WHAT'S AN ABSTRACT GARAGE?
I adapted the following from a mini-essay I originally wrote for my blog One Toe In. In many ways, it inspired this site.
In the Abstract Garage
My dad was a tinkerer. As far as I know, he had workshops in the five houses he owned, outfitted with workbenches he usually built, shelves of screws and nuts and bolts and nails of all sizes, fuses and wires and wire connectors and leftover lumber and tools of all sorts and "miscellaneous string." Oh, he wasn't not above hiring someone to do big jobs, but the smaller ones, he usually did himself. In the house my brother and I spent most of our childhood in, he built a deck in the garage to make coming in and out of the door to the house easier. He also built shelves along the back wall to hold boxes and newspapers for recycling and the Christmas ornaments. He divided the basement into four distinct areas: office, playroom, laundry area (eventually), and workshop. He once helped me add a regulation basketball key to our driveway, bringing out the plumb and bob to make it perfect. In the first years of his retirement, he built a canoe from scratch, the plans the only thing not his own. He later used the same techniques to build models of airplanes and went through a model railroad phase, seeming to take far more pleasure in mokeying with it than completing it. For a while he had a Model A Ford he'd gotten from his tinkerer/collector brother.
I have none of these traits.
And yet, I do. I can't drive a nail straight, I probably couldn't saw a board straight, though I did manage to put a latch on a door without too much problem and I've assembled my fair share of IKEA furniure and installed a ceiling fan. Still, I tinker, but I tinker in the abstract. I'm doing the work, but the work itself is abstract. One Toe In, my old blog, for instance, was not a concrete thing unless you printed it out, and even then the ink and the paper represent the only concrete parts. I write fiction and comics. Same thing, and even more so, because as real as I might make the characters and situations and settings, at the end of the day, they're not real in the sense that a 2x4 is. I guess you could say a 2x4 is an abstraction of a tree, but you can still hold a 2x4, cut it, nail it, break it. Fiction exists on a different plane, and no matter how well I convey my version of that fiction or how well someone illustrates it, another reader will imagine it slightly differently. The creation and the response takes place in the imagination. You can't sit in a novel or take it out for a paddle around a lake. You would not get far.
I also play and record music, which seems a step closer to working with
concrete objects. After all, I have to physically play the guitar, a concrete object, a device for, at its best, making abstract ideas concrete in the physical world. Words of course can have the same function by rendering abstract notions such as love, hate, hope, fear, loneliness concrete and specific for readers. Recording music, specifically, feels like tinkering to me. It involves recording the tracks but also mixing them, moving them around, seeing where they fit, maybe dropping some and adding others or correcting only a small part, listening to mixes through different stereos until I'm happy, a sort of sanding.
In both writing and music, I share another trait with my dad, whether genetic or learned. When he built his projects, he would draw plans, but often something didn't quite work out, and though he would fume and mutter and occasionally curse, he eventually figured it out, improvised a solution. He also would, on occasion, revise. For instance, when he and my mom lived in Florida, he screened in the patio but was never quite satisfied with the job. Eventually, he redid it (or had someone redo it -- I wasn't there the second time around). Later, my brother and I helped him screen in my brother's back porch, managing to hammer a little straighter. We got to watch our dad in action over a couple days, discovering ways to fill in gaps and make a scaffold out of a couple aluminum supports and a couple sawhorses.
Although process in any art is a mysterious and individual aspect, my process seems to follow similar patterns, whether in fiction, in comics, in music, or even my day job. I'd say in general I plan less and improvise and revise more, especially in writing because I find too much planning can stifle the emotion and energy of a piece. Yet some writing, like comics, requires an immense amount of planning. When I comics scripts, I usually plan and sort of outline most of it, giving myself page limits, act breaks, sometimes what would happen on what page before I wrote. I leave enough room to react and improvise if need be, and more than once, my favorite parts and the most lively writing comes in those spaces, but talk about abstract. In that case, besides writing a story, dialogue, and narration, I'm trying to imagine what panels and pages will look like and then render that in clear enough but not too specific terms so that an artist can eventually interpret it. Not much like drawing plans for a table.
Anyway, in these activities, I see myself as a bit of a tinkerer. I wouldn't really call writing fiction tinkering or a hobby, though. The word hobby in particular demeans the work for me, but I think the analogy of having projects still works. I've
almost always got something going, usually a few things, though I don't have a garage or a workshop or a basement, but I do have that impulse to build stuff. It just happens to be a different kind of building and a different kind of stuff, and I have to wonder if my impulse (and to a certain degree, I think, my brother's impulse) toward this abstract tinkering is simply a personality difference or something generational. Our dad grew up in a time when radio, Saturday morning movies, comics, and books were pretty much the only forms of entertainment. We grew up in the TV era, the blockbuster movie era, the VCR era, the early video game era, the early home computer era. We grew up with comic books and action figures and movies out all the time. We also have a couple generations separating us from our dad instead of just one. He grew up with World War II. We grew up with Star Wars.
I wonder if the difference is generational because it seems like so many more people our age and younger end up tinkering in this abstract garage. Has the shift in culture bred a shift toward different interests but similar behavior, and has that bred many of the changes in technology that allow far more people to record music, create and edit film, post their music and videos, spend large parts of their days in the virtual plane of the Internet? Or have shifts in technology bred the shifts in interests? Or is it a cycle, the cycle toward the information age, toward urbanization, toward mass consumption? And if our interests are that different from our father's, what kind of tinkering will our children do?