The six words came first, like a little roadmap found crinkled under the seat of a car, or the sight of a curious, six-legged creature fleeing over the horizon. Even the right word takes effort, I thought, the words so clear, so absolute and certain I looked around to see who might have spoken. Seeing no one, yet possessed by a sudden, compulsive urge to hold the words captive, to prevent their escape into the thicket of a mind overgrown with phrases like “don’t forget the milk” and “be sure to mail that check”, I looked around for tools to help me construct a cage.
The tools needed, of course, were paper and pencil, or pen. Ubiquitous in human homes and offices, they can be hard to come by on isolated docks where language means the chatter and chirr of gulls. Digging around beneath the birds’ inquisitive stares, I finally found a pen under the spare tire in my car’s trunk, laughing that I’d found one at all. The pen, a white ballpoint imprinted with the LaQuinta logo, looked as though it had knocked around the car for some time, but it worked. Paper was less of a problem. Junk mail envelopes in the car’s trash were abundant, as were the backs of business cards , but there on the dock was all the paper I needed. Pieces of used sandpaper five inches square and smooth on the back were just big enough for those six words and the title which eventually presented itself: The Task at Hand. Over the course of several days, words and phrases were added and removed, arranged and stacked and rearranged until at last I brought my little pile of sandpaper home and transcribed the words which gave this blog an identity and purpose.
The fact that I’d written my first poem on sandpaper didn’t seem in the least odd until I began attending a local writers’ group. A few members appeared at meetings with spiral-bound notebooks and ball point pens straight off the drugstore shelf. Far more had lovely, leather-bound journals or exquisite notebooks with covers of hand-made paper. Filled with thick, creamy pages that absorbed ink in an instant or leaves of tissue so delicate they made the very act of writing seem an assault, they were perfect companions for pens far more elegant than my lowly trunk-dweller. I hadn’t used a real pen in years, but here they were in abundance, their gold nibs, tiny enameled bodies, silver and gold engravings and perfect proportions luscious and appealing.
Before and after the meetings, there was as much talk of pens and paper as about words. Writers talked about their trips to the stationers like explorers eagerly cataloguing acquisitions of rare butterflies. Papyrus, vellum, marbeled or mulberry, the papers were rumored to imbue the most pedestrian words with weight and substance. As for the pens, it seemed one never was enough. One writer used only a gold Cross pen for prose, a Monteverde with purple ink for poetry and a nice rollerball for editing. Montblanc was a favoite, Conklin esteemed, Montegrappa coveted. My LaQuinta freebie hid in my purse, embarassed and chagrined.
Certainly there is legitimate pleasure to be taken in artfully produced journals, a paper smooth and heavy to the touch and the flow of ink, a sensuous pleasure that only increases when combined with good coffee, a little time for thought, a window from which to gaze. When that pleasure slides toward obsession, as it can, it suggests something more – an unspoken conviction that if only one could find the right paper, the perfect pen, the perfectly bound notebook, writing itself would become easier, more fluid, more richly textured and memorable.
The longing of some writers for these perfect tools is very much akin to the hunger for a perfect setting in which to write. “I can’t write at home,” says one. “I see the chores needing to be done and become distracted.” Another fusses, “I only can write in complete solitude.” Some can’t write at night, or in the morning, or in public or facing south. Some need windows, or beaches or mountain cabins. Others prefer a cafe setting, or a certain, comfortable couch. I once heard a fellow say, “When I retire, I’m going to have a teak desk, with a beautiful sheen, and a room in muted colors with natural fabrics, and no telephone. Then, I’ll be able to write.”
I hope he can. And yet, I remember Annie Dillard’s words on the subject in her marvelous On Writing. She says, “Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window… Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar and gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder block study was, but it will do.”
While Ms. Dillard’s thoughts might be taken as the strange rantings of a mystical poet, William Zinsser is all prose, and his opinion hardly differs. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the classic On Writing Well, Zinsser mentions a photograph of E.B. White which hung in his office. Taken by Jill Krementz, it’s described by Zinsser in this way:
“A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table – three boards nailed to four legs – in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water. White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg. The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket.” Zinsser goes on to add, “White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.”
The willingness to imbue simple tools with mysterious powers and to confuse the process of creating art with the ability of its product to intrique, inspire and initiate dialogue is not limited to the writers among us. A delightful parable of technology, vision, and imagination comes from painter and photographer Michael Maurer Smith, who tells the story of Snapper’s Disappointment in his blog, Dissent Decree. As Michael tells it,
Snapper figured if he bought the best he’d be the best. So he made the call and ordered himself one of the finest digital single lens reflex cameras money could buy. This puppy came with 24.5 megapixel full-frame capability, a magnesium body shell, a carbon fiber composite shutter, a 922,000 pixel LCD monitor, and it could shoot 7 frames per second.
Snapper took some time to familiarize himself with his new treasure, with all of its menus and buttons, but found himself increasingly anxious as he realized he hadn’t a clue where to begin taking actual photographs, or why he might choose one subject over another. Eventually, Michael tells us, as Snapper searched for answers he stumbled upon Henri Cartier-Bresson and the amazements of a different sort of photography.
“Bresson had made his pictures using a completely manual camera—something called a Leica. It had no auto focus, auto exposure or zoom lens. The label also said Bresson rarely used flash. Snapper was dumbfounded. ‘How could Bresson make such stunning photographs using such simple technology?’…
…Snapper was disappointed. The advertising had promised him that the technology built into his new camera would assure great photographs with every click of the shutter. But after seeing Bresson’s work it sure seemed like there was a lot more to photography than just the camera.”
Indeed. And in his own delightful way, Michael Maurer Smith not only shows us how Snapper resolves his issues, he uses the tale to drive home a point I’ve suspected all along. The writer searching for a magic pen, the photographer waiting for the perfect technology, the painter constrained by the quality of light ~ all have forgotten a basic truth of the creative process. It is grounded not in technology and technique, but in what Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech called “the agony and sweat of the human spirit.” It is pursued “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”
As the logician would say, the tools of any art are necessary but not sufficient for beauty and meaning to emerge. And however well we succeed, no matter how far short of our goal we may fall, the words of this slightly amended proverb hold true: it is a poor artist who blames the tools.
You just have to live, and then life will give you photographs.”