“Make a simple gesture and follow it.” That’s what dancer and potter Paulus Berensohn told me years ago when I took a one-day workshop with him. I was an aspiring potter, drawn to clay as both material and metaphor. I loved Paulus’s bowls made of pinched clay. They surrounded space, and the vessel’s thin walls were a manifestation of the graceful touch of his fingers. Paulus wasn’t working in clay at that time, though. Instead, he was focused on hand stitching and embroidery, and he asked us to do a drawing exercise that reflected his current interest, making marks and lines. His instructions were simple; make one line that could curve and move any way it needed. Then, we followed that line with multiple lines, each one following that first gesture. It was a meditation. I followed my hand as each successive line became slightly different—the way a story gets retold and changed.
For a few years, this became my go-to doodle technique in long meetings. From a distance, it might even look as if I were taking notes. Eventually, I moved on to other ways of making marks. Even though I mostly write my work on a computer and print out drafts, I look forward to the physical act of marking up the copy—crossing out words and writing notes in the margin. It’s a more intimate relationship with the text.
Once, when I was a resident in writing at the Vermont Studio Center, I decided I wanted to give my hand a more prominent role. I began each morning using a micron pen and a six-by-six-inch index cards piece of paper from a sketchbook. I would make each letter out of individual dots. Sometimes from a distance, people thought that I’d stitched the words. Working this way, I could only focus on one word at a time, one letter at a time. It brought me back to the early days of elementary school when writing sentences and forming letters took so much concentration; I would sometimes inadvertently write a word twice or leave one out completely.
I worked this way because I wanted to slow myself down. I never knew what I would write, only that I would begin with one word and see where it would take me. This was a simple gesture, and I was following it. I felt like a Torah scribe, adjusting my letters to accommodate the line and the page. Sometimes I compacted letters; other times, I stretched them out. I was working free-form, but I knew that I had to stop at the end of the page, not mid-phrase, and in a way that made sense.
I didn’t know where I was going, but I went there anyway. The mark was inside me, and then it was on the page. The word was forming somewhere between my brain and my hand. Each word led to another and made enough sense to carry my marks forward. It’s not unlike how we live our lives.
How many times do I stop myself before I get started? How many times do I have to remind myself that the first mark, the first word, makes the next one possible? We don’t have to know the ending. We only have to begin.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Word Square.