for Kelsey, who asked
A few years ago I began writing a novel called Vessel, titled for the main character, who is a vessel for power that’s used by other people. Stories, for me, usually spark to life when a couple of seemingly unrelated ideas I’ve been holding in my head suddenly collide. In this case, there were three: a dream gifted to me by a friend years ago, who said, “I had this really vivid dream about wizards and you can have it!”; a fascination with medieval anchorites; and a story on NPR about ghost miners.
The main character in my story is a kind of magical anchorite who inherits an old manuscript containing the dying words of her predecessors. As I began writing the first draft of Vessel, I realized that this manuscript played such an important role in the story that I couldn’t write the novel itself until I knew what was in the manuscript. First I made a mock-up of the manuscript, a stapled-together thing with some bare-bones information about names and dates.
But this didn’t answer my questions about what these women thought and felt, and I quickly realized I was going to need to write a book in order to write another book. So I opened up a new file and started typing, using Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love and Ancrene Wisse as inspirations.
It was only after I wrote the content of the manuscript, the Book of Vessels (yeah, I’m not so imaginative with titles), that I could write the novel itself, in which excerpts from the manuscript serve as epigraphs at the beginnings of chapters.
But it felt weird and anachronistic for the Book of Vessels to exist as a computer file, so a little over a year ago I decided, as a creative break from writing, to start writing it as if it were an actual manuscript.
I didn’t put tons of thought into this. I thought it would be fun to illuminate it, and I didn’t have a flock of sheep to butcher for vellum, so I decided to use watercolor paper. The size of the pages was determined by the size of the paper that was readily available. I penciled in wide margins with the intention of going back and adding marginalia, and because that just looked more medieval, and lined the pages because that was commonly done in medieval manuscripts and also because I can’t write a straight line to save my life. I sketched in illuminated initials at the beginnings of many entries and watercolored them. The lone full-page illumination in the project exists because of a mistake I made while scribing–I should have written on the back of a page but got caught up and went to a new page, and it was so much work that I couldn’t stand to redo it, so I put an illustration on the blank page instead. This is a prime example of my laziness, which generally makes more work for me than if I had just done whatever it was I should have done in the first place.
Because the manuscript is a collection of writings by women over a period of about four hundred years, I wanted to show a change over time, so I used a fountain pen for the last several entries, and ditched the illuminations and medieval script in favor of 18th- and 19th-century style handwriting. At the beginning of the manuscript, I was making up scripts. When I ran out of creativity, I started poking around online, and ended up copying the script in the Book of Kells for one entry, a medieval German script for another, etc. By the time I got to the very end, I was just being messy.
In typical fashion, I dove into this project without really knowing exactly where I was headed. It took most of a year of very sporadic scribing to finish the words and illuminations. During this time, I spent a lot of time fighting hand cramps and thinking about medieval scribes, who often worked in extremely poor conditions–cold and damp, poor lighting, and ale drunk instead of questionable water all contributed to making manuscript production not especially glamorous and probably kind of miserable. And yet there is something in the physical act of writing, of seeing words blossom on paper without overthinking their meaning, that is meditative. My scribing process became a sort of meditation, and it was easy to relax into the work and then look up and realize that big chunks of time had passed. I felt a kinship with those medieval scribes. I think I could have done this for a living. Add another item to my list of anachronistic job skills for which there is no call in the modern world. I am often pretty sure I was born in the wrong time, and this experience only confirmed that.
I also thought a lot about Thomas Chatterton, who I think would have been on board with this project as a forger of medieval things.
Unlike the monks of yore, however, I had no idea how I was going to bind these pages. When I thought back on my medievalism grad school days, I realized I had really jumped the gun and had done this whole thing completely wrong, and now I had a mess of loose pages and no plan. So I ignored this problem and started writing marginal notes.
Marginal notes are one of the great delights of medieval manuscripts. Sometimes they are thoughtful explications or elucidations of the original text. And sometimes they are basically medieval trolling in which one monk goes back through another’s work and disses his handwriting.
But I still had a mess of pages. I started watching YouTube videos about ancient methods of book binding. I quickly realized that any one of these was going to take me approximately 5,000 years, during which time I would complete my descent into madness. So I wimped out and decided to glue the pages together. But for this to happen, I needed to make a book press. A book press, according to the Internet, is two pieces of wood with big ol’ screws. Not too hard.
Once my sainted husband had helped me figure out how to construct this thing, I pressed the book in it and started painting the spine with layers and layers of PVA, because the Internet said to. PVA is apparently Elmer’s glue with a fancy label, and despite the fact that the Internet says you can buy it on the Internet, all I could find on the Internet was something called PVA sizing, which on close inspection seemed to be watered-down Elmer’s glue. Wanting to do things right, I got the fancy watered-down glue and started painting. PVA is apparently important because it remains flexible when it dries, allowing the pages to turn. Nifty.
Here is where I diverged from the videos. After poking and prodding old books in my house, I realized their spines were often reinforced with some kind of thin, fibrous material. I had cheesecloth, so I used that and PVA’d the heck out of it. It looked neat and very booky.
PVA + cheesecloth = neat.
Me + PVA =/= neat.
The Internet, which yieldeth PVA, also yieldeth faux leather, which I ordered from a shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I would like to pause here to underscore the fact that there is a bookbinding shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I have never wanted to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan before, but suddenly I began imagining a city in which so many people were making books that there could be a shop dedicated to supplying them with faux leather. Be still my heart.
I used scrap cardboard–the toughest I had lying around, from the back of the pad of watercolor paper. It was slightly on the small side, but I am skilled in the arts of impatience and a dedicated practitioner of halfassery and so it was good enough and in any case preferable to waiting for/purchasing Plato’s ideal form of cardboard. After the PVA Incident of ’17, as depicted above, I gave up on the stuff and took my kids’ Elmer’s glue to glue the good-enough cardboard to the faux leather.
And it started to look like what might happen if kids dissected books in 10th grade bio lab:
My process at this point consisted of watching YouTube bookbinding videos, thinking about the sensible processes they advised, and then sort of halfway following half of what they said. I glued the front and back pages to the cover using scraps of brown paper, and covered the resulting exposed innards with marbled paper from a craft store, which I thought about making myself before I chickened out. And then the book was a book!
I had seen gold-leafing kits in the craft store and thought that would be neato for the cover, but when I went looking for them, all had been discontinued except the Martha Stewart one. My soul died a little when I considered the possibility of Martha Stewarting the Book of Vessels, so I bought a gold-leafing pen instead. In a typical iteration of my process, I practiced and practiced writing the title on scrap paper, never got it exactly the way I wanted, said, “Whatever,” and just wrote on the dang cover already. And it looked pretty good.
Then I realized it was totally uncentered. Oops. That’s what floopy flowers are for, right?
And that is the story of the Book of Vessels, the most convoluted method I have yet invented for avoiding revising a novel. I still don’t know exactly what it’s for (what is art for??), but I had fun and learned a lot of things about bookbinding that are probably not correct. If you ever visit, you’re welcome to look at it. I would like for it to get kind of beat up, because that will make it real, so if you drop it or smudge the pages or leave a coffee ring on it, I think that would be fabulous.
Now I’m curious–what project(s) have you taught yourself to do from the ground up? What creative thing(s) do you do to take a break from the Serious Creative Things? And where is the most unfortunate place you have ever spilled glue?