the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


a blog about caregivers + creators throughout history.


Scrappiness: Joan Lyons, Beulah Henry, and Making Art from Scarcity

In what feels like another lifetime ago (but was less than five years ago), I got to know a remarkable woman through a mentoring program I was involved in. I’ll keep the details vague, because hers is not my story to tell, but here’s the gist: circumstances had left her in a very tenuous situation economically (and briefly homeless), with two children to support on her own.

At the time, living in my own middle-class bubble, I was mostly taken by how all of our systems seem designed to punish people living in poverty. How one late payment or car repair could spiral into an insurmountable burden of debt. I had known this already in the abstract, but to see it play out in real time in the life of someone I had come to care about was another thing entirely.

Now, with a young child of my own, and with writerly ambitions of my own, what strikes me above all is how fiercely she fought for her creativity. Not only in the playful ways she used her imagination to lighten the darkest situations for her kids, but also in the time she insisted on for her own writing. She wrote no matter what else was going on. She remained active in an online community of fellow writers who were oblivious to the lack of resources she faced, who knew her only through the abundance and vitality of her words.

The subject of this post is scrappiness, in a few senses:

  • The literal scraps that I associate with the history of women’s artistic expression in domestic life, whether the piecing together of quilts or the conjuring of meals.

  • The more figurative scraps: the leftovers of our time, energy, and other resources. They are oftentimes all we can manage for these personal passions, particularly when the creative work we do is separate from both our household responsibilities and the work we are actually compensated for.

  • The quality of determination and grit. The act of fighting for the time and space to do creative work.

The immediate inspiration for this post was a 1975 print by the artist Joan Lyons. I came upon it at the Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus a few months back. The piece, titled “Prom,” is a life-size lithograph of a prom dress the artist had sewed for her daughter. The clothing is “pressed into pages like an old corsage,” to create a faded, scrapbook effect (see photo).

Close-up of Joan Lyons' "Prom" (1975), on display at the Harry Ransom Center.

Close-up of Joan Lyons' "Prom" (1975), on display at the Harry Ransom Center.

The accompanying placard explained that at the time, “Lyons had just received a grant…to complete a print project when an urgent request to make a dress for her daughter’s prom first postponed – and eventually displaced – her plans.” Or, as Lyons puts it, “Well, the artist was a mom; so the dress that delayed the work became the work.”

But it’s not just that her gig as a parent inspired a particular piece of art. Lyons was also emboldened to invent an artistic style that went against what she had learned, from a male-dominated art world, constituted Valid or Important Art:

“Prom” contradicted everything that I had been taught art should be—namely abstract, universal, non-representational. This was personal, concrete, suspiciously narrative, and, worst of all, pastel.

Aside from her literal use of fabric scraps, I loved the scrappiness, the resourcefulness, of repurposing this artifact of motherhood for her art. Lyons’ print got me thinking more generally about scarcity.

How does scarcity – of time and/or money – shape creativity, both the process and the product? Out of the disorder and noise of domestic life, what forms of work emerge?

Here are a few examples, themselves mere scraps of ideas:

A year and a half ago, I read Jenny Offill’s literary novel Dept. of Speculation. The book is about, among other things, a couple with a young child whose marriage is in crisis, and a character (known only as “the wife”) whose domestic life crowds out her artistic ambitions.

Dept. of Speculation had gotten a lot of positive buzz, but I didn’t love it. At the time, though, I had a sixteen-month-old baby, and was slowly easing myself back into a pre-bed reading routine again (now that bedtime was a thing I could mostly count on). So, what I did love was the compact size (192 pages with lots of white space) and the parent-friendly form of the novel: short, tightly written chapters that could give me a five-minute reading fix before I collapsed into sleep.

Did the author’s writing process, like my reading process, consisted of little bursts and stolen moments, odd fragments that Offill later refined into a searing lyrical acuity? Regardless, the novel had a telegraphic style that telegraphed its content: the constant disruptions and short bursts of work that constitute those early years of parenting.

