One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything:
“Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.”
There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.
Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?
I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”
Driving back and forth between Ohio and Virginia late last winter and into spring, as I taught a short course in memoir at Virginia Tech, I thought of how I might write an essay about my granddaughter. Or rather, about the twelve-plus hours in February when I had cared for her alone.
Let me repeat and recast that: a guy in his sixties, with a bad back and a grumpy demeanor, was tasked with watching a toddler, then in the throes of the Terrible Twos, alone for over twelve hours. Oh, she’s adorable—the cutest, sweetest, smartest kid on Earth—but she does something different every 30 seconds. A force of nature, she totally sets your agenda. And did I mention that she doesn’t nap when at home, only at daycare? That she’s in the Terrible Twos? For the uninformed, the latter means “no” is a fraught word. So I’d rolled with the punches, all 12.5 hours of them.
At the end, punch drunk, I had only two clear memories of that Saturday. A vivid one at the start and another indelible moment at the end. Two memories to work with. Which seemed great, in a way: open with the first and close with the second. A memoir sandwich. I steadily warmed to this, seeing how beautifully those two moments captured my and Little Kathy’s rollercoaster of emotions and activities. It was so intense, I have only two memories! She wiped my slate clean and almost killed me! Perfect. The problem, of course, emerged as I tried to write the essay. I have only two clear memories of that day.
Much spilled out for the middle, don’t get me wrong. As I said in my email to my memoir class for retirees that starts tonight, “After this class, should you choose, you’ll be well on your way to inflicting your own grandchild, dog . . . partner, self, or family on the unsuspecting world!”