I’m a fair artist. If I worked at it, I could be a good one. It’s reasonable to think that I could have worked toward a career in it. I grew up loving it, and in fact my initial stint in college was intended to prepare me to pursue an art degree.
But my life didn’t go that way.
I recorded a podcast the other day regarding authorial voice in writing, and one of the points that I was sure to make was that editing strips out voice. This is why over-edited writing feels dead in the mind. Editing everything down to proper English has the end result of homogenizing it to an extent, and what makes writing beautiful is the same thing that makes art beautiful; the traces of the person that made it that are left behind.
Embracing that takes requires you to abandon your self-consciousness to a certain extent, and that’s something that even at this age I struggle with in my art. The things that I draw don’t have enough me in them, because I so desperately fear their imperfection.
I don’t have that problem with writing.
And I want to be specific here, what we’re talking about is a very specific internal tension that happens during the process of creating a thing. It seems to spring from a conflict between the desire to please myself and the desire to please others.
In my writing, this feels like a balance that one can meet through adjustment; in art, it is for me like a pulling between two intractable forces, and it is paralyzing.
Why is this?
I’m no psychologist, but I suspect that it has to do with the attention that I received as a youngster for the work I was producing at the time, and also how our culture views art.
For a variety of reasons which I’ll avoid going into for this particular post, I was starved for attention and approval as a child. Drawing, and later painting, proved to be a means to get those things. Now, these are things that children need. The lack of them is perceived by the brain as an existential threat.
So any indication that that might be pulled away was too much to bear. Everything I produced that I thought was worth sharing was still only shared like an offering to an angry and capricious god, with the metallic taste of fear in my mouth.
When I was praised, I was praised for being talented, not for working hard. Talent is something outside of my control. Hard work is something I have control over. So the idea that this was something I was, instead of something I did… well, honestly it made me feel as though the work I was putting in shouldn’t have been needed, and that resulted in my thinking that I was tricking people into thinking that I was something that I wasn’t.
There’s this perception, I think, that creativity is some kind of magic power; you’re born with it, it’s impossible to understand, and some people have it and some don’t. This is a dangerous thing to teach a child.
Writing was different. I didn’t share my writing with people as a kid, except for my teachers. They recognized that I was good at it, and encouraged me to work on it, to develop my skills, to get better. It was a thing I could control. And it wasn’t a part of my core identity or value when I was growing up.
So I feel free to play, knowing that I will get better, and that the things that aren’t working can be fixed. That freedom gives me far more license to express myself in writing than I’ve felt in art for a very, very long time.
I still live with all of that fear. I’m working on getting over it; I’m working on getting rid of it. But it still stops me from loosening up, and my work with the pen and the brush are still stiff and… not ever quite right. Not that it isn’t perfect, perfect isn’t the goal anymore, but it isn’t ever quite me. I still do art, in fact I drew and painted the cover for my novel, A Guide to a Happier Life. My gut twists every time I see that cover.
So the lesson here is to be careful how you praise your kids, I guess. Because what they learn from you will last them long after they’ve forgotten the quadratic equation.