Oh, Tacoma!

Here are the first two parts of the writing exercise Fiction Building Blocks by Dan Chaon, from the book Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis. In it, Chaon recalls author Alice Munro saying that short stories are not two-dimensional structures, but more like a house with different rooms that one can wander in and out of. The exercise is in seven sections, but my first two sections seemed long enough to post already. Part one introduces a conflict, and part two introduces a setting…

When Eric pulled the large clam shell from the annealing oven, he frowned. It looks good, he reassured himself. He looked at the wall clock and made note of the time. Five minutes was the new rule. Then he could begin to critique his work, but not until then. But for five minutes, what do you do? The glass piece sat there, warts and all, inviting judgment. Besides, it would be immodest for him to heap praise on his own work. He pulled off his gloves in resignation and got a drink from the water cooler.

Eric took a seat at the long folding table cluttered with his drawings and a deep-sea spectrum of color rods. He had been planning this piece for months. Maybe it could have been down sooner, but studio time had to be booked far in advance, and the design itself took time. A true bivalve, two fluted clam shells that hinged. What colors to use. How large could he manage to make them while still having them fit inside the glory hole of the ovens. Then there were all the technical issues to work out. The thing would have to have a hinge built, with a glass pin to hold them together, thick enough to hold the weight, but not so huge that they pulled attention away from the clam itself. It had to blend in seamlessly, like life. He had to essentially create a glass artifact with moving pieces that seemed so natural, so easy, that people would stare and blink and wonder, what’s big deal, that thing looks so simple. They’d see it in the Museum of Glass alongside Tagliapietra, alongside Liposfky, and they’d see the progression and shrug—that was the goal. Brilliant, original work.

Pushing the form forward. An obvious (it would seem then!) continuation of the work begun by these other masters. And the comparisons to Chihuly would be inevitable. Eric Lipschitz wasn’t just good, he was one of the greats, they would say. He got his start in Tacoma, but he traveled the world and became a global artist and lifelong student of the form, always pushing the boundaries.

Ha. Yeah.

Eric looked at the clock. A minute and a half to go. This was bullshit. He gulped down the rest of his water and then, in one curving sweep of his arm, pushed all his sketches off the table and into the plastic bin where shattered or misfired shards of glass were tossed. The piece was all wrong, and it didn’t take five minutes to see it. And the five minutes didn’t spare anyone’s feelings; it was his own work. Eric stood up, walked over to the table where he left the giant clam, and hefted it in one hand, gripping it with his fingers between the softly undulating fluted green and magenta lips. He quietly walked back over to the bin, and dropped it in with a soft thud.

Tacoma has been called the City of Glass. It’s also been called Grit City. And the oldest moniker of all, the City of Destiny. All three fit.

City of Glass makes sense, because this is where Dale Chihuly was born and raised. This is where that large, one-eyed, kinky-haired, Drosselmeyer-eyepatch-wearing genius almost single-handedly created the American studio glass movement. This is where the Museum of Glass was built. Where the local middle school and high school teach glassblowing, and churn out graduates like Eric Lipschitz, bound not for college but for Pilchuk, Chihuly’s famed school of glass in the Skagit Valley. Grit City resonated as well, for this was a blue collar town, and always had been. From the fishing to the lumber to the major port and the pulp mill responsible for the town’s infamously vinegary “aroma,” Tacoma was a place known for hard times, gray skies and lowlifes. It was dirty and grimy and could never shake its reputation as a failed city.
But it had, like other failed cities, moments of glory. Like when the Northern Pacific railroad first chose Tacoma over Seattle and Olympia as its western-most terminus, created this new City of Destiny. People rode to the end of the line because that’s where the rainbow and its accompanying pot of gold would be found. Trade flourished here in the late nineteenth century, long before it would ever be known as an center of art. But the city failed to maintain this momentum, and Tacoma fell on hard times—that was when Destiny was replaced by Grit. But Destiny always has the ring of potential, of “tomorrow,” and of hope amid despair. Destiny is what brought people here on the railroad, and it’s what brought the lumber barons here, and it’s what brought the hardscrabble glassblowers here. Sure, Chihuly was here. But this was Grit City: a cheap place to live and work as an artist.

And of all the art mediums, there is none so gritty as glass. Its practitioners are craftsmen as more than they are effete artists, and they tend toward the thick-skinned, tattooed, and pierced. They are artists of fire, alchemists who, like microorganisms that devour the oil spilled from tankers, fulfill unintentionally the promise of the City of Destiny. They take grit and turn it into glass. They work in dirt and fire and make it into one of the most sublime forms imaginable, a delicate medium that takes what little light pokes through the gray bedding of the Northwest skies and multiplies it, a transistor of light. So there it is: Grit City, City of Glass, City of Destiny. Tacoma. It’s a woeful city, but it’s optimistic. And it’s beautiful, when it shines.

Erick Lipschitz doesn’t think much about any of this. He’s always lived in Tacoma, and probably always will. When he decided to become more than just a craftsman, when it occurred to him to be great, he naturally assumed that greatness would take him places, out of Tacoma. But he also rightly assumed that the beginnings of greatness would have to happen right here. At the grimy little glassblowing studio where he worked, off Pacific Avenue downtown, halfway between the bright new museums that looked to the future, and the glum brick warehouses that scowled at the past. To Eric and other lifelong Tacomans like him, the new condos and lofts and restaurants and museums get no more than a quizzical raise of the eyebrow, a crinkle of the nose, a curious glance, a head-scratching nod. To folks like Eric, this isn’t the first time Tacoma has tried to remake itself into a major city and tourist destination, and it won’t be the last. But since the current incarnation centers on glass, all Eric Lipschitz can do is embrace it and hope that this will be the wave that carries him away.