Monday, May 16, 2011

DIY Art Therapy

At the end of my last lesson with Charlene, she said, "Thank you for all your hard work." The statement caught me a little off guard. I've been very, very conscious of how bad my playing is; although I do have some abilities -- as Charlene said, "You have a good ear; if I play a tune for you, you can play it back to me" -- I don't speak the language of music and would never consider myself a musician. I'm somebody who enjoys scratching out very rough tunes on the viola.

But what Charlene said made me think, "Huh. Yeah, I have worked hard at this, haven't I?" And, more to the point, when I've been able to let go of my deeply ingrained perfectionist streak, I've enjoyed it.

The perfectionist thing goes way back. I'll spare you the history; suffice it to say that for many years, I was one of those unhappy people who measured my worth by my external accomplishments, especially grades. This tends, or tended in my case anyway, to turn into a glass-half-empty mindset: I measured myself according to what I hadn't done, and if you think that way, you'll always consider yourself a failure, because there's always someone who's done more.

I've been struggling with this issue lately at work. For one thing, academics are increasingly being evaluated as much by what they haven't done as by what they have, which is why I won't be going up for full professor. I have to keep reminding myself that even if I don't have the "national profile" required for promotion, I have published four books (with more on the way, I hope), and also perform community service I wouldn't have time for were I serving on MLA committees. The non-promotion situation, though, has re-sensitized me to how stressful glass-half-empty thinking is on colleagues and other people around me.

It's a tricky issue. Several of my students this semester have been very upset that I graded them on the results of their work, rather than on their effort. My response, and that of most professors I know, is that I have no way to measure relative effort, and that other arenas of human experience (most jobs, for instance) evaluate on results, too. Learning to come to terms with that is an important part of a college education.

At the same time, though, I always try to tell my students that their grades are not the measure of their personal worth. I know many of them don't believe me; if they did, the grades wouldn't upset them so much in the first place, and at that age, I sure didn't believe anybody who told me the same thing. I'm always heartened by students who maybe didn't get perfect grades, but who say that they enjoyed the class, or learned something, or acquired a new skill. In other words, the students who are looking at what they have, and not at what they don't: glass-half-full folk. They're so much healthier than I was in college.

Another way of defining this is process thinking versus product thinking. Both are important, but in different ways and for different purposes, and if you enjoy a process, you've gained something even if no one else appreciates the product. (One of the problems with academic promotion procedures right now is that the range of acceptable products has tightened considerably.)

It needs to be said that some of this stuff is a function of consumer culture, which encourages to focus on what we don't have so we'll go buy it. As an inveterate shopper, I'm very familiar with that pattern.

So, anyway. Today, as previously advertised, I sat down to start revising the latest novel. I did fine; I'm about ten pages in. But the next two sections, the ones scheduled for tomorrow, will require a lot of changes and some major plot rethinking, and I felt my stomach clenching up about it even today. Gotta get it right gotta get it right gotta get it right.

That mantra serves a purpose, but at this stage it's counter-productive. It's classic glass-half-empty thinking, because I'm looking at what's wrong, what isn't there: at lack, rather than possibility.

I played the viola for a while, since that always gets me to loosen up. Playing the viola means giving myself permission to do something badly, just because it's fun.

Then I decided to go shopping for a Magic Revision Pencil (inveterate shopper!). I like soft, dark pencils, and the number two I used this morning wasn't cutting it. Staples didn't have anything softer. After a few other unproductive stops, I wound up buying a drawing pencil at an art-supply store.

And that reminded me how much I like drawing. As a kid, I had a modest amount of artistic talent and drew and painted up a storm, to the lavish praise of the adults around me. I loved it. But as I got older and fell further into glass-half-empty, I became shyer about the visual stuff. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't skilled enough. I wasn't a Real Artist. This is of course either completely true or utter hogwash, depending on your point of view. I'll never be in MOMA or be paid for my artwork, but I have as much right to draw, paint and doodle as anybody else.

Back in 2006, inspired in part by a course I'd taken on art as spiritual practice, I briefly kept a drawing journal. Every day I'd produce a little doodle. Some are quite pretty; some are hideous; all of them were absorbing and fun. But after a while, I became too self-conscious about that project, too, and put the sketchbook away.

Today I took it out again. I sharpened up my colored pencils and doodled for an hour or so. The product will never be in MOMA, but the process made me very happy. As kids know, and as adults too often forget, coloring's a blast! (I can't remember who said, "All five year olds know they can draw. All fifteen year olds know they can't," but it's spot on.)

I hope to do one of these a day. I think the drawing journal -- along with the viola and knitting -- will help me stay relaxed on the writing front. And anything that creates joy should be maximized.


  1. You are so fortunate to have so many different avenues of self expression. Putting words to paper, colour to canvas, fingers to strings, bringing your own personality and knowledge to the classroom, bringing your love of God to the are touching the world in so many different ways. This, my dear, is a full glass; full to overflowing. You have filled your life with love and creativity to the point where it has bubbled over onto everyone around you.

  2. Anonymous4:19 PM


    I would like you to print this post and put it in a readily accessible file. This is a very telling and descriptive post. I agree with Baby John. You HAVE spead your talent and sunshine in your life. Now stop judging yourself all the time.

    BTW, I'm printing it too because, I'm like you -- although maybe not quite so hard on myself. Next time when I'm getting down on me I'll pull it out and re-read it to remind myself I am my own worst enemy and to let that enemy lose. And I thank you for the that.



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