On Craft

 
September 1 st 2002

With Comment, we try and connect three things in every issue (although not necessarily all three at the same time in every single piece we publish): (1) the Christian worldview, (2) everyday-work-as-cultural-engagement, and (3) economic life.

We are convinced that work (or cultivation or craft or skill or "formative power") is essential to all of human life and basic to all spheres of human action other than marriage, family, and friendship. So we want to lean our journal increasingly toward the inclusion of more pieces that reflect on the work/cultivation/craft/skill aspect of various fields of endeavour, from poetry to management, from physics to mothering, from retail sales to market gardening.

In this issue, we are delighted to publish the craft reflections of a short-fiction writer, a poet, a homemaker, an installation artist/sculptor, and a photographer.


The Craft of Short Fiction
by Alison Gresik

I have been writing short fiction for almost 10 years. The daily mechanics are simple: I open the latest draft of my work on the word processor. I add words until the draft is complete. I let the manuscript sit unread on my hard drive for weeks before rewriting the draft. I repeat this process until the story is finished. When I get caught up in the world of my own fiction, unaware of the constructed nature of the story, then I know I'm finished. For the moment, at least.

I've found that it's essential to sit down at the keyboard every day, whether I feel ready to write or not. My perfect writing day consists of rising at seven to be in my study by eight. I do a solid two hours of writing, with a glass of water and a mug of tea near at hand. I much prefer typing to writing longhand, so that my fingers can keep up with my thoughts. Later in the morning, I read fiction or do research or prepare stories for submission. At noon, I have lunch, and then walk to the software company where I work afternoons as a technical writer.

In the last year, I have had five perfect days.

Why, when I know routine is so crucial to writing, do I still struggle to establish the habit? I have to fight my other responsibilities to make time for writing—"Could we schedule a meeting in the morning? You're not working then, right?" Then I must fight my own anxiety and procrastination to actually get down to work.

I once sat on my couch for two days straight, unable to move out of fear and exhaustion at the thought of facing my short-story collection, Brick and Mortar . My editor told me that the new drafts were good, but something vital was still missing. I broke down and cried in her office because I didn't know how to fix the stories. I couldn't feed them into a machine to analyze what was lacking.

Other jobs I've had (as an office assistant, technical writer, and residence manager) involved figuring out the rules and then following them. With writing, I have to make up the rules as I go, and they're different for every story.

When I finally got off the couch and back to the computer, I felt that I was recovering from an illness. The writing continued to go badly—I hated every page I had written and could hardly keep myself in my chair. But the deadline forced me on, and each week was a little easier than the last.

Finally, I started throwing out entire drafts of stories and starting over, keeping only the characters and premise. To this day, I still can't say exactly what vital something was missing—a sense of play? A willingness to relinquish control? But somehow by trudging through the revisions I seem to have made better stories.

The most recent story I wrote took three years to finish. "The Beckoning Door" is about a teenager who gets fed up with caring for her siblings at the cottage and secretly hitches a ride into town to see her mother who is working there. The story is also about my longing to be in the presence of God, and my resentment at the drudgery (often of my own choosing) that keeps me away.

Writing this story humbled me because I worked so long, and so much in the early drafts was useless trash, and, months after finishing "The Beckoning Door," I'm still learning what the story is about.


The Craft of Poetry
by Aaron Belz

I am 30-years old and have been writing poetry for half of my life.

In high school, I read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens with a nerd's enthusiasm; I wrote droll, romantic rhymes, full of wordplay. I paid my dues writing self-serious Eliotic poems, too. In college, I wrote jokey poems and passed them to friends in class, and I edited the school's literary journal for a season. As graduation approached, my fiancée (now wife of 10 years), a no-nonsense Southern woman, encouraged me to pursue my poetic study more seriously. I had planned to attend law school, but instead entered New York University's creative writing program the following fall. These first years of marriage—to both wife and profession—were the most thrilling in my life.

My poetic odyssey began much earlier, though. The family television was stolen in 1973, before I could write, and my parents read books to me every night. They read Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, poems from Louis Untermeyer's anthology, and a lot of narratives and songs from the Bible. One night my father asked me, rather gravely, "Aaron, do you ever think about who made you?" If he was probing for a heart-response, I must have let him down: "Dad, do you remember the i-dotter, t-crosser guy from Dr. Seuss? That's the kind of thing I think about."

