Thursday, December 29, 2011

A History of a Life in a List

A friend gave me a formidable and bright book this season called, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, which I am flipping through slowly, starting with "Early Writing Tablet," depicting the rationing of beer (90), jumping to "Admonitions Scroll" (248), "Mexican Codex Map" (545) and distracted by "Pieces of Eight" (516). The "Admonitions Scroll," if you were wondering, contains a parody of instruction for acceptable behavior for Chinese court ladies (the "imperial harem"); it is eleven feet long and was painted somewhere between 500-800 AD. Wait. Those three hundred years make an individual's life look like nothing more than a brushstroke, if that.

Like the premise of the book I just mentioned, articles in newspapers and magazines around this time of year (printed on rustling paper or found somewhere on your screen) tend toward the structure of lists. The year ends, and suddenly we have lists of what we liked about it. Or hated, thought was humorous, lame, delicious, etc. Maybe something two years ago was better, but no matter. A-listing we will go. We can list a history of a year in so many different ways: movies, books, music, games, wars, cities occupied, bank statements, receipts, tickets, emails, failed candidates, candy eaten… (I just learned that "stressed" backwards is "desserts." Not good.) These year-end lists are filled with hope, truly! They acknowledge that we had a list last year and that a list will undoubtedly show up again, albeit in different clothes, on the doorstep of next year as well.

A History of a Life in a List. How about the life list as an approach to making a book? A whole autobiography or collective biography through a theme such as: magazines read at different ages; kinds of cookies baked each year; favorite objects over time. What grabs us, what has kept grabbing at us as we've gotten older? Our taste and what is important to us changes over time, and we can learn by looking. In Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs*, he talks about many of his childhood passions like comic book heroes, some of which he still acknowledges, others he has let go. Ray Bradbury in his book Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You ** writes of an interesting way of making lists; you add "the" to a memory and create a series of nouns or titles. Some items in his list are "The Ravine," "The Fog Horn" and  "The Mirror Maze" (17). The little word "the" can have so much importance and can spark so many ideas. Using a list to organize a set of stories isn't new: Primo Levi used chemical elements as chapter titles and starting points in his book, The Periodic Table.*** From this choice the reader understands Levi's life and passion.

Continuing to flip through the 100 Objects book, I'm finding a magnificent calligraphic work dated 1520-1566 from Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey (458), and a German woodcut by Dürer of a rhinoceros (482) from 1515. In three hundred or five hundred years none of today's material may matter; on the other hand, it may end up in another museum director's book, and our lives may reveal themselves to be some really nice brushsrokes. The books we make now may take us into the future.

Wishing you optimism in 2012.

The above photo was taken in downtown Los Angeles,  California of public art: Wishing Bells by Sook Jin Jo.

*a misleading title, I think: part of his definition of an amateur is a "lover; a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to…explore the imaginary world—oneself" (294) , not a half-baked person or brushstroke of a person at all; this book was funny and moving and gave me some insight into the writer
**a ridiculous title, another excellent book
***a good title,  another excellent book

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cumulative Effect in Art and Books

After reading the play "At the Vanishing Point" by Naomi Iizuka I discovered that not only was I learning about characters cumulatively through overlapping monologues, but I was learning about the photographer and optician Ralph Eugene Meatyard of Lexington, Kentucky, who inspired the play. Coincidentally, his work is currently on exhibit at San Francisco's deYoung Museum. So I went to see it.

The high, white walls are lined with sixty photographs at face height, black and white, mostly from the 1960s and taken of Meatyard's family. Ah, family portraits, you say, but with a twist: the children and their mother occasionally wear masks and are posed with dolls. Occasionally, only the masks or only the dolls are in the photos. The settings are seemingly abandoned buildings, his backyard, other wildernesses, other structures like stairs or bridges. All of the photos were staged. What struck me most was not one singular shot here or there (here's one that particularly caught  my attention) but the cumulative effect of the photographs: the strength of the work based on all of the parts together. I've modified the medical term for relevance:
cumulative effect n. the state at which repeated [viewing]…may produce effects that are more pronounced than those produced by the first [view]…Also called cumulative action
My first impression of Meatyard's work: creepy. But since I come to see it all, I continued to look. Next, I decided that some of the staged pictures were irritating, too contrived, arranged just so, sometimes on a grid; I wanted to see a doll that had fallen over or was partly out of the frame. Then, a few of the oversized masks on the children began to haunt me: old people's heads on young people, premature aging? a look into the future? I became interested in a series of photos of one of his sons, taken at different times and wearing different masks, but always by the same wall: facets of one person, perhaps. By this time it was clear that Meatyard had a finite number of masks, a finite number of kids (3) and also tended to use the same objects over and over in different configurations and settings. I found myself drawn to the photos with nearly hidden people: I had to look twice to see the figures in the shadows. By the last photo I felt I understood his eye for juxtapositions, his interest in the uncanny: familiar, yet strange.

In addition to viewing a body of work, multiple viewings of one image or a repeated reading of one book can also have this cumulative effect. Multiple layers and various components may make the story understandable from various angles and on different levels; the meaning just gets deeper.

A museum is a familiar setting but can hold strange things. A museum is also a stage, as is a book, as is a box. All can house related—but possibly disparate—scenes, texts, and objects that all point to one story, mood, or idea. Not random (An Artist's Book is Not a Taco), but carefully selected and staged to lead the way down a particular path: to produce that cumulative effect, a relationship between the parts. The Meatyard exhibit did just this and I imagine the exhibition catalogue would do the same.

The Meatyard exhibit at the deYoung runs through February 26, 2012. Other photos, not in the show,  may be seen here.

