Friday, May 28, 2010


Suppose you’re a stone narcissist like me. (Barrus, my co-writer is mistakenly taken to be a narcissist, but he’s actually a cleverly disguised altruist. Meanwhile, the fact that I was a teacher and minister misleads people to think that I might be altruistic.)

Let’s suppose you simply are all wrapped up in the actual process of writing, that it is your drug of choice. (Although dealing with it might mean indulging in more traditional pain-ameliorating or drive-sustaining or vision-producing substances. Balzac’s coffee, Coleridge’s opium, Burroughs’ heroin, everyone’s pot and booze.)

You will need an income or someone to provide for you. Such someones have a tendency to either demand that you love them, that you give them more of your time than you want to, or that you’d better become famous so their sacrifice will be worth it. These people were once called “patrons” and either there’s a shortage or they have no interest in me. I would reject them anyway.

You will need to be calloused or buffered against those outside your circle because if you are weak they will victimize you, if you are strong they will attach, and if you ignore them they will stalk and stigmatize you. The more dangerous ones will make a hero of you. Years after your martyr’s death from malnutrition they will be making fortunes by selling slivers of your bones. (Tim’s come pre-shattered.)

Let’s assume that we’re talking books as objects here, not books as xo code. There is a certain kind of person who loves books as objects that are as entwined with the writing as Chinese ideograms are with words but also images. Such people love the binding, so one year the Santa Fe Indian Art Fair was won by an Indian policeman who wrote and illustrated stories about Indians, then bound them in painted and beaded covers. Few copies, high prices.

Some people love the layout and font, the classic finger feel and smell of a page, so they prepare chapbooks on old letterpresses, where the type has to be set by hand in a “typestick”, picking each letter out of the little compartment in a drawer and putting it into a metal frame on a table. For a careful aesthetician, the spacing, the design of the font, the careful composition of marks on paper AS NOTHING MORE than just that, contributes to the value of the words, which -- of course -- should be worth all that effort.

But also, the naive effort, the crayoned scrawls of a child drawing on construction paper tied together with yarn, has value for the seeing eye. On video I’ve watched Tim’s wife coaching her kindergarten Navajos through this process, right down to sitting in the Author’s Chair to give a “reading.” The Cinematheque boys, far more sophisticated, don’t film each other making art, but there is a sequence over several days in which Tim creates a book directly onto paper. “From There I Saw” combines text and abstract paint while Pascal provided a running commentary on the process. In the end it was auctioned online, one-of-a-kind, unique. We imagine our ancestor neanderthals sketching massive bison onto cave walls by the flare of their torches and we buy Taos 7 paintings of an NA man in front of a stretched hide, carefully painting pictographs. Those are “writing,” too, capable of summoning up the inner dream that is reading.

Here’s a totally self-indulgent example of a graphic novel character from my own childhood. (So selfish that I’ll require you to either tilt your head or turn your monitor on its side, because I can’t cram it onto my scanner except sideways.) My parents gave us endless supplies of cheap “scrapbooks” of newsprint. On rainy days like this one (there were lots of them in Portland) we didn’t watch TV. Instead we drew in our scrapbooks. I drew endless "comic books" about ordinary things. This is an on-going character named “Herbert,” who was a slacker with a fondness for striped socks and bowls of apples. (I just liked to draw them. They didn’t have much character application.) For some reason, he smoked constantly though no one in my household did. (Maybe I just liked to draw the mysteriously wicked.) Many plotlines were about pesky flies or getting dressed to go out. Herbert did a lot of reading, but everyone I knew did that. I still have an awareness of the need for a good reading light and a free-standing ashtray. (For those who smoke.) At the time, we greatly admired Time magazine. I don’t know where the purple pajamas came from, but the green chair and ottoman are a color reversal of the fact that each of my parents had a red reading chair (the little red chair and the big red chair), which to a child seemed significant. As a grownup, I have doted on ottomans, but we didn’t have any then. We did have several small side tables, some of which I still own.

Far more sophisticated self-made books were the series by Gwen Frostic which combined nature poetry and prints on paper she made herself, sometimes including a pressed butterfly or flower in the paper. She bound them and sold them in a Benzonia, Michigan, home industry that is just closing down now -- a fifty-year run that outlived her. Those who found Frostic books treasure them and some day they will increase in value. (I made a whole post about her some while ago.)

People who bind books for a living are sometimes rehabilitating worn books, like those in libraries or making special “presentation” or trophy copies. Bob’s gimmick for “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” was to design a box on top of the box that held the book, so that the box could hold a branch of sage. People open their version to show me with great seriousness and pride.

But now I’m off the topic, which is writing for oneself. I think I wandered off because I don’t really want to tell you what’s my most private life. It’s difficult, intricate, draws enormous stores of psychic power, is lonely, and rewarding. To me it is the definition of being human, the capacity to create a virtual world quite separate but vitally related to the real world we all share. It is my identity. my growing edge, my consolation, and my joy. I suppose its therapeutic, more so than buying a book. Maybe computers have turned us from a nation of readers to a nation of writers.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Interesting. I've had Frostic stuff around since I was a little kid. It comes of being a Michigan native. My mother collected Frostic, and I do too. I've got tons of Frostic materials, books, and prints, and notepaper packs, etc.

What I most like about her books is the way the illustrations and design are so well incorporated with the theme. They've been a model of a quiet, natural kind of book design I've always liked, and as a designer have occasionally tried to emulate.

As for writing for oneself, I can't really imagine doing anything else. The audience, if there is one, which there usually isn't for my kind of writing, always comes later. I've done a lot of commercial design and illustration, an I've done commissioned art and music, but I haven't really ever written to please anyone but myself. It's not my principal artform, anyway, so I'm free to NOT do what I don't want to do.

Very interesting post. Thanks.