Last night I endured discomfort (I have chronic pain, even sitting on stools is uncomfortable and holding my arm up in the air for 2 hours is an invitation to days of pain) and risked ruined clothing to paint what is unquestionably bad art. The design is pedestrian. The subject matter is questionable and shallow. If anyone tried to sell me one of my paintings I would tell them not to try to sell their work but to burn it.
I’m not a good painter. And, unlike other people who do this as an excuse to socialize and/or drink, I do this sober and without a friend in tow. I sit in a class filled with giggling couples, siblings, and best friends and I pain art I would never buy.
Back a few years ago I picked up a book on writing (I’m sorry to say I don’t remember which book or writer) where the author talked about the MFA (Master in Fine Arts) program they attended where they were required to take a secondary art. While not an unknown, it’s uncommon in MFA programs. You are, after all, in a terminal degree program for writers so why would you take classes in sculpting or acting? Part of the answer comes when you listen to Mary Robinette Kowal talk about puppetry and how it relates to writing. A range of experiences helps us generalize lessons learned.
To get the horrible paintings in this post I needed to lay in a background quickly, knowing that some of what I painted would be covered up with other details. I needed to sketch in details with chalk, which was wiped away with a damp cloth the next day. Where I blended my paint (on the paper plate or on the canvas) created different effects. There are a lot of lessons about writing buried in those simple statements.
Further, in these almost paint-by-number classes, you are under the gun to get your work done quickly. You have two hours. There is no time to fuss over mistakes: no time for good, let alone perfect. The name of the game is “good enough.” You lay down paint as fast as you can without thinking too hard about it. You use a blow drier to speed up drying of layers so that even the natural break of letting the paint dry is shortened into a spree of activity. And, if you don’t like what is happening, you ask the artist who is teaching the class to dive in with a brush and fix it.
Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice, wrote the line “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.” I’ll talk and stick my foot in my mouth handily. It does, however, describe my approach to art in general. I hate to share a work unless I’m convinced it is brilliant (and then I’m crushed when my critique group tears it apart). I don’t like to start something unless I know I will do it perfectly and the stacks of trunk-novels I’ve never handed off the beta readers is evidence of my problems on the other end of that process.
Painting crappy paintings is a way of practicing the skill of letting go. I not only paint them, but I hang them above my writing desk where I can look up and see everything I screwed-up on them. Where I should have put in more detail, where I had the perspective wrong, and when I should have done less. They are my reminder that I’ve not put in the hours to paint well. I certainly didn’t put in the thought (the designs are all someone else’s).
My writing is the opposite. I spend weeks, months, and sometimes years mulling over ideas. I spend days, weeks, and sometimes months writing a short story. I often set aside editing to “dry off” a bit before I go back in, lest I muddy it up. If I can put those paintings where they could be accidentally seen, then I can certainly submit for publication that short story I lavished all that time on.
Go do an art you aren’t good at. Embarrass yourself a little. It’s good for what you care most about.