Annalemma’s eighth issue is dedicated to “the creators, the people who make things, the people who use ingenuity and creativity to work around barriers. To the people who adapt to fit their surroundings, to the people who aren’t satisfied with a problem, and instead of ignoring it, they face it and try to make it better.” Editor Chris Heavener writes, “This issue is devoted to the makers of the world.”
Creation is a fascinating theme for writers to explore, and every piece in this issue revolves around the act of making. Whether it’s a game, a wedding dress, a flat panel TV, or an artisan beer, there is something profoundly human about creating things. This beautiful issue is full of stories and essays about creation and the essays are particularly compelling, especially as a reminder of how infrequently most of us actually make things anymore.
In his essay, “I Tried Really Hard To Play,” Blake Butler writes about his childhood trips to the beach, where he avoids the beach itself and instead hangs out in the condo watching Let’s Make A Deal, and eventually begins to draw people on loose sheets of paper. “Or they weren’t people as much as they were bodies, amalgams of limbs and eyes and skin. The bodies were meant to represent characters in a fantasy game I thought I was making up, though I never went as far inside the making to make any rules to this game, and there were never any other people I played the game with, and I never played alone. So the bodies were just bodies.”
As Butler’s “game” evolves, influenced by the Middle Earth Role Playing game manual purchased on another summer vacation, it becomes less a game and more an elaborate, introspective art project. The people become creatures, tagged with numbers ranking them with personality traits like intelligence, cunning, and toughness. The creatures never come to fulfill any particular task or role, as they might in an actual game, but he continues filling book after book with these drawings.
As I read this essay, I felt like I had a peek inside not only the mind of a great writer, but inside the writing process itself. Drawing collections of creatures strikes me as the perfect foundation for creating fictional characters. Near the end of the essay, Butler writes, “I don’t know when I stopped the creatures. I don’t know if it turned into writing other kinds of words. It feels like somewhere else. It feels beside me.” After I read this essay, I pulled Butler’s books off my shelf and flipped through them. In one way or another, our childhood infuses everything we do as adults, and I feel like his books are all full of these creatures, full of the kind of unhindered imagination that would compel someone to fill book after book with creatures.
Jen O’Malley (the phenomenal artist who designed this issue) has included an essay called “How To Make A Bride,” where she explores making a wedding dress for her friend out of an elk hide. Having a background in sculpture, O’Malley approached the dress as she would a sculpture, no patterns. “The inspiration for the dress came from an authentic Assiniboine tribe necklace [the bride’s] fiancé had given her. The tribe originated in Montana and the necklace had belonged to his grandmother. Bright blue and yellow beads, tightly strung, coiled into a sun shape medallion. She wanted to honor the heritage of her new family in the aesthetic of the dress.”
Having made several wedding dresses, the author is interested in exploring how handcrafted elements affect the personality of each dress, as well as what personalization means to each bride. O’Malley writes about her grandmother’s wedding dress and the inspiration she finds in its detailed craftsmanship, as well as the other dresses she has made for people. Each dress has a different story, and like the elk hide dress, each wearer is looking to express something unique through the dress. Wedding dresses, perhaps more than any other piece of clothing, carry an indefinable symbolic weight, and one that is ever more complicated in the 21st century. Like most of our other clothes, the vast majority of brides buy ready-to-wear dresses. It’s a bit of shame because a wedding is a one-time deal that seems to call for something special. Handmade dresses are pieces of art, just as much as anything that hangs in a gallery.
Gina Ishibashi’s smart, funny essay about repairing a TV is interesting in part because she’s not a natural-born repairer. She writes, “I’m a lady. I find chipped, unkempt nail polish unsightly. I moisturize my hands after every wash. I cover my mouth when I laugh. I refrain from using expletives. I’m quite a priss, actually. I hate bugs so much I can’t get close enough to kill them. I loathe the idea of camping.” You get the idea. But Ishibashi revels in fixing things, and is completely unafraid to attempt to fix just about anything.
This essay gets at the heart of why it’s important to create. Not for anyone or anything, but just for the sake of creating. For Ishibashi, repairing things isn’t her job, and in fact she has no interest in pursuing a job that requires these handy skills. “I could make very good money,” she writes. “But the thought of being obligated to work like this for a living, on the same projects, objects and issues, bores me. Can’t it just be a practical skill?” This, I think, may be part of what is missing from contemporary culture: the ability to create, make, repair, fix, and build things. We don’t use our hands much anymore. And even as a writer who types all day long, I lack a certain sense of “creation” because I’m not getting my hands dirty, so to speak.
Just yesterday I put together a bed frame, and even that required very little “making.” I literally just screwed together a bunch of pre-made parts. As I was putting the thing together, I thought, “I wish I knew how to make a bed frame.” I want to cut, sand, and stain the wood. I want to meticulously fit the corners together, and have something special, one-of-a-kind. At one point I dropped one of the sides onto my finger, and it hurt like hell. Mostly I was annoyed, but after a while I realized what bothered me most was that I didn’t really have anything to show for the pain. Now I just have a bed frame that looks pretty much like everyone else’s.
In our culture, things aren’t very important. I can’t think of much that I couldn’t replace if my apartment burned down. But there are a few things, like my mother’s quilts or my friend’s paintings. My grandfather was a clockmaker, and for my fifteenth birthday I received a lovely grandfather clock, which remains one of my most beloved possessions. Why is this more important to me, than say, a clock I bought at Target? Because someone close to me made it, with me in mind. And because there are no others in the world like it. My grandfather made clocks for all five grandchildren, and each one is completely unique, and specific to each of us. He died several years ago, and though I received many presents from him over the years, this is the only thing that I will keep for the rest of my life.
This issue of Annalemma has reminded me how making things makes us human. This is how we mark our place in the world. Not with t-shirts from the Gap, but with handcrafted wedding gowns. Sure, we can’t hand-make everything. Who would want to hand sew all their own t-shirts, after all? But as Ishibashi writes at the end of her essay, “General knowledge is no longer a necessity, it’s a hindrance because we lack the time to use it. The practicality of knowing a little bit of a lot of things grows moot. So overrun with information, we simply don’t do as much anymore. I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget how to properly replace a wax ring in a toilet. I’ve scraped it. I’ve cleaned it. I’ve dried it. I’ve replaced it. The same goes for the TV, the leaky faucet, and the broken door hinge. My hands were dirtied and my mind was expanded and now I’ll know how forever. Even if only for the sake of knowing.”