He took it well, and I continued to learn from Scripture as much as from the books I was picking up: C. S. Lewis, Frank Dixon, Agatha Christie, Grimm's and Andersen's tales, J. R. R. Tolkien, and scads of trashy science fiction. I was also beginning to write, sitting in front of an electric typewriter for hours on summer days. I wrote letters, which I mailed to uncles and cousins. I wrote nonsense. I typed just to feel the keys click and watch the type strike the paper. I wrote stories, though I was terrible at it. My letters, though, were funny. I liked to try to make people laugh in them. I suggested what seemed to be wild things. I took risks in my letters that I also took in other settings, but in my letters the risks were documented. A piece of writing was a captured idea, or so it seemed to me at the time.

In short, my life as a poet began with a profound love of language. I have learned that unlike prose, poetry begins (though it does not end) in the physics of language itself. Think of how a sculptor loves rock: there's something about its hardness and coolness, the dust of chiselled chunks, the softness of limestone, the purity of white marble, and so on, that attracts the sculptor viscerally. This love of rock bypasses the artist's mental circuitry, seeming to emerge directly from his heart and hands, incarnating in a finished sculpture. Poets can hear words without their meanings; they can hear them as music.

There is something electrifying about the way words relate to their meanings and about the way a net of words can capture a nuanced and unique idea. Here is a well-known verse from the beginning of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." There is a beautiful cadence to this, each phrase punctuated by the word. Later in the chapter we find: "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him." Now the punctuating phrase is the world; there is a logical relationship to the previous verse, but also a musical reflection. The music pleases in a different way than the logic instructs. Somehow the two twine together. Poets understand how to make this happen. Some veer toward heavy musicality, some bank more on literal meaning, but poets unite in their admiration of language, the forms and shapes it makes, the way it echoes in the ear, the stories it reveals.

As a maturing poet, in graduate school and after, I certainly veered toward music. Most of the work I did at NYU was experimental, not very reader-oriented. I remember bringing a poem to a workshop that began, "Plant is sad. / Him have yellow ears"—and another one that was titled "136 Sentences," comprising 136 unrelated observations, instructions, and questions. Like a mechanic with an engine disassembled on his table, I fiddled with parts. I worked with blueprints.

Poetry workshops are modelled after artists' workshops: participants sit in a circle, present their latest work, and the group criticizes, contextualizes, helps the author develop eyes and ears for his own work. The workshop is lead by an instructor who is more experienced; at NYU these included Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, William Matthews, and even Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly. For me, the experience was tolerable in its effect on my craft (no damage, no significant gain), but most important in its effect on my perspective. These decorated poets, including other Nobelists and Pulitzer prize winners I met in New York, were normal people. Especially Philip Levine, who has become a correspondent and mentor, helped normalize my sense of poetry as a discipline.

I only wrote a couple of good poems in graduate school—mostly on a Macintosh laptop, sitting in the smoky cafeteria of Macmillan Publishing Company, where I was employed as an advertising copywriter. My best poems have come since 1997, when for a few weeks I returned to a typewriter, an old manual Royal. I had that sense again of metal striking paper, of literally stitching words to sheets of cotton. The result was a poem titled " Train to Mehlville," which was later published in Gulf Coast.

For the past few years, I have been writing exclusively on laptops again, but with a more mature sense of composition. The engine of language is still disassembled on my table. I still have an architect's desk, now in a basement study with a door that closes, and walls full of books (poetry, criticism, Bibles of various sorts, biographies), Marx Brothers videos, and a stereo.

I write while listening to jazz, Bach, or Mahler, rarely anything else. I close my eyes or stare at a wall hanging, or the telephone, or a pen lying on the desk, and think: What frustrates me? Where is the tension tonight? I try not to conceptualize or plan a poem, only to think in terms of a true phrase or sentence. I glance up at a row of books, and squint: "Because I am sad about the books / with tiny words along their spines / that no one ever reads because / they are too hard and not very interesting[.]" These lines might come after spending a day in the library, or the genesis might not be that specific. It may simply be a statement that seems true, and, to me, a poet, it seems truer because it has a rolling rhythm I can't quite put my finger on. In any case, this is a poem I will spend the next 40 minutes developing.

