Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Out of Dreams II: John Frame

Kind of weird that the same day I did the post about dream images in my own art I ran across this video, in which John Frame talks about how a dream set him on an artistic odyssey that he has been on for the last six years:

He says (along about 6:45):

I went to bed at about 1:00 in the morning and at about two o'clock in the morning I felt this push. And I was pushed back into consciousness in a very strange way. When I awakened I was in contact with my dream state. I now know that this is called the hypnopomppic state. It's a state where were bridged between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, to the subconscious mind, the dream world. And in that state I could see a new world that I've never seen before. And it was very very complete. It had characters, it had architecture, it had landscape, things I'd never seen before. It had a art forms that I've never seen before. The one thing I was familiar with was that these were my characters who were inhabiting this world, but they moved, that's the critical thing. It was an amazing opportunity to stay in contact with the dream world and between about 2 o'clock in the morning at about 5:30 or six in the morning I simply looked at this world and attempted to memorize it. I just I just wanted to see and remember every single detail about was in front of me. About 5:30 or six in the morning my wife awakened. I was literally afraid to move. I asked her if she would bring the paper and pencil, and I started writing down the things that I had seen in as much detail as I could possibly capture. I was in that state of suspension between the dream world the waking world for about 12 hours. It simply didn't go away. This is technically known as the hypnopompic state and ordinarily we just get a tiny glimpse of that, but in my case I suspended there, and at the end of this when I had captured as much for the information as I possibly could, I realized I was now going to embark on a professional life as a filmmaker, as an animator, doing stop-motion animation with these characters that I had created.

The world he has created is here in this amazing video, which I first discovered on Lynda Barry's amazing tumblr site The Nearsighted Monkey

Monday, March 31, 2014

Out of Dreams

As a child I often had dreams that consisted of colored geometrical shapes against a black background, moving over and through one another: rectangles, triangles, circles in motion, combining and recombining, morphing into one another.

Over the last few years I've devoted a fair amount of time to what might be thought of as abstract expressionist drawings of a sort. But whereas the abstract expressionists were enamored of the spontaneous gesture, making their marks in bold strokes, the drawings I have been doing are spontaneous only in conception; in execution, since they are being done not with a brush but a fine-tipped pen, they are very slow to evolve. Just to do one dark black line or curve involves drawing two outlines at either side and methodically inking in the space between. It's a centering exercise, slow and and deliberate, and most often when I'm at it I'm listening to music as well. (I toyed with calling the last one below 400 Lux, because Lorde was a dominant presence during its gestation.)

These drawings typically begin with an impulsive mark—a random shape, a line, a squiggle—and then evolve outwards. Having made one shape, I make another next to it, and another next to that, working around in a vaguely circular motion toward the edges of the paper. Often, early in the process, a rule will suggest itself: this drawing will have only curved lines, or only triangular shapes, or only shapes that do not touch each other. Sometimes the rule is that the drawing will consist only of solid black and solid white; other times I will use an extra-fine marker to create shading via parallel lines and different degrees of cross-hatching. Recently, I've played around with adding ink washes of varying consistencies for contrast:

I rarely have any idea at the start what the drawing will look like, and most often I will make an effort to steer away from anything that begins to look like it might want to be something. Every once in a while what emerges from under the pen is so strongly suggestive of something real that I will go with the flow and let it become what it seems to want to be. In one case that caught me by surprise, I found myself looking at some kind of fishlike creature, at which point I just gave him some additional fins in the back and let him be:

The drawings I've been doing lately have reminded me very strongly of the dreams I had as a child. In several cases, I've actually gotten ideas for drawings from the latent images on the inside of my eyelids as I was arising from sleep. The image below had its origin in just such a way. I was waking up from a nap and the image of the blue rectangles with the incomplete lines moving in from the edges to the center were in my head, and I thought, okay, maybe I'll try drawing something like that:

So while my drawings may not have a subject as such, they do feel true to a deeper, discursive logic that arises from within me. The two most recent ones I have completed were both more complex and more satisfying in the way those complexities resolved themselves:

There were several points in this last one where I was tempted to stop and leave more white space, but it somehow wanted to keep growing. Now it's presenting itself as some kind of fantastic tree. It didn't start that way; it really began up toward the top in the darker section and grew downward. But once it reached the ground, I felt like it was in fact done.