Distance, 2010

photo by Sibila Savage

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Read Any Good Books Lately?

I eagerly open the books of fiction writers of current acclaim and sometimes find myself disappointed. These books have received awards, glowing reviews, the authors have been interviewed in places I admire, but the works themselves perplex me. They just don't get me excited either to read or to write; and inspiration to do either or both is what I expect from a book. Sometimes they downright turn me off. I don't like to dismiss books casually and I appreciate the vision, time, and impulse to write, so I decided to investigate why a book might hit me one way and not another.

Most recently, I decided that the qualities I'm looking for: a connection to why humans do what we do, refreshing language, rhythmical sentences, understated humor, a magical quality that speaks to one's subconscious mind, and a little tug at my heart or soul are not always what the awards are about. Inventiveness, cleverness, a novelty in the structure, and obvious wit (sometimes self-satisfied) catch some people's attention but not mine. Here are three writers whose works ricochet back to me, writers I keep trying to read with only partial success. Chabon and Egan, for the following examples, are Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction (2001, 2011, respectively), Lethem is a MacArthur fellow (2005).

I've tried Michael Chabon. So many people I know love his work. He is a talented writer, granted, but the books are too over-the-top for me. I lose sight of the story amongst the ornamentation of the quirks and the presence of the writer, although I was able to read much of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and enjoy it. But one 2009 article that he wrote in the New York Review of Books called, "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood" touched me and got to the core of what I'm looking for. It is about our landscapes and how children don't get to play outside and explore the world by themselves anymore and that by being deprived of this, their imagination and the possible future of art may be affected. The prose is elegant, effortless, magical, with no arrows pointing to craft. Perhaps I just prefer his personal essays and should try his book Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

I heard Jennifer Egan on the radio. She was a wonderful speaker: smart, thoughtful, articulate, curious, someone whose work I was eager to read. If you look up a picture of her you'll see that she is also good-looking. But the books let me down. I couldn't read past a few pages. The human interactions didn't feel right, the characters didn't speak to me. The inventiveness of A Visit from the Goon Squad is admirable. The concept is very clever. The story just doesn't interest me enough. I am surprised by her high intellectual concepts in light of how she describes her process. In an interview she says she writes fiction by hand "to bypass the thinking part of me and get to the more unconscious part, which is where all the good ideas seem to be." Consciously getting to the unconscious (I would say "subconscious") part is an extremely helpful, useful task for a writer. But I am looking for more than good ideas; I am looking for a magical connection.

Jonathan Lethem is an interesting mix. His earlier books are self-consciously about craft. He handles each sentence with polish, stringing together a perfect necklace of words per book. But then, with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, the prose relaxes, soars: the magical quality appears. I came across an interview where he says, "A lot of people are led, understandably, to thinking of Fortress as a break to what preceded it. In my view, it's the opposite" partly because it has an "extensive commitment to mimetic tricks." Is he saying he crafted all the dreamlike qualities, that he consciously had control over all the magic? With tricks? I am dubious. I believe that a writer shapes the material, sometimes during, sometimes after, but I don't believe it can be crafted perfectly from the start without losing its liveliness. (I did read and like those two books, so perhaps it doesn't matter what he says about them.) I hunted further. Closer to the magic in a second interview, he says "And it's that game of not knowing what you're doing that, for me, is where the real energy comes from." That also sounds closer to the truth to me.

Perhaps it is that "not knowing" that I want to be part of. As a reader I don't want to be shut out of the mystery and be controlled; I want to go on the exploration with the author, be part of the process, get a chance to infer, imply, imagine, and read between the lines. And I want to trust that the author will show me something new, or help me to discover something I didn't know I knew already.

spread from A Death in the Family by James Agee

Among the Pulitzer Prize winners that I have read, these books moved me (prize date in parenthesis):
  • James Agee. A Death in the Family. An inventive, but not flashy work (see the only page, above, that visually describes a car from 1918 starting up and driving away). A book that seemed heartfelt, captured love, childhood, warm humor, family dynamics, and drew tears. (Awarded the prize in 1958, posthumously)
  • Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kittredge. Interconnected short stories set in Maine that get to the heart of the characters. (2009)
  • Annie Prouix. The Shipping News. (1994)
  • Toni Morrison. Beloved. (1988)
  • Alice Walker. The Color Purple. (1983)
  • John Cheever. The Stories of John Cheever. (1979)
  • Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. (1961)
And some of the finalists.
  • Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1982) Haunting book. Beautiful metaphorical prose.
  • Tim O'Brien. The Things They Carried. (1991) Powerful structure. (Although I have only read excerpts.)
  • Grace Paley. The Collected Stories. (1995) Humorous, strong, and honest.
  • Louise Erdrich. (2009) Beautiful prose, powerful, riveting, brutal when she needs to be.

Friday, December 16, 2011

B. Wurtz: Drawing with Found Materials

Looking at the field of assemblage and collage, we may notice that the art of B. Wurtz stands out in a good way, away from the sepia-inspired tones and into the colorful imagination. In an interview, Wurtz says the pieces he makes (William < Bill < B) feel to him more like drawings. Working primarily with wood, wire, plastic shopping bags, mesh vegetable bags, and a variety of other everyday, yet seemingly invisible objects, Wurtz puts together sculptures and hanging pieces that are humorous and transformative. He also, I think, shows an appreciation for humans as industrial designers, makers of the tin can, the door latch, and the hose nozzle, among others. His content concerns, if we must list them, are: food, clothing, shelter, and beauty.

