Logophily: Writing, Ideas, Lego [1]

By Joel Patton


I played with Lego bricks [2] quite a lot, when I was a kid.

A few years ago, I checked out some adult builders' conversations online. They were making really impressive things: huge landscapes, recreations of scenes from pop culture [3], and most interestingly to me, intricate spaceships. I'd built a variety of things in a mash of nominal genres [4], but a lot of those things turned out to be spaceships.

Whenever I see people making things I like, I want to give the activity a shot [5], and I had a vat of Lego pieces on hand and a near-total lack of embarrassment in re playing with kids' toys [6].

I came up with some various small spaceships, but I felt sharply limited, even though I'd bought a huge quantity of used Lego pieces, and the variety and number were much increased from when I was younger. It took me a while to figure out the problem.

It wasn't a lack of childlike enthusiasm. I can be childlike as all hell [7]. I built a dozen wee little spaceships, and put pilots inside them and zoomed them around a little. I made up a backstory. I left one of the spaceships on my desk for months afterwards.

It wasn't a lack of creative activity. I do a lot of that.

It wasn't that nostalgia creates a personal idealized abstraction that ensures that, even if were possible to return to one's past, the gulf between current memory and past reality would be untraversable, unfathomable, but which meanwhile interferes even with what might be termed an objective memory, even as memory is by definition created a new at each instance, and is wholly subjective [8].

I finally figured it out while I was trying to figure out what I might build next, rummaging through the pieces. I had no idea what was in the bin. Every scrape through the box revealed a surprise [9].

When I was a kid, I knew every single Lego piece I had, down to pieces that were bent [10], broken [11], or tooth-marked [12][13]. This time around, I didn't know what I had. I couldn't build quite like I wanted to, because I didn't know my materials.

I had similar difficulty restarting this column. I haven't been reading with the same eye towards finding topics, and I hadn't been writing in the same sense as I am right now, typing these words.

There's an element of piecing things together. The two types of composition aren't analogous, but don't worry: my entire artistic career has consisted of my yoking together two mismatched concepts in order to see how they plow [14]. I tend to work not so much by expansion as by accretion [15]: I like to think about points of connection between and among [16] various concepts [17]. The word compose is apt for both: it's from com-ponere [18], to put together. The image might seem jarring, but we join words; we don't create words [19].

I like to show the struts when I work. I don't know if that's another manifestation of my fondness for archiving, or just a sign of the postmodern condition [20]. I hope that it's helpful, when I'm writing about writing, but regardless, here goes: this piece started as a realization during a conversation with my editor about the difficulty of starting this piece, and stumbling across the semi-analogous Lego anecdote in the process [21]. In either case, I realized during the course of writing the piece that I have on hand a physical metaphor: a poem that my friend David Silverstein [22] had built for me years ago, during one of our fits of collaboration and artifact-swapping pictured at the beginning of the piece: a poem written on Lego bricks.

Know your media [23].



1. Legophily

2. This instance is one of those where I don't use the same words when I write and when I talk. A trademark shouldn't be used as a substantive, so I'm writing Lego bricks, not Legos. But if I were going to go play with Lego bricks, as I'm reasonably sure I'm going to do after I finishing typing and editing this essay, I'd say, “Hey, I'm going to go play with Legos.”

3. And regular ol' culture.

4. My brothers and I always kept the Lego castle pieces and figures entirely separated from the other pieces and figures. I'm not entirely sure why. Part was the less modular nature of the castle pieces, and the fact that they looked mostly like castle pieces rather than abstract building units. Part was the fact that we'd received those sets later than the others, so they felt separate. But part was the fact that I didn't at that point like to mix certain genres of play. I didn't mind bringing a sword to a gunfight, but I didn't want to bring a gun to a swordfight. That instinct gradually went away, and I've gotten steadily more gonzo in combining influences (viz this essay right here that you are reading currently).

5. Teaching, writing, sculpting, drawing, tomato gardening, cooking, barbecuing, and all the other tiny things I've done, professionally or as a rank and sometimes literal amateur, but nearly always as a dilettante.


7. As I hope has been established by the previous footnote. In my better moments, I like to compare myself as a super-lightweight Paul Erdos. But in my worse moments, I like to compare myself to a super-lightweight Paul Erdos.

8. Man, was it ever not this one!

9. As with breakfast cereals -- as with all objects in piles, but breakfast cereals seem to be the most common American cultural exemplar -- the larger pieces tend to stay towards the top, and the smaller pieces filter down to the bottom and the corners.

10. Exceedingly rare.

11. Even more so.

12. Pretty common... small Lego pieces are hard to get apart, and we had a dearth of appropriate tools.

13. I glibly imagine our Lego collection to be around a thousand individual pieces, but I don't know the real number, and I'm not going to my parents' house to count Lego bricks.

14. My poetry thesis involved drawing a lot and then constructing a box (itself a combination Skinner/Cornell/Reich box I invented: the Patton box). A more recent example is my most-sold type of pottery by orders of magnitude, which is a handmade interpretation of a widely known memetic image from the early days of the world wide web.

15. Ugh.

16. Depending....

17. And various physical objects, for that matter.

18. Like Spanish con, but not at all like French con.

19. Though there are plenty of perfectly cromulent examples of created words.

20. More on which later, inshallah, and more on that too, with any luck.

21. It's important to have editors who are talented and delightful.

22. David Silverstein writes professionally as half of Silverwrite: http://www.silverwrite.com/ He writes equally well but might not get paid for it here: http://anotherpointlessproduction.com

23. Or discover them, of course, which somehow reminds me both of Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy of leaky roofs, and of Salvador Dalí having in 1970to remake parts of his 1933 Retrospective Bust of a Woman, because the parts in question were a baguette and some ears of corn.

Joel Patton is a potter in Travelers Rest, SC.