Beth Kephart will teach an all-new interactive Zoom masterclass for Cleaver on Sunday, February 24 2-4 PM: WRITING ADVANCED BY CATEGORIES: TURNING OUR OBSESSIONS INTO STORIES. Join us live or purchase the recording. More info here.
I TOOK INSTRUCTIONS FROM MY HANDS
The writer as maker is the poet who weaves, the essayist who stitches, the quilter of fabrics and words. They are Virginia Woolf baking bread and Elizabeth Bishop watercoloring. They are Zelda Fitzgerald cutting paper dolls, Stanley Kunitz among the seaside garden bees, Lorraine Hansberry and the allure of her sketches, and Flannery O’Connor gone exuberant with her pen-and-ink, sometimes linoleum-cut cartoons.
(Also Leo Tolstoy. Also Charles Bukowski. Also Lars Horn.)
The hands and the head. The ineffable and the uttered. The touch and the tone. The counterpoise and the hush. The one who sees and the one who, having seen, somehow finds the words.
I came to making late in life. I brought to this sudden, unquenchable passion no discernible or historic artistic talent, beyond the intuitive sense for color I profusely expressed in my childhood Spirographs. I fail the draw-the-circle test. I cannot crayon inside the lines. I cannot pull a pot from a spinning wheel (how desperately I tried, as if my entire sense of self depended on the outcome). I’m a dramatically, even dangerously, poor student of instructions.
To this abbreviated list of reasons not to try, I’m obliged to confess this: My husband is a real artist. I know what real art is.
Still: the temptations of paper. Still: the allure of acrylic paint and brayers, cyanotype solutions and sunlight, needles and waxed linen thread, carrageenan and alum, paper screens and pulp, so sweetly miniature and quite prettily fine scissors with intricately curved blades. If I could write a book, couldn’t I make blank books? Couldn’t I fancy up covers, marble-up endpapers, cut the signatures and stitch?
I began the way one might: by making handmade cards. (Hundreds of cards!) I advanced (it didn’t take long) to chain-stitched booklets. (Hundreds of booklets!) After that I was on a chase—cork-covered books and canvas collages, hardcover volumes and origami-pocket books, Coptic stitches, French-link stitches, strange knots that I invented. (I stopped counting.)
Oh, how lucky were all my friends, receiving my mad makings through the mail. Oh, how lucky my son and husband became—paper gifts for every birthday, holiday, most minor of excuses for paper-anointed celebrations. And when a broken ankle laid me up for several months, my real-artist husband helped me launch a shop on Etsy, through which I began to sell my things, tucking an extra something special into every box to surprise the buyers.
Making was the way I lived through crushing headlines. It was the way I settled my fast-beating heart. It was buying supplies and opening boxes and dreaming curious paper inventions—joyfully, unfettered. It was standing at a tall table with the window open and the song sounds of birds filtering through. I began to design my life around the making—the rooms where we live, the distribution of my time, even the writing I was writing and the lessons I was teaching becoming infiltrated by the things my hands would do. New structures. New colors. New arrangements. New hybridities.
It was obsessive, sure. It was too much, clearly. I knew it, but my house knew it more—creaked beneath the weight of all the made things, the stacked boxes, the tins of waxed linen threads. It was time to slow the paper crafting down, to redistribute my things and time, to turn from the production of the handmade books to experimentations in other paper arts where I would have to begin again. I spent happy mornings dyeing Hanji paper with the stuff of dandelion juice and turmeric tea and steamed saffron. I drew lopsided flowers into floating marbling paints just to see what the blooms would do. I built collages that were time-consuming in their construction and un-gallery worthy in their nature and whose only purpose was to teach me something new about how shapes complement shapes and how colors contrast colors.
I slowed myself down. I eased the pressure on the house. I taught more, I read richly again, I began the harrowing process of writing my first adult novel. Still, I maintained, or perhaps I mean to write that I sustained, my life in paper. My life in paper became the antidote to the anxiety that riddles my bones, and these times.
My life in paper both quieted and steeled me.
Perhaps for the writer who is a maker there is no going back. Perhaps we are at our best when we add ourselves up to a sum of new parts. Perhaps in the making we grow both more fierce and more gentle, more certain and more yielding, more deeply seeing and better seen. Perhaps our inner lives have been waiting all this time for instruction from our hands.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of more than three dozen books. Her new book is My Life in Paper: Adventures with Ephemera, from Temple University Press (November 2023). Her most recent craft book is Consequential Truths: On Writing the Lived Life. More at bethkephartbooks.com and bind-arts.com.
Cover image © 2024 Beth Kephart