The body of work looks streamlined, contained, and unified partly because his palette is limited. In this case, his palette holds not specific paint colors, but specific objects. The wood he uses and builds with is mostly clean and new, with a prominent grain. The objects are either new or have been cleaned: the former layers of meaning stripped off. Instead of using the objects to refer to their earlier owners, past lives, or usual uses Wurtz chooses the objects to highlight formal concerns like pattern, color, shape, and texture. It is as if he has taken a microscope to their formal elements. In the interview, he describes a piece he calls "Monument" and his interests in "the grain of the wood, the lines of the can, the pattern on the sock," and, of course, how they look when placed next to one another. In this era where the weathered look is popular, particularly with found objects, Wurtz disregards the pre-patinated surface. It is not the surface treatment but the treatment of the object that interests him. When a flattened plastic bag starts looking like a tank top we are genuinely surprised. (For a bookmaking project we might use materials that blend seamlessly with our concept and project, but that are, at second glance, something quite unexpected. It is interesting to think that our eyes play tricks, that our memory might be wrong.)

The humor shows gently, for example, in a tabletop piece of a wooden base with two upright wires and a translucent white plastic bag suspended between the wires like a beard. Another piece is a hula hoop that appears to be circling around a dowel. The positioning in the gallery is part of a third work: a little green "fence" encircles bright green objects mounted on blocks as well as the brass plate that covers the electrical outlets embedded in the concrete floor. Where the objects are in space and what else is nearby are also important. (In bookmaking we might translate this concept to the layout—the placement of words and images on the page—as well as rhythm and sequence: what came before and what comes after and the relationship between them.)

You can see a tour of a recent exhibition here. In that video, note the child being pushed in a stroller who grins and reaches out for a tree of puffy, plastic bag foliage. The child, who not a sculpture, captures our own feelings about Wurtz's work, those of curiosity and delight in the world around us.

not B. Wurtz: photo of found objects, Berkeley, 2011

Brief bio: He was born in 1948 in Pasadena, CA. He holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, 1980. He currently lives in New York City. In 2006, B. Wurtz created a photographic artist book called Blocks, edition of 250.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Simple Pop-Up Accordion Card

Wandering around the fine arts building at San Francisco State University, I discovered a glass case with previous exhibition catalogues inside. A folded one caught my eye. It was for a 2004 show called "2 1/2: Art at the Corner of Two and Three Dimensions." The concept for the design fit perfectly, the card was simple, yet felt animated. It looked like it would make a nice card for other events as well, although without the terrific conceptual connection. So, let's make one.

Materials: Use a paper that is 8 1/2" x 11" or A4 (either: cut in half, lengthwise). For digital design, plan to print two cards on one piece of cardstock (each approximately 4 1/4" x 11," or 105 mm x 297 mm for A4). Note: Plan your design so you can trim to 3 3/8" x 10." Many printers will not print to the edges and this will ensure the pictures will bleed off the edges: top, bottom, and sides, like the example.
Tools: pencil, bone folder, art knife and metal ruler and cutting mat, academic divider (optional, for creating five equal sections)
Example: The steps shown below create a five-panel card that is 3 3/8" x 2" (79 mm x 51 mm) when all folded up or 3 3/8" x 10" (79 mm x 254 mm) completely open.

Arrange the paper horizontally.

Divide and mark paper into five equal sections along the long side, top and bottom (that will be four marks).

Drawing down with the bone folder against the ruler, press into the paper to make a score that connects each set of top and bottom marks.

Start with a valley fold. Then fold the next section back on itself; continue alternating valleys and mountains along the scores.

Mark and make one horizontal slit (approximately 2" or 50 mm, centered across the fold): one across the first mountain fold (#2 of 5 folds), one across the second valley fold (#3/5). Note: if you change the scale, the slits should be the width of one of the panels.

Mark 1" or 25 mm on either side of the folds and at the edge of the paper. Make two scores with the bone folder, connecting the ends of the cut slit to the marks at the edge of the paper. Repeat for the second cut section.

Fold along the new scores: mountain folds for the first section, valley folds for the second section.
Refold the center of the first section so that where it was once a mountain fold, now it is a valley fold.
Refold the center of the second section so that where it was once a valley fold, now it is a mountain fold.
Fold up the card, slip it into an envelope, put a stamp on it, and mail it.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Meditation on Creativity

    Finding the flow—
    Getting into the groove, the zone—
    that spring of creativity;
    you just have to tap into it.

    Creative sources hide in the body—
    between sleeping and waking,
    self-hypnosis, meditation,
    the eye of the emotional storm.
    How do you get there?

    It is not a forced path, but a focused one.

    From the chair where you sit or the road where you walk:
    Be aware of the edges of your body—
    The distance between the tip of your finger
    and the paper; your shoulder
    and the shoulder of another person in the room—
    The distance between your cheek
    and the light source: the lamp or sun: within or without.

    Feel your edges—
    Listen to your breaths—
    Inhabit your body.

    A pleasant sensation, vibration, a calming warming and cooling, a moving—
    What surfaces? Light it up—
    claim it and carry it—
    Dive down, dive down deeply,
    and let the
    voices / images / notes / colors / words
    roll through you and out
    past the edges
    and beyond.

    Monday, December 5, 2011

    Invisible Art

    I met a student who I would say is happy to be alive; she finds art everywhere: she elevates scuffs and touch-up paint on buildings to drawings, and debris to assemblage. Only slightly am I exaggerating for effect, but the impulse is true. And as artists, I believe we all experience this extraordinary eye, if not constantly, then close enough. Our visions and creations can make us happy, even ecstatic at times.

    What is this impulse? A desire, or perhaps a compulsion to see deeply: not only to see but to perceive and to understand beauty. Someone came into my studio and saw the vinyl tablecloths I use to protect my work surfaces: the cloths are covered with streaks, smears, blotches, and swaths of acrylic ink. "You should cut those up and frame them or use them for book covers!" he said. I shrugged at the time, but I understand what he saw. Because my studio and my ink-covered tablecloths are familiar to me, they are ordinary. But to fresh eyes, they were fresh art.

