Art, Creativity, Poetry, Relationships

Unboxed Shadow (Hirshhorn)

Cornell Box

In the drawer, a tiny bundle of newsprint
waits for paper fingers
to untie its secrets. Inside
their China cabinet coffin,
glass eyes almost
see. I tilt
towards a convex wall
where iron and bronze
sculptures anchor those
who forget that the absence of corners
can lead to infinite revolutions.  Continue reading “Unboxed Shadow (Hirshhorn)”

Learning, Writing

Six Things a Dull Work Task Taught Me about Writing

Merging two departments at our university means surgically coupling incompatible websites. Having spliced on the temporary graft last month, we now tackle the trickier job of weaving source to source so the seams don’t show. Today’s task involved rooting around under the patch to prune redundancies and rewrite bits of content.

Flagging here at the end of a seven-hour editing marathon, I take a breather and a gander. Weaving its way through the pages is a clean-edged trail of snappy language. It’s a marvel. In less than a single work day, I wrote a comprehensive volume of coherent text. Clicking through the screens, I see more passages composed more clearly than any of the bloated essay drafts oozing from my grasp the past few months.

Why does this work? What is it about tip-tapping away on a web-based work project that sparks such productivity and — dare I say it — craft? A bullet job might look like a different species than “real” writing. Get a little closer and you’ll see it is part of the pack. In fact, it has something to show us about how to deal with its more menacing kin.

1. Turn Up the Pressure

Your work needs to be out there. Somebody somewhere wants it.

Today’s task confirms that procrastination has poor return on investment. The current site’s content is either incomplete or inaccurate. Students need it finished and live. We make our jobs harder when we deprive students of proper guidance and then scramble to fix the mistakes they make without it. The only alternative to doing the work quickly is taking down whole sections of the site, and that’s a waste of good progress on a valuable project.

Your work matters enough to get it out there. Set a hard deadline and meet it.


2. Name the Audience

Put your reader in a blaze orange vest and have her stand at each intersection telling you which way to go. When the parade is in town, you need to be able to pick her out of the crowd.

For today’s task, the site’s readers line up in this order:

a. New students
b. Prospective students
c. Current students
d. Administrators from around the school
e. Faculty advisors
f. Student services providers at other universities

I keep all of them in mind — as well as their ranking — as I make decisions about what to write and how to arrange it all. The content has to rise to the standards of d, e, and f while primarily meeting the needs of a, b, and c.

Have your reader stand up and tell you what she needs to know.


3. Choose your Note and Strike It

Is it black tie at the opera or Chacos at a drum jam?

A website is one face of a person or organization. Word choices and sentence structures need to project the culture the site represents. That’s a big way of saying that the text is an ambassador. Its tone should give the reader a sense of how people inside deal with each other.

For today’s task, I determined that the site should be conversational but not chatty. The voice echoes what someone might hear at a student orientation or an admissions info session. It steers clear of stiffness and jargon while maintaining its polish. I dress my language on the tailored side of “business casual.” The tie is loose but it’s still a tie.

Put on wing tips and you’ll step like a boss. That’s how it goes. Once you set a tone, you start humming along.

Read it out loud. Does what you’re hearing fit your reader’s ear?


4. Memorize your Purpose

To use that voice with confidence, you have to know what you’re trying to achieve.

Today’s task highlights the website’s role in meeting the school’s larger goal: training the next generation of scholars. The content needs to do more than provide basic information. It must also introduce our Shiny! New! Story! as we make our way through this merger. When deciding how to compose and organize, these counterbalanced themes simplify my options. The site has two basic jobs:

a. Informing students of the resources, expectations, and procedures while also. . .
b. Conveying the scholarly mores of our emerging school

Both form and the content have clear objectives. I know what they are. Indecision doesn’t stand a chance.

Make the goal your mantra. Return to it when your words rebel.


