The Lines

I knew an artist once who stood before a human-sized canvas and drew  lines from left to right, over and over and over, all the way down the canvas from her head to her blue-shoed, paint-speckled toes.

I hung around some mornings on the couch in her studio. It was attic space, unheated in that year but plenty of light, and no need to tidy up if it didn’t suit her. I kept my coat on, tucked my feet under me, and drank the coffee she did without. This was freehand. She couldn’t risk the shakes.

She worked, and we talked, all the highs and lows of the neighborhood taken on. What is lucky about a visual artist’s work is that there can be a portion of it where they can socialize. At that point, it’s about the hand, not the mind. I don’t find anything comparable in a writer’s life, and I envy that luxury.

Still, though we conversed, she held her concentration to the canvas. Over and over, her back to me, she drew her freehand lines across a black canvas, pencil on black paint, enough lines by which to write a novel by the time she was done (not really, but a lot).

I watched her careful craft, never mind the art, and wondered what it was that brought her to do this work, no coffee, even, no heat.

I never lingered more than an hour. I had my own blank pages waiting for my lines. At least it doesn’t matter in my work if my hand was shaky.

Why do it at all?

Possibly, it’s a form of obsession. Perhaps we, who insist on filling blank spaces with our scratching, do it from some nameless urgency to reduce a thing to its most specific, most useful, and most exact form. Call it a search for precision in a messy world.

Turns out, that line painting came my way. It’s hanging outside my office.

Quarter Hour

As a young lawyer, I was required to keep time sheets. I had to account for every quarter hour. Long calls were billed at an eighth of an hour. Short calls were batched. My big cases billed out in the fifty, sixty-hour week, and the little stuff might have been another eight or ten. I knew exactly where my time went. And who would be billed for it. And how fast I spent it on things for which I would be made to account.

Once, as a writer, feeling as if my work just diddled on like a plumbing problem, I tried to get a sense of the time spent, keeping track on yellow paper to mimic the time sheets of my lawyer years. Two weeks of data gathering generates a lot of information.

It’s pretty interesting, where all those quarter hours go. I know a writer who tried this exercise and reported that she never did another piece of laundry again.

So far, I’ve spent three: coffee, magazine, and here. And it’s only the first hour of the waking day.

Photo credits: Single quarter Alicia Solario; multiple quarters Stephen Sullivan


I took home economics in middle school and nearly failed it.   I hated the sewing machine’s jumping needle, every seam coming out as if a path beaten through the jungle. But it was my cupcakes that most threatened my otherwise nice report card.

Mixing bowls and spoons, flour going everywhere, we were charged with the production of a dozen perfectly iced cupcakes. A dozen, we learned, meant thirteen, which only complicated the matter.

I recall the moment we girls, no boys, lined up at the kitchen island, our specimens on a platter. The teacher came around with her very sharp knife. Not even bothering to remove the paper baking cup, she sliced one of mine in half and found air tunnels running throughout the chocolate cake. Never mind the taste, my cupcakes were a failure.

This petty humiliation turned out to be a valuable writing lesson.

I think of those cupcakes now when I ask myself: when is a work done?

Some writers say that it’s when one can no longer find anything in need of improvement. For me, that’s an unworkable standard, as I can fiddle forever with a comma. A better sign, I think, certainly a good sign, and maybe even the whole sign, is when I can slice the work at any point, over and over and over, read the passage I’ve selected, and not find any dead air, just cake.

Photo credit: Morguefile

The Flamingo Must Go

It’s my good fortune to know a lot of visual artists. Painters, mostly, but also potters and printmakers, landscape architects, photographers, and people who work in fabric, stone, glass, metal, bottle caps, trash, and who knows what else in this rich community. John Brickels works in clay. All his pieces are brown.

In years past, he was interested in things in gentle decline, like his falling-down barns and beat-up cars. Lately, the pieces are sleeker and industrial-looking. Picture nuts and bolts, or castoff plumbing, or machinery, the purpose for which is unclear, and still of brown stoneware. Cocoa-hued and steam punk, as one reviewer put it. These things carry weight, have mass.

Recently, the organizers of the Art Hop, a popular art event in town, asked Brickels to turn his artistry to the decoration of one of its emblems: a plastic pink flamingo. Brickels, a nice guy, worked it into one of his sculptures. That piece was auctioned off at a fund-raiser, and my collector husband bought it.

But there’s a problem. When one looks at the work, all one sees is the foreign element. There it is: a bird in captivity, the head sticking out of one end and its pink plastic body a long way away.

The bird is a distraction. It isn’t Brickels. And, apparently, the artist has rethought the matter as well. His e-mail, arriving months after the event, was brief: “The bird must go.”

It will take two of us to get the sculpture back to his studio, where he will address the matter. What’s he going to do? Fire it? Melt the bird? Carve it out? Disassemble the piece and start over? He isn’t sure.

Meanwhile, I intend to keep the head and will add it to the flower pot in the corner of our living room where all the other flamingos from past Art Hop events reside. It’s a reminder to me as to what can happen when one ambles too far down the road in a direction that just isn’t true to the situation, to what the artist wants to achieve. Whatever else, an artist must be true to his vision.

I’ll let you know when the piece returns.

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Photo credit:  top – Donald Cook; right – Michael Metz

Cleaning House

New Year’s is a good time to entertain possibilities. And while I consider them, I usually clean house as a kind of doubled bonus. New year, new ideas, clean house, only this year, I didn’t quite get to it. There was the entertaining: the short ribs, the chocolate cake. Our college boy was home. There were those few days in Montreal.

I begin in my office. I ignore my desk. I will clean it, certainly, but that’s a job for working hours. The bookshelves, however, floor-to-ceiling, linen white, fall under house cleaning.

Dust cloth in hand, up and down the ladder, I consider what I have. More than half the library is fiction, most of it recent. The rest is one shelf of essay, nine business, four project-related, four law, two poetry, two short story, one of interviews, one philosophy, two on writing, a shelf of new reading, and a shelf reserved for authors whose lives have intersected mine. The art books, chiefly photography, are in another room.

As I clean, I consider: Will I really read that again? Do I want it for memory’s sake?

Two days later, I have twenty-two grocery bags and two boxes readied for Goodwill. I pass along some very fine writers.

I wonder if I should be shocked or embarrassed by the sheer volume of it. I think how a Kindle would hide this consumption, which might be a reason (not really) to reconsider it. And then, finally, I come to my senses.

Whether acquired from a bookstore or library, the flea market or the basement of the Strand, a writer needs to read—not as a yardstick, not as a club, but from the desire to satisfy appetite and amplify one’s sense of the possibilities. And whatever else a writer needs, things you will read about here, a heightened sense of what’s possible is what will drive the work.

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