    This kind of heightened vision comes to light in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as a fictional Marco Polo tells a fictional Kublai Khan about his travels to various cities, really all the same, really all Venice. Yet as he describes the city from different angles, dreamlike and fantastic (with allusions to Dante's Inferno), we can't be sure each is not a different city. I think we can apply these ways of living to how we might want to perceive art in daily life.
    There are two ways to escape suffering…The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space (165).
    We want to seek out art and make it endure. On which level, or part of the continuum shall it exist? How shall we spotlight the ordinary and make it extraordinary? Do we just hold it up for show-and-tell or do we transform it? If we transform it, how much work do we do? We can find an object and put it on a pedestal, give it space just as it is, because it delights us. We can put it in a frame or alter it slightly. We can use it alongside other materials and/or completely transform it. The most obvious examples come from found objects: the painted tablecloth may appear beautiful as is. I could cut out a square piece and frame it; here, I have done no real work except metaphorically to shine a light on it. I could use it as a book cover; in this case my work is to choose its new form and perhaps add content. A third layer might involve cutting it into pieces and stitching it together again like a quilt; my work then would involve the light, the choice, the form, and a complete transformation.

    Or we can step back completely and take a photograph. And then the photograph itself becomes the art—the object transient, no longer needed. The picture forever there, to disturb or to delight, making the invisible visible.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    An Altered Book: (S)tree(t) of C(roc)od(il)es

    Interestingly, it took a well known fiction writer to get an altered book published and available to a wide audience. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, among other works, took an English language copy of the 1934 novel The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz and, as the copyright page notes, "cut into the pages, carving out a new story." The original was Safran Foer's favorite story. The new version is called Tree of Codes.

    My first question was: will it really read like a story, or is this a novelty item? When I picked up the thick paperback book I discovered that it was light, spongy, already a curiosity. Upon opening it I was delighted by the layers of words. Then I began to read, page-by-page. I found repetition of words and some wonderful poetic language left intact, for example, "like the glove from which a hand had been withdrawn" (14). The text in its cutout form tells an abstract story, which is grammatically correct and has complete sentences with "Father" and "Mother" and "I" as the characters. The intrigue lies in the words that float to the surface and play hide and seek with one another. Phrases from below add color, like the past influencing the present. 
    Although Tree of Codes isn't completely satisfying as stand-alone fiction (which it isn't meant to be anyway), it is magical in conjunction with the tactility and playfulness of the reading experience. The book as a whole is satisfying. Now, I would like to read The Street of Crocodiles. I suspect it is magical because of the language.

    Here is what the book and the author look like:

    Here is how the book was made using die-cuts:

    Bruno Schulz was an artist (and art teacher by profession) as well as a writer which may account for the strong imagery in his written work. You can see his artwork here.
    "I was happy," said my father, "to see that unexpected flowering which filled the air with a soft rustle, a gentle murmur, falling like colored confetti through the thin rods of the twigs.
    "I could see the trembling of the air, the fermentation of too rich an atmosphere which provoked that precocious blossoming, luxuriation, and wilting of the fantastic oleanders which had filled the room with a rare, lazy snowstorm of large pink clusters of flowers.
    "Before nightfall," concluded my father, "there was no trace left of that splendid flowering. The whole elusive sight was a fata morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life." 
    The Street of Crocodiles (68)
    Tree of Codes (60)

    Tree of Codes is published by Visual Editions, 2010
    "At times I felt that I was making a gravestone rubbing of The Street of Crocodiles, and at times that I was transcribing a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had" —Jonathan Safran Foer (139).

    Monday, November 28, 2011

    Flash Fiction

    I told someone I just had a piece of flash fiction published in a local magazine and he seemed puzzled. "Flash fiction?" I offered, "Short-short story? Sudden fiction? Mine is 449 words; flash is usually under 500 words." He still hadn't heard of it. I said if you go to you can find hundreds of examples, and those are all under 300 words. It is possible that the term originated from the 1992 book, Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, an anthology of stories under 750 words, those that fit on a two-page spread.

    While I do not think it can be defined and boxed to everyone's satisfaction, flash does have some recurring characteristics. It packs details and action and story and character into one distilled package. Sometimes it's a meditation. Something large or very small can happen. It often has a twist or a turn at the end, perfect for bookmaking. The language can be rich, almost chewy. Lydia Davis is an author I admire who writes very short pieces that could be called flash.

    Whatever it is or isn't, here my story "Tati's Necklace" in its online incarnation. If you live in the East Bay and an actual paper copy appears on your doorstep, you can find it on page 11 of the December issue of The Monthly.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    The Frame, the Crop, and the Composition

    I'm traveling this week, and if you were to look at my first couple of photos you might think I was unable to go outside because I took them all through windows. I could make a whole book of pictures taken through windows that might build into a sad, poignant, fearful, or cozy story, depending upon the frame I use. You might not know I was traveling at all. How the pictures were taken is important: the conditions are telling my story. A different story unfolds if the pictures are taken only in a hospital, or three feet up from the ground, or interiors of just one house. These kinds of conditions tell you who a person is and how s/he sees, even though the person is not actually in the picture. The bookmaker also chooses the frame in which to see the story: using a personal condition as the starting point is an interesting way to begin a book.