5. Erect a Scaffold

Outlines may be overrated but they anchor your belay as you clamber through the work.

Prior to today’s task, I created the site’s format. That was a few years back. I plucked gems and threads from other websites and used them to assemble a frame. Re-creating the whole thing now would be senseless. This skeleton gets the job done. No need to worry about the fit. Trusting the structure lets me muck around inside the passages and fill them with content. If I find myself hammering something in at an awkward angle, I can crack joints, split seams, and make it all move where it needs to go.

Draft an outline in plain English and start filling in words. You can place things in another order once you have things to place.


6. Dice it into Bites

Bullets within categories within headings let you enjoy the carnita without staring down the pig.

Today’s task attends to one idea at a time. I work in this category right now, answering this question right here. What’s the use of fiddling around with other issues? If something pops up, I jot it down and return to sorting out this shred of text.

On most websites, an idea appears on the page in a size that’s easy to digest. Writing this way can be simply devilish until you make it devilishly simple. Divide the work up into ever smaller pieces. Bring one up front and get to work. If the reader needs more material, find or make a place for it, link it, and fill in later.

Cut with a clean edge then go trim the fat.

“Bird by bird,” as Anne LaMott says. Don’t write a book. Shape an idea.

Just one.

This one.
Take a shot at injecting these features of 9-5 writing into your more defiant projects. You just might bring them to a heel. Then you can really move.

Love, Outdoors, Poetry

Happy 100 Days: 46

I have only two left
gloves, a worn
hole in the index finger
of one so I turn it backwards
on my right hand and heft
my end of the 6×6
over to the pit where the small hill
of sand by the gate
will reside
after we are done
(probably not today)
The man’s toolbelt drags
down his pants and his pencils
have not been sharpened
in a year. His drill
bit is too short and keeps escaping
from its housing
it is a wonder we manage
to fit holes
three beams deep
with the same rebar we use
to lever the lumber from its
ill-placed seating
(the volunteers did not use a level)
Leaves drift into the pit and we lose
the maul and then the last
pencil. My gloves flop like wings of
bats. Nothing stays. We use the flat
side of a hand saw to draw a line
“measure twice, cut once,” I say
so he pauses and smiles and unclips
the measuring tape
before hitching up his pants
again. When he drills backwards
through wood to meet
the hole from the other side, every time
I hold my breath and every time
I cheer when the bit spins free
finding its aim in the dark center
and the light and the air
spill through
behind the shavings
The eight-foot beam splits
my right index finger
at the tip and I suck my breath
but he is bleeding too in almost the same place
(the posts are hard to lift from the rebar
we keep seating too soon)
so we both shrug and keep hammering
the business end of one maul
with the blunt end of another
The sun sinks. We coil
the orange cord and stand
the shovels and wheelbarrow against the shed
wall, the beams still loose
the sand still piled
by the gate. He gives me
my first and
as it turns out
only hug of the day
and drives off with the circular saw
in his back seat
The gloves need a proper burial
but I toss them in
with my tools again
and my skin chafes red and thirsty
as I lift away the leaves caught
in the trunk of my car to make
room. The sting dulls to a throb
and so I do not feel the cut
mouth of the paper frog
my son made for a man
he loved once when crafting
something by hand was enough
even if the the edges
were ragged and maybe
even especially then.


With Drawn

Rose McLarney

Some springs, apples bloom too soon.
The trees have grown here for a hundred years, and are still quick
to trust that the frost has finished. Some springs,
pink petals turn black. Those summers, the orchards are empty
and quiet. No reason for the bees to come.

Other summers, red apples beat hearty in the trees, golden apples
glow in sheer skin. Their weight breaks branches,
the ground rolls with apples, and you fall in fruit.

You could say, I have been foolish. You could say, I have been fooled.
You could say, Some years, there are apples.


