#375: Seeing and Forgetting

Landscaped garden of mostly native plants at dusk. Orange and pink skies, stone clock tower, half-moon above.
Oudolf Garden, Belle Isle, Detroit, MI

Another week, another draft turned in. This one will go into copyediting.

I’ve been thinking about Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s biography-in-conversations of the artist Robert Irwin – particularly one anecdote, regarding Irwin’s piece for a less-than-ideal exhibition room at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

The room had white floor, walls, and grid-panel ceiling – and an unsightly central column, also white, left over from the building’s previous use. “[T]he only other element in the room was the kickboard, a molding which skirted the edge of the three walls, the kind of thing they have in most museums so that when the janitors mop the place they don’t get the wall dirty; and this baseboard was painted jet black.”

Irwin’s solution? To run a piece of black tape, five inches wide, across the floor so that it closed the lines of the black baseboards and formed a rectangle. That’s it. When the exhibit opened, visitors were thrown by it:

Some people would not cross the line; many people weren’t sure what the line represented—a lot of people actually stuck out their hand to make sure they weren’t going to bump into something, as if there were a glass pane there, or as if the room were somehow solid.

Irwin might make a good Taoist butcher, methinks. And this black-tape anectode, from a book I last read ten years ago, has been top of mind because it’s the closest analogy I have for describing what it feels like to make revisions at this stage of writing. The edits I mull over sometimes involve a single line and its inclusion or removal. But these small moves can change character motivations; they can dramatically alter the entire reading of the book.

I’m quite enamored with the idea of meditating on something for a long time, looking at it from different angles, then performing the smallest possible action to effect an outsized change. A single stroke to make something that isn’t working, whole.

But realistically, my process is a lot more haphazard than that. I’m acting on hunches, reading and re-reading, doing and then undoing. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve made that stroke until I’ve already made it. And it will just feel “right” without me fully knowing – let alone being able to explain – why. The final line might be economical; getting there is anything but.

I guess that’s what the butcher’s saying, too:

When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. And now—now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes.