Monday, January 07, 2008

The Braiding - by Pat Esden

I believe that in every profession there are moments when a person stops using logic, truly focuses on their work and acts automatically in a sort of hypnotic state--a state of magic.

It was with this notion in mind that I decided to write a series of fantasy tales about women artisans. Glassblowing, with its intrinsic beauty and connection to alchemy (and because it was an art I knew nothing about) felt like the perfect place to begin. Besides, I was quite sure there had to be more to the art form than sticking a blob of molten glass on a pipe and blowing.

Research is where I began my search for the details of setting and character that I needed to take my story seed and make it blossom. I knew nothing about the history of glass, but I quickly uncovered fascinating details that were beyond anything that I could have created out of thin air.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but I was totally unprepared for the similarity between the freedoms modern day women enjoy and those experienced by woman glassblowers during the early years of the Venetian Republic. Actually, I was shocked to discover women could become master glassblowers. The opportunities available to these women glassblowers (or women fortunate enough to belong to glass blowing families) exceeded those available to other women and most men. They could marry a man of any level of society--even royalty, they were more highly educated than most men . . . but these benefits and freedom came at a cost.

Because glass was the foundation of the Venetian Republic economy, no glassblower could ever leave the boundaries of the Venetian Republic or they would be assassinated out of fear that the secrets of working glass could fall into another country’s hands.

This research into glass working and Venice’s past gave me my main character: Iseau, a creative woman both liberated and imprisoned.

Now that I had the time period and the main character I moved on to learning about the art itself.

Armed with a newly learned and very basic idea of how glass is worked and a mental list of questions I wanted to ask, I drove to Waterbury Vermont where Ziemke Glassblowing Studio is located. By this time, I knew I wanted my main character to make a heart, so that was my first question. Can it actually be done? I also wanted to know things you can’t learn in books: what the furnace’s heat feels like, how much do the tools weigh, how balanced does the pipe feel in your hand? I wanted to watch the glass blower’s movements, see which muscles he used. How strong would Iseau have to be? Would she still appear feminine? Did the work require an assistant . . . little details that make a story come to life.

In my short visit to Ziemke Glassblowing I learned more than I ever could have ever hoped for.

Glassblower, Terry Pagel was working that day. He is not only an amazing artist, but also has a true love of his craft and is a vault of knowledge. He talked about the history of Venetian glassblowing from an insider’s point of view, about early alchemy used to create clear class and other early trade secrets. But beyond that, he gave me a glassblower’s perspective on how writers often misrepresent glassblowing to a laughable degree. Then he did the most amazing thing: he and his assistant created a heart from molten glass while I watched.

I left with my mind overflowing with ideas. Five minutes into my drive home, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I pulled my car over to the side of the road and I wrote the glassblowing scene for “The Braiding”. Watching and talking to Terry Pagel put me into a writer’s “state of magic” and at the same time had allowed me to feel (as much as a non-glassblower can) like I was actually holding the tools and feeling the heat.

So if the history in “The Braiding” feels true and what happens when Iseau takes up her tools feels right, it’s because to a great extent they are accurate. And personally, I like to think that the magic in the story is nothing more than a magnification of what any person experiences when they focus on their chosen profession, relax and let their mind slip into a hypnotic state.

Here’s a link to Ziemke Glassblowing Studio—enjoy.

You can find another of my woman artisan tales, “Suck of Clay, Whir of Wheel,” at AnthologyBuilder


Suanne said...

Very cool story of how this tale took shape--I love the image of you sitting in your car, on the side of the road, scribbling.

Did you get to keep the glass heart they made?

Pat Esden said...

Thanks and no, unfortunately the heart had to cure and cool. I'm sure it ended up in the showroom. It would be cool to know who bought it.

Pat Esden

Ajoy said...

I love that you've done your research - the details make this story magic.

Pat Esden said...

Thank you, ajoy.