So this is the current state of my art practice. I'm hoping to work my way back to painting at some point, but in the meantime, the drawings are helping to keep me tethered.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Memories Prompt

Make a list of five childhood memories that immediately pop in to your head. Write about one of them. Why do you think you remember that moment?

1. I remember spending a lot of time with my mother. She and I were at home together pretty much all day every day until I went to kindergarten. I would follow her around the house as she did the cleaning and cooking and washing. At one point I was convinced that there was a group of animals—a fox, a wolf, a crocodile—waiting outside the window for me, and I made it a point to keep my mother in sight. They seemed reluctant to manifest themselves when she was around.

2. My father had a fairly elaborate woodworking studio in the cellar, with a table saw, a band saw, a drill press, a vise, and a big pegboard with the outline of each tool painted on it so that it was clear if something was not in the right spot. He had a motto: "A place for everything and everything in its place." He built a miniature workbench for me in the adjoining room and gave me my own tools: hammer, saw, screwdriver, wrenches.

3. I remember my grandmother, Lottie, coming to visit. She was my Mom's mom, and was maybe 80 or 85 years old. She was very slender, had pure white hair, and generally wore a heavy blue sweater even on the hottest of days. Sometimes she would call me over, open her pocketbook, and press a fifty-cent piece or a silver dollar into my hands.

4. We had a crabapple tree in the back yard, and when the apples fell my mother would gather up the apples, boil them, press the fluid through cloth, and "put up" crabapple jelly in glass jars. She would melt paraffin and pour in on top of the jelly to seal it.

5. My Uncle Ege used to run a music store in Hudson, New York, and each year at Christmas he would send each of us 78 rpm records. Two of my favorites was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause," which my mother did not like. On the porch next to the living room we had an RVA Victrola record player that you had to wind up by hand. The needles for the record player were made of sharpened slivers of wood that you had to replace every couple of days when the point wore down.

6. My father had his den off of the dining room. All of the furniture in the den he had made himself in the cellar workshop. In the evening after dinner he would go into the den and work on his scrapbooks. He had a number of them, into which he would paste articles relating to hunting and fishing from the World, Telegram, and Sun. The Thornton W. Burgess animal books were also serialized in the paper, and it was a ritual for me to sit in his lap as he read the day's installment to me before I went upstairs to bed. He also had a wooden bucket with a top on it which held candy bars, and I was allowed to choose one each day if I had been good. I have had, as a result, a lifelong fondness for Hershey Bars, Three Musketeers, Milky Ways, and what used to be called "Forever Yours" but are now called "Milky Way Dark."

7. My first day at kindergarten I crawled under one of the tables and refused to come out. The teacher had to call my mother to come take me home. She was very angry with me and made me promise never to embarrass her like that again.

8. My closest friends in the neighborhood were Kenny Chester, who live across the street, and Peter Halstead, who lived up the street and went to the same school as me. I remember walking home with Kenny one day when we were about 7 and he was walking on top of a stone fence and fell off and broke his leg. And I remember one day when I started reading some of Peter's comic books, which he kept in his bedroom closet and was very fussy about, and he got angry at me and started chasing me around his yard waving a hatchet.

9. We had a large yard and an enormous gasoline-powered lawnmower that you had to walk behind to steer. It had a metal roller about 8 or 9 inches in diameter and levers on the handle that would make it stop or go. It was a big day for me the first time I was allowed to mow the lawn with it. One time it got away from me and wound up running itself into the bushes and stalling out.

10. We always had dogs. We had two house dogs, a giant schnauzer named Kim and an ancient infinitely patient black mutt, Fiddle. Then my father had three pointers he kept in the kennel under the garage: Zeke, Deldoon, and Sampson. In the fall he would take them to Billy Gladwin's farm in Brewster to hunt pheasant. When I got to be about ten years old I got to go with him a couple of times.