For every beginning like this, there are countless duds. In stretches where nothing seems to go right, I return to formal exercises, rhythm experiments, leaf through lexicons, or read an informative book. (Currently, I'm working my way through Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory .)

Often, I immediately e-mail a poem I think is good to a few of my trusted readers—one from my NYU days, who still lives in the East Village; one in Edmonds, Washington; one in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; one in Tampa. I hear back from them within 24 hours, usually.

Here's an example of a response, beginning with an allusion to Gerard Manley Hopkins: "While generations have trod, have trod, I suggest they trod on this poem . . . it just seems too heavy-handed to me (what with the cloven hoofs and all)." Sometimes the poetry receives mixed responses from my readers, and sometimes—sometimes—it's roundly commended: "Just wanted to say that those last three poems are TERRIFIC. Keep going in that vein. Nice cut to them." In these rare moments, I feel the full satisfaction of my art.


The Craft of Caring
by Andi Ashworth

When I married my high-school sweetheart in 1975, I was completely unprepared for the stream of people needing care that would come my way in the years ahead. The furthest thing from my mind as a 19-year-old bride was any thought or understanding of the labour, expertise, and artistry that would emerge as I responded to those needs.

It would take years before I realized that making a home and caring for a husband and children was real work—work that was physical, intellectual, spiritual, and creative. Time would add the challenge and responsibility of caring for other people in myriad ways: in the frequent practice of hospitality, as an employer, a neighbour, a daughter with a dying mother, a friend, a volunteer in the community, a church member.

My experience as a young person was similar to the experience of many others. I learned a few skills but had no broad overview of caregiving and why it mattered.

As the years passed, I learned that the craft of love is an essential part of our human work. Caring for people takes thought, skill, creativity, time, and effort. Caregiving touches many aspects of life—everything from the creation of a meal, to how we care for each other in sickness and old age, to the importance we give to celebrations and hospitality, to the way we live as a friend and neighbour.

Though my children are now grown and the daily effort to care for their physical and emotional needs is over, caregiving remains a vital part of my life. The home I share with my record-producer husband is an active one. Daily, we welcome people to our property for recording work or as guests in our home. Recording artists, engineers, and staff often join our table for lunch or dinner. Friends, family, and acquaintances in need of a place to stay become our house-guests for a weekend, a week, or longer. My work in this life of hospitality involves planning menus, going to the market, cooking and serving meals, changing and laundering sheets and towels, cleaning up after people, and engaging in conversation at all hours.

Most important to all my caregiving, whether it's for my husband, children, or guests, is a growing sensitivity to the ministry of presence. Often the most valuable thing I can do for another is to simply be with them—to give my full attention, ask questions, and listen well. In our results-oriented world, this kind of caring requires an eternal perspective, one where people are more important than finished tasks.

In all the situations and seasons of my life, the art of caring begins with the question: what do people need and what can I give? A quiet meal, a celebration, companionship, the beauty of my garden? As I use my gifts and resources to serve the people God brings my way, I can rest in the confidence that my investment in them is work that matters.


The Craft of Art-making
by Albert Pedulla

We often think of art as adornment or decoration, the pictures which enliven our homes and offices. We might even think of it as meaningful decoration. Or, when we visit the museum, we might approach an artwork as a cultural relic which illustrates the zeitgeist of a historical period. For someone who engages in making art, none of these ways of thinking seems adequate.

As a second-year art student, I remember sitting in the university gallery which I tended on Saturday mornings, struggling to design my next sculpture. A gifted senior sculpture student dropped into the deserted gallery. After looking around he asked what I was up to. I explained my struggle, and in speaking with him, I had an epiphany. My problem was not coming up with an interesting design; I faced a much more existential dilemma. Before making art, I would have to answer the question: what is art?

Twenty years later, this is the question that I ask myself every day in the studio. This is the question that every piece I create tries to answer. Not a grand, universal, for all time, answer, but a humble conjecture. The answer has very little to do with decoration (although it does have something to do with history).

Good art is not just a well-crafted object of beauty, or illustration of an idea, or an object lesson, but an object that embodies abstract ideas. In crafting my own work, I am not fully conscious of these ideas until after they have been expressed, sometimes long after.

I am making discoveries and uncovering ideas that change me. Most artists describe the creative process this way, as moving them outside themselves or even that inspiration is dictated by a muse.