    Another kind of story comes from pictures that are cropped. Maybe we see a piece of a background, or an arm of another person. We are constantly looking around at the world and deciding to remember only some of it. What makes the cropping of a picture different from our memories? It may be obvious that what you take pictures of and what you make books about tell something about you, but the groupings of pictures can tell different truths and different stories, depending upon what you allow in and what you leave out. But whose arm was that? Another story.

    The crop can be intimate. We are face to face with the subject. On the airplane I did not take any pictures, but I watched a man put a shopping bag in the overhead compartment, some greenery poking out. First, I was interested in the plant; was it a potted plant or a pineapple? I metaphorically zoomed all the way in thinking about this one object. I pulled back out as I noticed a flight attendant slipping down the aisle to help. I watched her face, but she did not look like this was an unusual occurrence. What else had people tried to close into that compartment? Panning all the way out I watched the man beaming at her as she turned the bag sideways and clicked the latch. And back at my seat, someone said, "If a member of my family tried to take a plant on an airplane, I'd yell." Four levels of story from near to far: the plant itself; the flight attendant and the man; the whole scene, completed; and the view from a distance. How close will you crop? How close will your narrative go? It depends on which part of the story interests you. You get to choose.

    In formal terms, we also have the composition to work with. This is the most intuitive, I think. We can play with color, shape, line, depth, foreground, background, juxtaposition, and the list continues: our choices are many. For bookmaking we can choose to use images that all have the color green; that have curved shapes; that incorporate some kind of marks; that are landscapes; that are such micro images that we can't tell what they are, and on and on.

    So many ways to shape a book, so many ways to create a visual narrative. We can create a new truth depending on how and what we like to sort, the frame we look through, and what level of story interests us.

    National Museum of the American Indian

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    Raging Characters

    Who are the raging characters? The man who has arrived home late and drunk. The driver who goes through the stop sign and shouts at the pedestrian to watch where she's going. The student who leaves the door unlocked and then discovers her necklace is missing. The key to their rage, and why they are furious, not merely irritated, mad, or angry, is that they have each done something wrong and they know it. And often, they swear about it.

    Language has always been connected with this rage. Often, very cruel language. What we used to call "foul" language, we could now just call foolish language. George Carlin's 1972 comedy routine Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television (yes, he is performing them at that link) is still funny, but the tameness of the words themselves is almost quaint today. Still, people are offended by some or all of these words.

    The words are commonly used in magazines, on later night television, and flame online across the web. If someone complains and says that using these words is "unprofessional," say, in a conference presentation, the comeback may be "well, then you are not my audience." It's a defense. It must be your fault that you are offended, and if you are, go away and don't criticize my manners. Oh, wait. What was that? That last part was unspoken. If you tell someone not to use certain language they may feel you have criticized them. In this case, whether or not they know consciously that they are wrong, the rage rears up and you get a splattering mess of language all over you. The language has power partly because of the rage that accompanies it, partly because we continue to allow it to have that power.

    But using the seven dirty words in a professional talk?
    Would you show up for a professional conference in a bikini? Okay, I know.
    It depends on the conference. Context, my dear, context.


    Veering in a slightly different direction, but related: a friend just recommended I listen to Nikky Finney's acceptance speech (min: 16-22) for the 2011 National Book Awards for her book of poetry called Head Off & Split (something the fish seller said). On my way to finding the video I ran into a critical article that contained a quote that sounded a bit angry and as bitter as those opposed to affirmative action. But the U.S. can't run from the miserable, embedded history of slavery. The criticism seemed to be implying that we should get over slavery, that somehow we have gotten over it, that black women writers are now the mainstream, and therefore, when we give awards to black writers, feeling smug is a stock reaction "like laughter when yet another stand-up comic says f--k," and we should stop congratulating ourselves. Is that what we are doing? In the words of SNL's Weekend Update routine: "Really?" Does the article writer think we are overcompensating by giving awards to black women? That white males are being swept under the rugs? (As a counterexample: I look at The New York Review of Books and count how many women contributors there are each month. Not even close to half. Not even a handful.) Ultimately, if you watch the speech and read the interview with Nikky Finney, you can see how good a writer she is. Why be mad about giving her an award?


    People are maddest when it's their own fault.
    They are mad at themselves. They feel criticized, knowingly or not.
    Remember that when someone projects and launches their rage at you.
    Use it in a story and it will feel very, very real.

    iBook, 2008

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    Three Writers Find a Medium

    Once upon a time there were three writers and they all thought differently. The first writer said, "Let me tell you about those two people over there sitting on that bench. He was wondering where she had bought her coat." The second writer said, "They were drawn together like curtains in the night. Loose, unfolding." And the third writer said, "I keep hearing them talking in my head. Her: 'What are you staring at?' Him: 'I think, maybe…' Her: 'You are looking at me as if I have food on my face' (she licks her upper lip). Him: 'You got it.'" It appears they were a fiction writer, a poet, and a playwright, all writers, each with a special approach.

    In the creative writing program at San Francisco State University that (ifallgoeswellknockonformica) I am set to graduate from in the spring we have three genres (applying? pick one): fiction, poetry, or playwriting. When I was first applying I was trying to decide between fiction and poetry. I had mostly been writing poetry, thinking in metaphors, rhythms, images, and moments, but I had also re-entered the narrative world by writing down the story in every day. My friend and mentor asked,"What do you like to read?" That settled it. I wanted to read stories. The metaphors, rhythms, images, and moments could be incorporated into the stories.

    As an MFA student at SFSU I found that I also needed what they call a "correlative," an area of study outside my major (fiction). It could be English, drama, history—really anything at all. I knew people doing urban planning, poetry, and environmental studies. I needed four classes in it, whatever it was. Since I was in school to write and learn,  I chose playwriting. I hadn't written a play since fifth grade but could it be so different from what I was already doing? If so, how?

