When I was the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, it was thrilling to see makers at work in the studios. Their love of the materials of craft—clay, metal, fiber, glass, wood, paper—was palpable. Each studio building had its own spirit of research and development. The work itself was grounded in tradition—how over countless generations we have come to understand the way that materials respond to our manipulations. It was also informed by a spirit of “what if”, as in, “what would happen if I tried to shape the clay this way.” Discovery and failure are part of every studio day, and over time it adds to the long human knowledge of making.
Getting to know a material is at the heart of creating, and understanding the limitations of our ability to control the physical world engenders a spirit of humility. We learn through our experience, through touch. It’s not just makers enforcing their will on something, but a dance between the maker and the stuff of the world. Clay moves one way, wood another, different fibers hold dyes in different ways.
As a writer, I was first drawn to craft as metaphor for human experience and creativity. We hammer things out, we weave ideas together, we are shaping vessels of clay, shaping ourselves. And as I began to learn more about each craft discipline, I was envious of the material nature of these explorations. The material tells us what it can do and we learn to respond. I didn’t, at first, see a connection to the intangible work of writing. No clay to touch, wood to saw, cotton to weave, just the writer and the empty page.
Maybe it was my extended exposure to the work in the studios and I can’t say for sure when it happened, but over time I began to see words as my materials. It’s not that I had a storage unit to hold all my nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but I could see that each word I used had its own history. It may have begun life in a proto Indo-European language and has been evolving ever since. It may have come from Latin. It may have been coined last year. Put one word next to another and you’ve made something new. Each sentence forms itself as it moves along the page, just like this one I’ve written now. It didn’t exist before, and now that it’s in the world, it comes alive. It’s my sentence, but these words have traveled through time to arrive on the page and each one moves the work along. The meaning evoked by one word calls out for another to complement it. It’s not always a matter of what I am trying to say. I need to listen too. I speak to the poem and the poem speaks to me. The work is always in the process of becoming itself.
I’ve observed that a big part of my writing process is staring off into space before I get started. I may have ineffable emotions percolating or ideas butting into one another, but those aren’t words. The words are what we speak or what we write on the page, and there is always a gap between the thoughts and the words. I wait. I write. I listen. I edit. I begin again. There is something that is unnameable, and I’m trying to give it a name.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Editing.