a journal of...

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Making Books

I've just finished, for the third or fourth time since it came out, Jill McCorkle's Life after Life.  From the first, her novel set in a retirement home in a small town hooked me practically in a stranglehold--not surprising, considering the events of this year with elderly family, whose genes and other durabilities are likely to push my generation, as well, far into the nineties.  Our family history of longevity is heartening in some ways, and scary in others, as indeed Jill's story is.  Who knows where our futures lie?  We try to predict, plan for (or fall into), and succeed in a life for as long as we can, thinking we know who we are, but then Fate or the accidents we call Fate throw some mountain in our way and we bumble off trying to make sense of the new compass point we have to navigate by.  It takes some courage, and some humility, too, to go along inventing a path on a new map, but it's the way of survival and, more than that, a way of living well as best as circumstances allow.

It reminds me of one of my grandmother's stories, one we would ask for time and again, lingering against our bedtime, about a young woman who is captured by a witch (her crime was eating the witch's parsley on the way to school) and is saved one afternoon while the witch is away, by a prince  on horseback and three magic nuts the girl wisely grabs from the witch's tree as they ride off.  The witch on their tail, the girl throws out one nut after the other, each exploding behind them, obstructing her vengeful path:  first, a hill of slippery soap, then, after she'd clawed her way over that, a mountain of pins and needles, and finally, a small cottage by the side of the road with a deaf caretaker who cleverly sends her in the wrong direction.  The couple, escaped, go on their merry way.   I wish I'd thought to ask what happened to the witch, whose journey fell off the page after the happily ever after part, but I assume she went on to learn a lesson somehow, though what it is I can't fathom.  It may be she learned nothing except not to leave the house with all that loose magic about.

I could go on about this intersection of fate and intervention, but what lingers in my mind after this last reading of Jill's book is something the author noted in an interview published with the novel.  She says, "I find as a writer that if I can tap into what [a] person loves more than anything and what he or she fears more than anything, then I know what I need to know."

 Although Jill was talking about the way she draws characters in fiction, her words rang true about character in general, I think.  What happens to us because of those two factors that determine so much of what we are and how we live:  love and fear?  Note that neither she nor I raise those words to Romantic proportions by capitalizing them.  In most of us, they appear in their most ordinary dress, sometimes invisible catalysts for the twists and turns that weave us in and out of our years.  Do we make right or wrong moves when we deviate, voluntarily or involuntarily, from what we think are our chosen paths?  How much does magic, or the timely appearance of an unexpected intervention, have to do with our fates?  Most of us don't think of ourselves as characters in a novel, but it would be interesting to imagine the stories we live turned into fiction on a page. What plot, what scene, what crises will really illuminate our lives?

Then there is the truth we eventually come to, in fiction and reality:  what one loves the most, what one fears the most...they are, when scrutinized, closer than the opposites they seem.

I wouldn't have imagined, for instance, that at this age, I'd find myself working so ardently as a visual artist, after decades of assuming it was something I wouldn't be good at.  Decades ago, I saw myself through quite different lenses...the lens of words, of literature, of the story inherent in every life and how it might be revealed if I drew words to explain things.  I wrote out journal after journal, poem after poem, tearing at what I was, both the loves and the fears.  Somewhere along the line, when words failed, there was a rock I stumbled over, and here I am, narrating life in a new dimension.

This morning, for example, I'm setting out for Kathy Steinsberger's two-day linen-to-leather book workshop.  Not a class in how to write a romance novel, but in how to turn our art skills into a physical book. Kathy is perhaps the premier art bookmaker and patient, generous teacher of classes at Blam!, her studio space in Raleigh (she also teaches regularly at Pullen Arts, as well as at Penland--you should be able to hear me sigh when I say that name; it's working heaven for artists of all trades).

As I pluck odd materials off my shelves to bring along--linen, lace, scraps of handmade paper, pearls, copper--I'm thinking about Jill's words, and wondering what, this time, will evolve.  If love juxtaposed with fear have brought me to this point in my life, it probably underlies nearly everything I make.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I'm running toward my passions, and tripping over my failures to learn something new, to make myself more visible through the next piece.  I run my hand through boxes, jars, and drawers and think:  What do I love most?  What challenges do they present?  Maybe it isn't words that represent love and fear the most, but the small bits of collected scraps I can narrate by giving them new life.  Just like Jill, who looks for the heart of those she creates, so do I, I realize, reach through my own psyche for just such inspiration, trying to find the real life in snippets once useful in a former existence.

What will my story  be today?


It's evening now, the first day's class over, and I can tell you that if you don't believe in the synchronization of events in our lives, I offer this proof:  I'd barely gotten into the door of Blam! and laid out my tools ready to work, when blam! Kathy happened to mention what she's teaching at Penland this summer.   It's a bookmaking class called The Storyteller's Muse.  Really?  And it's co-taught by a painter who apparently wants to work with narrative in visual form.  Really?

Well, Paris in early spring will have to wait another year.  July, 2017 will find me in the Blue Ridge Mountains, busy at work discovering how to see a book of stories through both lenses, material and literary.  I can hardly wait to leap into that new dimension.

Meanwhile, we had a lovely time cutting and folding paper and fabric, painting and drying, arranging leaves into folios and folios into signatures to invent our books.  Tomorrow we finish painting and go on to binding and embellishment, some of which may be words.  What I love most about Kathy's studio is her encouragement to reap what we can and in exchange offer what we can.  It's just one more step on the way to illumination.

1 comment:

  1. waiting to see the fruits of your passion today! enjoy the journey!