Beginning a Book

"Where do you start when you make an artist's book?" is a question I am frequently asked. It corresponds to the question the writer is asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" And everyone jumps up and down when the answer is "From anywhere. From everywhere. From somewhere." But I'll tell you all the drawers out of which I pull beginnings. All you need is one beginning.

File drawer (Text). Past writings, journal notes, dreams. If I start with the text I'll copy it, then cut up the lines or phrases where they seem to naturally break or where I want a breath or pause or emphasis. I'll think about what kind of structure these words want to be in and the design, colors, and images are worked out intuitively afterwards. Often, the text-based book becomes part of an edition. I am much more confident I will finish a book if I start with a text. Sometimes I am wrong. Posts about where to start with writing are here and here and here and here. Search this blog under "writing" for more.

Anchovies & Gossip, 2008
Kitchen drawer (Materials). Objects and medium. Metaphorically, what do I want to cook with? Acrylic inks? Folded papers? Wool felt? I start taking out stuff and moving it around until I get a larger concept or find an object that becomes the catalyst. Once it was an anchovy tin.

Desk drawer (Binding). Structure and form. I might take out paper and start folding to see if I can find something new. Or I might fold, sew or glue an older, yet unusual, structure. I'll carry the blank book around with me and sit down periodically, flipping through the pages, trying to "read" it or see what it tells me. I'll take my cue from whatever comes to mind, my own Rorschach test.

When He Was Blind, 2009
Virtual drawer (Research). A word, concept, or thing catches my ear. I look it up in books, online, I ask people. I keep looking. The first thing leads me to something else, equally interesting. And off I go, sometimes following the threads across, or pursuing the research about the one thing and going even deeper. Braille and its origins, were one example. More ideas about research and lists are here.

Drawer of Curiosities (Concept). The questions lead the way. How can you make a book breathe with colored light (Go Change)? What kinds of word juxtapositions can you make when you change a letter or two (Spotted One Day)? How do you evoke steam on a page (Steaming on the Stovetop)? What if you could make a calendar/book where you would create a new haiku every day that wouldn't repeat for over a decade (Days Made Strange)? Working with a concept first is tricky; got to keep it fresh and layered and not devolve into a cute novelty. See more about "Conceptual Layering" in Making Handmade Books (240-242).

Carry On, 2010
Dresser drawer (Color). Something warm, something cool. I feel restless and can't figure out why. I take out paints or papers or wool roving and work with color first, shaping the mood intuitively. I might make a book with no words and wait. But I must look at it every day and focus on it if I want to complete it. If I can, I'll try to write a text afterwards. This is not always a success, but I always enjoy the process. Or it is a success and I learn something.

Forgotten drawer (Memories). Old letters, ephemera, or memory of a person. This book is often a gift for someone. An occasion of something. The person's life provides the content. I have to decide how to approach it, be it straightforward and chronologically, one story in the life of, a series of fragments, scans or photos of his/her stuff, or using actual materials linked to the person. I put it all in front of me at once, put things away I know I won't use, then just start pulling things out that call to me or have some emotional resonance.

So much to do! There's the physical object of the book, the content, the organization of the content, the design… so many choices to make! First we have to begin.


Intriguing breakdown of the process. I tend to have similar drawers, although I pull them out in a different order every time. Refreshing to read about working in a way where the so-called intuitive does not trump all.