I remember buying Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction over 25 years ago (1988, the receipt is still in the book). I was fresh out of college and enamored of fine books—books that harkened back to earlier times, pre-mass market paperbacks, back to when the making of the book was as much an art as the writing of the book. While manual presented concepts beyond my comprehension, the precise line drawings and the very idea that I could make a book awakened a yearning in me.
I dreamed of making books even if the tools and the concepts were complicated, beyond the realm of my experience: book presses and folding bones, book tape, book thread. I couldn’t even imagine where I would find these items. Still, I kept the book, cracking it open occasionally to remind myself that someday I’d figure it out.
Looking back, I believe I viewed making books as an alternative way in to writing, a side door. I wanted to be a writer, having recently graduated with a Master’s degree in creative writing, yet I didn’t quite trust (myself? Anyone?) enough to put my words on the page. Bookmaking became a surrogate, related to books and writing but not writing. I wanted to write, but writing scared me.
So, I made empty books. I created journals for others to write in, burying my own writing dreams deep while I busied myself earning a living and crafting a career that would pay better than (not) writing. I became, for a while, the technology director for a Catholic elementary school. One day, having befriended the school’s art teacher, I took one of my handmade books in to show her. She wasn’t impressed. So what, she said. Where’s the art? All you’ve done is cover some cardboard with pretty paper.
I stared at the book in my hands and realized she was right—I wasn’t making art any more than I was writing. Where’s the color on your pages, the art teacher asked. Where’s the risk?
That was the whole point, I told her. I didn’t want to make a mess. I liked the pristine white pages, the straight lines, the perfect edges. Paint it, she commanded. Put something of yourself into it. So, when I made my nephew, a skateboarder, a foldout book full of pictures of him skating, I thought I had answered her challenge:
There’s no mess there, she said. Be bold. Be brave. But I couldn’t, not yet. I gave him a book that was very cool in concept, but still boring and dry.
I did better when I made the same type of book for my niece, a dancer. This time, I got messy and creative. I had to start over and paint over my messes. And things rolled from there. I became more inventive, more willing to make a mess and take risks.
A funny thing happened in the process—I started writing. I signed up for a screen writing class, and then a nine-month novel writing class, and the following fall quarter, a nine-month memoir writing class.
My bookmaking has improved, as has my writing—creativity breeds creativity, I think. As I take a risk in one area, it feels safer to risk in the other. I’ve been more willing though to be experimental with the book making, more staid and conservative in the book writing. Whenever I feel stuck with my writing, I can turn to the book making—and it’s no longer just books.
Making books led me to learn how to make stamps, how to carve my own designs into a block, how to use ink and a roller to transfer the image onto whatever paper I wanted. I’ve made prayer flags for writers, books for friends and poets, for my kids, for my sweetie. I’ve made a game board for myself—Pamopoly—when I was feeling extremely stuck and creatively challenged in my writing. I’ve made art prints and pop up books whenever I am betwixt and between writing projects.
I’ve continued to write and to make books, though I’ve not yet combined the two. Perhaps that is next. After all, I have all of these haikus just hanging around.