Saturday, January 31, 2009

Writer's block: the paper

[EDIT: Welcome, visitors from Douglas and Main. Just a note of clarification: While I wrote about a brick, my students are free to choose for this exercise any object, photograph or short piece of music that, for whatever reason, they have in their possession and has meaning for them. If you're curious, this post has the assignment.]

As promised a couple of days ago, below the fold you'll find my effort, which I'll also share with the classes that have this assignment. The strange thing is that, even at 1257 words (you've been warned), it feels like it is less than it could be. The more one tries to describe, the more one begins to notice things.

I make no claims as to its merits, but I will say again that I'm very glad I both made the assignment and took it on myself. If I learned some things by virtue of having done it, I feel pretty confident that my students will, too.

I will be describing a brick. This brick measures 3 ½” high by 8 ½” wide by 3” deep and weighs 7 pounds and 8 ounces. Most of it is coated with a thick glaze, dark caramel in color. On two sides, though, the glaze is either missing or has been worn away. On one of those sides, the exposed clay is a red the color of iron that has just begun to glow from being heated. The other side also shows red clay, though its red is considerably darker. The brick’s longer edges are beveled. Some of its shorter edges appear to be beveled as well, but others are sharper edged. Its form is not perfectly rectangular: one of the 3 ½” x 3” ends is not quite perpendicular to the brick’s other planes; thus, when stood on that end the brick tilts slightly off what should be its true latitudinal axis.

The brick is mostly intact. Much of one corner is gone, and three other of its eight corners are chipped as well, though not nearly as much. A deep chipped groove almost bisects one of the 3” edges; other edges reveal smaller dings resulting from wear and weathering. One of the smaller corner chips reveals something not otherwise visible anywhere else on the brick: the clay appears layered, and a small piece of clay that protrudes from the bottom of the chip wiggles a little, like a loose tooth. Traces of grayish-white mortar remain on three of the brick’s six surfaces.

One of the 3 ½” x 8 ½” surfaces, which I will refer to for convenience’s sake as the front of the brick, features two raised ridges, one at each of the two narrow ends of the surface, and writing embossed into the surface. The ridges measure approximately 2” in length and are located about 1” from, and run parallel to, the 3 ½” edges. The ends of the ridges are about ¾” from the 8 ½” edges. The writing is centered in the large space between the ridges. It consists of three words, one word per line; the letters are approximately ½” tall and are all upper-case letters: “MESCH / PITTSBURG / BLOCK” The words PITTSBURG and BLOCK are difficult to read because mortar partially or almost completely fills many of the letters of these words. The upper-left corner of this face is the most damaged of the brick’s eight corners. The chipped portion forms a rough right-triangle measuring approximately 2” x 1 ½” x 2 ¾”. At its lowest point, the chip is about a quarter-inch below the surface. The hypotenuse of this triangle just grazes the end of the ridge closest to it. Tilting the brick at just the right angle reveals that about halfway along the 1 ½” edge of this chip (the side on the upper edge) there is a small piece of a mineral that reflects back a bright-red light. The lower-left corner of the face is also chipped, though the damaged area is smaller and more irregularly-shaped.

From here, I will describe the remaining three larger surfaces, rotating the brick so that the surface on which the brick has so far been resting becomes the next surface to be described. Thus, the next surface is the 3” x 8 ½” surface that is perpendicular to the front’s bottom edge (that is, it is closer to the word BLOCK). It is distinct from the others in that it is pocked with numerous small cavities of various shapes, sizes and depths more or less evenly distributed across the surface (the other surfaces, by comparison, are remarkably smooth). The majority of these cavities are lighter in color than either the red clay or the caramel-colored glaze. None of these cavities is very deep, and no cracks radiate from any of them. This side has no visible traces of the dark caramel glaze on its surface. One of the larger pocks, located at the right end of the surface, stands out from the others because it is filled almost to the surface with a very dark material that does not appear to be clay; around the edge of this dark material appears a hairline gap between it and the space within which it rests.

The reverse of the brick is the 3 ½” x 8 ½” surface on the side opposite that which contains the ridges and writing described earlier. Its surface is the smoothest of the brick’s larger surfaces. Some thin traces of mortar appear on this surface. Under strong light, one can see that the dark caramel glaze coats only about a third of this surface and, indeed, is quite thin here as compared to its apparent thickness on the brick’s other surfaces. A shallow concave chip measuring a little over 1” at its widest appears near the exact center of the upper 8 ½” edge; near the upper-right corner, there is a shallow notch at the base of which appears a hairline crack--one of the few genuine cracks appearing anywhere on this brick.

The fourth and last of the larger surfaces is the second 3” x 8 ½” surface. This surface’s roughness results from the combination of a very uneven coat of glaze and two large chips of material missing from its left and bottom edges. The glaze has formed ridges on this surface, one running more or less parallel to and about ¾” from the left side, the other running at a slight angle to and along almost the entire length of the bottom side. At its most prominent point, this second ridge protrudes about 1/8” above the surface. These ridges reveal that the glaze is not of uniform composition but contains bits of lighter-colored material within it, a fact not revealed by those surfaces where the glaze is intact. The exposed brick on this surface is that which is the color of heated iron that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

To the left of and perpendicular to this surface is the first of the 3 ½” x 3” surfaces I will describe. This surface’s right edge and lower-right corner bear considerable damage--these correspond to, respectively, the left edge and lower-left corner of the surface described in the above paragraph. In addition, the lower-left corner is chipped, and the entirety of the top edge shows damage from wear and weathering. A large clump of mortar and two smaller clumps appear on this side as well; the large clump is on the surface‘s right-center, and below it the smaller clumps serve as two points on a line almost exactly parallel to the bottom edge, thus forming a triangle with the large clump serving as its apex.

The reverse 3 ½” x 3” surface, which forms the perpendicular to the right edge of the front of the brick, has chipped upper-left and lower-right corners as its most distinctive features. The lower-right corner almost appears, from this perspective, as though it had been cleaved off; the chipped portion follows the left edge to about the halfway point of that edge. The chip at the upper-left corner, though, spreads chiefly in the direction of the surface’s center up to about an inch at its longest point. The lower quarter of this surface has a few pocks. What appears at first to be a long hairline crack located about a third of the way down from the top edge proves, on closer inspection, to be a space where the clay simply didn’t quite fill the form prior to firing.

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