Sunday, July 29, 2012

Christie Nelson talks about how all art and lots of play make for a dazzling writer

Can learning book-binding help you become a better writer? Christie Nelson thinks so. Her second novel, Dreaming Mill Valley will be out soon, and she went back to camp to see what it was like to craft a hand-made book in a wooded forest, "eating at the chow palace, swimming in the chilly river, and sleeping in a rustic tent. I asked her to write something about it. Thanks so much, Christie!

Breaking The Mold

What’s a writer doing at Art Camp? I pondered that question as we traveled up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crossed Quincy’s wide meadows, and bumped along the dusty road leading into Feather River Art Camp. My head had been down for so long pushing toward the finish line of a novel that art camp sounded impossibly crazy. “Think of it,” a friend persisted. “This is a camp for everybody to make art.  It’s a rare opportunity to be drawn into the creative process without any distractions or mundane interferences. It’s you, camp, and your art.”  
But my art is writing, I thought, not the visual arts. Then I saw the offering of Bookmaking, and my objections evaporated. Rhiannon Alpers, a book artist and letterpress printer at San Francisco Center for the Book was teaching the workshop. How would it feel to make a real book with my hands compared to the long haul of novel writing? The lure was tantalizing. I could write in the afternoons; I wouldn’t break rhythm. Like a guilty wife taking a lover, I signed on.    
My first glimpse of camp in a wood dotted with old-timey buildings, reminded me of childhood, and I quickly saw that most of the workshops were held outdoors. The scene resembled a Sherwood Forest of artists, setting up tables and stringing lights in the branches. The afternoon sun filtered through the trees, Spanish Creek called to swimmers, and the wind sent the pines to singing. When the dinner bell rang, off we trooped to the Chow Palace.  That night the temperature dipped to 37 degrees, and we slept in our rustic cabin like babes under down comforters.     
On the first morning, Rhiannon, a tall, striking redhead with a soft voice, took control of our group of eight. We arrived with basic supplies; she brought paper, thread, wood, needles, leather scraps and paint. Clumsy at first, I fell under the spell of completing one task at a time: measuring, cutting, folding, painting and sewing. I soon realized that the craft of bookmaking is a blend of geometry and artistic vision.  Rhiannon’s direction was precise, her artistry astonishing.
In the hot afternoon on the shaded porch of my cabin, I wrote. Playfulness entered my writing. I took more risks, dove deeper. Somehow giving myself permission to learn a new craft energized my writing practice and fortified my dedication.    
By week’s end, I made two books that I loved. No matter that the pages were blank—they were smooth and creamy, scored and folded by my fingers; the wood cover didn’t have a title—it was sanded and painted, embellished with a driftwood handle that I had found on a beach in Baja; the binding had no glue—it was hand-stitched in bright orange thread in an intricate Copic stitch pattern.    
Now, following an invitation from Rhiannon to publish a small letterpress edition at San Francisco Center for the Book, my memoir, My Moveable Feast, with drawings by Fiona Taylor, is launching on September 7th. And that novel I was writing? Dreaming Mill Valley, will be published this October in print and e-book formats. My friend was right. Fostered in art camp, my creativity knew no borders. It flowed freely, summoning the Muse, urging me on.

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