    Well, I found out how.

    Each genre takes a different approach. Very strange. You can watch a scene unfold in your head for all three, but how you deal with that scene is what is characteristic to that genre. If you describe the action, include the dialogue, add in the characters' thoughts, you've got the beginning of a story. If you take what you see and connect it to something else, use metaphors and similes, look for the bigger picture, philosophise, perhaps, or choose words that sound right, feel right, and give a mood or capture one moment, you're likely starting a poem. If you watch the scene and you hear the dialogue and let the characters show each other and you what they want through their conversation in a dramatic, heightened way, well,  that means a scene is coming. (These are quick and simplified visions of what fiction, poetry, and playwriting are, but I think they capture the essences.) If you are having trouble writing, it is possible that you need to approach the material differently.

    An exploration—whether you are a seasoned or beginning writer—is to try choosing a scenario, or find your story of the day, and write it from each of these angles: a narrative story, a poem, a play scene. You may find that the material works better in one form over another. I recently had an idea that seemed dramatic enough to be a scene, but as I began listening to the characters I found them boring. I switched to fiction mode and the scene turned into a one-page story; I was much happier with it. I had found the right medium.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    It's Not You, It's Me: Fiction and/or Nonfiction

    We've all seen the notice: this story, play, film is a work of fiction, all characters are imaginary, any relation to living human beings is purely coincidental. And we laugh and say "Right. If they have to say that then surely it's all true." But we are wrong. Only some of it is true.

    The most hilarious incidents in writing workshops are when a student blurts out "that part could never happen" and, of course, that is the one true incident around which the story was built. It is possible that it did happen, but for some reason it does not have emotional resonance with the reader.

    The most powerful stories often are based on events that were truly felt. Even though the names are changed, the characters may be different genders, ages, or ethnicities, and the setting is elsewhere, the emotional content is the same. Which is where it gets tricky. Someone recognizes herself in the cloak. If it's a kindly portrait, she's flattered and pleased, if not, she's livid, hurt, humiliated.

    Excuse me, these are words on a page. You say, "That character is not you. I don't care if you think it is, or if you are suspicious it might be based on you. It isn't you anymore." But, alas, you are a fiction writer, and you are not believed.

    In art, if you create a portrait that the portrait sitter does not recognize (or thinks is hideous), she is hurt: "That doesn't look like me," she says. In fiction you are not intending the portrait to be recognizable; in a specific kind of art (nonfictive art?), you are. Expressive art is more akin to fiction: an interpretation, a transformation.

    Fiction is a subset of nonfiction. Look, it's even in the word nonfiction, which is the negative, so fiction must be the positive. Fiction is a staging of a lived experience, a reimagining. It is hard to say what nonfiction is. We sometimes confuse it with reality. And the only reality I know right now… is that you are reading this.

    Smiled Politely and Left, 2008

    Sunday, November 6, 2011

    A Folded Multi-Page Book

    A reader sent me a link to a video she made of the "Guest Book," a structure designed by Paul Johnson, which in turn gave me another idea. Here is a hybrid version: the Guest Book merged with the X Book. You get seven page spreads without any glue, thread, tape, or staples (please, no tape or staples, ever!) to hold it together. For content you only have to print on one side.

    Fold a piece of paper into 16 sections: fold in half, lengthwise; fold both edges back to the center fold, accordion style; smooth out the paper, turn over; fold in half widthwise; fold the edges back to the center fold. Open flat.

    For a portrait style book, turn the paper vertically for the cuts. For a landscape style book, turn the paper horizontally.

    Cut a capital i along the folds: through, above, and below the center panels. Make two horizontal cuts at the edges, centered, one panel wide. (These are like the cuts for the Guest Book, page 51, MHB.)

    Open the center flaps out like window shutters.
    Fold up and in half, flaps inside and touching themselves on the same side.
    Fold edge back, accordion style.

    Turn over. Fold remaining edge back, accordion style.

    Stand up the book.

     Push book together at the center (like the X book, page 32).

    Wrap one page around for the cover.

    There, I suppose, you have a GuestX book.

    To see the layout of the page numbers more easily, click on a picture.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011

    Blank Books, Book Art, Book Art Objects

    When you begin a book you may not start with a fully realized intention, but you likely have an impulse. As you proceed, you may find that you are enjoying the binding and decide you will make a blank book. Or the materials suggest a larger concept which you develop into book art*: the pages meant to be viewed and read. Or the shape of the book suggests an obvious concept so you make a book that doesn't open or is more appealing as a sculpture: a book art object. Each of these kinds of books is gratifying to make. The question becomes: who is it for? That answer may shape further making.

    It is much easier to make a blank book and release it to the artist's or writer's hands to fill. If you are a writer a blank book is valuable and has potential: ultimately, it is the writer who decides how to give a blank book meaning. In the New York Times column "Writers on Writing" from July 5, 1999 called "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper," author Mary Gordon writes about how she chooses her materials to help her write. In one closet she devotes one shelf to notebooks: she collects these from her travels around the world and each one inspires her writing in a different way. If you are the bookmaker you have to concentrate on design and craft, but for a blank book you don't have to develop a deep concept; you are making a product. Making book art is the hardest because you have to do everything and you have to dig deep to do it.

    The "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" known as xkcd by Randall Munroe posted this provocative comic recently, titled "Alternative Literature," which caused me to experience: a groan, a chuckle, a sigh, a nod, a head shake, and a cry.

    What is real? What is true? In this case, I think it matters whether you are the maker, the writer, or the reader. If you go to the actual website, you can mouse around and find a hidden text that pops up when you hover and then stop your mouse.  In the "mouseover text" or "hover text" in this comic he gives an anecdote about truth in advertising. What I see is the dilemma of blank books, or the Emperor's New Books.

