Letters as Tools

Chefs have knives, carpenters have screwdrivers and saws, painters have canvas. Writers have letters and numbers. And so do journalers. I’ve long been fascinated by letterforms and shapes, by the rhythm of numbers and the flow of typefaces.

For a while, I had an ID bracelet that had the alphabet on it, along with the punctuation marks and the numbers from zero through nine. That, I realized, were the tools for everything I wrote. Twenty-six letters, 10 numbers, and six punctuation marks. It fit on a small bracelet, and all the speeches, letters, memos, bad news, good news and announcements in the English language were written with those. It was a humbling realization for a writer.

lettersMy art hinges on words and numbers, too. I’ve always expressed myself with writing, and letters and numbers have always been important in art, whether in found poetry or in collage.

Now I’m exploring writing as a background for collage. Part of this is an exercise in visual poetry, part of it is using writing as a collage element.


What I liked about the collage I did is that I wrote part of the background upside down, so it doesn’t make you want to read it, it’s just a pattern. The large words “Day” and “Night” complete the idea of “dream” and writing down your daydreams or your night dreams makes sense. But what is almost hidden is the small phrase “they are assembled and already in existence,” which completes the cross bars of the A, G, and H in the words Night and Day. It’s a reward for spending time looking closely at the collage. Another discovery.

This feels like a starting point. Again.

If you’d like to explore your journal’s content in a way that includes both art and writing, as well as confronting your inner critic, please join me on May 18 and 19 at the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts or July 22 through 26 in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

–Quinn McDonald teaches what she does. Sometimes she knows more than other times, but she is always curious about what’s out there.

11 thoughts on “Letters as Tools

  1. Pete, THAT’S a piece of art I’d like to study! In fact, you kinda lost me there. It sounds like art that would take some heavy concentration. Are you fooling around with us?
    Quinn, While not as eloquent as you I have long had an attachment with letters (not so much numbers) that you describe. They are a beginning and an end. Not only for writing but for communicating verbally. Letters are the foundation.
    I have been formulating a collage in my head that is much like what you are describing. I am anxious to see the art you put in your message today. It may be the link I need to get started.

    • Not fooling around, it’s something I actually find helpful. For instance, if I’m designing a word processing program as a tool, I know I can mostly concentrate on aspects of the tool that address the alphabetic layer (placing letters in the right place, for instance). A spell-checker module would address the memetic layer but not worry about the alphabetic.

      There are some interesting aspects of art that play with manipulating the levels. For instance, some writers use the presentation layer to complement expression — like when a poem is formatted on a page in a particular way. I think that’s partly what poetry is; using things like length of lines to communicate in some way.

      Thinking in terms of the layer model can also suggest new capabilities for tools. At least software tools. For instance, modern word processors enable writers to *slightly* manipulate the glyph layer, like when a word is italicized. A few of them enable more manipulation than that, specifying more things about italics like slant and stroke. But there isn’t a program for writing that lets you easily redesign the shape of vowels to, I dunno, suggest some sort of accent or something. Why don’t we indicate Boston accents with a different shaped “R”? Maybe it would be interesting to try.

      Another thing the layer model suggests is that writers concentrate more exclusively on one or two layers than do creators working in more visual media. For example, there’s not really an equivalent of Photoshop for writing (erm…actually there may be but it’s deucedly difficult to use).

      • Ahhhhh….My daughter is working on a poster for our local Saturday Market. How providential that you should supply a piece that shows the very thing I was recommending to her as a background! I’m not sure she will use it but your artwork was the perfect example to share what was in my head!
        As for you dear Pete(r), I am not so geeky as to understand all that you have shared. The same daughter (Her Geekness) who is doing the above mentioned graphics explained some of what you are trying to relate. Most of your words are still beyond me but thanks for trying. :chuckles:

  2. I’ve mused about this same thing from time to time. Not quite identically; I tend to think about a set of layers. Each layer depends on the layer beneath it, and forms the foundation for the layer above, Going up the “stack” also means ascending a scale from concrete to abstract (sort of). Here it is:
    • Expression layer – combining everything below to form a complete work, from a book to, hey, a collage.
    • Presentation layer – printing on paper, pixels on screen, paint on sidewalk, etc.
    • Syntactic layer – the system of combining words
    • Memetic layer – words; the points at which meaning is snapped onto the layer beneath
    • Alphabetic layer – letters, numbers, etc
    • Glyph layer – the marks that comprise letters and numbers (using “glyph” loosely)

    I find this is a good way of differentiating tools (e.g. a word processor, scissors, pencil, speech recognition program) from the material. I have a lot of focus on some of the tools, and the stack helps organize my thinking about designing tools.

    This whole thing is an adaptation of a bigger idea called the OSI model, which is a more general model of communication systems in terms of abstraction layers. In fact I lifted the “presentation layer” label directly from an OSI layer.

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