In autumn 1991 I was an observer but not yet a writer. I drove my eleven-year-old son and his friend up Interstate 5 where it traversed the Tejon Ranch approaching Bakersfield. The mountains rose like brown whales from an arid sea of olive chaparral. We weren’t there to view California in its austere native splendor. We’d gone to see the Umbrellas.
Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had installed almost 1800 twenty-six-foot-tall yellow umbrellas flanking the hillsides along the highway. They popped open, polypropylene mushrooms blooming overnight in fairy rings and staggered parades. Up close an umbrella’s oversized ribs and golden sails loomed large enough to shelter our entire family. At a distance they tumbled across the landscape like lemon gumdrops.
We drove from site to site along the main route spotting umbrella clusters on the highway shoulders. A loopy side road took us to a solitary umbrella wading in a pond, its reflection making two. Hundreds more scattered on the ruffled hem of the foothills. Dozens trooped like scouts up a far ridgeline, growing a spiky mane for the mountain. One perched inaccessibly on a craggy rock between the divided highway. Everywhere they posed on the terrain, hundreds of people traipsed to peer and touch the umbrellas.
I became more and more irritated by the crowds. Who were these people in their cars and trucks, picnicking by the roadside, hauling cameras as big as jackhammers, mucking up my sightlines? The boys jumped from rock to rut, ran around the steel masts of nearby umbrellas, and popped up and down like groundhogs in February. If the significance of the exhibit was lost on them, they exploited the carnival-like opportunities of the moment and had fun. But I wanted the full sensory experience, to see the umbrellas singular against the modern world. I wanted to guzzle the essence of the event, filling myself with Art.
At our last stop the wind picked up in staggering gusts. Fat raindrops suggested I must soon begin the two hour trek home. Glancing up to spot folks wandering around a cluster of umbrellas, I finally got it. People—moving, bending, pointing—filled in the negative spaces between umbrellas, adding a kinetic element to still giants. Tourists, art critics, and serendipitous travelers were as essential as the square platforms that secured the flaring umbrellas. They were art. My son and his friend were art. I was art.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude planned their project, publicized it, and convinced landowners to allow them to mount their work. They didn’t tell us, the viewers, the whole truth. We weren’t union members collecting our per diem and threatening to strike if the conditions got bad, but we were a crucial part of the art. Without us wandering among the golden forest, the umbrellas would have been just an outcropping of gigantic manufactured fungi, as misplaced as whales in the desert.
I grinned driving home through the rain, tired boys sleeping in the back seat. How brilliant were the two artists. If they’d proposed their project along traditional access lines, they would still be mired in legalities, trying to close contracts and avoid suits, sign here and you can officially be artwork. Instead, they’d simply opened umbrellas where people could not only view them but walk close enough to touch. I hadn’t just gotten to see Christo’s Umbrellas. I’d gotten to be the exhibit. Yellow dot to yellow dot, I connected and completed the spectacle.
It has been decades. The umbrellas are gone, the boys grown, I am a writer. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I begin my work in isolation, researching and outlining, revising and deleting, dreaming story. When ready for presentation I invite friends and critiquers to read. If I am half as smart as the artists, I’ve left space for readers to take shelter in my words. Like the viewers along Interstate 5, my readers connect the dots. As the artists trusted me, I trust those who become immersed in my writing to fill in the blanks. They inhabit my protagonist’s life, walk my story arc, and contribute their interpretation to my work. A volume of dried ink becomes a living entity we share.
Competent writers know to excise bathroom trips, grocery shopping, toenail clipping, and meaningless dialogue. Writing every possible activity a character might engage in squeezes the reader out of the book. Worse, a pedantic pace dumps the story into a well of boredom, leaving no place for a reader to lodge. My partner closes the book. How to create that living space for readers is as much a part of my writing process as vocabulary choice, character development, plot sequence, and crisis resolution.
I am an observer and I write about everything. I often struggle to recognize when the carefully crafted passage is dispensable. Weeks of creating the perfect scene, hours of evaluating content, only to realize it doesn’t contribute to my story. Unessential, contrived, a distraction without purpose, I discard the chaff. Better to leave the space open and trust my reader to fill in the blanks. Christo and Jeanne-Claude taught me through engagement with their art how to write enough for the reader leap from dot to dot but not to run all the bases. Leave vital space. Readers are more engaged when they sense their presence within my story. Readers become the story.
Once, I got to see the Umbrellas. Years later I apply the lesson of vital space to my writing. What life experience has influenced your writing?
Be well, friend.