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In Praise of Solitude

This weekend, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that spoke to me. In "The Rise of the New Groupthink," Susan Cain makes the case for solitude at work. "Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption," she writes.

My eyes went right to my rather barren office wall, to an old desk calendar page I tacked up years ago. It's a Jill Krementz photo of the writer Dorothy West. The photo--dated Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, April 28, 1995--shows West in what must be her work space. Underneath, there's this quotation: "When I was seven, I said to my mother, may I close my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to close your door? And I said because I want to think. And when I was eleven, I said to my mother, may I lock my door? And she said yes, but why do you want to lock your door? And I said because I want to write."

Whether you're a writer, a grocer, or a computer programmer, you need at least some solitary, uninterrupted time to do your best work. Wishing you that and more in 2012.


Saint Lucy


A few days ago, at a New Year's Eve party, I met Mark Alice Durant, the force behind the wonderful Saint Lucy website. His online one picture/one paragraph gallery is right up my alley, so I contributed something to it. Check out the site in general, though--it's quite lovely, full of good things.


People of the Blind Line


When you're doing blind contour line drawing, you select a subject, pick up your drawing implement--a pencil, say--and without looking at the paper or lifting your pencil off the page, draw what you see. As your eyes move over your subject, your pencil moves over the page. Last summer, my son learned this technique at art camp, so we tried it at home. He produced the two figures at left. Mine is on the right.

The process is like walking on a balance beam or carrying a tray of full glasses: If you look down, you might lose your balance, so you keep your eyes forward and steady. You feel kind of giddy as you approach the drawing's end, finishing off whatever you need to finish off--be it a collar or a fringe of leaves. The result may please you. If not, it may entertain you. Barring that, you can toss it. It's just an exercise, after all.

I know a lot of writers who rely on detailed outlines, hewing to carefully plotted points as they make their way from chapter to chapter. But I hope that once in a while, they try writing by the blind line--venturing forth into the blank page, charting observations as they go. The blind line can lead you to unexpected places. It's kind of like the Yellow Brick Road, except the wizard at the end is you.

Here's to 2012 and its discoveries.


My Favorite Picture Book of 2011


I love picture books that are simple and charming. In automobile terms, they're Mini Coopers. In food terms, they're BLTs.

Jon Klassen's I WANT MY HAT BACK (Candlewick, 2011) is just such a book. Modest and delightful, it charts a bear's search for his hat. Much like the bird in P.D. Eastman's ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, the bear must investigate different possibilities. My favorite page shows the bear putting two and two together and, literally, seeing red. He knows where his hat is.

The New York Times Book Review awarded I WANT MY HAT BACK one of its Best Illustrated Children's Book Awards for 2011, and that's no surprise. I loved it. I think you and the small people you know would too.


The Tomato Cage Christmas Tree


In December, Christmas trees are lovely. In January, they're tragic--laid out curbside, the neighborhood a graveyard of fir and pine.

So this year, inspired by a friend, I tried something new: The tomato cage Christmas tree. First, I hauled a metal tomato cage and large red plant pot out of winter hibernation. Next, I pruned a pine tree that desperately needed reshaping. Finally, I bought some brown pipe cleaners.

To assemble the tree, I stood the cage on a table, then built the tree from the bottom up, starting with the longer branches and tapering to the shorter ones. I positioned each branch at a slight angle, then tied it with cut pipe cleaners onto the metal cage at two different points. The top of the tree looked a little messy, so I camouflaged that with a Santa hat. Finally, I fit the cage into the planter, and we decorated the tree as we would any other.

I don't "craft" a lot. Crafting can make me cranky. But this was fun, and I know I'll be happy come January 2, with one less tree in the neighborhood graveyard.

(Warning: I'm not sure this tree could survive cats, toddlers, or crawling babies. It may also dry out quickly. I made it with less than two weeks until Christmas, but if it starts to look less like a live tree and more like kindling, I will have to toss it.)