Art & culture


Hand written first impressions of Lynda Barry's Syllabus

I’m currently reading Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I’d requested from the library a few months ago after reading a review that sparked my interest. Barry teaches an interdisciplinary course on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, and Syllabus contains her hand-drawn notes, assignments, and other course materials.

Love at first sight

When I picked up the book from the library last week, I immediately flipped through it, captivated by its hand-drawn, doodle-like appearance. The book looks and feels like a well-worn composition book–the kind with black-and-white cardboard covers you can buy at nearly any dime store. I know this kind of comp book very well because I used to write in them before I switched to Moleskine notebooks, which are sturdier, more expensive, and ever-so-more serious. Moleskines are what I use now as a Serious Writer, but black-and-white cardboard-covered comp books are the familiar and unassuming standby that many of us started out with: comfort food for the creative soul.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

I’m loving Barry’s book and have already bought my own (back-ordered) copy on Amazon, as this is one of those books I’ll want to read and re-read even after I’ve returned my library copy. In Walden, Thoreau wonders “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and I suspect Lynda Barry’s Syllabus will be one such book for me. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was a book like this, and before that, so was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Both books helped shape me as a creative person long before I actually saw myself as being creative, and they did so by giving me a practice (not just a philosophy) to exercise that creativity.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

Both Goldberg and Cameron use writing as a tool to unlock creativity: timed free-writing for Goldberg (with the admonition to Keep Your Hand Moving) and morning pages for Cameron (with the insistence that you hand-write your pages first thing in the morning). I’ve been doing some modified version of free-written morning pages for years, since first encountering Goldberg and Cameron, and the results have been revolutionary. You have no idea how much have to say until you actually sit down and start saying it.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

For Barry, drawing is the key to creativity–and by “drawing,” she means something more akin to doodling than Serious Art. The point isn’t to produce a “good” drawing but to produce an image that is alive. Many of her students’ drawings look like they were drawn by children…and both Barry and I see that as being a good thing. Children’s drawings might not be technically advanced, but they delight with their lively lack of inhibition.

This time last year

There is a certain charm in things made by hand, and Barry captures that in Syllabus. By requiring her students to use inexpensive supplies such as index cards and dime-store composition books, she eliminates the pretension and self-importance we often associate with Art. If you’re drawing a two-minute self-portrait on an index card–something Barry asks her students to do at every class session as a way of taking attendance–you aren’t trying to create a masterpiece; instead, you’re trying to (quickly) capture the mood of the moment.

Lynda Barry's Syllabus

Many of the drawings Barry includes in her book were “rejects”–that is, drawings her students left behind because they presumably weren’t good enough to keep. But to my eye, even a rough, technically imperfect doodle done by hand has an immediacy and charm that more than makes up for any technical flaws. These doodles are like people: you don’t love them despite their imperfections but because of them.

Two views

Just as the simplest home cooking is more satisfying than a pre-packaged meal, even the most primitive hand-drawn images have a warmth of personality that is lacking in a photograph or polished painting. There is, it seems, a simple magic in making something by hand, whether you’re chopping vegetables, scribbling words, or doodling images in a well-worn composition book.

The top photo shows the first draft of this post, which I wrote by hand in my journal. The second and seventh photos are images from Syllabus itself, and the other photos show you previously-blogged images from the nature journal I used to keep when I taught a first-year Thinking & Writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College.

Looming

On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.

Towering

When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.

Drooping

In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.

Strata

The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.

Compressed

When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

Degas' Little Dancer

Last night I shared on Facebook a link to an article about famous writers and their journals. The article begins with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, who tells aspiring writers “if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” Now that we live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to publish one’s thoughts for all to see, L’Engle’s advice seems outdated and even quaint. What is the value of writing solely for oneself in an era when everyone can have an immediate online audience?