    As a maker, if you want to try making a living at what you do, you must be a salesperson with the goal of selling work, or both an artist and a salesperson. It's not an either/or decision; it's just good to be aware of which goal you are working toward and what your intentions are. Making blank books with interesting covers is a wonderful way to experiment and to improve technical skills; I had fun making "Pop Art Journals" with soda cans wrapped around boards, but these are blank and ready for someone else to buy and fill. I would never enter them in a show because they may be crafted well, but beyond the novelty of the cover there is nothing there. Perhaps they will inspire a writer, but I cannot pretend they are book art. The book as book art should embody a complete and finished concept, inside and out. Book art objects with no content inside can work if they are elaborate and detailed, present a new view of the world, and are meant to be complete as they stand.

    The above comic also reminds me of something that I hear frequently from those who are trying to make book art, "I want the reader to get whatever s/he wants out of it." Perhaps what they are really making is a community project, workbook, game, or mirror: all valid for what they are. I would argue, however, as I have done before, that the artist—whether making book art or book art objects—needs to give the reader something to grab hold of, a new angle to launch and catch his/her imagination, curiosity, and attention. Something meaningful, delightful, important, or audacious to think about. All kinds of stories. Something to come back to. Something that will last.

    *I am including everything from fine printing to photocopied books to  one-of-a-kinds in the category of book art

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    Rounded Corners for Photos

    For whatever reason, we are all in ecstasy over rounded corners, be they of paper or of photographs. I admittedly possess several physical corner rounding punches and I use them (as I did for Days Made Strange). But I wanted to inkjet print some photos onto cardstock and I wanted the edges rounded as they printed. Photoshop doesn't actually have a button to click or a filter for this, but I found a set of instructions online. However, a few steps were missing for me. Here's my version (I'm using Photoshop CS3).  It goes pretty fast. (For actual, physical, corner rounding punches, see the best inexpensive one here, and a pricier, industrial strength one here.)
    1. Open the file of your photo by dragging it to Photoshop. Adjust to the size you desire by going to the Menu Bar and clicking Image < Image Size. For printing out, make sure it is 300ppi.
    2. Go to Menu Bar, click on Layer < New < Layer.
    3. On the Tools Palette select the rounded rectangle tool (with the other shapes and lines). Look at the little box at the top under the menu bar and set to Radius: 40 px or whatever corner roundness you prefer. Make and center the rounded rectangle over your photo. The color doesn't matter.
    4. On the Menu Bar go to Layer < Layer Style < Blending Options. Slide Advanced Blending, Fill Opacity to 0%.
    5. On Layers Palette, go to Paths. Click on the little lines above the right scroll bar there. Highlight "Make Selection." Make sure Feather Radius is set for 0 pixels and anti-aliased.
    6. Menu Bar, go to Edit < Copy Merged (this is important).
    7. Menu Bar, go to File < New. Create a new file from clipboard.
    8. Paste in. Rounded photo!
    9. Save as jpeg.
    Here, the corners appear white since they are presented on the Blogger border, but on paper you won't notice any border; you'll just see the rounded corners. Try using one of the other shapes. For fun, I changed a photo of my neighbor cat into a portrait (made sepia in iPhoto) using the ellipse. Introducing Zoe, Her Royal Fluffiness…

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    The Details of Home in a Daydream

    In French, I learned recently, the word for home is similar to "in the house" or "at the house" or, occasionally "the house of me": the physical dwelling encompasses both one's heart and one's hearth; it is the structure that matters. Home as a concept does not translate otherwise from English to French. Gaston Bachelard (a Frenchman) spends quite a bit of time talking about the house in The Poetics of Space, a book I am reading for a class in creative nonfiction taught by Peter Orner.

    The writing dwells on a few concepts that fascinate me: that the house in which we were born becomes the basis for all references thereafter to houses and homes; the notion that our daydreams are overlaid onto this place; and that a description of it, a sketch in words by one writer, will send the reader into his/her own reverie, out of the book and into an experienced place.

    Our birth homes stay with us. We compare our subsequent dwellings to them. We look for the corners of comfort, solace, solitude, and inspiration that we might have had before. We may have had a place, or several places, in that house to go and think. When we remember that place, we may remember what we used to think or daydream about while there. I remember a covered patio, for example, and thinking about the phrase "childhood is the happiest time of your life" and wondering if it were going to be true. If this was a place we went or hid frequently, many daydreams might be housed here. We've sat there thinking many times before. Conversely, we might remember something, then see an image of the place. This is strange: remembering about thinking and remembering where we were when we were thinking.

    And how does this translate to books or art or writing? I've written about the book as place before, and how it can function as an architectural space; now, thanks to Bachelard (who mentions it), I'm interested in how much detail the book needs to have to make it a space that interests the reader as well. Simply, a window, a door, a peaked roof says "house" to western culture. If you say "family room," I see both the playroom from when I was 0-4 years old and the family room I knew from ages 6 and up. Writing "family room" tickles my memories, and so I see that room in my mind, based on my experiences.  Those two rooms, even if I add wood paneling and a stone fireplace or linoleum floor and sliding glass windows won't create the same image in your mind. You will never see what I see (unless, perhaps, you lived in my house with me), no matter how many words I give you.

    But if I don't give you enough words, hints, or details, I may leave you empty. What if I only write "room" or draw a square? Take a minute. Are the edges blurry as you try to dream up an image? Which room is it? Can you see it? It seems like that room has four blank walls. Well, now it does. Maybe you saw it more clearly since I mentioned empty and blank and four walls.

