Shoebox Faithfulness

Students enrolled in an M.F.A. program in Painting haven’t usually applied to the program because they want to learn to write. They don’t have stars in their eyes about the prospect of getting to compose artist statements, much less a thesis. My professors knew this, and one of them gave me the most useful bit of writing advice I’ve heard to this day. Get a shoebox.

In it, we were to deposit all the scraps of paper with the phrases that popped into our heads about our work. There we would dump the articles that resonated with our concepts. We would try writing about our work regularly, yet uncritically, and  leave all the papers there, lid on, to rest in the dark.

I tried to make it a practice to regularly write out explanations for my work: what I was thinking when I made it, how I thought it operated, what my metaphors were. I made regular deposits. When I began more serious research for my thesis, I read books and articles and placed my notecards of quotes and observations into the box.

Finally, when it came time to write my first draft, I spread all the printed articles, scraps of paper, and blue card stock notecards on the living room carpet and began to arrange them by topic. Once my outline was clear, I had only to start typing what I had been saving into a Word doc, fill in the gaps, smooth out the wording, and edit out the weird stuff. The process wasn’t effortless, but the hard work had been happening for more than a year.

If it worked once, it can work again. So that’s what I’ve been doing: writing down the little bits of thoughts I have, saving the quotes, printing the articles. Many mothers (and others!) don't have long stretches of time to write, but we do have 65 seconds to jot down a thought we have been chewing on while folding laundry for 30 minutes. Most of my early writing scraps are crammed into a vintage American Tourister carry-on bag. I'm not sure why, but that’s where they landed, and that’s where they wait. Squirreling away thoughts isn’t much different than the way women have historically saved scraps of fabric–part of a dress that wore out or a soft blue cotton that wasn’t all used up when making baby clothes, a prized calico. Later, when there are enough scraps and enough quiet moments, they will become a quilt.

Seeing this video inspired me to get a little more uniform and tidy with my process and materials, so I began last summer to write on 4x6 index cards. They seem more manageable, stack nicely, and because the cards are slightly thick my stack grows in a visible way each week. I carry some in my purse, usually have some in the car, on my desk at work, in the studio, near my living room couch, and in my planner. I’ve heard you have about 7 seconds to write something down once you think of it before it’s gone, and now that I have three preschoolers, I see this is often true. This Scientific American article tells us that if you walk through a doorway, you are at risk of losing your thought, so I like to have my cards close at hand! Growing up, my parents were always jotting down bits of ideas throughout the day, and I’ve made it my practice, too.

Writers and artists know that creative work doesn’t have to make you less present in your life; it often makes you much more observant, more present. You see the unseen. You are a sponge. You have questions and are on a mission to find the answers, and that makes you more future-oriented as well, redeeming the time.

My daughter likes to use my index cards too. She asks me for them and fills them with art or makes them into cards to give to others. Many of her little decorated cards have been mixed into my stack, and I leave them there. I want to remember what this part of my life was like. Recently, I was helping my her make a few reading flashcards. I wrote the words and she illustrated them on the back. On the back of the card that said “mom” she drew a picture of a woman writing on notecards.

The repetition of the process feels good. The growing stack of cards is comforting. But there’s really nothing to show yet, except a photo of my stack of cards, a vintage bag of scrap papers and articles, and an occasional blog post. That’s why art is faith. That all these cards and bits and scraps will one day be something whole and polished is, at this point, the thing only hoped for. That goal is the thing not seen. I don’t know what the thing hoped for looks like exactly or when it will come, but I’ve begun a pilgrimage.

I’m on a journey through the wilderness and my path is paved in index cards. And each card is an act of faithfulness. And faith.

Michelle Radford