Wonder Takes Our Breath Away


“What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for a new breath. That’s why they call it breaktaking. We’re individuals in time and space who are often gravely lost, and then miraculously, in art, found.

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New York. Not Like I Pictured It.


I’m just back from New York City, a place I haven’t been in almost 20 years. My daughter was working there as an intern and we had big plans: A Broadway show. A Bobby Flay restaurant. The Guggenheim. Central Park. Katz’s Deli. A Woody Allen movie. We had a great time together – she and I – but the city shook me, rattled me and practically spit me out.

I think I’ve recovered now,  but it took about a week.

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Art Appreciation

ThomasCouture_AmericanPupilPaintingThe question of why we are drawn to the page popped up this week in my writing workshop. It comes up at least once every session. We could be anywhere else right now, I tell my students. With a few free hours we could be taking a walk, playing tennis, cleaning a closet. Okay maybe not cleaning a closet. But here we all were, in a room with no windows, talking about personal essays and the process of writing them.

Why do we do it? I’ve thought a lot about this. I remember the moment I realized I was one of those people. Eight years ago, when my eldest daughter and I were driving into the city to visit liberal arts colleges, she noticed a city wall covered with graffiti and remarked on its beauty. Her response wasn’t a surprise. She had been drawn to art all of her life. But when I reminded her of this and asked why she wasn’t con­sidering art schools, she said, “Mom, I’m an art appreciator, not an art maker.

It was an interesting distinction. There are people — like my daughter — who utilize music, for example, as a soundtrack for their daily activities: dressing and undressing, driving and falling asleep at night. They cover their bed­room walls with collages of magazine cuttings, stop to study a sculp­ture or abstract painting and note the loveliness of graffiti on a wall. My daughter is a gifted improvisationalist who is very comfortable on stage. Though they surround themselves with the creative artifacts of human beings, art appreciators are not necessarily compelled to make art themselves. They prefer instead to allow the art to shift their mood, to bask in the emotions it stirs, to immerse themselves in the beauty or powerful messages.

I, too, am moved by the art I experience — but I am drawn and pulled toward the process of making it. Artists see the world through a possibility lens, asking themselves: What if I took that idea and stretched it this way or that using sound or paint or clay or film or texture or landscape? They are insatiably curious and want to dig deeper to explore an idea or a feeling. Often they are not so good at letting these go. They get stalked by them. Sometimes haunted.

Making art is what some people do in response to living. Artists are interested in the act of expression. Making art is how they make sense of life. I believe that virtually everyone is creative – but I’m talking about the overwhelming desire to respond to life by taking a Sharpie to a hard-bound journal or yellow pad; use horse hair dabbed in paint to spread onto textured cloth; to make words and images pop on a page, to plant seeds or transplant plants into a configuration to bring out the best in a piece of land, to visualize a handbag or blouse from piles of col­lected fabric. The artist seeks quiet to absorb life’s stimuli. Time to process events so that she can re­arrange them in her imagination and respond in some form and then put something artful and tangible back out there for others to absorb. It’s a dynamic thing. An in and an out. A back and a forth. I’ve often thought that artists seek something very much like a conversation with the Divine; they want to visualize, to make something that isn’t there yet. To imagine something different. And leave their own personal mark.

My daughter’s comment stirred something inside of me that day. I remember that it brought up a feeling that I’ve had ever since becoming a mother who is also a writer: That the need to make art was sometimes so strong that it felt as powerful as another child calling, tugging, cajoling, wanting to be attended to. And when I ignored the feeling, it felt something like a tantrum. Because the artist answers to a powerful voice outside of her loved ones: the one inside.


imagesTense choice creates the scaffolding of building art with words. Whether it’s past or present impacts your verb choices throughout the construction process.

When you complete a draft, stand back and compare the tense you selected with its opposite. Read them out loud. Ask yourself which does the more authentic job of saying what you want to say and moving the piece along.

Then, look at your verbs.  These are the nails, glue and cement that hold the structure together.  How these connect the bigger structural pieces will indicate what the writer wants the reader to see.

Compare this active version of the verb “to bake:”

My mother-in-law baked chocolate chip mandel bread for the dessert table at the bar mitzvah.”

With this passive version:

“The chocolate chip mandel bread was baked by my mother-in-law for the dessert table at the bar mitzvah.”


In the first sentence, the main subject reads as the mother-in-law. We want to know more about her than we would the mandel bread (unless the reader is a pastry chef, I guess.)

The second sentence highlights the mandel bread. The mother-in-law is second in importance.

We’ve got the same subject and verb in both sentences. The same mandel bread and the same mother-in-law. But a mother-in-law who bakes mandel bread and mandel bread that was baked by a mother-in-law are different enough to shift emphasis. Be it planned or unplanned.

Take charge of your subject matter by staying mindful of its active and passive versions, just as you would the set up and rearrange the objects in the interior of a room in your home.