A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to pal around with the exquisite musician and composer Carla Kihlstedt during the MFA in Music Composition residency here at VCFA. Over cans of Conehead IPAs, we talked about anything and everything. Favorite books, social and language development in children, Carla’s latest project “Black Inscription,” the Borges lectures, Mary Ruefle, etc.
Later, Carla mentioned Marina Keegan’s lists of “Interesting Stuff.” I don’t recall the context around why she brought this up, but I remember being afraid to say I didn’t know about Keegan’s lists. I, of course, did know about Marina Keegan and her posthumous book of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness. Curious to know more about the “Interesting Stuff,” I scoured the internet and found this beautifully genuine and heart-wrenching tribute written by Anne Fadiman, one of Keegan’s professors at Yale. On her application to take Anne’s creative writing class, Keegan wrote: “About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.”
I continued reading the article, to the part where Anne retells how she received an email from another student, breaking the news that Keegan had died in a freak car accident, five days after graduation. Below, a smiling girl in a mortarboard was shown in a photo with her mother and father. I couldn’t read any further, suddenly blurry-eyed and sobbing alone in my tiny studio.
It’s odd, isn’t it? Staring at a photograph of someone about your age, who is no longer alive. It’s a much different thing than reading, say, Charlotte Bronte or Virginia Woolf (someone you know lived in a very different time than now. We have come to accept the fact that they are no longer living.) But Keegan should be here. I couldn’t stop thinking about her all that day. I was so moved by the stories of Keegan, her curiosity, her realness, and something clicked for me. Marvelous things are all around us, brimming with stories and captured detail. I wanted to capture it too. I don’t want to let all these hints of stories pass me by.
So beginning this past Monday, I decided to pretend 10,000 eyes were covering my entire body and opened my whole self to whatever the world wanted me to pay attention to. I carried a sketchpad with me everywhere I went, and recorded every marvelous thing, thought, wonder.
It was also Carla who told me that she often encourages her music students to take the first two months of their semester for playing “in the musical sandbox.” She explained the sandbox phase to me as “a period when you’re just playing with your materials to see what they want to do before you ask them to jump through flaming hoops with bows on their heads for the paying people.” The sandbox is just as applicable to any art, but especially to writing.
Each grain of sand contributes to the fullness of the sandbox. The more sand, the more castles and faces and cakes you are able to create. Simple, right? It also isn’t lost on me that some of our best development and thinking as a kid happened in those sandboxes. Time evaporated, dripping off your head with all that sun sweat. This was where we went to focus in the extreme. For many children, this is still the loci of their first go at creative flow.
That being said, let me introduce you to Sandbox Notes.
Sandbox Notes is an experiment in observation and openness. In just one week, I’ve already found the value in this level of awareness. Writers frequently talk about keeping their “writer’s notebook” which always seemed to daunt me. I suppose this is my own way of keeping a kind of practice, one I know I can sustain. After a particularly difficult and down day yesterday, feeling guilty for a lack of productivity, a friend told me: “You processing life and your emotions is helping you to create what you will eventually create.” Perhaps Sandbox Notes is one potential way for me to process, discover, and absorb. After all, in order to write and create things, we do need to get out there and experience life. This practice serves to encourage me to be a witness, a detective, a collector of EVERYTHING.
Each Monday, I will post a photograph of the sandbox collection from the week prior—always right here on the blog, so stay tuned!
I’ve had a lot of fun this week digging in the sandbox, and I hope it continues to be fun to both collect & read as it goes along and as the project evolves.
Comments and suggestions are always welcome!