This is sometimes ecstatic, always hard work, and when everything is right (especially the heart) it can be an act of prayer. Not merely an act of will, it is a sensitive and attuned response.

In May, I created an installation in downtown New York titled Two T (a tea house installation for ground zero). The piece incorporated a wall drawing created by two clusters of 10 candles burning against the wall, producing two columns of soot and wax. Viewers were invited to become participants by taking a candle from a stack on the floor, lighting the candle, and placing it in one of the brackets mounted on the wall.

I understood this to be an elegant means of allowing people to fulfill the need to memorialize while creating an image that had poetic resonance. But when I saw 14 fifth graders who had witnessed the twin towers bursting into flames from their classroom window (my daughter included) silently add their candles, I wept. The children talked about the experience for weeks. As September 11, 2002 approached, it was the image that haunted me and allowed me to mourn.

A student recently recounted a conversation with his campus minister that had a profound effect on him. The minister said to the student, "When I watch a movie, I expect it to change my life . . . and I don't think that is too much to ask."

I don't think it is too much to ask of any work of art. The (artistic) labour of our hands should enrich us and change us and even be a blessing to our neighbours. So if our art does not change us, maybe it is time for us to change our art.


The Craft of Photography
by Patricia Dalzell

In 1986, my husband's parents gave us a trip to Kenya. By that time, I had already been making large format black and white portrait photographs for 10 years. For this trip, however, I left my heavy equipment behind and took along a 35-mm camera for colour slides.

During our trip, we were taken by bus to a small village in the distant bush land. There, we saw a man surrounded by his many wives and children. Their long, elegant bodies and open, expressive faces were beautiful.

In particular, I noticed one young woman, wearing many coloured bands around her neck from her collarbone to her chin. These bands seemed to have stretched out her neck, giving her a regal bearing almost out of place in this small village.

In the middle of the colored bands, I noticed a small silver cross. As I wondered where that might have come from, the young woman's eyes met mine. We looked at each other for what seemed to be a long time. I knew in that moment that our souls had met.

This moment changed my life forever for it was then I finally understood my life's work. I had already been taking portraits of people, but at home, where it seemed safe and where everything was familiar. Suddenly, I found myself in front of one of the most beautiful faces I had ever seen with no equipment. As I got in the bus, I vowed that if I ever got a chance to travel again, I would take my equipment with me everywhere and do real work.

From inside the bus, I aimed my 35-mm at the Kenyan woman and took her picture as we pulled out of the village. This picture was not a portrait but rather the symbol of the promise I made to her to follow the call that had been placed in my own heart.

As real as the promise was, I wondered how I could ever keep it. When would I ever travel again? Where would I go? I knew so little of the world, and travel was so expensive.

I put these dreams away as I left my teaching job at the Corcoran School of Art in 1991 to work on my photography full time. In the fall of that year, a group of friends from Washington, Boston, and other cities planned to go to Leningrad for 12 days at the end of December 1991 and beginning of January 1992. The occasion was the renaming of the city to St. Petersburg as well as a joint exhibition with several American and underground Russian artists. It did not seem possible for me to go.

A friend kept calling to ask me, "Pat, are you coming?" I can still hear her voice. Russia in the middle of winter? I did not give it any serious thought. Besides, what would I do? On her third call, my friend gave me the answer. "You could take pictures." And then I remembered my promise.

Large format photography with all the tripods, umbrellas, strobes, and assorted gear is bulky and heavy. Up until that time, I used a system of packing and portable trolleys that allowed me to work without anyone's help. But it did not take me long to figure out that I could not go on this trip without my husband's help.

From that time on, Bob became my assistant. He drives, carries camera bags, sets up equipment, takes us through customs, changes the money, and takes care of me. I am forever grateful.

In Russia, I felt as if I had finally come home. I was a young child during the Second World War, grew up during the 1950s, and had babies of my own during the 1960s. Russia was always in the news, and even then this great and distant country captured my imagination.

I remember hearing about the siege of Leningrad during the war, and thinking about the children who were my age. As a child in California, I used to look up at the sky and wonder if it appeared the same to people behind the Iron Curtain. When my children were small, I wondered how Russian mothers managed.

