This Writer’s Life
Restoring Your Writing, Lesson Three: The Ornamental Must Be Structural
I had mentioned in a prior post that the entire inside of the writing box, including all its dividers, was covered in a “decorative” brown mottled paper that was anything but decorative. After over a hundred years of age and wear and spills and splits in the wood and exposure to sun, the paper was decidedly unattractive. But its dull color scheme of browns and tans made me wonder how anyone in 1900 or so would have considered it attractive in the first place.
As I continued to dissolve and peel the paper off of each part of the box’s interior divider, exposing the carelessly milled pine pieces underneath, I began to understand why the paper must have seemed attractive: it invoked an image of richly burnished age when this cheaply-made writing box was still new. The dull, mottled paper was meant to imitate the decorative flyleaves of calf-bound volumes arrayed on the shelves of a cozy library, a luxurious setting that whoever bought this writing box must not have been able to afford.
In 1900 or 1905 as now, writers sought implements of craft that could put them in a mental space where they could do their best work. This writing slope is the most cheaply made wooden writing box I have come across in my collecting — an entry-level wood box, more sturdy and more prestigious than pasteboard. Whoever bought this, for themselves or as a gift, purchased the most luxurious and attractive slope they could afford, a piece for both ornament and use, and all the more useful to a writer for the simple ornamentation it bore.
When I peeled this unsightly paper from the back of the skiver boards, the border strip along one of the boards began to fall away. I realized that the tongue-and-groove joint holding that strip to the main board must have been broken or cracked long ago. But that ugly brown mottled paper had held the board together until it came into my hands. So I scraped off all the paper, that decoration I found so indecorous, and used wood glue to suture the two boards back together along the broken joint. That paper, affectatious as it was, was not just a decoration. It was a structural necessity. It made the skiver more durable; it helped hold the writing slope together. This paper had not just helped someone feel like a writer; it had helped them write.
I thought of all the times I have been hard on myself and others for the various affectations we writers adopt. When we are figuring out who we are, we try on identities until we find one that works — which may or may not mean that it fits, but does mean that we can work on becoming while we wear it. There are some ready-made social outfits for writers — the bohemian living on coffee and cigarettes, the scholar in a cluttered study, the gentleman or gentlewoman in a finely-appointed library, the well-traveled collector, the child of nature, the tortured alcoholic, the quirky socialite, the used bookstore owner turned editor, the anguished poet, the acolyte to craft. These are just some of the models we find in books, and sometimes in life.
When I was in high school and college, I recognized when my peers were trying to “look like a writer,” and I judged them as posers. But I was so wrong: they were writers, more prolific than I was, and they were writers because they were not in thrall, as I was, to Romantic notions of genius, even though some of them were cloyingly Romantic in their affect. They were playacting at the person they would become, just as I was, but they also put in the work — they took the poetry writing classes and the fiction writing classes, they produced a body of literature, they practiced. And I imagine that some of them grew beautifully into the personae they projected.
Because I was so hard on them, I missed what would have helped me most: to embrace becoming. I saw myself as a writer already, as one who didn’t need classes, because genius can’t be taught. Thus I missed the greatest opportunity I have ever had in my life to learn how to do even better what I was best at doing.
Live and learn.
Now I am writing at 52, working on craft, finding a voice, finishing a book manuscript, editing a journal. I am grateful for the time to do this now. But I lament the time I wasted judging others, when what I most needed was to join them in becoming.