Reflection: I got the prompt from a colleague of mine and thought I'd give it a shot. Once I got going I couldn't quite get myself to stop at five. You start scanning through the memory bank and all kinds of stuff starts pouring out. I'm tempted to keep going, but since there would likely be no end to it I'll stop here and post this.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Status Report: A to Z

Okay, so, once again, I know, it's been, like forever, right? All of January, all of February, half of March. So what's the deal? How come I haven't been posting to Throughlines? I'm besieged by legions of fans (as if) who want to know where I've been, or where I've gone. And so, here's the update. I've been otherwise engaged. I have not been living the sort of life that is conducive to daily reflection.

Why? Because, I have, in the last two and a half months, a) retired, b) moved from Honolulu to California, c) in the process of said move packed all my stuff at that end and d) unpacked it at this end and e) redistributed the stuff in my new home, f) signed up for Medicare and Medigap coverage, g) started working out at one of the local gyms, h) set up my new office/studio, i) retrieved my car from the dock it was shipped to, j) spent two days at the DMV getting the care registered, k) continued with my drawing explorations in something of a new vein, l) gotten hooked into the (excellent) local library collective and m) begun a kind of informal research project that began with Robert Motherwell and has now spilled over to Picasso via a book that Motherwell claims is the one book (see below) that anyone interested in modern art must read, n) started to explore the local environs, o) spent more time at Bed, Bath, and Beyond than at any point previously in my past and hopefully in my future, p) made my first foray by ferry into San Francisco, q) kept up my Tumblr blog, r) spent several days a week in the company of a Golden Retriever puppy named Cassie, s) come to appreciate the manifest virtues of The Container Store, t) become something of an expert on mail-order furniture assembly, u) developed a taste for home-made pizza, v) read half a dozen books, none of which lit me up in quite the way I long to be lit up by what I read, w) began to get a read on local artists and galleries, x) played Scrabble almost every night and Words With Friends every single day, y) fell off the wagon with Instantchess, and z) have finally arrived at the point where the new home feels like home.

So that's my story. And it's true, as far as it goes. Of course, what you have just read is, necessarily, an abstraction, and rife with omissions of every kind. 26 is a random number, and I am, as we all are, under the inevitable constraints of time and energy and focus. Here's Motherwell, writing with typical precision and perceptiveness:

The word "abstract" comes from two Latin words: it literally means "to take from" or "to select from." The only way one could represent completely without selecting would be to make a painted world identical with this world—which I think sometimes certain realist painters really want to do! Let's say your subject is the battle of Gettysburg; if you want to do it realistically, you have to put in every soldier, every cloud, every tree, every bullet, every drop of blood, smell, everything. Even artists who want to represent have to be highly selective in what they do. So, since the essential nature of abstraction is "to select from," obviously the purpose of selection—this I learned from Alfred North Whitehead—is emphasis. In this sense, there is no communication, no work of art, that's not essentially "abstract" by definition, abstracted for the purposes of emphasis.

Writing, in the case of this blog post, as in every other case, is the same. I was reading in the March 17 New Yorker that arrived yesterday a terrific article about Lydia Davis. Dana Goodyear, who wrote the article, at one point is talking with Davis about the dilemma of including too much detail on the one hand or telling it with broad strokes on the other.

Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teenager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: "We went over to Joan's house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald's." Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

I remember that there used to be a TV show on in the late fifties called The Naked City. The tagline at the end of every show was "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."

Cute, but inaccurate. It was making the assumption that each soul in the city was the source of one story. But take all the individual stories that might be told about each soul, and multiply by the number of ways each of those stories might be told, and you come up with something like infinity squared.

