Thursday, June 8, 2017

Katherine Vaz on Taking Notes and Making Box Art

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Vaz, author of The Love Life of an Assistant Animator (Tailwinds Press), discusses the importance of jotting things down and also finding nonverbal means of expression.

When my father was dying, I moved from New York to my native California, the Bay Area, to be with him alongside my mother and five siblings. I ended up writing a story about him published recently in Guernica, and it reminded of the strange route I took to get it from my heart—and bones and nerves—onto pages.

As writers, we often cling to process and result. I use the Pomodoro Technique happily. But spelling things out in the throes of loss felt distasteful, even if I could have borne it; I needed to spend as much pure time with him as I could, though I also wanted to jot down what happened, knowing my foggy mind might obscure it later. I kept the sort of record Joan Didion talked about in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which to her could mean a box with flotsam tossed in. A magpie’s nest, I think she called it. My result was all shorthand:

choc Guin pur/38 m
ao lado!

And so on. Dropping these desiccated word-tablets in water later would yield: On St. Patrick’s Day, I fed him puréed chocolate Guinness cake, and it took thirty-eight minutes. When my mother and I left him in the special dining room for those requiring extra assistance, he yelled, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” His diagnosis of “aging brain” made me envision his comments as confetti. On a day he improved, the lemon tree in the yard dazzled me, because false hope made it—made everything—seem backlit in neon. When nurses asked what direction he wanted to go, he said, “Ao lado,” and I explained he meant “to the side” in his native Portuguese.
Shadow box: Writing the Lord's Prayer
on a Grain of Rice—A Kit

When he died, on a warm, September afternoon, we were all there as he slipped away, and my fragment was “crying not leave.” To trigger the remembrance of that morning, when he’d sobbed about not wanting to be done with the world.

In a manila envelope that held my scrawls on pieces of paper, on receipts or corners of pastry bags, I also placed a plastic ring off an orange-juice bottle, because while running on the Castro Valley High School track, I asked the universe to send me a hair bow or fastener, a sign that a prayer could be answered, and my lack of glasses produced a joke. I’d thought it was a ponytail tie.

But instead of hammering out sentences—writers can jump too swiftly into Getting This Done—I switched gears because I believe writers should explore directing their senses toward actions that plumb toward painful subjects, toward emotions that roar in protest if funneled too soon into the practical, obedient service of words. I’ve always done box-art, thanks to my adoration of Joseph Cornell and my father’s constant painting. He always delighted in a language of color.

Box-art deals in the blessed relief of abstractions, tints, and juxtaposed forms. In hours-long sessions, never pausing to “think,” I constructed nine boxes about my father. One is called “Writing the Lord’s Prayer on a Grain of Rice—A Kit,” and I have trouble even glancing at it because there’s a picture of him in his last week that nearly destroys me. But that’s one of the few concrete images in this series; the constructions are mostly instinctive and non-photographic. I moved with ease and fervor, producing collages and shadow boxes that magically held together.

And then I took a breath and wrote the story of my father’s death, called “Grief: A Coloring Book.”

Shadow box: Saudade
The artwork was not a sidetrack but a conduit to forcing my sorrow—how I miss him still!—to pool in a groundwater I could siphon upward, into words that connected to—expanded—those cryptic original notes. Writers do well to find off-center, nonverbal, active ways of letting reservoirs collect. His own practice of painting suggested my pathway; find whatever suits your own depth-work. I searched for items to fit the shadow boxes; I went out walking to find what might, for instance, symbolize his love of gardening. It is a lesson we forget at our desks: How vital it is to keep the blood flowing in our veins while we are yet alive; to stretch; to enjoy how non-narrative falls into place, whether with thread and glue or something else. After all, the world uses color and shape to infiltrate our sensibilities that proceed to color and shape our words.