And so when I finally met these people in 1992, I felt instantly connected to them. I had been thinking, wondering, dreaming about them since I was a child. The differences of language and culture ceased to matter. I had shared my childhood fantasies with these people. They were a part of my heart, and I loved them.

During our two weeks in St. Petersburg, I photographed some of the dissident artists in their studios, on the streets, or in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace where the exhibition of Russian and American paintings was to be held. One of the artists I photographed was the painter Alexander Gurevich. He was a tall, thin man with kind eyes and dark hair. With infinite patience and good humor he waited for me as I went through the intricate photographer's dance I go through during each photo session.

When I saw his paintings I stopped, barely able to breathe. Here was a man whose work came from the heart of his faith and of his suffering. In my own isolation, I had not considered what it would be like to live and work without freedom. When I photographed Alexander in 1992, I did not know that I would spend years photographing him a second and a third time or that my life would be inextricably linked to his and to understanding all that he had lived through.

I returned to St. Petersburg twice after that original trip, in 1992 and 1993, to photograph artists, museum staff, students, and government officials. The pictures of the artists were by far the best. In 1992, I wanted to make some new pictures of Alexander, and we were fortunate enough to be able to contact him.

There is something special about Alexander. I wanted to show him as quiet, centred, thoughtful, and compassionate. As someone you would want for a friend.

The day of our arranged appointment, the weather was cold and rainy. We set up our equipment next to one of the many canals that run through the city. I went through the motions and made the photograph, but it did not work. I was not able to get to the place where his spirit shone through. Perhaps because I was tired, or because it was so cold.

We stood on the sidewalk and talked. Sasha said he was immigrating to Israel. Israel seemed so far away. I knew that the photo I had just done was not the one I wanted, and now he would be gone. Slipping away before the right portrait could ever be made. Before my promise could be kept. I went back to America and printed the picture, trying hard to make it work, but the rain drops on his black leather jacket looked like tears.

In May 1996, my portraits of the Artists of St. Petersburg were exhibited in Jerusalem. I looked for Gurevich and learned that he was represented in a local gallery near my exhibition. I left my card and a letter for him there, but I heard nothing in reply.

I met Michele Clark on my first trip to Russia in 1992. In 1996, she moved to Israel and began work on her book on the return of the Soviet Jews. The following spring, she sent me a note asking me if I would be interested in making portraits for her book, Voices of Ascent—The Return of the Soviet Jews to Israel. The promise I made to the woman in Kenya had taken me to Russia, and the Russian Jews were now leading me to Israel.

And so we went. Just as Russia was an awakening for me, even more so was Israel a breath of life to my soul. There, I met people I have come to call brothers and sisters as we broke bread and drank wine in the soft light cast by the Sabbath candles. Together we walked through the quiet streets on Yom Kippur, sat in richly decorated booths for the holiday of Succoth. We talked of faith and freedom. This new family opened my eyes to the meaning of the Diaspora and to what Israel means to Jews from all over the world.

With them, we drove to the Golan Heights where we heard the firing of large guns. I felt the breeze in my face standing by the Sea of Galilee. We were given a home-baked cake for our wedding anniversary. Each day contained a wealth of treasures: Our interpreters, Yulia and Talia, speaking for me, and feeling totally understood. Photographing young soldiers. Laughing with the young religious children in the Old City and wishing to make their portraits. Seeing an old man cry at the end of a photo session. Wanting to reach out to the elderly sitting on park benches to say, "I understand. My feet hurt too. I can't understand Hebrew either. I know it is hard." All these memories and more etched in my mind as vividly as any one of my photographs are the gifts of my time in Israel. My trips there have changed my life.

Alexander Gurevich's story picks up in May 1999. One of the Refuseniks we were photographing knows of Gurevich and is able to get us his telephone number. Yulia makes a few phone calls for us and finally locates him. She tells him that the American photographer would like to do another portrait of him. He immediately replies, "Of course I remember her. Tell her to come."

After six years, we meet again, three stories below the ground in an old bomb shelter on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in a studio stacked with light, colour, and gold, paintings covering the walls, stacked along the floors. I look around. There is a large menorah and many scenes from St. Petersburg. My card and letter from 1996 are tacked to the bulletin board. Sasha, dressed in shorts and sandals, is relaxed and content. He looks bigger now, stands taller. He hugs me and shrugs patiently as I begin my photographer's dance.

Topics: Vocation