Which leads me back around to the book Motherwell recommended: Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot, who met Picasso when he was 61 and she was 21. She became his lover, lived with him for ten years, and bore him two children. The book is fascinating both for the story of their lives—they are both fascinating people—and for the many instances in which she is able to unpack Picasso's thinking and working methods. She often seems to be quoting long segments verbatim from a distance of some 35 years, so I don't know how much we can trust that what she says he said is in fact exactly, or even approximately, what he did in fact say. But it's interesting. She also dishes an impressive amount of dirt about the other people hanging around him. It's clear that she's telling a carefully constructed version of events from her own point of view, and you can't help but wonder what she is leaving out (intentionally or unintentionally), nor what stories Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Dora Maar, among many others she includes in her narrative, would have to tell about her. But it is indeed a very good book from any number of angles. I can see why Motherwell recommended it, and I'm glad I'm reading it now.

Okay, that's it for the update. With luck it won't be another three months before I am back in the saddle.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Further Explorations

I recently went to the local art store for a particular kind of paper which it turned out they did not have, but I wound up purchasing a small squarish sketchbook from Bee Paper Company which has led me into a series of investigations. I did one series of small circular black and white abstract drawings, another series of square abstracts using colored pencil. (Most of those are posted on my flickr site). The last few days I've been working on this series of black-and-white abstracts. Each is 5 1/4 inches square.

There's something satisfying to me about working in small scale like this. Perhaps its primary virtue is necessity: all of our stuff, including most of my art supplies, not to mention our furniture, has already been shipped in preparation for our move to the mainland in January. So this is work I can do in a small space with limited materials. But I also like that I can begin work on one of these pieces and complete it within an hour or two. And because I make it a point of practice not to have much of a plan as I begin drawing, each one is a kind of experiment that plays out in the making, and the results are always something of a surprise.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Alice McDermott

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing in Barnes and Noble and ran across a smallish novel—a novella really—by Alice McDermott entitled Someone. I had heard of McDermott but never read anything by her. I picked it up and flipped through it, and it looked like it might be interesting, and so I went home and ordered it on my Kindle. (I know, I know. I feel some slight twinge of guilt about that. But B&N gets a significant chunk of my income anyway, and there are some times that I prefer reading an ebook.). Anyway, I found the book deeply engaging in a charming, old-fashioned way. The narrator, Marie is a woman from an Irish family in Brooklyn, and she tells the story of her life in a series of episodes, not always in chronological order. McDermott is patient and painterly both in her narration  of events and in her descriptions of physical settings, and through her intelligent, watchful narrator she often freights her descriptions with obliquely (and sometimes overtly) metaphysical overtones:

The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the cloth—starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s meticulous cross-stitch—had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don’t shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.

As the novel unfolds in its patient, unhurried way, Marie passes from being a nearsighted, socially awkward girl into a deliberate, thoughtful, courageous woman. There are times when her hopes are raised only to be destroyed, but Marie's resilience, optimism, and essentially good-heartedness make it possible for her to carry on. I'm perhaps making it sound like the novel is sentimental. It's not. It's realistic, but encouraging. I liked how I felt while I was reading it. I liked being able to spend time inside Marie's world and Marie's mind.

Right after I finished Someone, I happened to be looking in the stacks at my school library for another author whose name begins with M, and lo and behold, it turns out they had several other books by McDermott on the shelf. I picked up Child of My Heart and read that. Then, since she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy, I read that, and now I'm reading After This.

Of the three I've read, my favorite is Child of My Heart. Theresa, the narrator of this book, is a fifteen-year-old, also from a Brooklyn Irish family (now living on Long Island), but in this case all of the events take place within a single summer, in fact, the first 100 pages or so detail the events of a single day at the beach. Theresa is working as a babysitter for two children: the young daughter of a well-know artist in the community and her own younger cousin Daisy from Brooklyn, out to spend a few weeks on the shore and away from her claustrophobic family. Again, there is something patient and deliberate and totally convincing about McDermott's description, which serves as a kind of indirect characterization of her narrator, the kind of person on whom truly nothing is lost. She is completely present to and at home in the moment. And thus, necessarily, so are we. Here, for example, is a description as Theresa and Daisy approach the artist's house together for the first time:

Inside, the path was mostly grown over—only a sprinkling of tiny rocks and sand here and there among the weeds and the fallen branches. The path ran through a pretty substantial wood, this whole side of the property was heavily wooded, and because the sunlight came in stripes—thick shafts of it, ahead of us and to either side—the undergrowth still felt damp and the air a little musty. Suddenly the sun, which had been growing progressively, appropriately, warmer on our heads throughout the morning, seemed to have lost its pace, or its rhythm—its certainty, anyway—and for a moment I felt we could have been passing through any time of day at all, early morning, late afternoon, and nearly any season. I mentioned this to Daisy and she said, "It's nice." There was a scurry of salamanders or field mice near our feet, and the crossing shadows of birds high up in the leaves. I stopped to break a stalk of milkweed for Daisy, and she nodded earnestly, as she did at everything I had to show here. I took her hand. Cathedral light, to be sure, and the smell of the damp earth and the wet wood and, as I began to see the shape of Flora's house through the trees, the faint whiff of paint or turpentine, or whatever it was that Flora's father was using—something to do with art, anyway.

Something to do with art, indeed. This passage, while chosen more or less at random, is fully representative of McDermott's style. There's a physicality about her writing that works both as description and as metaphor, and brings us very deeply in under the narrator's skin.

McDermott is, I suspect, not for everyone. She's a miniaturist of sorts, and her great strength is that her writing is attuned to the mundane interactions of everyday life in a way that illuminates them and makes them feel, frequently, well, miraculous. There's a great scene in the early part of After This where a family (Mom, Dad, and three kids) spend the morning at the beach together. A rising storm brings wind that drives them into their car to have lunch, and the chapter that describes the five souls constrained in that small space for the meal shines a light down through the rest of their lives. I don't know exactly how McDermott carries it off, but I'm really impressed.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Here's another work of art that recently arrested my attention on Tumblr. I've always been interested in art, and particularly drawing, that has a realistic center of interest that seems to emerge out of the act of drawing, in some sense displaying both the product and the process. This drawing, but Sir William Russell Flint (via cacao tree) does that.

The foreground is sketched, the mountains in the background are partially rendered, and the most carefully rendered and darkest areas are in the middle of the picture.  I love the strip of light blue on the right, and in fact the whole horizontal stripe of colors running across the painting just below center holds the whole thing together for me in a way that feels grounded and solid, even though the top and the bottom essentially evaporate. I like the way the mound of earth leading into the center of the picture from the lower left starts as pencil line and takes on color and mass as it recedes toward the center. I like the feel of the piece, the way the picture seems to come alive on the paper. If the whole thing had been colored and the details filled in, it would have become pretty much just another landscape, and would have been of much less interest to me. As it is, it generates in me a feeling of peacefulness as I look at it,  as it illustrates and speaks to the watchfulness of its making. A lot of art seems to want to erase or disguise all evidence of its gestation. I'm drawn to art that includes that evidence. Here's another such drawing, "The Door to Freedom," by the often disturbing but always interesting Egon Schiele (via iamjapanese):

The door is sketched. The lock is painted, and the eye is drawn through the bars above the door to the color of the outside world. Less is more.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In Praise of Matisse

I came to Matisse pretty late in the evolution of my art education. I had heard of him, of course, and had a couple of his iconic images (like "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_(Matisse)The Dance") parked in my brain. Once I started painting on my own, I came to appreciate his originality, his daring, his flexibility, his sense of color. Over the last few years, I've been even more impressed by his versatility and the sheer volume of his works. Since I've been keeping my Tumblr blog, I keep bumping into pictures by Matisse that I have never seen before, and they almost always knock my socks off. Like this one:

Reading Woman with a Violet Dress (1898)
This painting is of a kind I like to think of as "tweeners." It's not a photorealistic rendering by any means, and it's not a pure abstraction either. It's somewhere in between, and Matisse is having it both ways. 

