Tag Archives: art

The Intersection of Drawing and Writing and Living

photo (2)Last night, I drew a charcoal picture of what I meant to be my parents’ golden retriever, Buddy (with two eyes), before next Thursday, when a cancerous mass will be removed from his skull, along with one of his eyes.

I’ve just graduated with my MFA in fiction, and am writing a short story about a pedophile bicyclist, but was, after reading Adam Gopnik’s “Life Studies” early on at Goddard, compelled to buy a $5 charcoal set from a close-out store and since, have been drawing pictures that resemble animals and people, but in actuality, all feel like drafts of a story without a true epiphany, without heart or breath. I post these to Facebook and send them in text messages to my best friend because they feel like immediate gratification, as though in one glimpse, someone can see what clearly is a dog. Although perhaps too unpolished to illustrate the sadness Buddy can’t know exists when two eyes become one eye. Soon, he will see the world one-half at a time. The drawing was in-progress, in much the same way my fiction was, a father struggling to realize his fears for his son, who’s way closer in proximity to a pedophile than he’s comfortable with.

I talked through this charcoal drawing of Buddy last night while sitting next to my husband, Cory, who watched the sequel of “Taken,” a movie I couldn’t watch because I didn’t find it believable. How could members of one family be stolen two times? I asked him.

How do I know? Cory said.

It’s hard to draw something you know personally, I said. I can mess up a squirrel, or impose my own ideas of my mother’s face in a portrait of her from the 60s (because it’s not how I know her today), but Buddy’s nose, the fattest most bulbous blackest nose I’ve ever seen on a dog has to look both natural and true-to-Buddy-as-he-is-tonight and believable. I spent most of the two hours I drew Buddy just trying to get the shadows on Buddy’s face accurate enough to craft his nose as horrifying and endearing and entirely normal.

In 2008, my parents lost their first golden retriever, also named Buddy, suddenly, because of a mass that put pressure on his heart. And now, this Buddy, too, has a mass. My father and I chatted briefly on the phone last night, discussing how unfair and unbelievable it was that both Buddies could have such a fate. But life, it turns out, is not about what’s believable, though we hold art to a standard of making life somehow believable and sensible and controlled. Workshops discuss sequence and plot and structure as though life relies on this instinct–and perhaps because it doesn’t. Maybe it’s controlling fear that makes art worth the hours and thousands of dollars we spend on it.

Cory looked over and commented on the shadow and angles cast on Buddy. How his ear didn’t have the shading it should and how it didn’t follow his snout entirely.

Why is everything about angles and math? I asked.

He was right, and slowly, I erased the charcoal enough so that I could recognize Buddy in the drawing, and I said, Hi, Buddy, when his nose looked about right. I guess it’s really all about light and dark, I said, trying to oust math from the art. This morning, while continuing the pedophile story, the father materialized, petrified for his son, and at the same time damaged by his own experience with a pedophile, all while realizing that souls are souls and bodies are bodies. I hope, in the final draft, he captures how simple math and unbelievable life have the potential to wreck us.

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How to Make a Mess

just one of many exercises from Kerri Smith’s “Mess”

My mother is the anti-mess.  The careful super-heroine.  The best worrier (or warrior?) ever.

She gets angry when a child falls because she, or someone around her, couldn’t stop them from falling.  She tells them “rub it,” when they smack their foreheads on the corner of the coffee table.  It worked for me growing up.  It works for me now.

But, lately, I’ve learned, sometimes there is nothing you can do.  At first, this was scary for me.  With MS, I tried medicines, then abandoned medicines, drank green tea, then drank coffee, took cold showers, took hot showers, slept not at all, or slept all I could.  I took every prescription the doctor gave me and none of the prescriptions the doctor gave me.  My MRI showed what my brain wanted to do, regardless.

With my sons, I followed them around the house with a batch of paper towels, arms rearranging whatever they had displaced.  I “picked up” the house over and over again everyday, not stopping to make messes with them.  I  rarely joined their “picnic” in the middle of my living room floor, which simply meant they dumped every toy from their bin on our area rug.

Everything was the end of the world.  A misplaced throw-pillow.  A Cheerio in the corner.   I saw it coming when my son took off his socks many times a day to pick the “fuzzies” from his toes.

I write with my teeth clenched if I can’t wash my dishes before I begin.  I feel like I have two jobs running at one time, two songs playing in discord from one speaker.  Everything is too much.

