Sven Birkerts


How is it that most of our so-called important artifacts often end up keeping no charge of real meaning whatsoever while some incidental piece of tick-tack glows like a marvel? I’m thinking right now of a cheap, enameled tin cup, bright red, that I used for some time when I was just out of college and living in Ann Arbor. I don’t remember how I came by it, just that I really liked the look of it—it seemed writerly to me. This was the time in my life when I saturated everything around me with the idea of writing, and the cup, one of the few things I owned in my minimalist existence, did not escape. I had it there next to me on the desk all the time I was working at my first stories. I would use my little hot-pot (to which almost no association has accrued) to boil water, and then, stirring up what I now think had to be an awful brew, adding two huge spoonfuls of freeze-dried Taster’s Choice instant coffee, I smoked and sipped, wedged in there by the window with its blistered paint, its perforated screen, the smoke racing out with a fast upward suck.

Though this same basic description applies to a number of rooms I lived in—my desk was always pushed up near as I could get it to a window—I’m picturing right now the place I had above a delicatessen, with an especially loud little intersection below, where the grinding of the air conditioner mixed with the traffic noise, and all day long I got the meaty stink from the back dumpster. That was the back window. The other window, where I put the head of my bed, looked down onto the sidewalk in front, and I remember I would lie there on hot summer nights trying to get to sleep, my forehead crammed against the mesh, feeling off and on that strange sensation of levitating above the life of the street. The red cup is the place-holder, the bookmark in what isn’t a book, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that thirty some years later, I still see perfectly the burned in, or crusted, irregularity at the bottom, that Rorschach blot I stared at when the last Taster’s Choice was gone, while I sat and tried to be a writer. I had so little idea about how to get the words and phrases I wanted, even as I knew, or thought I knew, the sound I was after.

I still fumble though the sound I want has changed a dozen times. Then, I was doing a larcenous imitation of Julio Cortazar—“Julio,” as I called him, following my tradition of familiar address of my heroes, Jack, Ernie, Knut, Henry, Blaise…. Now, I would say that the only person I want to sound like—and I pause to smile here—is myself. Could it be our innocence is never entirely extinguished?

I don’t know how many hours I devoted to my endless postures of creativity and how little finally got to the page. It was so much about the wanting, the getting ready, having this idea that if the tip of the flame could find the end of the fuse, some incredible explosion would result, blowing off the obstacle-plate, with the words, sentences, paragraphs then all flooding out. What I kept telling myself would be confirmed, that everything was really there the whole time, during all those undifferentiated spells of idling, when I twirled my pencil in my fingers and stared disconnectedly at the few things I had around me, at the spoon with its smudge of brown, the cut-out magazine pictures push-pinned to the window frame, and of course the red cup that I knew would make a tinny little clang if I reached over to tap it.

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For years now in various writing classes, I have invoked the pencil to make an observation about how the writing mind works. Sometimes, I actually have a pencil with me, and to make my case more memorable, I place the thing on the desk in front of me. “Susan Sontag once wrote about the essayist Roland Barthes,” I say, fairly sure that I recall this correctly, “that he could make an essay out of anything. A paper-clip, a pencil...It’s just a matter of turning the mind loose and following its associations.” I might then say for dramatic emphasis: “I could lock any of you away in a cabin with nothing but writing supplies, and I guarantee that after two days, each of you will have found enough ideas for a brilliant essay on the pencil.” They take that in, and they seem to like it—I think because it flatters them to consider what great reserves they have to draw on. And it’s true. Not just about the pencil, but about anything—the wing of a gnat, a hardened wad of chewing gum…Each thing becomes a gateway into a concept-world, sometimes obviously and readily, at other times only after some contortions.

I started thinking about pencils because I have been reading a galley of Don DeLillo’s forthcoming novel, The Falling Man, and last night, I came upon a description of a small exhibition of the works of still-life painter Giorgio Morandi which mentioned, along with his oils, a selection of pencil drawings. When I got to that, I felt an unexpected tug of interest and covetousness. I have some sense of Morandi’s work and find it very appealing, but here the attraction was not for the framed canvases, but for the drawings. The idea of them. That an artist so strict and tempered in his renderings of the seen world should have left some work that was just lines on paper—this seemed thrilling. And though I rarely find myself craving to look at, or stand in the presence of, specific works of art, here I did. Sight unseen, I would add. I could only guess what his pencil drawings might be like. But extrapolating from his painted objects, I guessed they would be very calm and revealing. In general, I am excited to contemplate great talents working within strictures, taking on constraints, reducing themselves to the fewest possible means. A brilliant guitarist enunciating simple chords and notes, a world-famous soprano croaking out a lullaby for her child—both doing something I could do myself, but in their performance somehow illuminating what it’s like when the ordinary is perfectly mastered.

There is the scene in the movie Big Night when the chef, exhausted at the end of a long shift, makes himself a simple omelet. Again, nothing I couldn’t do—but his performance of that omelet is profound, whereas mine…The point is that a master implicitly celebrates his materials, never mind to what humble uses he is putting them. And in that celebration—maybe as much as in engaged public display—something very pure shines through, the purer for its unselfconscious humility.

Back to the pencil. I was, as I say, moved to think about what Morandi’s more humble line drawing might be like. But I was also thinking about the instrument itself—the pencil. The pleasure of it, the associations. From earliest childhood, a yellow Ticonderoga in my self-taught monkey’s grip, the ancestor to the same clutch I use now—for like tying my shoelaces, it’s something I taught myself. Pencils at school, scattered in the holds of our lift-top desks, or lolling in those smooth indentations at the edge of the top, readied for a test. Pencils and sharpeners, the hand-cranked Gatling gun kind with all the different hole sizes, the rich whiff of cedar and paint going to mulch, and a whole nose-full when the canister is wobbled off and taken to the basket for dumping. The redemptive satisfaction of seeing the dull, almost useless thing being restored to fine sharpness. Other times: deciding to shape a point by shading it, covering paper with slashes of lead. Pencils everywhere through all these years, jammed in canisters on my desk, on the counter downstairs because they are not to be thrown out no matter what; broken on the car floor, jammed back in the radiator grooves, in the pockets of old sports coats, everywhere in closets, under beds, abandoned in books as markers, fished for under car mats, picked up off the sidewalk because there’s no way to pass a good pencil, then brought home and set on the counter. Right there, as recently as yesterday afternoon—when I drove to the Starbucks to write and then, after parking, patted my pockets for my pens, quickly wedged my hands into all crevices of my carrying bag, was about to say something out loud in my frustration—it was a distinct lift of the heart I got when I thought to check the pocket in the driver’s side door and right away got my fingers around a long and, judging by the meat of my thumb, perfectly sharp pencil, equipped with a big, soft, slip-on eraser. I knew that with just a bit of care and ingenuity, some side-shading, I could make it last.

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