- Erin Cleary
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Three A.M. on the first day of December, I lay awake thinking about how I was officially three hours late in getting my November blog post written. I thought through the month poem, “Thirty days have September, April, June, and November…” RATS! Where did the month go? I used the time that I couldn’t sleep to make a list of what I’d accomplished during the month and to wonder what special moment could be this blog’s metaphor for my writing experience.
On first review, I accomplished pretty much nothing in November. I hardly wrote at all. I attended an online writing conference that wasn’t too helpful. The kids were home from school a lot, which meant that simply completing a single thought of my own in a day was a tremendous achievement. But there was one thing that stood out as something to feel proud of—I hung 114 family photos on the wall going up our stairway. We have been in our house for over nine years, and in all that time our family wall has looked unfinished, with the existing frames tilted in all directions, having been knocked as some person or dog went up or down.
Because of some second-floor renovations, the photos needed to come down. So, with fresh paint on the wall, a blank canvas for new nail holes, I set forth to complete the wall from floor to ceiling in some parts, and as high as I could reach in others. To fit the 114 photos on the wall, they are packed pretty tightly, with just enough space between to give respect to each photo. To keep them from tilting, they are stuck heartily with double-sided tape. There are five generations of photos from both sides of the family intermingled together. New and antique frames create a special work of art that cannot be replicated. Every time I go up or down the stairs I glance at the photos, seeing something different each time, remembering a special event, or wondering about some certain person I never knew whose blood courses through my veins. It is a beautiful family mosaic that fills me with joy.
Years back, I took a few mosaic arts classes and one of the big lessons of the art is how to realize the beauty that is in between the tiles. The artist leaves those spaces purposefully—wider here, narrower there—as she glues down the broken pieces of glass and tile, anticipating how the grout will fill in these spaces. This envisioning creates the real beauty of the artwork, a beauty that is equally the spaces and the tiles.
The family mosaic is like this. The photos are arranged with spaces in between as moments to stop before looking at the next, a chance to shift a generation or two, or from one side of the family to the other. The spaces beg the questions: Did these people who came generations before us imagine who their descendants would be? What spaces were there so that we could become what our DNA and time in history would make us? The photos are important, but so are the spaces.
Writing is also a mosaic. As a picture book writer, I have learned that this style of writing needs to be filled with spaces. The pages need this space most especially so the imagination and skill of the illustrator will have room to fill in the visual part of the story. A picture book cannot exist without those spaces, at least not a good one. It means that the writer must leave out the very colorful and even personally important details for the good of the story, to put the story above the writer’s own desires for the story. The rest must be left to the illustrator—here, the grout—who will hold it together and bring the story’s vision to life. I like thinking of my writing like that. I place words on the page in such a way that the art will fill it in and create something where each part is better because of the other. Now I have to continue my artwork and the strenuous process of finding an agent so that I can one day complete my writing mosaic. Until then, I will sit on the stairs and enjoy the art of our family mosaic, which is filled with familiar and mysterious people who left enough spaces for me to do this work.