Noh masks

As a writer who keeps both a public blog and a private journal, I feel particularly qualified to comment on this. In many ways, my blog and journal repeat one another: I often blog essays that started as journal entries, revising and expanding upon an idea that arose in my morning scribbles. Occasionally, I’ll write in my journal about something I already blogged, either because a reader’s comment led me to think more deeply about the matter or because my published post didn’t feel “done.” But even though my public blog and my private journal often overlap, I don’t see either as being redundant: instead, they each have an important place in my writing practice, and they each offer their own unique benefits.

Hollywood glamor

Keeping a public blog forces you to consider issues of audience, especially if you blog under your full name. Using your name on your blog means you necessarily have to stand behind anything you post, and you have to be comfortable with the possibility of anyone reading what you write: friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and casual acquaintances alike. This forces you to make conscious decisions about what you will and won’t share to protect your own and others’ privacy. Some would decry this as a form of self-censorship, but I don’t think such limitations are always a bad thing. Professional writers have always made decisions about self-disclosure, deciding how and how much they should include personal details in their writing. In my mind, this kind of discipline is a good thing, as it forces you to express yourself in a careful and deliberate way rather than just spewing your raw thoughts without any thought about consequences.

Protest dress

This isn’t to say, however, that raw thoughts don’t have their place: that’s what both journals and first drafts are for. If my public blog is where I publish and stand behind the work that bears my name, my private journal is where I can go nameless. Nobody reads my morning scribbles, so I don’t have to protect my own or others’ privacy, and I don’t have to worry about making sense. In my private journal I can blather on about whatever inane thoughts happen to be rattling around my head without the need to pretty them up for publication. To mix metaphors, if my blog is where I put my best foot forward, my journal is where I let my hair down.

Degas' Little Dancer

In my mind, the point of keeping a private journal isn’t to write something that is useful, even though I do sometimes use the things I write there. Instead, my journal is a place where I can practice the art of thinking on paper without worrying about those thoughts. When you don’t have an audience, you don’t have to stay on topic, and you don’t have to make sense: you can, in a word, contradict yourself, exhibit faulty logic, say stupid things, and admit all kinds of foibles and hypocrisies. Your journal will never judge you for what you say: your journal, in fact, is simply a mirror of your own mind, reflecting your thoughts without comment or condemnation.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

When you establish the habit of writing without an audience, you become intimately acquainted with your own mind, seeing the ways you repeat yourself day after day. Over time, you become increasingly familiar with your mind-habits as they unspool in sentences across the page. Even if you never revise or recycle any of this material, you still derive a benefit from producing it. Whereas talking comes naturally, writing is necessarily a second language, and a journal gives writers a place to babble like toddlers, establishing a near-native fluency as we train ourselves to think on paper.

Ready for his closeup

Back in November, when J and I walked around downtown Boston on Thanksgiving Day, we photographed a bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe that had been unveiled in October. Before seeing the statue in person, I’d seen photographs of it, so you might say its reputation preceded it. But before I judged the merits of Poe’s new statue, I wanted to see it face-to-face.

Taking it all in stride

Now that I’ve personally seen the statue, which is titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” I can say with confidence that it is simply dreadful. I like Edgar Allan Poe, and I hate this statue, mainly because it immortalizes in bronze all the stereotypes Poe spent his life fighting against. Poe wanted desperately to support himself and his family as a respectable literary man, writing serious literary criticism and whatever poems and short stories would pay the bills. Because some of Poe’s popular work was indeed popular, appealing to the Gothic and sensational tastes of the 19th century reading public, serious-minded writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rejected Poe, pegging him as a sensationalistic hack.

Keep off

“Poe Returning to Boston” both reflects and codifies this derision, portraying Poe not as a serious intellectual but as a madman rushing around town with wild hair, a vampirish cloak, a pterodactyl-sized raven, and an anatomically accurate heart dropping out of his suitcase. The statue isn’t a portrait as much as a caricature that appeals to popular misconceptions about a much-misunderstood man.

Poe profile

Poe might have been a rootless wanderer who never attained during his lifetime the level of literary respectability he aspired to, but that doesn’t mean he was a fiendish freak who rushed down sidewalks with body parts in his bag. The symbols in popular works such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are just that–symbols–so portraying them alongside Poe seems overly literal-minded. Should we immortalize Stephen King alongside life-size renditions of Cujo or Christine even though those reflect only one part of his oeuvre?

