When I decided to write the book that became When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I had to decide how I was going to write it. So I thought back to my favorite reading experience. And to be honest, my favorite reading experience wasn’t War and Peace. It wasn’t Jane Eyre. It wasn’t Catcher in the Rye. Those are all fine books that I enjoyed reading…but they were not the books that I credit with saving my life at a time when reading was one of the few things that kept me sane during a tough stretch of life in my early 20s.
The book that kept me from going totally crazy in 1981-82 is this:
This is the Better Homes and Gardens Craft Kits Catalog from Fall 1981.
In 1980 I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to live in Niger, West Africa. By the Summer of 1981 I was going crazy with boredom: Peace Corps jobs are not all that hard to do, and in Africa you had a lot of down time due to the heat (the middle of every day was for laying low, and then there were the sandstorms and the 24-hour misery of the hot season).
I was only 24 and I did not have a lot of coping skills when it came to figuring out what to do with myself with all that free time. Also, I did not drink beer: this isolated me socially from 99% of my Peace Corps peers. Without TV, radio, friends, and work, I was going crazy.
Then the wife of the Presbyterian minister gave me some of her old magazines — and in that bequest was this Crafts Catalog. In any other circumstance, I would not have given this catalog a second look. But this was Africa. And I was desperate.
And here was a picture book of all the things I was missing, here in Niger, on the edge of the Sahara Desert:
The Four Seasons. (An innovative deep quilting technique makes a pretty array of seasons! Kits have design on fabric, yarn, nylon tracing cloth, polyester batting, needle and instructions for completing each impressive 16″ x 16″ scene: $14.99 each)
Forests. (An hour past dawn, the glowing beauty of early morning is captured forever in this impressive wall hanging. Latch hook is used in 3-D to bring all the outdoors in with this dramatic 27″ x 41″ creation. $49.99 ; Latch hook: $1.49)
Paris. (Anyone’s an artist with this step-by-step approach to painting that makes a Parisian street scene come alive with Impressionism [sic] styling. Kit has 16″ x 20″ canvas … and can’t fail instructions. Easy-to-master painting method was developed through years of testing. Regardless of artistic background or ability, you can create the professional-looking color and texture in this scene inspired by the 19th century works of Pissaro and Sisley. $36.99)
And of course, Unicorns. (Unicorn serenity: soft, subtle shading captures the mystique of this graceful mythological animal, dreaming amid delicately twining greenery. 20″ x 20″. $16.99; with frame $31.99)
There are 50 pages of this stuff, approx. 350 crafts projects in all, each with a little story about how wonderful the item is. Some of the stories end with you getting compliments from those who see your artistry, some of them end with your family treasuring this piece of art for generations. You get the idea.
But oh! If you were a 24-year old non-beer drinker on the edge of the Sahara, this is a book that gives hours of entertainment as you read it over and over. Sometimes, you’ll just look at the pictures. Sometimes, you’ll pick it up for a page or two, or you’ll flip through it until something (say, a New England village in cross stitch, or a snow scene in acryllic yarn) catches your fancy… Sometimes, you’ll get lost in thought about the last time you were inspired by the 19th century works of Pissaro, or the hopes you have of one day catching a unicorn…
Desultory, digressive, fun, materialistic (as in: referencing material culture), and episodic: this Crafts Catalog was my favorite reading experience. This is the reading experience I wanted to replicate when I wrote my book. Only without those damn unicorns.
So you see, I did not write an art journal when I put When Wanderers Cease to Roam together. I wrote the world’s first Catalog Memoir.
An art journal is a much more private matter. I happen to have half a dozen such journals in my bookshelf, full of the stuff I jot down when I do my visual note taking when I travel, or when I go to a musem, or when I look through a well-designed catalog and find a clever composition of text and images that I want to try out for myself. I also have diaries– shelves and shelves of them. They are full of the notes I write day to day, about weather, food, money, shopping, cats, memories, etc. My art journals and my diaires are the raw material I use when I put my “catalogs” together.
In researching the state of the Art Jounal lately, I’ve discovered that there is a general consensus out there that an art journalis theraputic “sacred space“, that the images that one glues, stains, staples, pastes, hammers, nails, rivets, melts, layers, or scrubs onto the page is above criticism, comment, or — heaven forbid — restraint. I have read more than once that the “art” in an “art journal” comes from a “still, soft voice” from deep within one. * * * This is me not rolling my eyes: if that works for you, who am I to suggest that it seems a bit, oh, melodramatic?
But let’s say you want help creating some illustrated pages in the story of your life. Let’s say you want some pointers about the Art of Observation. Let’s say you want to create a public record of your existence, something that will communicate to others in a common language…
I can help.
To start an art journal(we’ll call it that for want of a better word but be warned: No Glitter!) , it helps if you know what shape you want your journal to have. Is it going to be a chronology? For how long: a year? a month? Or is it going to be the record of a certain period of your life? Or, will it be a collection of memoires? Or: will it be an inventory? Maybe it will be what magazine editors call a “round up”: a gathering of everything you know about a certain topic (Life? Love? Cats?)?
A chronology works best for a beginner — that’s what I chose as my format when I wrote my book, which strats in January and ends in December. And you know how embroiderers practice their first stitches on a sampler, and how beautiful those samplers can be? Think of your new art journal that way. As beautiful practice.
But before there can be art, there must be text. Because you’re not making a sketch book — you’re making a journal. So the first you have to do is write something.
Writing Tip No. 1 comes to you thanks to the lady who, at the end of my most recent talk at a local library, complained to me: “My children don’t want to listen to my stories! I just came back from New Orleans and when I try to tell them about it, they only listen for five minutes!”
So I said, “Maybe your story is too long. Try writing a 100-word story about New Orleans.”
And she looked as if I’d pinched her. “But I can’t tell all about New Orleans in 100 words!”
I hurried to explain: “Don’t try to write ALLabout New Orleans — write about onedinner on Bourbon Street. Write about having coffee at the Cafe du Monde when it starts to rain. Write about walking in the Garden District to find Ann Rice’s old house. Write about the time you heard a Cajun speak French. Break up ALL of New Orleans into small, bite-sized stories.”
She thought about it and said, “Oh. I guess I can do that.”
There were a number of people who wanted a word with me , so I didn’t go on to tell her the good news, that in the act of writing a small, bite-sized story she will be focused enough on it that she’ll remember some wonderful, quirky, unusual, personal detail that would otherwise get left out of a BIG story that tried to tell ALL about New Orleans. I didn’t tell her what I believe: that a 100-word story is like a hologram: even though it’s just a piece broken off of the complete story, that fragment will have the spirit and the shadow of the whole story behind it. Don’t worry that it doesn’t. And there will be time to write more 100-word chunks of the whole story.
So: decide the shape of your art journal (see above) and write your first 100 words.
Let me know how that works — and I’ll discuss lay out, composition, and have an illustration tip on Friday.