One Writer Conquers Her Fear of Crafts
July 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I recently completed a months-long writing course in which participants were required to design a hat to wear during the final gathering. The hat was to be decorated artfully to reflect one’s favorite lessons and mantras about writing. I’m not good at visual arts, and my first reaction was to dismiss the hat: How in hell is this related to writing? Nevertheless, I remained silent about my misgivings, and soon received in the mail from the instructor a half-circle of cardboard with folding and tabbing instructions to form a small cone, like a child’s birthday hat.
The template for this hat exactly matched one presented to me in first grade — my third first grade, to be precise. I began at a parochial school in Indiana attended by various cousins, who showed up at my house on the first day to walk me there. After two months, my parents moved us temporarily to a treeless townhouse complex in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The townhouses, arranged in semicircles, were so identical that after I exited the school bus, I had to count the semicircles and then the houses within it in order determine where I lived, or risk appearing at a stranger’s door (third horseshoe on the right, fifth house from the road).
A few months passed, and my parents bought a house in northwest D.C, enrolling me in the local public school in early April. I was a sensitive kid, overwhelmed by yet another school change. My first day began during Mrs. Mackie’s art class, but I’d missed the hat-making instructions. I sat at a desk with the template, scissors, construction paper, and no idea what to do. I tried to copy everyone else, too shy to ask, but my little green headpiece was a failure. The evil Mrs. Mackie berated me in front of my new classmates.
After this hat episode, I developed a paralyzing anxiety. It didn’t help that schools in the nation’s capital conducted nuclear attack drills every month, using the school basement as a fallout shelter. My anxiety diminished somewhat in second grade, when an older teacher with horrid breath advised my parents that I worried too much and they should ease up at home regarding whatever pressures I was under. She was a hugger, kind and encouraging, and gradually I lightened up — though I suffered a small relapse during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But while my generalized anxiety slowly evaporated, I retained a specific dread of crafts, especially group crafts requiring a uniform look to the finished product. That anxiety extended to assembling textbook covers, which involved a surprising number of tab A-slot B instructions. When a teacher handed out virgin book cover sheets at the beginning of the school year, I would ask to go the toilet, cowering there until someone searched for me, then take the book covers home for my dad to affix to my textbooks.
Now I confronted another hat, a dunce’s cap for feelings and mantras. The shapes were to be uniform, but unlike the first-grade hat, the decorating was to be unique. Still, the same panic gripped me. I texted others in the writing group: “What are you doing about the hat?”
“I’m having a blast decorating!” someone said.
“I have too many ideas,” another said.
No one shared their ideas, and unlike in grade school, I couldn’t hide in the bathroom or look around to copy. Copying wasn’t the idea, anyway. Without any artful decorating tendencies, much less assembly skills, how could I represent my creativity?
I’d just bought a print to hang in my office, artwork by a painter who also writes; in other words, someone extremely not me. The picture features a grove of deciduous trees with bold trunks, and in the center of the grove, a deep green fir tree. Gray shadows of other trees back the grove, except for a vivid patch of blue sky behind the fir. The trees float, suspended on the page; their roots extend to the bottom of the picture like gnarled fingers. Black birds dart among the roots, burying seeds– just as crows do in nature– that with time and luck, can become a forest.
I didn’t know the artist’s intention, but her work spoke to me as a metaphor for writing. The birds’ insistent, instinctive, unintentional seeding mimics my work on the page, some of which, given time and luck, develops into the sturdy trunks of good writing; some of which does not; and a piece of which might someday be that glorious fir.
It occurred to me as I studied my new print that my hat, like my writing, didn’t need to be transcendently visionary and original. Because I created it, it would be distinctively mine. I could borrow this artist’s pictorial vision and imbue it with my own words and meaning, in the way we writers steal other writers’ structures, metaphors, and sometimes even plots to plant them in a new context. (Which writer among you has not borrowed from another author?)
I printed a color copy of my new art. I used my hat template to cut the print into a cover for the cardboard hat form, thinking that this was, at long last, like making a book cover. Near the bird part of the picture, I wrote in fine pencil, “Plant stories like birds plant seeds.” But I glued the art to the hat, and rejected sticking tab A into slot B in favor of stapling it into a cone shape. Mrs. Mackie isn’t around anymore.
Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory’s 2021 flash fiction competition.