On Design & Art

On Sensory Pleasures, Writing in the Air and also William Blake

If you see me walking down the street, and you are very observant, you will notice two things: I’m gently frowning (this is something that I will need to work on as I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday; it’s definitely going to stick that way); and my fingers are subtly moving, as if they are on a keyboard.

This “air typing” is a dead giveaway that I’m composing in my head.  In fact,  I often don’t realize I’ve made the shift from non-specific fretting and planning to something more creative until I notice my hands doing their little keyboard dance.

[N.B. I really want to emphasize the delicacy of this movement. When my fingers are doing this maneuver, my hands are where they naturally fall at my side — not poised  in front of me bunny-like. I really do try to avoid looking like a total maniac when I’m out and about.]

The connection between composing words and moving my hands across a keyboard is now hardwired in my brain, although this wasn’t ever thus.  As mentioned, I’m about to turn 40, and so I’m a member of the last generation who did not start and end every piece of writing by tapping on a computer keyboard.

When I started my writing career waaaaaaaay back in the day when there was  this thing called “paper,” I composed first on a legal pad, with a pen — and then I moved to the computer.  (I did use an actual typewriter in high school for term papers, but that’s because I was a deprived child. Many of my peers did have word processors and computers.)

It took me a few years to get comfortable with composing rough and first drafts on a computer, but that was a long time ago, and now I really can’t do it any other way. I do sometimes still write on paper, but that’s because it forces me to slow down — it takes me at least twice as long to write a sentence with a pen than it does to type it.

And also,  I enjoy the feeling of a writing implement on paper. When I don’t write on paper for a long while, I miss it. There’s something that has always seemed strange to me about the sensory deprivation of contemporary writing — no scent of ink, no sound of an eraser, no feel of the tooth or gloss of the paper,  even after a piece is published.

I’m not saying I would trade those tactile pleasures for the inconveniences of writing in a pre-computer age — I’m really quite  happy that I’ve been able to rearrange the sentence you’re now reading three or 12 times without having to retype the whole thing. But over the past year I’ve become aware that I really do want to feel more of a connection between creativity and an actual, tangible, physical something.

If you think about it, there really isn’t that much of a sensory difference between typing in the air and typing on a keyboard — especially if that keyboard is a piece of glass, as it is on iDevices.

Stein Drypoint Plate

I’ve been studying visual art for the better part of this year. I’ve tried my hand at silverpoint and collage, I’ve painted with acrylic, oil, watercolor and gouache. I’ve made boxes, I’ve made books, I’ve learned to make paper from a t-shirt, I’ve operated a letterpress, and a solder torch.  This is all so different from the work I’ve done in my adult life, which has really been about using a keyboard to arrange pixels around a screen in exchange for money.

I’ve found myself drawn most to art forms that provide the most haptic feedback — etching into a piece of plastic with a scribe for a drypoint, gouging out a woodcut, pulling a threaded needle through fabric. It all just feels so fucking good.

But as I’ve spent more time on the visual arts, I’ve realized that there’s a certain experience that writing provides me, that no other art form has been able to replicate. This is not a sensory experience, per se, but it does produce a certain feeling that does seem almost physical, whether I’m typing on a keyboard, or using a pen or pencil.  When I’ve gripped onto an inchoate idea that I’m trying to render in words that another human will read and understand, I’m mentally pushing against something that feels like an entity. And entity that resists, until it yields.  And when it gives…it feels extra fucking good.

(Dirty minded readers are reminded to lift their minds from the gutter at this time.)

And so after due consideration, I’ve decided that out of all the notable figures in literature and art, it was William Blake who really had it right. Poet and printmaker, writer and visual artist. He wrote:

Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?

Okay, he wrote that in an entirely different context. And I will agree that I can no longer be fairly said to “burn with youth.”  (Maybe I’m still slightly singed?) But what I’ve decided he’s saying here is this: there’s really no need to choose one good thing, whether it’s the haptics of visual art, or the deep thought of writing. I’m choosing a life where I can have both.

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