by John Bloner, Jr.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Except for a brief period as a young teen when I wanted to race stock cars (despite hating to work with my Dad on the family auto), I loved to write stories and draw pictures. My father enjoyed telling of a family camping trip when a few girls stopped by our site, inquiring on a boy they’d seen around.
I couldn’t be bothered. I was inside our trailer, tapping out a whopper of a tale on a typewriter.
I also loved to draw. At St. Mary grade school in Kenosha, I filched paper from the supply drawers to feed my habit. My fifth-grade teacher, seeing how I struggled in my studies, invited me to sketch my homework. My educational path may have ended abruptly at age nine if she hadn’t offered me this alternative.
My parents’ kitchen table was my studio; rockets and race cars were my subjects. At Tremper High School, I didn’t have to attend homeroom like the other kids; I carried a pass, allowing me to spend an hour, unsupervised, in the school’s art studio. I also attended creative writing classes, where students sat on a sofa or the floor and read from each other’s stories. In my senior year, another student and I had an entire room to ourselves for our writing projects. We spent most of our time, however, crumpling paper into balls and making three-point shot attempts into a wastebasket.
When I reached adulthood, my father asked me of my career plans. He’d spent over thirty years at American Motors and defined work as plying a trade. I couldn’t tell a socket wrench from adjustable pliers, so any career in a mechanical trade was out. I shrugged my shoulders in response. This did not go over well with him.
I had a vague notion of being an artist or a writer, but lived under a delusion that all artists worked in oils and all fiction writers wrote novels. I tried both personas and was left with paint on the carpet and pages in the trash. I attended college to earn an English degree, because I thought that a diploma was a stepping stone to a Pulitzer Prize. I also abandoned the visual arts because I felt that I could not fully apply myself to writing stories if I was sketching on the side. I thought I needed a monogamous relationship with creative writing. Art-making was just a floozy with bad intentions.
If time travel was possible, I’d visit my younger self and slap him silly. I’d also tell him to ditch the polyester. I’d invite him into my time machine in order to prick his bubble of self-delusion.
We’d travel to meet author Anne Carson, who has written over 20 books, none of them a novel in the strict definition of the term. She once tried to write one, she said, “It was hopeless.” Her work, which includes Autobiography of Red, Vox, and Men in the Off Hours, is an amalgamation of memoir, Greek drama, poetry, and essay. At our meeting, she’d repeat a nugget of wisdom she’d once told Emma Brockes of The Guardian. “You write what you want to write in the way that it has to be. We all grope ahead.”
I’d save my younger self from a lot of self-flagellation by telling him he didn’t need to try to shoehorn his interests and experiences into pieces of fiction, particularly into linear storytelling. He didn’t even need to write them down. Just like his fifth-grade teacher freed him from the traditional ways of completing homework assignments, he could draw them instead.
To make my point understood, I’d show him the work of Art Spiegelman, who created a new genre with memoir/comic, Maus and Maus II, which critic Ken Tucker referred to as “an epic story told in tiny pictures.” Over forty years since Maus was published in serial form, Spiegelman’s influence has sired many sons and daughters, including Craig Thompson (Blankets), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), and Emil Ferris (My Favorite Thing is Monsters).
These publications and other graphic novels require a different way of reading a book and offer abundant rewards for the effort. Illustrator, author, and coach Jessica Abel offers insights into this artistic form.
I wouldn’t be too hard on my younger self. He is me, after all.
I’d give him a sketchbook, some pans of watercolors, a brush, and a fountain pen. I’d invite him to follow the advice of Swiss artist Paul Klee, who said that “a drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” He just needed to fall in love again with the act of moving a pen across the page.
“The same advice applies to writing,” I’d say. “It’s just a matter of taking the alphabet for a walk. “
Thank you for reading my first post as the ArtRoot Racine Writer-In-Residence for January-June 2021. I’ll be back with a new article every Thursday morning. I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions. If the pandemic subsides before my term expires, I’ll invite you to join me at The Branch at 1501 in Racine, WI for a cup of coffee and conversation.
Until next Thursday –