For the second night in a row, my son is awake past 10:00pm. He is riding a tidal wave of inspiration. A paper sea churns around him. He draws with thick marker on a sheet of blank-backed leftovers from my father’s draft articles on adaptive management and my own half-hearted attempts at a screenplay. Without any concern for the neat lines of type on the opposite side, Bug splashes the blue ink across the surface of everything. He makes rocket ships and big-headed people,  giant insects and treasure maps. When the clipboard is empty, he takes to the bedsheets. His lime green linens explode with giant butterflies and airborne letters. Even the bedside table has become canvas.
He is wearing me out. Eventually, I tip him from his perch. The wave crashes to the shore in a blast of salt and foam. Sobs wrack his body as I snap the cap firmly back on the marker and toss his creations overboard. “It is bedtime,” I say. My lips are tight. I am so very tired. The past week has been yet another chapter in the thousand year history of insomnia. Without good thinking to move us up and out, my own vessel runs aground in some desolate cove. While we languish, my visions of the promised land atrophy in tandem with my faculties. Neither tide nor wind is sufficient to carry us where we need to be. Without rest and a shot at a better life, I give my son only the leavings of my legacy of mistakes.
I long to give up, to curl into my own rumpled sheets. It is impossible while he is awake. He, too, spars with the night. What worries does he carry into his fractured dreams? With nothing to do but be, I crawl in next to my sobbing son.
“I’ll sing you one more song. What do you want to hear?” I have to ask this three times before he can calm down enough to decide. Finally, he chokes out a request.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
“Okay, baby. Come here. ” Drawing him close, I sing it all the way through, slow and low. He  surrenders his weight to my waiting shoulder one ounce at a time. When the song ends, he starts to stir. I ease into “Molly Malone,” welcoming him back to my arms. In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty. . .
Well before the fever kills her, Bug’s breath steadies and his muscles soften. I carry on to the end so I can bid goodnight to Molly’s ghost, Alive, alive-oh.
When my feet swing off the bed, they splash into the eddying pages. I have to wade through them to get to the door.  I can barely bring myself to look at my son again. His peace is too stark a reminder of what is required of me. How will this broken woman ever provide enough for this beautiful, bursting boy?
In a literature class in back in the wide-open days of college, a professor spoke with reverence of the tenacity of the great authors. She told us of the Brontë sisters, hunched over tables and making stories by candlelight. On bits and fragments in cramped script, they inked worlds to life. Sometimes, the scarcity of paper was severe enough that one of the girls would fill the page with tiny horizontal lines, then turn the page sideways and write across the previous words.
In my own bed, I train my mind away from our doom and breathe in the quiet safety of an in-between place. This inlet, our only home. We have paper in abundance to fashion both ship and sails. Oceans of ink. Currents of light. Our larder is full. We have song. We have each other.
We have enough.
You could say, I have been foolish.
You could say, Some years, there is this.


Sail Cloth

It was one of many, undoubtedly, but it is the one I remember best. The costume was made of bright, sky-blue gingham. My sister’s was green. Knowing our competitiveness and our proclaimed “favorite” colors, mother bought matching fabric in different shades. She sewed the collars and cuffs, the puff-balls and buttons. They were billowing things, wide-legged bloomers in a single piece up to the ruffled neck. Then she painted on our faces. Mine was a smile and my sister’s a frown. Or was it the other way around? It is odd I consented to be a clown considering how frightened I was of the things.  Halloween gives us permission: embody that which you fear most. For one night that year, we roamed the neighborhood at sunset, throwing the demons off our scent and demanding our spoils.

In the chapter following childhood but preceding parenthood, I approached Halloween with a much more improvisational attitude. Patterns and forethought gave way to 11th hour leather, sequins, and duct tape. Keys and washers could hang from chains. A sharpie can turn a bedsheet into a flag or cape. Like concocting a dish without a recipe, all you have to do is open the cabinets and make use of what appears. Mash it together to yield something outlandish and utterly unrecognizable. Partake regardless.

