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“Intimate Details”
How to Build a Book (Notes towards Building, and never Finishing, a Little Book on Intimacy)

By J.S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario

for Kaizen

You make lasagna. You build a doghouse. Do you make a book or build one? The book as cooking or as architecture?

Either metaphor works. You make a book with a recipe, a set of ingredients added and mixed at the right time. You build a book, word by word, page by page, with a plan and structure. You make preliminary notes.

Consider Daniel Libeskind and The Crystal.  The early stages of his addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto consisted of steel scaffolding jutting out of the ground and into the sky like a giant broken ribcage. That’s what notes are like – initial impressions, maquettes, first soundings. Raw, provisional, unfinished.  A chrysalis, not a butterfly.

Remember the Armenian-American painter Gorky’s words: "When something is finished, that means it's dead. The thing to do is to always keep starting to paint, never to finish painting." Maybe that’s the thing to do with writing as well: keep starting it, never finish it. Gorky left his famous painting "The Artist and his Mother" unfinished. I don't know if he smeared his mother’s hands the way Atom Egoyan has him do it in the movie Ararat, but he did leave her hands unfinished.  If he had finished them, she would have been dead.

I have big dreams for my book. I want it to contain the best of what I’ve dreamed, thought and imagined, in the most intimate voice I can summon. The book will open and close with direct address to my firstborn grandson Kaizen. Since his mother Wanh’s first language was Mandarin (her English is now stronger than her original mother tongue), I want to include some Chinese script in the book – bilingual chapter headings at the very least.

At the moment the bones of the book look like this:

Letter (births)








Letter (beginnings)

In other words, the book will explore my personal thoughts and feelings on art, animals, friends, and prayer, accompanied by letters to my grandson. 

In preparation for my book, I’ve begun to collect quotations as possible epigraphs.  These lines from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, for instance:

The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life-force.

And these from Thomas Wolfe in a poem called “Magic:”

And who shall say—
Whatever disenchantment follows—
That we ever forget magic,
Or that we can ever betray,
On this leaden earth,
The apple-tree, the singing,
And the gold?


But all these words seem so old and my grandson is so young. And in the Wolfe poem, the fifth line doesn’t feel right. The earth isn’t leaden. It’s green. Even in my most melancholic moods it’s green.

I’ve been working on the book for a long time now, and seem no nearer to completing it than the days when I first began it.  Sometimes I think all that will remain of my book is the dream of it, the bones of it, like Libeskind’s ribcage, like Gorky’s unfinished portrait of himself and his mother.  Not a book. Just notes towards making one.

I want to believe the poet Souvankham Thammavongsa – “Books, even when you have them don’t make you a writer – the writing, the whatever you do to finish it, to make it what it is, makes you a writer.” – but I can’t quite manage it because finishing doesn’t seem possible or even desirable.

Philip Roth, an American novelist I much admire, in an interview with The Globe and Mail a few years ago postulated the need for an on-going beginning.
“I would love to get a big idea and just keep writing until I left it unfinished. It would just go as long as I was breathing.”

Maybe my grandson won’t mind if I write a letter to him for the rest of my life.

                                   J. S. Porter, Hamilton

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