Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Creativity Book: Exercise 1a - Write Your Autobiography

The first exercise in Eric Maisel's The Creativity Book is to write a 2,500 word autobiography. An abridged and hyperlinked version of my autobiography follows.

When I was little and I couldn’t sleep I would tell myself the history of the world starting with the Big Bang. We watched a lot of Nova. I would continue through the primordial soup and the dinosaurs with some ice ages thrown in for good measure. Then do my best with human history starting with Cro-Magnons and working my way through Mesopotamia and Egypt and Greece and Rome. Occasionally I’d try to bring in the rest of the world, weaving in what bits of Africa and Asia I learned in history class, but I have to admit I had a hard time reconciling the timelines of world history. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam Conflict, I was born, Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale. But that Reagan bit is skipping ahead.

My parents lived in housing for medical residents across from the hospital where my father was doing his family practice residency. My mother, a nurse, walked across the street when she decided her contractions were close enough. It was a Saturday; the doctor was pleased that the delivery was complete in time for him to go watch his son play high school football.

Next we lived on top of a hill by a lake in Windsor, New York. The low-pile carpet in the dining room was orange and yellow and red. The carpet downstairs in the living room was deep shag in blue-green. Playdoh was harder to get out of the carpet downstairs than it was to get out of the carpet upstairs. My room was pale pink and the floor was cold tile. The light through the windows was blue. The porch off the dining room was wood and might give you slivers. The stairs were covered in bright green Astroturf and were open, so little girls had to be careful or they’d fall between the steps onto the hard concrete patio below. The grass between the patio and the lake was prickly and dry. The road was dirt and rocks and hurt feet even through flip flops. Then there was more grass and then a long dock which was even more splintery than the deck. You did not want to do a sitting dive off that dock. The water was cold and clear and I never touched the bottom.

Then we lived in a big white house on a city block, but not a real city. A village block. If life were a fairy tale this is where I would have lived. When people asked me where I was from I could tell them “Owego, New York.” But it’s not true. I’m not from Owego, New York. I lived there awhile. But I’m not from there. People from Owego, New York, probably don’t know me. I look nostalgically back on it, but that just shows how much more horrible it has been everywhere else. Owego is like my first grade teacher, Miss Scanlon, whose fiancé shared my birthday, whose wedding I sang at, who got frustrated because I could count to 100 but could not tell time, who scolded me for persuading a classmate that the ghost of my recently deceased Great Aunt Lil haunted the gym, who made such a huge impression on me, who didn’t even know who I was when my mother and I bumped into her a few years later. She witnessed my best and my worst and my insanity like no one else, and yet I made no impression on her.

My family moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in August 1987. It was never home. My brother was already away at boarding school and I would follow in two short years. My mother hated the place before we arrived. My father wanted to walk to work and the house was too far away. No one looks nostalgically back on Fitchburg, Massachusetts. That could be the town motto. But if I wrote all the stories of Fitchburg and all the stories of Owego, quantified them as happy/good or sad/bad, I think we’d find that Fitchburg got a bum rap. Sure, it’s where my parents divorced. Sure, it’s where I went through all of those teen movie-of-the-week dramas. Sure, it’s where we gave up the Herculean effort to look like a normal nuclear family. But it is also where we became friends with one another instead of mere actors in the family play. It wasn’t easy, that transition. But if we hadn’t made it through that transition, where would we be now?

I feel sorry for people who can’t speak to their parents as anything but a child. Or siblings who make small talk because that’s all they have in common: the script of polite interaction with total strangers. With all of us in different places it was easy to see that maintaining relationships with one another was a choice. We’d have to find something more to sustain our interactions than mere titles and role-play. This was not conscious on my part. Looking back I can see the steps, rationalize the actions, compile a timeline, and craft the scenes, like it was a progress narrative playing out, the end of my family.

Beside my family’s dissolution there was also my own life. The life that was primary at the time. School and social development, neither of which I executed to my full potential. The timeline of home addresses goes a bit wonky. How do you reconcile boarding school starting at 14? I love it when people realize I went to boarding school and ask me what I did to deserve that. What kind of Dickensian world do they think we live in that boarding school is still a punishment? Granted, it was punishing, but I chose to go there. Staying in Fitchburg and going to public school would have been a far worse punishment, which is something that I wasn’t entirely clear on at the time, how bad it would have been, had I stayed, to witness my parents divorce first hand rather than hear about it like tuning into a soap opera you only watch during the summer, to try to assimilate into public school culture where my intellect and socio-economic class would have been just as inhibiting as they were at boarding school, just the other way around. This is post hoc rationalization for the incredible horror that was boarding school. Like Lord of the Flies, but co-ed.