    I wonder, then, how do we build for the reader? Maybe we are not building a solid space, but only painting a feeling or mood. Certain qualities live in words, colors, and textures and will conjure up universal feelings, I think—the warmth of wood or the coolness of stone, for instance. You don't and won't see my wood paneling, although I could tell you if it were maple or teak or pine, which might clarify your picture. The reader needs a few details as an entry point: to grab hold of; to cart back home; and to send her or him into a daydream so s/he can fill in the gaps and truly live in the space.

    Blueprints for a Birdhouse, 2011

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Images for Books: Finding the Right Number

    In working with words and images in book form, how do you decide what is the right number of images to use? Someone said he wanted to work with fifteen images but didn't want the finished book to look like a photo album or scrapbook. Is fifteen too many? If the images were scattered throughout a 200 page book, I'd say not at all. But let's say you want to make a book that can be read at one sitting. Fifteen is a lot to take in, unless the images are sequential.

    Part of what makes a book special is the concept of memory. Every time we turn the page we have to remember what came before, and not just what immediately came before, but everything up until that point. According to early studies of working memory capacity, it was found that we only remember seven things at a time. That idea has been expanded, depending on the category: seven numbers, yes, but we can also remember other things in about four chunks, each chunk comprised of several things (apparently we can remember more short words and fewer long words, for example.) So perhaps we should approach sequence and ordering in chunks! For our purposes, let's make these chunks smaller than conventional chapters.

    It is possible that fifteen images could be used if they were grouped, and particularly if each image in a group had a relationship to the others. I would argue that anytime you put two images side-by-side you will subconsciously want to link them.

    A conversation begins. Now what if you add a third party (or took out the second one?):

    A conflict is set up. Or a turn in the conversation. A bit like six-word stories, but in this case each image stands for two words. Something changes and builds. Our eyes dart around, trying to help us fill in the conceptual gaps, searching our experiences for similar scenes.

    If you must use fifteen images you could continue adding them, creating layers and complex connections. As the pages turn, the images would stack up in memory to create an overall effect. You could also create several (three to five?) grouped chapters and leave space or put a story, poem, or dream between them. Try varying the number of images or the length of the writing. The reader's mind can now hold one idea at a time in a deeper form. Adding words that convey an impression of mood, tone, or conceptual qualities would be more effective and interesting than writing a literal description, I suspect. If the images are sequential, the final impression may be simpler: the reader can hold the basic idea but may not have to remember the details. If you have sequential images, you could alternate between a story told in words and a story told in images; a wonderful example of how this works is in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

    Words and images do different things when you look at them. I notice that after turning a few pages of a purely visual book I begin experiencing it as if I were floating on my back in a warm pool and my ears were partially submerged. When I get back to words I hear voices in my head again: they feel much louder. I love verbal language, but sometimes it's nice to have that quiet, wordless space to move around in for awhile.

    (For a visual poem, mostly comprised of linked imagery, see the 2010 film Somewhere by Sofia Coppola. For music that may put you in that warm pool or even to sleep, listen to "Weightless" by Marconi Union.)

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Con(temporary) Neighborhood Art

    The art on the street keeps moving. A white truck idles in a driveway with the word “Hauling” painted on it, graffiti-style. Around the corner, the little bulldozer continues taking down the green house, making way for a garden. The red concrete steps are still there, leftover after the party, waiting for a ride home. I walk past the house, up the perpendicular street and turn left; the path becomes leafy and winding. Sometimes, the deer startle me and are startled by me in the foggy mornings as I march on up, but there are only birds and gardeners today. Almost at the top, one street turns into another at the cobblestone path where I often turn my ankle, so I cross the street before I get there. Here, the numbers change, seeming like centuries: down, the 500s; up, the 1800s. Someone has spraypainted a face on a discarded wheeled wooden crate out at the curb. I think it is cheerful.
    Up at the top of the hill, new pink graffiti matches the faded red curb and adorns the glass-faced bus stop map. It possible that the rare woman tagger paints in pink to be seen. Past the pink graffiti, a wooden fence sports multicolored chalk marks, mostly vertical lines in rows and overlapping, clearly done by children, likely who live there, likely given permission. Similar affirmations, a block apart. 
    At the rock park, a half -dozen sixty-year-olds are standing around something I don’t recognize. A smallish, maybe three-foot square concrete pad with one step has been installed as a kind of pedestal to an enormous concrete urn. A man with a tape measure is gesturing and looking at it. A woman with a canvas hat on a cord keeps putting her palm on the urn as he talks and taking it off again. The urn is man-sized.
    Down and around, past the garden with the cattails, past the newly landscaped yard is the twin urn. Identical. Separated at birth? On the one hand I want a little plaque at the rock park, explaining, on the other, placing new concrete next to the ancient rock seems like vandalism. I heard that those little plaques are urban graffiti for the rich. The walls of both urns are plain and blank.

    Down near the demolition site again, the corner smells of camphor chips, a reminder of the newly removed tree. Diagonally across the street, most of the green house is gone. The red front steps are abandoned and cracked now in pieces. I can clearly see the peach-colored house and the gray-blue house flanking the lot. The green house isn’t a house anymore. 

    Farther south, down this street, eleven cardboard boxes are neatly stacked in three columns on the parking strip. Two Asian men are having a conversation a few feet away. The shorter, older man holds a box under his arm while he talks. He looks like he has forgotten he is holding the box. The printing on the boxes says: MYTEK / Lab Coats / Color: DK BLU / SIZE: XL. I wonder what sort of protection they offer.

    In the late evening, I go back to the lot where the house once was. Everything is gone, even the red steps. It is leveled. A new canvas, waiting. Except this one is framed with a fence.