Or, take the working-class writer Tillie Olsen. Born in 1912 to a socialist family on a tenant farm in Nebraska, she spent most of her life in low-paid work and political activism in addition to parenting and housework. According to literary critic Elaine Showalter, “[Olsen] wrote daily in snatched time, even on buses or on lunch breaks, often on tiny bits of paper in a minuscule hand.” She didn’t publish her first book until age 50.

In later life, and coming to the women’s movement in late middle age, Olsen struggled with the sense of lost time, lost effort. In Silences (1978), she explored how both family life and work disrupted women’s writing:

Motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible…. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant, toil. Work interrupted, deferred, postponed, makes blockage—at best, lesser accomplishment.

There’s such elegy and regret in these lines. Olsen would come to represent possibility for future generations of writers, particularly with feminist and working-class identities. But Showalter concludes that Olsen herself lost confidence in her ability to write, her cramped handwriting symptomatic of a “diminished writing self.”

Scrappiness is as much the domain of the inventor as the artist. Beulah Henry, born in 1887, was “among the most prolific of all American women inventors.” The details vary wildly, but Autumn Stanley, in Mothers and Daughters of Invention, estimates that Henry originated over one hundred inventions and filed for 49 patents between 1912 and 1970.

Henry never married or had children, but scrappiness is not just a trait (affliction?) of parents, of course.

This one quote is a beautiful testimony to the power of scraps:

[Beulah Henry’s] original models were often carved in soap, or made from materials at hand, such as hairpins, adhesive tape, buttons, clips, and spools—or, as in one case, a rusty nail, a board, and a rock.

Due to her lack of a formal technical background, Henry relied on professional model makers to fully realize her inventions. There’s such a scrappiness, though, to how she overcame this lack of training; her clever use of found objects enabled her to articulate her inventive vision.

Beulah Henry in 1929 with her "protograph," a device that could be attached to a typewriter to produce an original and four typewritten copies without carbon paper.

Beulah Henry in 1929 with her "protograph," a device that could be attached to a typewriter to produce an original and four typewritten copies without carbon paper.

Henry went on to achieve a good deal of financial success. She was president of B.L. Henry Co. in New York City, and was also employed as an inventor by Nicholas Machine Works in the 1940s and ‘50s. She would go on to consult to various companies that manufactured her inventions, ranging from improvements on umbrellas, typewriters, sewing machines, and dolls to a “Kiddie Klock” for teaching time. In the popular press, she acquired the moniker “Lady Edison” (admittedly, this is both a testimony to what she had achieved and a diminishment of her achievement to a scrap of Thomas Edison’s fame).

Maybe I’ve been collecting these stories because scrappiness is a lesson I’ve been slow to learn. When it’s 8:30 pm, and my son is finally in bed, and the dishes are washed, and the lunchboxes are packed, and I’m physically and mentally spent, I (nearly) always lack the resolve to open my laptop and begin writing.*  

The reality, though, is that my writing life, at least for the foreseeable future, will be spotty and distracted. And as a perfectionist, I’m still in denial that good work can emerge from such an erratic, haphazard process. Like Tillie Olsen, I worry that “the marks of part-time; part-self authorship” will remain, a visible, permanent record of my imperfect commitment to the work.

As a first step in a 12-Step Plan for Scrappiness Acceptance, I’ve started an Excel spreadsheet titled “Ten Minutes of Ada.” Charting the little bits of borrowed time for my Ada Lovelace project gives at least the illusion of forward motion. I hope that one day these scraps of time and attention might add up to a bona fide book, a richer achievement for the patchwork process of its creation and for the scrappiness required to bring it forth.

*The poet Sylvia Plath: “Nights (are) no good (for writing). I’m so flat by then that all I can cope with is music and brandy and water.” In my case, just substitute “Netflix” for the music, and “dark chocolate” for the booze.

All Work, No Play

Robert Louis Stevenson, Lloyd Osbourne, and Collaborating with Kids