For reasons that might best go unexamined, I recently signed up to take a drawing class, having some vague notion of being able to illustrate a book one day. I’ve always been impressed by people who could render a recognizable image using pen or pencil or paint and I thought it would enhance my ability to concentrate a little if I spent three solid hours once a week focusing on drawing.
Predictably, it started off as a mess, in no small part due to my own perfectionism and an inability to accept that I wasn’t already a museum-quality visual artist. The first class found me fuming and fussing, probably audibly, about everything the class was not: a technical approach to drawing, a discussion of first principles, a demonstration of visual concepts like perspective, access lines, contour lines, etc. Instead, what I had wandered into was the kind of hobbyist course you’d find in a senior citizens’ center (no comments on my age, please) a roundup of different types of media, some undirected still-life drawing, and a “critique” session that generally focused on what everyone loved about certain images.
Second week, slightly better. I did recognize that part of what drove my dissatisfaction was that I’d come in with certain preconceptions about what the course would be that did not, ahem, comport with the actual description in the course catalog. Still frustrated by my inability to render anything on paper that looked the way it looked in real life, but I was a little more accepting of what was going on. Not of myself, however—fortunately (or not), the medium in which we were working allowed me to erase everything I’d done unsuccessfully for the first two hours and start over . . . I did manage to subdue my urge to throw my graphite pencil at the wall and run out the door to the nearest bar.
This past Monday was the third class, into which I went with a minimal requirement of myself—not to be a jerk. To relax into whatever we were doing, stop striving for a success I hadn’t even come close to earning. And there, of course, was the point I’d missed.
I was a beginner again, which is one of the most difficult things an adult can take on: dropping pretensions of expertise, embracing the ugly and inept attempts that are always the fruit of first work, essentially giving up the ghost of perfection—at least, unearned perfection.
I had to remember there was a time when I had no sense of how a sentence should go, or how to describe a character, or where to soften fast action with slow, all those thousands of decisions I learned to make over time, practice, and failures. The idea of ten thousand hours to mastery has become a cliché, but there is no doubt that we need to heed the words of the joke I first read in a Bennet Cerf book. A tourist asks a passerby on the street in New York how to get to Carnegie Hall. “Practice, practice, practice,” is the answer. Which is only another way of saying to myself: Don’t be so afraid to be a beginner. It might even bring you luck.