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Letters From the Editor

The Things She Made

Only caught two episodes of PBS’s Art:21, but luckily saw the interview with Maya Lin, a name that in my ignorance meant nothing until the show explained she had designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and then I was able to connect the name with the career, a woman who remarkably won the memorial competition while an undergraduate at Yale, later designing the Langston Hughes Library, a work I remembered leafing past in some magazine, probably in a waiting room, and loving (you know your doctor thinks highly of you when Architecture Digest is expected to soothe your impatience, rather than the new Crutchfield catalog).

About the Memorial, Lin wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books that’s wildly lucid for the imprint it’s under, though I suspect that has more to do with her occupation (architects, I find, can make great writers) than their editing.

I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface, much like the surface on a geode when you cut it and polish the edge. The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember.
What’s apparent in both the substance and style of her writing – a confident humility, a simple understanding of deep natures – was obvious in the PBS program; Lin is smart, but comes across as wise, one of the few people whose manner is distinct from what they make (as Todd Solondz said in a recent Times interview that is no longer available, ‘I think it’s important to be polite to your friends, to be nice to those you love, but it’s my job as a filmmaker to be as impolite as possible.’ [paraphrase] I’m not suggesting Lin’s work is rude or nasty, but it’s certainly challenging, especially in mind of the furor her memorial inspired).

The distinction is one I admire; too often we hear of great artists who were assholes; of Joyce, wasted, dressing down his wife, the harassment recently justified as cause for his genius. To see Lin, showing in her work and presence great sympathy for life, made good television; I remembered Tim O’Brien and his story about Vietnam veterans who are scared to visit the memorial; it was that story, when I read it in college, that brought architecture to life. An excerpt, not from that story, but the story that carries the collection’s name, The Things They Carried, goes

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t. When they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them. Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic-absolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive.
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Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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