Sunday, October 25, 2009

Messing Up

As I walked through the Las Pecinas College library last week, I saw a student sitting with a drawing pad in his lap, holding his left hand suspended in a fixed pose over the paper.

His bodily position looked a bit odd to me, but also uncannily familiar. I realized that he was drawing his own hand, which is something that I’ve also been doing a lot lately. My friend Adam has been teaching me to draw, and a person’s own hand is one of the best things to draw, because it allows the student to work on showing planes and angles and foreshortening and, more importantly, it’s always available.

I looked down at the student’s pad, and was disheartened to see that the hand on his paper was way better than those I’ve been drawing. The lines were crisp, assertive, conveying a confident sense of the shape and bulk and gesture of the hand.

In contrast, my lines have a quality that I have seen described as labored. That’s a good term for them. It’s obvious, looking at the heavy, jagged borders of my drawings that I dragged my pencil over them slowly, painstakingly, agonizing over each minute change of direction.

I like to carve my lines in little tiny increments, like frosting a cake, manipulating and smoothing them as I go. This technique feels comfortable, but it’s all wrong. It produces lines that are cramped and fussy. “Don’t hen-peck your lines,” Adam says, standing over me as I draw. “Stop scratching at them.”

If I were writing, the lines I am drawing would be an overuse of adjectives, or flowery description, or excessively quippy narration: they draw attention to the creator of the drawing rather than to the drawing itself. A viewer shouldn’t be noticing the lines of my drawing any more than he should be thinking, “Check out that descriptive language!” when he reads a novel. Instead he should be thinking: there’s a hand.

I know that I need to learn to make the beautiful, confident lines that Adam urges me to create. But when I try, my drawings become distorted and misshapen, because my lines, while assertive, are in the wrong place. That’s the difficulty with being assertive about something that you are just learning; you may be asserting the wrong thing.

“It doesn’t matter,” Adam says. “No amount of drawing hen-pecky lines will teach you to draw a good line. You have to draw the good lines even if they’re wrong.”

That’s the problem with learning confidence: before you earn it, you have to fake it. It’s like wrestling. To execute a take-down, you have to shoot in with confidence, even if that confidence is completely unwarranted. For somebody who has great respect for wisdom and experience, it feels counterintuitive to assume a position of confidence when I know there is perhaps an eighty percent likelihood that I am going to screw the move up.

Luckily, I have now studied enough art forms to know that it’s often necessary to mess things up in order to make them better.

It’s like in kickboxing. You can tell a kickboxer again and again to fix her roundhouse kick, but she won’t want to. Step out, you’ll say. No, in that direction. She steps out properly once, twice. The third time, she reverts back to her old footwork. That’s because the new footwork, while technically superior, doesn’t let her throw the kick as hard, doesn’t feel as balanced and comfortable, can’t be done as quickly. Some day, the new footwork will make her kick twice as hard, but not without a period of frustrating awkwardness.

I’ve been that kickboxer a dozen times, not wanting to mess up my roundhouse kick in order to fix it. I remember throwing kicks at a pad, and I was throwing them hard, I thought, based on the gratifying banging noise my leg was making against the pad. But the holder of the pad pointed at my front arm and said, “You’re dropping that arm every time you throw the kick,” which meant that my face was unprotected for a moment.

Fixing my mistake prevented me from getting the same momentum into my hips. As I practiced with my hands properly blocking my face, my kicks became lighter, quieter, less gratifying. It took me months to regain the same force, although I finally did, and now my hands were in the correct position.

One of the other things I have learned about mistakes is that they are never new. I now know that my small hand drop is a common mistake, one that I see many experienced kickboxers make when they are trying to get extra power into their kicks. We flatter ourselves to think that our mistakes are novel and that we are disappointing our teachers through our unprecedented errors. But errors are predictable, as is our perception that they are unique.

When I started to do yoga, I would always cross my legs the wrong way in one particular pose. “Why do I always do that?” I asked, when my teacher had corrected me for the third week in a row.

Now, throughout the several years I have studied yoga, I have heard my teacher make the same correction countless times, to countless new students. And about fifty percent of the time, the corrected student reacts just as I did, down to the word: “Why do I always do that?” the student asks aloud.

These students are like me, wondering why they would reverse their leg position, lacking the perspective to recognize the answer: because everybody does that.

My students do the same thing, berating themselves for the same difficulties and mistakes that I have seen in a thousand student essays, including my own.

“I can never figure out how much to summarize the plot,” says a student writing about a novel. “I always put in way too much summary.”

Everybody does that, I tell the student. It’s not just you. You’re not the only one who writes vague or confusing thesis statements, who cannot find any way express an abstract, complex idea except through a grotesquely gnarled and winding sentence, who struggles with the transition from one paragraph to the next, who gets to the end of the essay only to realize that you now believe the opposite of what you originally set out to argue. These are the same difficulties writers have faced throughout history, since the dawn of time—the same clich├ęs that will negatively affect their writing in the following areas: clarity, originality, and the ability to make critical arguments—the same opportunities that have been handed down to us as a gift from those who came before us and have made all of our mistakes a thousand times over.

Now the student will need to go back through his essay, clearing out the extraneous plot summary in each paragraph and replacing it with fresh, healthy argumentation. It will take a lot of work, and he’ll lose over a page of hard-earned writing that he was counting on to meet his four-page minimum. But when he turns in those final four pages, they will be stronger for the loss, free of sloppy lines, assertive and accurate and confident.


Francisco Nieto Salazar said...

The plot summary thing gets me too. When I feel like I'm overdoing it, I like to throw in a one-liner form a character to sum it all up, and it usually seems to do the trick.

Karin Spirn said...

That's a good tip. I'll pass it along to my students.

albert said...

this idea of faking something until we are doing it right applies in so many places; it's a great example of "what-goes-without-saying."

In addition to the art forms mentioned, i like the manifestation when we are filling a new role [such as 'office worker' or 'girlfriend']. Here we first consciously think "this is what an office worker does" and do that, before we merge that identity with our own - "i am an office worker." What a great and mysterious process.

Karin Spirn said...

That's a great point, Albert--you make me think there's almost nothing we do that doesn't involve feigning confidence: riding a bike, doing school work, having a job, driving a car, having sex, being a good friend or son or daughter during a crisis...