And then college and more college and grad school and David and law school and the Bureau of Prisons and Indiana and now California. I can keep writing a time line or drawing a map or compiling witticisms about how awful or wonderful it was – a sketch of a photocopy of a photograph taken in the dark. I could focus on the big moments; the traumas that made my psyche what it is today. But I don’t want to. I’ve done it before in other settings and with a therapist. Identifying the moments is a connect-the-dots without the lines. There is no image. Just dots.

So here are some lines. I have had stuff to draw with and sculpt with since I can remember. I used to lie in the grass and make detailed pencil drawings of each blade. I don’t remember anything about Sunday school except that I got to paint on an easel. I spent hours at my neighbors’, Ruth and Sally, coloring in coloring books, well past when that might have been considered age appropriate and probably for many hours longer than I was welcome. My babysitter Cathy taught me to swim, ride a bike, and blend pastels. I tried to carve a wooden duck and discovered, when my dad and I were attaching the head to the body, that I am allergic to wood glue. It burned my skin like fire. A sketch of my friend Todd won some sort award in elementary school and was displayed in the school district’s offices. My paternal grandmother helped me make a stained glass turtle in her studio. My aunt who threw me across the kitchen for eating cookie dough also taught me Japanese calligraphy with ink that starts as a solid brick. I made a futon and a castle in shop and art respectively and felt that both of them were art in their own way. I used the futon as a chair and/or bed for sixteen years. The castle is in a box in the garage right now. While I was in a yearbook meeting I absentmindedly sculpted a grumpy man’s face. I sculpted a clay ear and a metal hand that had nothing to do with one another. I drafted a fan in black ink on white paper and the lines went over the mat and onto the wall. I made a huge orange in architecture class to protect a container of orange juice as I flung it off the top of the library. It ejected the orange juice container, but survived the fall marvelously itself. Based on the same design, I made a huge moon for the dormitory hallway for Halloween. I don’t think one could actually walk past it, it was so large. I took no art courses in college, though I made a six foot tall paper mache fish in my dorm room. I painted the ceiling in David’s room. I made a number of painted bowls. I painted a table. I painted a five-part image of a table with oranges on it. I took about three hundred pictures of Volkswagen Beetles, well before the new version came out. One won an award at the University of Georgia. I sold two more. I made a super-8 film about a girl trapped in a box. I made a super-8 film about a girl in love with another woman who she can’t tell. I made a super-8 film featuring my girlfriend to an Ani DiFranco song. I know. But it was beautiful, especially the shot of the flying seagull. I never edited it together. While in film school I made a collage of the sun from paper cut from magazines. I made a video of a woman cutting off her tongue to color a red velvet cake. After film school I worked at a place called and made no art at all. Between teaching for The Princeton Review I painted an amazing mural on all four walls of my niece’s nursery. They sold the house shortly thereafter. In law school I painted raindrops splashing in a pool for Georgia Black Women Attorney’s fundraising auction. It sold for $100. In Washington, D.C., I looked through the Smithsonian’s course catalog and found quilting with Jeanne Benson. And that was the rest of my life! I made a single Irish chain for my best man’s first baby. I made an appliqué sampler of the images from the mural for my niece. I made a patchwork pillow for my mom. I made an appliqué pansy for my mother-in-law. I made a patchwork quilt for a law school friend’s baby. I collaged and painted two portraits, one of each of our dogs. In Indiana I joined the Bloomington Quilt Guild and took all their classes in which I started a Sue Spargo quilt and a Mary Buvia quilt and an American Girl Doll quilt. I attended a community quilt in, met a number of lovely ladies including R.J., and started a rail fence quilt. I took classes at the Indiana Heritage Quilt Show in which I started a free-motion machine quilting sampler with Sue Nickels and a lone star quilt with Jan Krentz. I took classes at Shiisa Quilts and started a New York Beauty quilt and a precision pieced quilt and an invisible machine appliqué quilt. I took classes with my sailor aunt and her two daughters at the International Quilt Festival in Rosemont, Illinois, and learned a lot of techniques, but at least I didn’t start any new quilts to add to my unfinished quilts started in classes pile.

I have just moved to California, where I know no one. I searched online for a good quilt guild and I think I’ve found one that’s a good fit, but I haven’t attended it yet. I searched online for a good quilt shop and I think I’ve found one that’s a good fit, but I haven’t gone there yet. In our new home I have a huge studio, but I haven’t unpacked it completely yet.

The Beginning

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