I found this book, Mess, by Keri Smith.  After reading the introduction, I realized that, aside from being nervous and unhappy,  being consumed by this need for order hinders my creativity, gives me unearned headaches, and a lot of guilt about missed picnics.

As far as work, I never would have been excited to cut apart a piece of fiction with scissors, yet when I actually did it, I almost cried with the connections I had made, the ties of emotion I arranged simply by disconnecting what I had thought, at one time, was whole.  It hadn’t been whole, at all.

This morning, I did the dishes.  But I left the coffee spots on my desk, opaque brown splats on a thick sheen of glass.  While I might have wiped them up before, now, I let them rest, the little buggers, spots like those on an MRI.

Mess, by Keri Smith

Instead, I went to work again, cutting apart the story I had taped together with scotch tape yesterday afternoon, and re-taped it in new places.

I’m trying.  I drink coffee, take my prescriptions and even a vitamin (as my mother takes daily, with water she drinks from a small plastic tumbler that she hides next to the paper towels).  I sleep hard (with a prescription) and cry warm, fat, tears when need be and write drafts more imperfect than I had originally realized, but I’m happier because of it.  And now, on top of it all, I make messes in meaningful ways.  I tape my son’s paper alligator on the living room wall and fight him when he takes it down.  I argue that I like his abstract self-portrait on our kitchen cupboard.   And I’m slowly becoming okay with the messes that have been made, like an indecipherable MRI, my own abstract, self-portrait.

Now, when I go to my mother’s, I will open and reopen her kitchen cupboards, the only messy part of her house. Besides the pantry closet (SHH).  Her socks might be neatly tucked one inside the other, but she does leave a basket of folded laundry in front of her closet, next to a dresser.  Still, you will never find a dirty dish in the sink for longer than ten minutes.  They’re clean before she eats dinner.  This happens more often than I’d like to admit in my own house.

“Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader

Watching  “Broken Fall,” by Bas Jan Ader, a video that Keri Smith writes about in her introduction to Mess,  I both laughed and gritted my teeth, unsure which was the right response.  At first, I wanted to pluck him from the branches and set him down safely.  But I bet, as times goes on, I will want to flick him off the branch and listen to the splash.   And then, when he stands up with a scrape on his knee or a knot on his forehead, I will tell him to “rub it.”


textbook covers, in memoriam

Doodle-a-Day sheet

Doodle-a-Day sheet (Photo credit: CaZaTo Ma)

When I have my students complete a writing exercise, almost half of them have a caricature of themselves, or flowers, or deep pen scratches in the margins.  They’re telling stories in their own ways, unprompted by me.

I don’t doodle anymore.  This is sad.  I should doodle.  One class, everyone should tell a story in doodles.

The word is nostalgic for me, and fun to say.  Say it: “Doodle.”  You’re smiling, aren’t you?

For me, doodling passed with high school lunches, notes slid in the slots of lockers, or mix cds for birthdays.

It was considered a homework assignment during the first week of class to have your class textbook covered, as though the paper would protect the book from the threat of real damage.  I did it, though, because I followed institutional rules.

The smell of the paper bag itself was wonderful– a soft smell like crayons, a kindergarten classroom, the musk of a tree.

It only took a week or two for the wearing at the corners to begin, the fibers unraveling like the math problems inside or the pop quiz scores that made my mouth dry up and my teeth clench.

I doodled the initials of my crushes on the paper that folded over the textbook’s cover and tucked around the front.  Often, if someone was being nosy, I’d slam the book shut after I finished the second initial.  I still won’t tell it.

Then, I got a boyfriend.  I drew hearts around his name on the brown cover and wrote 4-ever just like everyone else, though I hated numbers.  The hearts never had arrows on my books.  Sometimes, when I would break up with my boyfriend for a few days, I would put a heavy X over the heart, or write a large N in front of the “ever” in “4-ever.”  By then, the cover was slit near the spine,  softening around the edges like a soggy cracker.

The annoying person next to me wrote obscene words on my book cover so I scribbled over it with cross-hatching.   I should really change the cover, I thought.

I folded the new paper bag over the book and taped around the corners this time and wrote my boyfriend’s initials in pencil.  When I erased it a week later, the eraser left permanent gray feathers on the cover.  Next time, I decided, I would turn his initials into pretty flowers or trees.  I would doodle them into oblivion.


Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

Image via Wikipedia

…continued from John Smolens’ “How to Get Your Story Started” in The Writer, is step 5.