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”

“Built it (or, don’t even build ‘it,’ Just build) and they will come.”

Pick your dime store proverb. Any old one excuse for immersion will do.

Unfixed is still my preferred gait. If the activity involves a voyage and a bit of play, I give over and let the doing of it offer up what it will. This is why I have bins in the basement full to bursting with filled journals, but only a single publication to my name.  It is also why my resume reads more like a ransom note than a character study. Whether dancing, dating, writing or earning a paycheck, I follow impulses and revel in processes. The product is only an afterthought.

This time of year, the folks walking the streets as pinball machines and chess men are marvels to me. It is not my habit to set a goal and work it into being.

Like so many of us, I was fortunate – or so I believed – to find a companion as open to adventure as I was. The waters below so captivated us, we could not turn our gaze to the stars. Immersion failed us. In the absence of a navigator, our meandering course led us right into the Bermuda triangle.

But I digress. (As usual).

A freewheeling approach to craft and learning has served me well as the mother of a very young child. Want to play with clay? Let’s cook some up and see what happens! Paint? Here’s some chalk and glue. Go smear it on the driveway! Young children are enamored of materials and processes. Where other parents might grow impatient with the purposeless messes, I have found it easy to encourage Bug to make magic from sources at hand. Play with sounds, spices, worms, words. Mix the media. Simmer, stir. See what bubbles up.

The problem is this: On Halloween, you cannot dress your kid as a half-written sonnet.
Bug is no longer among the “very young” category of child. When this transition happened, I haven’t the faintest idea. I notice, though, that he is less interested in the path and more focused on the destination. My child begs for the concrete. When we break out the play-doh, he wants a gryphon or a sword. When I hum, he wants to know the words.

This year, Bug’s desire for a predetermined image at Halloween has me squirming. Yes, our overstuffed closets have supplied a robe and glasses, and my crafty mother has crocheted us matching red-and-gold scarves. It has, however, been painful to make real the pictures inside my boy’s brain. Somehow, he conjured up a picture of Harry Potter with a lantern. Despite my best attempts to replace it with something we had on hand, he dug in and stood firm.

I may tend towards open-ended processes, but I want my son to learn the beauty of drawing the vision to life. Knowing how to map a course towards a point on the horizon will serve him when we his parents are no longer at the helm. Like all of us, he needs to trust in his capacity to secure vessel, sails, skills, and crew.  Ambition does not come naturally to either Tee or me. This means I have to (get to?) turn out of the current and harness the wind.

In the end, we took out pen and paper. I had Bug draw this imagined lantern then describe the parts of his drawing. A five-year-old’s sense of dimension is screwy. To give his image depth by comparison, I took out oatmeal canisters and cookie boxes. Once his rectangle rose up off the page, we discussed handles and doors and reinforcement.

“How will it light up?” I asked. Bug had to wrap his mind around lenses and power sources. He may be dressing as a wizard, but light and object do not spring fully formed into being. Everything in this world came about by way of a process – chemical, physical, human – and the mechanics can guide us as we attempt to assemble our own creations. The lantern from cardboard and paint. The child from flesh and love. Our home from land and frame and mortgage payments.

I would like to believe that surrender to craft and chance would yield something more than just a mastery of the doing. Such faith is costly and not without its risks.

I cannot house my kid in a half-written sonnet.

I also cannot build a whole new life today. This is worth bearing in mind. If it is true that all of creation is the result of processes, then it follows that creation is itself ongoing. Genesis, germination, fruition, decay. Even those costumes my mother made have long since frayed. Back to mice and moths. Back to the threads. Back to beginnings, as Bug and I are now. As all of us always are. The fixed idea still demands surrender to the pace of its own becoming.

I would like to learn from my mother’s way. Choose a pattern, and take up the cloth. Piece something together. As imperfect and fleeting as it may be, clothe my child in it. Finish it. Believe my own hands capable of such a thing.