On Making Things

 

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In the pottery studio at Artcroft Artists Residence.

Or How to Keep Blooming (Early, Late, or Perennially)

So many writers say they knew from a very young age that they would grow up to write. That wasn’t necessarily true for me. I only knew that I had to make things. I made forts out of blankets and a card table, bowls out of mud, jams of poisonous pokeberries, and shoebox houses for a collection of snails (each with their own name, bedroom, and interesting rocks to slide around on). I made little folded booklets of looseleaf paper. I made pictures, lots and lots of pictures. My father was a Sunday afternoon painter, and riding with him far out into the Kentucky countryside to paint was one way I could have him all to myself, away from the the gang of siblings who adored him as much as I did. I got attention for my drawings and paintings, which always told stories, either of my own invention or illustrative of whatever book I was reading. It might be Huck and Jim in the cabin with a snake, Cathy Earnshaw out walking the moors in the pages of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the Artful Dodger lifting a watch from a gentleman’s pocket in Dickens’s David Copperfield.

My childhood home in Kentucky.

My childhood home in Kentucky.

I was lucky to grow up when oral traditions were still strong. Our older siblings taught us fairy tales, all the usual suspects—Billy Goats Gruff, Hansel and Gretel, Three Little Pigs—stories that teach you there is no story without trouble. Our father was a relentless practical joker, regaling the supper table with outlandish tales and singing us to sleep with violent old ballads: Banks of the Ohio, Knoxville Girl, May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister and so on—much to my mother’s consternation. He played multiple musical instruments, and because being like him seemed better than anything else, I made music too, first on a ukulele a nun taught me to play, then on a guitar.

ViolentBearItAway150pxI was an art major in college when the tsunami of feminism came a-washing into our lives, and I read all the great contemporary women writers whose essays and fiction and poetry stoked my young and righteous indignation. Adrienne Rich and Maya Angelou and Joan Didion shook up notions in desperate need of a shaking. Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro made me want to write. I found fellow southerners in Flannery O’Connor and Eudora WeltyVirginia Woolf inspired my first short story. I continued writing and painting and making photographs and poems and tons of embarrassing journal entries and stories that went nowhere. My friends and I were active in Louisville’s cooperative gallery scene and held exhibitions and staged performances that we thought were brave. I made a paltry living as a graphic designer for the publishing trade, and was surrounded by artists and writers.

And then suddenly I had a family. But I didn’t stop making things. I made two daughters, a series of homes, and more art. I made a disaster of my marriage and not a few cocktails and some pretty bad poetry. I made moves around the country and made an attorney richer and my children poorer and more cocktails. After the divorce I struggled through a career by which to support myself and my kids. Through freelancing as a book designer and illustrator, I made many many books written by other people. I attended lots of happy hours that did not always end so happily. I assembled bits of writing in an endless series of small books, and wrote and illustrated a bedtime book that a real publisher published. After some years I met a man who seemed perfectly happy making not things, but laughter.He read some of what I wrote and said it was good and that he hoped I would write more. And I did.

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