A tell-tale heart

Looking at “Poe Returning to Boston,” you’d never know there’s more to Poe than his scary stories. In addition to writing literary criticism, poetry, and an adventure novel, Poe invented the detective story. Most folks see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being a respectable chap, but he borrowed the idea of Sherlock Holmes from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Why is this less lurid aspect of Poe’s career overlooked in favor of his Gothic tales? If the literal-minded among us insist on associating Poe with ravens and beating hearts, why not also associate him with detectives and magnifying glasses?

Raven's head

Emerson famously dismissed Poe as being a mere jingle-writer, but there’s really only one thing distinguishing Poe from both Emerson and Longfellow: the latter had money and thus didn’t need to live off their writing. Emerson was born to a well-bred family of ministers–the New England elite–while Longfellow was the son of a lawyer. Both Emerson and Longfellow married well, with Emerson receiving a cash annuity after his first wife died and Longfellow receiving as a wedding present from his in-laws the house that now bears his name.

Ragin' raven

Poe, on the other hand, was the orphaned child of Irish actors: in the 19th century, a much-maligned and oft-impoverished lot. Poe wanted to be accepted and embraced by other members of the Boston literati, but he couldn’t afford to limit himself to high-brow literature. Like Mark Twain after him, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of diverse talents who wrote whatever would sell. This doesn’t make him a sell-out; it just means that he (unlike Emerson and Longfellow) had to spend at least part of his time catering to popular tastes. 

Turning his back on Boston

Most passersby who see “Poe Returning to Boston” know very little about the man and his work: instead, popular culture contents itself with cliches and caricatures. According to the popular belief, Poe was a disturbed man who wrote disturbing stories. But doesn’t the popularity of Poe’s Gothic tales tell us more about his audience than it does about his own personal proclivities? Poe’s most successful (and well-remembered) works are the ones that gave his audience what they wanted, which was thrills, chills, and the ability to wash their hands of such sensationalism when they were done. Don’t we still blame the media for producing the violence-drenched entertainment we gladly, greedily, and guiltily consume? If there’s anything that Poe’s tell-tale heart reveals, it’s the darker side of his audience’s psyche, not his own.

Profile

Several weekends ago was my eleven year blogiversary: it’s been eleven years and just over a week since I posted my first blog entry on December 27, 2003. Each year around my blogiversary, I take a chance to review the previous year’s posts, choosing my favorite ones and otherwise taking stock of the year that was.

So, here are my top ten favorite posts from the past year:

Asleep and dreaming?

In February, J and I said goodbye to our thirteen-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, whom I memorialized in “That good night.”

In March, J and I visited a makeshift memorial to Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, two Boston firefighters who died while fighting a fire in Boston’s Back Bay, an experience I described in “A thousand hands and eyes.”

In April, J and I joined a million other cheering spectators along the route of the Boston Marathon, as I chronicled in “Taking back the Marathon.”

In May, friends and I went to see an exhibit of colorful quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts, which I described in “Make your bed.”

In July, J and I toured the Charles W. Morgan while she was docked in Boston Harbor, as described in “A whale of a tale.”

Snowy contemplation

In “Solitude,” I explained one of the reasons I enjoy writing in my journal.

In August, I memorialized Robin Wiliams with a post called “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

In September, I considered my religious devotion to the act of writing in a post titled “Like prayer.”

In “A modest proposal,” I offered my take on the student riots that marred this year’s Keene Pumpkin Festival.

And in “King hickory,” I described a quintessential October stroll.

Whenever I review a year’s worth of blog posts, I’m always surprised at how much I manage to post given how little time I have to devote to writing. Here’s hoping that pattern continues for another year.

Orange Twist, Jean Stamsta (1970)

This past weekend, I went with friends to see an exhibit of fiber art at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Whereas the quilts we’d seen at the Museum of Fine Arts this past summer were two-dimensional, hanging like tapestries on the gallery walls, the woven, stitched, and crocheted works currently on display at the ICA are billed as sculpture, a medium that exists in all three dimensions.

