Dear Dad,

I keep meaning to write to you. Sorry it’s been so long.

Anyway, whatever, as they say. I woke up yesterday thinking about a question I meant to ask you when I was in kindergarten or first grade.

The question, as I remember it, is this:

When you’re looking at a blank piece of paper, and you’re holding a pencil in your hand, do you know which lines are going to come out of the pencil before they get to the paper? Or does the pencil have control, and you take what it gives you?

I remember imagining the pencil as being a fountain of infinite squiggly lines that I had little to no control over. The pencil was – and remains – something to wrestle with.

For example, if I wanted to draw a cat, I could make lines that would look the way a kid would draw a cat. Circle for a head, triangles for the ears, whiskers. Ovals with vertical slits for eyes.

I remember this though: if I set out to draw a cat – even accepting the fact that it would look like 6-year-old artist outline of cat – I would still be surprised by the results that the pencil would spew out on the page. Maybe the head would be too big, or the ears too small, or the eyes oddly placed.

Well, as they say, this is why you practice. You learn to coordinate the eye, the brain, the hand – and the extension of the hand, the pencil.

Let me jump for a minute to my work with the guitar. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of creating the same kind of flow, from ear to brain to finger to string. I like to say that it’s always a matter of shortening the distance between ear and string, and you have all this stuff in the way – brain, arm, elbow, finger. It’s a matter of making that intermediate stuff lightweight, seamless, transparent, invisible.

When I play a note, I react to it immediately. My reaction informs the way I play the next note. And so on, faster and faster, ad infinitum, until the end of time – which comes up fast in a piece of music.

I guess the goal is to make it all ear, with nothing in between.

Or for you, the goal would have been to make it all eye, with nothing in between. Pencil, brush, knife, piece of lumber, whatever. Tools. Not there.

But the point is – I wanted to ask YOU about how YOU wrestle with the pencil. I think I tried to ask you at one point, but I’m not sure you heard me right or understood me. After all, it’s a pretty complex question for a grown-up to confront. It might not have occurred to you what I was trying to ask when I was four or five.

After you were gone, I remember being in first grade, and the itinerant art teacher would come in once a week, and she’d hand out the blank paper and the crayons, and she’d put something on a table at the front of the room and say, “Draw this.” Pandemonium would usually reign for 45 minutes, the papers would get collected or simply sent home. The girls’ drawing were always very tidy, and the boys’ looked like nightmare recollections. I remember my reaction at the time to these “lessons” was that I was already indoctrinated to this world of art, that I had inside knowledge. But I was always horrified to witness what came out of my pencil, despite my greatest efforts at control.

Hey, I took a life drawing course last summer, Dad. I’m not Leonardo, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I’d like to do it again. Just me and the charcoal and the model. It feels like facing a familiar opponent each time I look at that big empty piece of paper.

OK well, I’ll write you again soon. I love ya, Dad.

Your son,