Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Art I Wish I'd Made Myself: A Fool For God & Magical Books

Webs New Inner Diction, 200
What is this stunningly beautiful thing you're looking at here? Why, it's an altered book sculpture by the artist Brian Dettmer, whose work is really so extravagantly and exquisitely extraordinary and gorgeous that I have to go and look at pictures of the things he makes in little quick dips over the course of several days because they're so beautiful it hurts me. If I'm going to have a Museum of Joy, this is going to be the kind of thing it's full of -- because I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't react to book sculptures like this one with a kind of deep, weird, yearning pang of rapture. I don't know what it is about books that does this to us. Maybe I'll understand once I've finished writing my novel...? (Insert jeering laughter here.)

Someone I absolutely cannot remember at all introduced me to Brian Dettmer when  this unknown person & I were in a class together and it occurred to him (I know it was a him) that I might like Mr. Dettmer's work. He sent me an email with a link to some photos. This was maybe three, four years ago. I can't find the email. I hadn't even thought of it for, oh, two or three years.

I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw this. Some friend of mine had put up a link on Facebook to a story about a mysterious paper sculptor who was leaving stunning little pieces of art all over libraries in Edinburgh, Scotland. (It's really a rather lovely story - you may wish to read all about it, and look at the lovely pictures too. I recommend it. Ten sculptures, left in ten different libraries & museums as tokens of love & gratitude, each made with wonderful visual and textual puns from a carefully-chosen text...if you can resist this sort of stuff, you'd probably best stop reading now.)

Gift left in the Writer's Museum, Edinburgh, Scotland
I would have enjoyed all this on any occasion, but I found it profoundly and specially mysterious and wonderful because eight hours previously I had been struggling to describe something very oddly similar: a sculpture of Salome literally carved out of the interior of a Bible. I had been finding it quite difficult to put into words the physical characteristic of the sculpture, the way it was crafted, its shape and texture and the way it was made from the book. And then, boom, just like that, the next morning the internet presents me with the image.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the book sculpture I was describing does not actually exist, or rather, does not exist in this temporal and spatial dimension, which make sit somewhat difficult to provide pictures of. It is the creation of a character in a novel. Because, as it turns out, I am writing a novel.

This comes as rather a surprise.  

A Fool For God is the working title of the novel I started writing on November 3rd for National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Today, December 2nd, I am about 35,000 words in, which is certainly nowhere near the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 in 30 days (and even then that's a pretty slim novel), but it is approximately 30,000 more words than I have ever consecutively put on paper outside of the demands of academia. The longest story I have ever written is quite possibly lost to obscurity forever; it was called The Man in the Orange Silk Shirt (or it should have been) and it was about a man without a name living in a city in constant flux, where a cafe might at any time become a bathhouse and canals that dry up and become billiard tables, etc, who falls in love with a woman he meets only to have the city simply shift them apart just when it's getting good, etc etc. It was maybe 15 Word document pages, so around, yes, 5,000 words or so.

Does this matter? Well, in this case, yes.

Though words on the whole are one of my favorite things in the entire world, the only attempt at a novel of my own that I've ever considered for longer than 30 seconds as a serious possibility is some scandalous iteration of a Harlequin Romance that would simultaneously revolutionize what is, let's be honest, a fairly dopey medium while also quietly making me a huge pot of money at the hands of the sort of people who read romance novels without realizing that they are (gasp!) being subverted by my clever whatsits. (Needless to say, so far I have written precisely zero pages of this mindbending work.) The reason that I am suddenly over halfway through a novel I simply didn't know existed is because as it turns out the NaNoWriMo format is kind of a magic trick, at least as far as I'm concerned.

I started writing it because I was sitting in a cafe on November 1st and writing in my journal, which up until now is the only sustained writing practice I have had (beyond this, anyway, which is closer in my opinion to declamation than composition, so I don't count it) and I started wondering why I'd never written anything narrative-driven of any length at all, considering my deep and earnest love of storytelling. And hey - it's the first day of NaNoWriMo, wouldja look at that. Okay, Jericha. Why not do it? See if you've got a novel in you!

I have recently become an artist model, and I spend several hours a week being paid to stand perfectly still while people turn me into art. This is as far as I'm concerned an absolutely impossibly magical job, and it gives me a great deal of mental space in which to do a great deal of essentially useless imaginative thinking. Such as, for example, conjecturing the plot of a novel out of thin air and a lot of stolen references. I came up with a plot on November 2nd while posing by cobbling together my favorite bits of several utterly incompatible novels (including but not limited to The Man Who Was Thursday, Adventures in the Skin Trade, Tropic of Capricorn, Through the Looking Glass, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and The Hearing Trumpet. If you have not been introduced to any of these fine books, I would point out that making their acquaintance will probably help enormously in deciphering the more peculiar associations of my psyche.)

An average novel ranges from 50,000-80,000 words, according the ever-infallible internet, and so the simple thought behind NaNoWriMo is that by encouraging you to write a mere 1700 words a day for 30 days you can finally extract that great work that lurks permanently in the recesses of most book-loving craniums. I'm sure it doesn't work for everyone - but listen, if you sat me down and told me to write a noel, GO, I'd have a whole lot of nothing. But I can do 1200 words a day. I can't do 1700, as it turns out - that's why I'm only at 35,000 - but I can do 1200 words a day more than no words at all, which turns out to be a lot. I can sit down and write 1200 words. They might not be brilliant, or relevant, but I can write them. One foot in front of the other kind of thing. One day at a time.

And so, all of a sudden, I have this book. And I had a plot, but it's wandered off to get a look at the scenery and in the meantime everyone it was supposed to be supervising has got wind of their freedom and decided to do things their own way. Which is to say that I sit down to write every day and I have almost no idea what's going to happen next. For example, the character who makes the Salome book was very emphatically and definitely not invented by me. George, my main character, is coming up to the book bindery he runs and he looks up at the top floor window and wonders if Sarah is there. Who the hell is Sarah? Well and all of a sudden there she is, scowling, and snarling and throwing things and making these beautiful works of art in a damp attic. Oh. And just to make sure I've got the picture, along comes Circumstance and pops up all these heartbreakingly fantastical images of artist books through the entirely unrelated medium of Facebook, just to make sure I've got the point, which is probably something like you're really not in charge here. Which is entirely wonderful and absolutely fine with me.

Log 1, Brian Dettmer, 2007
Writing this book has become a process much more like reading than writing; 1200 words is approximately one scene, and each time I sit down to write I'm not sure quite what's going to happen, and then I discover it, and then just when I'm not quite sure what's about to happen next it turns out I've done my daily words & it's time to get up and leave it for tomorrow. This keeps things in a marvelous state of suspension and excitement I had no idea existed. I haven;t the faintest clue if it's any good; I couldn't care less. Okay, yes, I hope I get published and make oodles of money and the book gets turned into a magical sparkly film with fabulous effects and a Philip Glass soundtrack. To pretend otherwise would be an utterly filthy lie. But I am delighting in the writing of it in an entirely unexpected way. It's December now and NaNoWriMo is over, and I can't put my word count up for all the world to see; but I keep it on a sticky note on my desktop so I can see it. And then I look at things like this, or Su Blackwell's astounding and delicate book art, and how much it looks like the inside of my head and the art I most want to make. And I think that I am probably so steeped in books by now that I'm not really writing at all; I'm just sweating story at this point, sponge-like, leaving words trailing behind me like snail-slime. Books! They will never die; humankind will never weary of them. The internet exists just in part to exult over the wonders of the tangible world. How else, indeed, could I share these beautiful things with you?

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