of wholly satisfying a fascination with linguistic gratuity, with proscription and subtraction, that of avoiding any word striking its author as too obvious, too arrogant or too common…from constraint is born autonomy" (177-178). And later, even more clearly as a character strives to remember a book "that would contain a solution to his plight" was it, "La Disparition? Or Adair's translation of it?" (201).

Another notable play with words on page 212: "Alas and alack for Alaric and his lass!"

As I read further, I decided that the main word consciously avoided is "death" (décès in French). Amaury, one of the other characters, in a much longer monologue, says, "It is, I say to you, by our saying nothing, by our playing dumb, that this Law of 'an I for an I' that's pursuing us today is still so strong…Nobody's willing to talk about it, to put a word to it, so causing us all to fall victim to a form of damnation of which nothing is known." (197). An article about Perec suggests that La Disparition refers not only to disappearances, but to the Holocaust. His father was "killed in action…and his mother died in a concentration camp."  Perec was saved by relatives, who changed his name from Peretz to Perec, to avoid sounding Jewish, and this linguistic change saved him. 

The previous passage perhaps confirms the truth that death is unavoidable and also a mystery, but reading it within the context of Perec's life gives it an even darker meaning. It is possible he was treating heavy subject of Nazi occupation with many layers, including comedy and metaphor, to make it readable. My first impression was that while it may color the writing/reading, it was a bit of a stretch. But by page 244 and this line, "this man in whom such wrath was stoking up such fanaticism and who would go all out to find us," I wasn't so sure. Page 265 brought sharper focus: "…why not you? By rights, your surviving such a holocaust is illogical."

The wild ride eventually stopped, all mysteries were raveled or unraveled or left with just a void; they were quite complex and became stranger and stranger as the historical link seemed clearer, or at least more plausible, if not a bit depressing. In the postscript, Perec described the reason he undertook the task and the hope that he would be able to go deeply into his imagination in a way he couldn't without the constraint. He wrote, "Initially I found such a constraint faintly amusing…it took my imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways, I couldn't stop thinking about it…at last giving up all my ongoing work…" (282). Did it work? The turnings of the ending were almost too confusing, but overall, worth the read. The fact that it had a constraint did not hurt it in the end, it was actually important to the plot. I think this is an excellent example of a book where form and function are intertwined and necessary.

Once he finished La Disparition, Perec collected all the Es he had avoided, and in 1972 wrote a new book entertaining E as the only vowel called, Les Revenentes.





Friday, August 8, 2014

Tools: Brushes and Pens for Lettering

When I plan an edition of a book I know I am limited to the styles of metal type stashed in drawers in my studio: Caslon Oldstyle and Univers, some Bodoni, Bembo, and limited quantities of some other pretty faces. When I'm making just one book, however, rather than a multiple, I have to choose what style, size, and color, and how I want to execute them. Each style has a certain character to it and can enhance or detract from the text. 

For lettering tools, I generally choose from: a crow quill pen; a pointed nib; a ruling pen; and a variety of sizes of round and flat brushes. For reference, I thought it might be interesting to test them here and look at quality and brand as well. Here are my explorations.

Left to right and top to bottom: 
#3 round; #4 round; #6 round; #6 bright; #8 flat shader; #0 round; #00 (2/0) round

All are short-handled watercolor brushes except 
the blue-handled bright, which is an acrylic/oil brush.


#3 round. A medium small brush: I was able to use it for lettering in a few books. 
This is a Loew-Cornell brand, known as "economy" or "student" grade for a reason.
They are crappy brushes. You can see where I had to trim errant bristles.
They don't hold their point well and tend to look like they have bedhead.
You can see what happens when the hairs are split in the top word.
Another brand of this size would be better for detailed work.

#4 is a little larger. 
Too large for lettering in small books, but fine for larger ones. 
Again, the crappy brand, but this one hasn't been used as much.

#6. Larger still. 
Fine for lettering on big sheets of painted paper.
Still the crappy brand. And I mean crappy: on one of these the ferrule 
(that's the metal part that holds the bristles) came off 
and I had to glue it back to the wood handle with Tacky Glue.

#6 bright. 
This is a Blick student grade brush, but still better than the others.
It's fine, but I don't adore using it. Since it has a flat edge I could count up four widths
to find the x-height for the letters.

This #8 flat shader is really too big for books (and for this tiny card! bleh!), 
but excellent for painted paper lettering if you want
boxy letters or more pronounced thick and thin strokes.

#0. round. 
I just bought this brush and am trying it out for the first time here.
It is tiny and pretty springy, holds the point and easy to use.
It's a Utrecht brand. Not bad. 
I'm definitely more comfortable with a smaller brush.

#00. round.
Even smaller than the one above and a Blick "Master Synthetic."
It handled well. This and the #0 may be my new favorite lettering brushes.

I tend to be partial to pens because I can control the ink and the lettering better.
These are the two I most often use: the crow quill and a regular pointed nib in a holder.

The crow quill will give you a line as fine as the #00 brush.
It can be scratchy for some people.
Do not press down hard when the ink runs out or the point will break.
You have to be sensitive to the amount of ink you have or need to add
with the dropper.

This nib is much more flexible than the crow quill and writes almost as small.
You can buy more nibs to fit the holder, and they are not very expensive.

This is an old ruling pen.

See how the bead of ink is suspended between the points by surface tension.
You can adjust the width, but it still leaves a thicker amount of ink on the paper.
It can be a little awkward to use, but it is fun to try. Also good for lettering on 
larger sheets of painted paper.

Size and shape matter. Quality of brush matters. These are only a few possibilities.