The other night, I stayed up too late reading Jonathan Franzen‘s The Discomfort Zone, a book I both devoured and savored. His writing is that delicious. I wanted to stuff myself silly as well as nibble each nuance, taking pleasure in each small flavor and the way they ingeniously worked together to create something much, much more substantial.
When I finally closed the book, it was after 2 AM, and I spent the rest of the mostly sleepless night mired in something close to despair. Much as Franzen’s writing inspires me, it also stirs up a whiney anguish and hopelessness: The guy can write circles around me, what’s the use? Why do I bother writing at all when there are voices that are infinitely more articulate and infuriatingly more precise than my own?
His writing is inspiring, but ironically what it often inspires is a kind of resignation. I love Jonathan Franzen. But at 3… 4… and then 5 AM… I loathed him, too.
In the light of day, when I’m rested and reasonable and caffeinated, such loathing and diffidence seems absurd. I know it. But it’s the same ugly insecurity that caused me, in fifth grade, to throw a spelling bee in the first round because I was certain I couldn’t possibly be the best speller in the room—and then watched from the audience while words I could easily spell felled contestant after contestant.
There was a kind of irritating passivity at work, too, ironically rooted in a ferocious competitiveness that I tried hard not to acknowledge: It was simply easier not to try. It was easier to choose to sit down, on my own terms, rather than work myself up and feel the burn of competition in my gut, only to risk the devastation of a loss.
Last week, I visited the sculptor Jim Sardonis in his studio in Barre, Vermont. “Studio” is too glamorous a word for it—his workspace is actually a huge, dimly lit granite mill, dominated at one end by an upright giant circular wet-saw blade, as big as a backyard trampoline, working its way, back and forth, through a chunk of stone the size of a Chevy. It was a sunny 70 degrees outside, but inside it was chilly, dark and damp. If it were quiet, it would feel exactly like a polar bear cave. I half expected to see fish jumping in the cascade of water around the wet-saw blade.
Which is fitting, because Jim was unveiling his newest project—in fact, a granite sculpture of a polar bear mother with her three scrambling cubs wrestling around her. Next month, the bear will be settled on the lawn in front of our town library. But for now, Jim says, he has more work to do, finishing the surface of Mama’s rump, shaping her head and expression, and carving bits off of a cub or an eye or a paw, tweaking here and there, until he’s satisfied.
The bear before us was maybe four feet high and 6 1/2 feet long, and weighs 2 1/2 tons, which is significantly heavier than an actual female polar bear, but roughly the same length and height as the real thing. Although, Jim cautioned, this isn’t an exact replica; it’s not carved to copy precisely the dimensions of an actual bear. He visited the stuffed bear at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and took plenty of photos and measurements. But, he says, this bear is based more on the picture in his mind’s eye. In other words, this bear is his interpretation, his version of a mother bear and her cubs at play. It may appear to authentically depict an actual bear, Jim says, but it’s not meant to.
“This bear,” Jim says, “is more….” And he jacks up his arms like a strong man and puffs out his chest to indicate rounder, fluffier, more roly-poly. In other words, Jim’s bear is more… well, bearish.
Bearish and powerful and evocative. In the way that art is—and a stuffed museum bear is not.
On the ride back to Boston, my friend and traveling companion, also named Jim, recalled the artist’s description of how he created his bear. It reminded him, he said, of James Wood’s description of how writer Richard Price captures the essence of inner-city speech in his dialogue, all the while inventing something different, and inherently more beautiful.
In other words, Price is less a stenographer of inner city slang and metaphor and more a sculptor of it. He takes regular speech and cliché and mashes, reshapes, and hones it. What he carves out feels authentic and real, but is actually more evocative, fuller and rounder, not unlike Jim Sardonis’s polar bear. Price’s dialogue doesn’t really exist in the inner city, just like Jim’s bear doesn’t really exist in the wild.
In a way, it’s what we all do, isn’t it? Whether our canvas is a block of granite, an empty page, a chunk of wood, a brief of the creative or non-creative kind, a spreadsheet, a campaign, a classroom, a child, a customer, or whatever canvas we reflect our life on via the prism of our worldview: We all imbue it all with our own ideas, we innovate, we invent anew. Constantly. Our mind creates its version of reality: authentic, real, full and round. We shape our world in our own terms.
What would our loss be if Richard Price didn’t think he could depict street language more authentically by creating his own—oddly, more real—version? What if Jim Sardonis didn’t think he could improve on, for God’s sake, nature?
What if they too thought that it was easier not to try? What if they thought it was easier to choose to sit down, rather than work themselves up?
I write it here so I can remember the lesson I learned in fifth grade—the bit of perspective I still struggle to retain: Only I can make my bear full and round; only I know that it’s round enough.