Look at it as an exercise in color and form, and it's a pretty delicious abstract: a wonderful mixture of shapes and tones and movements that echo one another and move our eye around in a largish circle. Purple is a tough color to work with, which is why a lot of artists avoid it. (How many purplish paintings can you call to mind?) And yet here the violet tones manage to feel warm and inviting. There are strategically place elements of gold in the foreground that help to accent the blues and reds elsewhere. 

Look at it with the title in mind, and there she sits, hair in a bun, reading her book (or magazine, perhaps), table laden beside her, light coming in from above and to the right. Her dress is a study all in itself, no single color anywhere, but a scumbling of blues and reds and whites that "reads" like draped cloth but in no single place actually looks like it. In fact, there's not a patch of solid color anywhere in the picture. The intermixing and only partial blending of the colors gives the picture its painterly resonance. Everywhere you look there's something interesting going on in terms of the "how."Look at how economically the wine bottle, the cake, and the fruit are rendered. Look at the shadowed end of the white tablecloth in the foreground at the far left; surely no white tablecloth ever actually took on the turquoise hue Matisse has selected, but in this context that color—or mixture of colors—works perfectly. Look at the wall in the upper right background: not a square inch of solid color anywhere. One imagines Matisse wielding his brush with energy and rapidity and total self-assurance. You can see the brushwork everywhere, infer the movement and direction of the strokes. What you can't imagine—at least I can't—is how it must be to be able to paint like that. Looks easy enough, but go try it and see what happens. In any event, it's a gorgeous painting, and my guess would be that there are many people who know and love Matisse who have never seen it. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Early Decision

My son recently recommended a novel to me. I am going to go ahead and pass that recommendation along to anyone who has ever applied to college, gone to college, taught in high school or college, or had any kind of personal connection to anyone in any of the first three groups. It's called Early Decision by Lacy Crawford and is the story of one fall in the life of an "independent college admissions counselor" working with students to help them learn how to write the essays that will get them into the college of their choice. Clearly based on Crawford's own experience as an icaa, it's a very smart and funny and at times painfully honest book.

What I am about to say here does not do justice to the strengths of the book as a story. I can testify that it is indeed a good read: I blew through it in about two and half days, and enjoyed every minute of it.  But my primary focus here is going to be on some of what the book manages to convey about the college admissions process and the role of writing—and writing instruction—in that process.

As readers we are first introduced to Anne, the counselor, and then to several of the students she is working with — both through the drafts of the essays they write and through her interactions with them as she works to help them find what they might truly have to say —and then, inevitably their parents, whose emotional stake in these decisions too often turns out to be even more complicated and conflicted than their children's, and who often fail to understand how much the college admissions process has changed since they themselves were applying:

Anne had come to her work at a fortuitous time. A combination of social and economic factors had sent application rates soaring. The sixties had opened the college gates to nonwhites and women, and all of those kids—the baby boomers—had grown up and created more college-bound seventeen-year-olds than the country had ever seen. Growing wage disparity between blue- and white-collar jobs made a degree necessary for a middle-class existence; shifting industries made it impossible to land even some blue-collar gigs without the advanced diploma. Add to that the fetishization of certain schools and the institution of the Common Application, the online form that students could submit to a hundred colleges simply by giving each a credit-card number, and you had a mad scramble for a handful of trophy campuses, a blood race buffeted by corporate hangers-on, some of them standardized testing toughs and some of them media companies producing annual publications ranking schools from one to fifty on dubious metrics pulled together from SAT scores, graduates’ tax returns, and the occasional interview with a hungover senior. And to hear of it, there seemed nothing but the darkness of outer space for everyone who fell short of the bar.  (Kindle location 294)
Given the circumstances, Anne's job is to help students find they way to write with enough authority and self-assurance to get the attention of the admissions officers. Here is a scene from midway through the novel where where she is explaining to a skeptical parent what it is that she is really trying to do on behalf of her charges:

“Okay...So, take a boy who, say, loves sharks...He goes scuba diving in St. Barths and decides all he wants to do is live in shark cages. So over the summer he goes and gets his diving certification, and now he can be trusted to take his tank off and put it back on in the water. Standard stuff. He writes his college essay about great whites, and for good measure he’ll mention that everything is endangered, and he’ll lean on the scuba certification as proof of his dedication. And then he won’t understand why he doesn’t get in anywhere. Worse, he won’t understand why he ends up ten years later in a job he hates and he’s browsing tropical hotel Web sites every spare moment he’s got. But that kid...if I get a chance . . . Let’s say he’ll let slip to me that he happens to have memorized all the Latinate names of the animals. Suddenly he knows genus and species for a zillion critters in St. Barths. This kid who can’t conjugate ĂȘtre and avoir. There’s ability there, because he cares. Because it’s his and his alone and he loves it. If I can help him to understand that he can take that feeling he had underwater and apply it to his life—that there is a whole field of approach to such things, populated by people who treasure them—maybe then he realizes that he’s fascinated by marine biology because it actually means devising smarter and finer ways to understand these creatures and what they do and what they need. Now, he could also be interested in maritime law or conservation ethics or underwater photography, I don’t know, but you get my point. So this kid will go home and, usually without telling anyone, research marine biology departments, and discover several universities with killer programs that allow him to spend entire semesters in flippers. Suddenly college is there for him, not for anyone else—his parents, the annoying college counselor, even me. So that fall he steps it up in his AP bio class and the teacher takes a shine to him, because the teacher is flattered, and that teacher wants to write him his recommendation. And the boy’s essay is focused and clear, and the school college counselor, who has sixty kids assigned to her and doesn’t know a thing about him, realizes that he’s a marine-biologist-in-training and that he’s a great science student, which is a good handle, so she writes him a stronger school recommendation. And his list of schools is whittled to the ones where he really wants to go, and in his supplemental essays he’s able to write intelligently about what each school offers and why it’s a good fit for him. Now think of the admissions office: if they’re assembling a class of people, not just grades, and they can hear this boy’s voice and think, Hey, this kid tells a good story, I’d like to bump into him on the cobbled path out there on his way to the lab, then maybe he’ll get in instead of the other kid whose transcript looks exactly the same, whose grades and scores are equivalent, but who wrote about something dull as dirt. Do you see? I mean, who knows?" 2063

One of the things I loved about this book is how it honors the act of writing in exactly this way: not as a vehicle of compliance (writing what you think you want someone to hear and only when they have requested it) but as an act of self-exploration and self-definition and, potentially, self-transcendance. It's a way of thinking about writing that has been at the heart of what I have been trying to do as an educator throughout my career. Writing practice, in this sense, is precisely what our schools so often manage to squash completely out of our students. Here Anne diagnoses the problem of "voice" in a way that is completely consistent with what I have seen every single year of my career as an educator:

When they’re asked to write in the first person...and for something this important, kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page—you can hear it when they read out loud—gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to. They choose a topic that bores them witless. Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’ They drop in semicolons everywhere because they think it looks stylized. They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative. They forget where they started and they forget where they were going, and when they start to feel really disoriented, they’ll use an em-dash. If they totally lose it, they add an exclamation point. Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major or ‘the future’ or ‘the rest of my life.’ If they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’ 2186

So given the diagnosis, what's the prescription?

If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful... you listen for the sound of their voice. Sometimes, it only comes up in actual conversation. They’re so guarded, especially in the first drafts. But something will slip through—an image, an idea, a memory, something that they talk about in a simpler, softer, lower tone...That’s the art of it, I guess. I have to help them to write about that thing, in that mode. And then it’s easy. From there it’s just Strunk and White.” 2203 
This is an excellent book at any number of levels. It's a compelling read, the characters are complex and believable, and the writing is terrific. But what resonated most with me was not just that it had smart things to say about kids and families and the college admissions process—and about writing—but that the stories of the particular lives of the students Anne works with are so engrossing and funny and ultimately encouraging. You could be reading it in five minutes if you download it from Amazon now. Go for it.