Elsi Giauque, Élément spatial (Spatial Element), 1979.

Sculptures are inherently pedestrian, inviting viewers to walk around and view them from multiple angles. Whereas a painting has only one good side, sculptures have many. Most sculptures are solid and substantial things, their shadows being the only part of them that potentially moves. But fiber sculptures are knitted from the negative space between individual strands, and this gives them an opacity that solid sculptures lack. Looking at a woven work, you’re simultaneously looking through it, your fellow museum visitors becoming part of the piece as they stroll past or linger to look.

Françoise Grossen, Inchworm, 1971.

Whenever I linger to look at fiber art, I experience two complementary impulses. The first is an almost irresistible urge to touch the piece, using my fingertips to read its texture like braille. To me, textiles are inherently tactile, so there is something inexplicably cruel about an exhibit that asks you to admire fiber sculptures with your eyes alone. The second impulse I experience when viewing sewn, knitted, or woven works is the urge to make my own. If curators won’t let me touch what others have made, then the only way to satisfy my eager fingers is to keep them busy with work of their own.

Ernesto Neto, SoundWay, 2012.

I never learned how to knit, but I was a crafty kid during the heyday of both macrame and latch-hooking, and in college a roommate taught me how to cross-stitch. In each case, I enjoyed the calming repetition of each individual knot or stitch following the next: a meditative monotony I practiced long before I knew what meditation was. It’s been years since I’ve either knotted or stitched: whenever I’m tempted to begin again, I remember all the projects I started but never finished, my interest in textile arts focused more on the process than the finished product.

Hooked and Twisted

When I started cross-stitching in college, I’d often do it while watching TV with my roommates, the predictable parade of one stitch following another fitting nicely with the desultory conversation that good friends enjoy over an interesting show. I particularly remember cross-stitching while watching CNN at the start of the First Gulf War, my roommates and I having friends and classmates who had been called up to serve mid-semester. It felt like our civic duty to watch the news even though there was nothing tangible we could do to help, and cross-stitching gave our nervous hands something to do that felt productive.

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, 1993.

These days I read during the hour or so I spend after taking the beagle out and getting settled for the night. While J readies dinner, I read with the TV in the background, the sounds of sports or news serving as a sonic backdrop. I could, in theory, spend this time knotting or stitching, but for the time being I enjoy reading, my particular talents leaning more toward texts than textiles. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fiber arts with the vicarious joy of someone who can remember herself doing something similar.

Click here for Leslee’s account of our trip to the ICA. If you’re in the Boston area, this week is your last chance to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, which is on display at the ICA until January 4. Enjoy!

Happiness is...

Earlier this afternoon, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for almost a month: I brewed a mug of tea and wrote in my journal. Between being sick and being buried in the usual mid-semester flood of student papers, I hadn’t written in my journal since November 3, an entry that chiefly chronicled the cold-turned-bronchitis I caught near the end of October:

I slept yesterday, a day-long nap in an attempt to make up for nights riddled with coughing. I sometimes think I’ll never get better–never regain my strength. How is it that something as simple as a cold or flu bug can lay me out so irrevocably, and for so long?

Moleskine

Blogging counts as a kind of journaling, but for me, no amount of blogging can replace the longhand pages I’m in the habit of keeping. For me, blogging is where I think out loud for a live audience, and writing in my paper journal is where I think solely for myself. For me, the strength and authenticity of my outer, public voice is rooted in this more personal, internal dialogue. My daily scribbles are where I figure things out for myself, and my blog reflects the end-result of such ruminations.

Blogging when I haven’t been journaling feels like performing without practicing: yes, a veteran musician or singer can perform for an audience without devoting private hours to her or his craft, but after a while, those public performances can become rote and shallow. My journal is where I find and strengthen my writerly voice. Blogging when I’m not journaling feels precarious and ungrounded, like growing a tree without roots.

This is my Day Twenty-Two contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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