The Truth About Art and Why No One Is Good at It

In the fourth grade, I sat at the kitchen table designing the cover for my book – a full color illustration complete with imaginary embossing on the all-caps title and my very own name splashed across the bottom.

I didn’t write a word of that book, but judging from the cover I’m sure it would have been a best seller if I had.

It wasn’t until sixth grade that I actually attempted to write a book. I remember because it was called Sixth Graders Don’t Play with Dolls. I was in sixth grade, and I still played with dolls. Sometimes.

I never finished that story, and I never finished the next book I started either.

And now I’m 30, and the only novel I  have to my name is a crappy first draft of a rambling story full of shallow, autobiographical characters I wrote three years ago and haven’t looked at since.

It would make a terrible book for sure. Most first drafts would. I’m sure everyone who’s ever told me “you’re a good writer” would wince in pain if they read my novel – my crappy, crappy novel.

I didn’t return to it because I didn’t care enough and I didn’t know enough about what it means to be a writer.

But mostly it was because the fourth grader inside me was in tears thinking everyone could be wrong about her, that they might discover that she’s not actually a good writer after all.

If I were a good writer, then that first draft would have been good, right? It would have flowed off my keyboard like chocolate pudding down my throat, smooth and cool and effortless – rather than what it really is, a bunch of mucus I coughed up while hunched over my laptop drenched in mental sweat, fingers frozen in place over the keyboard.

If you’re a writer, or another kind of artist, you’ll probably be laughing at me in your head by now. But I’ve since learned better, thank goodness.

When I sit down to write, it is a task and a chore and a labor, and when someone tells me I’m a good writer, it’s as if they were saying, congratulations you’re a girl! Or, good job on those blue eyes!

As if I had anything to do with it.

Sure, it feels good to the ego to have a nice little pat on the head, to hear confirmation that there is indeed something special about me, that I really do have a few strands of superhero DNA.

But if you’ve read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or are familiar with her work, you’ll know that congratulating someone on being talented or smart or athletic actually does them more harm than good.

It traps them into believing that their traits are fixed, and if they don’t have a certain ability, then they can’t acquire it, and if they have a certain amount of some ability, they don’t have to work to develop it.

I was like this for a very long time. I always thought I couldn’t be a photographer because I wasn’t techy. Because I was afraid of buttons and fractions and digital sorts of things that belonged to other people, not me.

But now I feel free to explore and create and enjoy photography. No one has ever told me I am a good photographer, and I hope they never do.

In a way, I wish I had never been called a good writer. I think perhaps I’d be a better writer for it. There wouldn’t be the same hang ups, the same overwhelming sense of perfectionism and not good enough-ism and doubt of my own self-worth.

Alas, all the times I’ve been told I’m a good writer have become weights of obligation and expectation. They’ve created this pressure that everything I write must be brilliant and evocative and expertly phrased or else others’ opinions of my talents and very identity will be compromised, and then who will I be?

WHO WILL I BE??

If I’m a good writer, it’s only because my parents and teachers instilled in me a love of books and reading. It’s only because I read voraciously for years, from before I even knew my ABCs.

It’s only because I allowed myself to get lost in books that my own imagination soared, that I adopted ideas and philosophies, that I learned to dream, and that I could then follow those dreams and start writing my own stuff, as halting and insufficient as it might be.

If I’m a good writer, it’s not because I was born with a pencil and notepad in hand, furiously scribbling down the details of my birth in real time, recounting the experience in vivid detail until I brought all the other newborns to tears with my evocative prose.

If I’m a good writer, it’s only because I’ve worked at it my whole life, and I have to keep working at it, or else I’ll get dementia and my muscles will atrophy because that’s what happens when you don’t exercise, when you don’t practice.

If you had seen the first draft of this blog post, you would tell me I’m a terrible writer. (Hey, maybe you still would, even after a dozen rounds of revisions.)

But writers don’t publish their first drafts, do they? And photographers don’t show people their crappy shots. And no one talks about Usain Bolt’s first Olympics because he didn’t win a medal, because he wasn’t the fastest man on earth back then, because he had to become the fastest by training first.

So let’s stop celebrating the end result as if it were the first result. Let’s stop acting like any success we see out there isn’t the result of painful physical, emotional, and mental labor.

Rather than telling someone they’re good at something, as if they were just born that way, let’s celebrate their effort and the years they devoted to developing their skills.

Let’s praise the blood, sweat, and tears they poured out over their art, whether it’s a book or a photograph or a world record run. Or just a finger painting they want you to put on the fridge.

One thought on “The Truth About Art and Why No One Is Good at It

  • October 5, 2016 at 10:05 am
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    Gifts, like diamonds, need to be polished. I think that process is what you’re describing. Yes, it is hard work (even sermon preparation is!). But polish a stone all you want and it won’t turn into a diamond. Not everyone, in fact not many, can produce what you do with all your hard work, even if they worked 10X harder. You have a gift. But we love you not because of that gift but because you’re our daughter!

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