In 1966, when I was eight years old, my birthday present was a Vac-u-Form. For those unfamiliar with this “toy,” here’s how it worked:
Shaped like a rectangular box, the Vac-u-Form had a heating plate on one side and a vacuum platform on the other. Between them, a “window” was hinged so that it could swing to cover either the plate or the platform. To operate it, you first put a mold on the vacuum platform; the kit supplied several molds of cars, boats, etc., but you could put any small (heat-resistant) object on there. Then you put a sheet of styrene plastic in the “window” and closed it over the heating plate. When the heat sufficiently softened the plastic, you swung the window over to the other side, covering the mold on the vacuum platform and, using the side lever, pumped out all the air. The vacuum sucked the softened styrene down around the mold, making a 3D impression of the shape beneath. With a razor, you trimmed off the excess plastic, freeing the molded pieces, which you could then glue together and paint, making a toy boat or car or whatever was used as a mold.
Think about that for a second.
My parents — by all reports and observations two reasonable and responsible adults — gave their eight-year old child an open hot plate with which he could melt plastic to create shapes which he then cut out with an X-Acto knife, glued together with airplane dope, and colored with flammable paints. All unsupervised.
Different world, eh?
Death trap or not — and I did receive a few burns and cuts — I adored that thing. It reeked of industry and danger. It smelled of hot plastic and hotter metal. The whole thing creaked and ticked and hummed as it came up to operating temperature and, when you flipped that sheet of melted styrene over the platform and pumped on the vacuum lever, magic happened. It filled me with the awe of creation, of science, of technology, of imagination.
One of my first successful creations was a toy boat. The mold I used had two shapes on it: one for the hull and one for the boat’s deck and cabin. With my finger bandaged from cutting the pieces free and my head swimming from the fumes of the glue, I began to paint it in my own inimitable style. This “style” was expressed in ever-thickening coats of contrasting colors, each one layered atop the last until the paint filled in virtually every crevice and detail the original form provided.
I asked my father what he thought of my work. He, upon watching me gather up another dollop of color by dipping my red-tipped brush into the blue pot, said simply:
“A good artist knows when to stop.”
This gentle critique sunk into my mind like a seed, undigested and unappreciated, where it lay for ages untouched. Years later, after I began my studies in music, the lesson finally germinated and grew. The notes with which I struggled — the intricacies of Bach, the wildness of Hindemith — came alive only when I stepped back and let them speak for themselves. When I forced them, they strangled. When I listened to them, they sang. Eventually, I learned how to get out of my own way and let the art come through on its own.
It’s much harder to apply this to my writing, where the paralysis of self-doubt and the tendency to over-edit are incredibly strong, but it’s always easier to remember a lesson learned than to figure it out from scratch.