5 Now you’re ready to begin a short story (60 minutes).  Keep it simple.  Have at least two characters in the same place at the same time and have them respond to each other in some way.

I sometimes call this “The Last Vacant Seat on the Bus session.”  If nothing else, have a character take the last available seat on the bus (or a train or a plane) and start the story the moment she sits down.

The key, as with nearly all stories, is that there needs to be some kind of conflict.  I’ve had students begin with someone who reeks of garlic, or someone who immediately begins asking the other character personal things (“What does your mother think of that tattoo on your neck?”)…

This is probably my third try on this step.  Really, my “narratives” from steps 3 and 4 were more entrances to story than anything.   I rarely experiment so often with different perspectives in one piece of short fiction.  It’s an interesting process I’ll probably do often to force myself out of a failing piece, which is the most comfortably sad place for fiction to be.  This piece requires a lot of research–I feel committed to keeping Andrew as a pilot, so here goes.

start time: 8:45.

I never cared to fly with Andrew, but he never begged like he did that afternoon, with his eyebrows all overgrown and upward-arched as though they might give him some sort of innocence I knew he didn’t have.  I went just so he would quiet down.  My head pounded worse than normal, like all the noise in the world fell asleep in my ears and woke to a rotten alarm clock, a horrific concert of pain and thought, so many violins, laughing children, drum beats and then, Andrew.

“So you’re coming for sure, right?  You aren’t going to sit in the copilot’s place, then bail on me before buckling the belt, last second, like usual?”  Andrew asked.

“I never did that,” I said.  Sometimes he just liked to hear himself talk. “Why did I marry you, again?”

He didn’t answer.  I couldn’t either. The birds loomed, bawking against the clouds like little terrors.  I prayed for one to unleash on me, so I could go home and shower, taking flight myself.

He called this plane Laney, and gave her a pronoun that oozed from his mouth like honey into his morning tea.  Sickening, if you ask me.  My legs ached when I saw the white plane.  The familiar black striping down the side seemed to lock me out of the ethereal part of Andrew’s life.

“You ascared?” he asked.  His brown eyes sharpened, nearly black, his smile widened, the creases nearest his temples deepened. Perhaps this is what frightened me about the plane deal.  How can he have such appreciation of something without a pulse?

“Afraid, you mean?  And no.  I’ve never been afraid of one thing.”

“Not those mice from last fall?  The ones in the pantry?”

“No,” I said.  We would be able to see our house from the air here, I bet.  Maybe my rheumatologist’s office or the supermarket.  My life would disintegrate into specks.

Andrew extended his arm from the doorway of the plane.  Surprised it was strong enough to pull me up, I gasped at the effort I had to put into it.  Was that satisfaction in his face?  There, in his forehead, right below his widow’s peak.  Satisfaction.

“Well I’m glad that was so easy for you,” I snapped.

“Take a load off,” he said, gesturing to the seat beside him.

“No, I’ll sit in this back seat,” I said.  He seemed a stranger, to me, in this place–mostly because his back was curved slightly towards the dials, his hands were lax like paws, and there was no recliner, no breakfast nook, no place for me there.

end time: 9:52.


Trading Confessions

Last week, a student flopped herself in a swivel chair in my office just before class, to tell me she plagiarized her poem. Her eyes were so charged and black that it was as though she surprised herself when she told me.

I wanted to hug her, to show her that the pressure isn’t that much, that I don’t mean to place an anvil on her, that I won’t check beneath her heavy hands to see if she pressed out the right words.

Three weeks ago, a student told me she was nearly three months pregnant, though I never would have known to look at her. I gave her pickles, decaf chai, unsolicited advice.

I wanted to know what it was to be a pregnant student, to touch my stomach and feel the knowledge growing from behind my belly button.  When I got home, I hugged my boys tighter, wishing I could give my student some definition, some synonym to memorize.

Today, I read a poem from a student, revealing that she was diagnosed with cancer last month. I read it and re-read it and nearly cried. I checked her attendance for the past two months: she had not missed one class. She had lost her hair in the midst of discussions about the concrete, caesuras, diction, imagery.

In my mind, I contrasted my MS diagnosis, attempted comparison, but couldn’t, the only notes I had on the experience were at home, scribbled in a journal given to me by a friend. We will discuss her poem in class, and I will sit hushed, with guilt heavy as fatigue.

How can I grade life as it is just-lived?