The path of learning and growing as a creative being is as much one of unlearning as anything. Or as Julia Cameron describes it, recovery of who we really are.
In the process, we get to shed the answers and definitions we were handed and come to believe as true. As indisputable fact. This is the life journey, is it not? For all of us.
I recently talked about this with Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, on the Humanitou Podcast. We talked about the friar and spiritual author Richard Rohr, and his perspective that life contains two halves.
The first, by Rohr’s explanation, is when our vessel of life is molded by others, when we’re young and imprinted by what families, friends, teachers and society at large tell us is who we are and ought to be.
The second half is when we do the work to come to know who we really are. That’s when we molt the previous life’s skin and come into our own, when we fill that vessel we were provided in the first half with all that we really mean to carry with us.
I think that for people who carry long-standing stories of not being creative, ones who insist upon things like “I can’t draw” and “I can’t be an artist,” there is a belief that artists are magically gifted with whatever they perceive artists to be.
I once held this misunderstanding, too. And I still work to shed that expectation that somehow I’m supposed to have answers, techniques and ideas perfected in order to recognize myself as an artist.
It’s a growth mindset thing. It’s the difference between my internal voice telling me “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I don’t know what I’m doing yet.” A subtle difference.
But one version recognizes that the learning is underway and has a future, that things are not written into the bedrock. The other implies we’re already at the end of the journey as soon as we started it, that continuing holds a heavy dose of pointlessness.
There was a moment a dozen years or more ago that I connected with this distinction for the first memorable time. And I recently hung that memory — a small, simple abstract watercolor painting — on my office/studio wall as an ongoing reminder of where I’ve come from creatively. It’s meaning for me continues to grow.
The water color is around 4” x 6” and consists of two layers of paper. The top layer is washed in blue. It also is heavily textured, because I had wadded it up and thrown it aside in disgust at my “failure” immediately after making it.
The thought was that if I couldn’t make “perfect” art, I must not be this thing I held in such high esteem: an “artist.” An artist would have known how not to mess it up, right? Would have known how to be precise and flawless? I figured so.
But for a reason that escapes me now, shortly after discarding that balled-up painted paper, I picked it up again and unballed it. In the process of opening up the paper, still wet from the watercolor, a gash tore in the middle.
Ridges and valleys had been created by the folds, and with them a compelling texture that stretched fully from edge to edge, and edge to edge.
In my second look at my supposed failure, I giddily saw something new: a possibility. I took a second sheet of paper and added red in watercolor to the center of the slip only, something to show plainly from behind the tear in the blue layer.
A wound with depth, with a 3-D quality where the gap and its textured edges stood up and away from the sore of the layer beneath, became the point of focus, became the art.
What had been a fatal flaw — the tear — gave literal opening to a new idea. Whatever I had perceived as a failing in the blue watercolor, was enhanced and enlivened by my folding it up and tossing it away.
All part of the process. A beautiful oops torn into a beautiful oops, all to reveal the real value of the work. I now look at this small piece, framed and high on my wall these many years later as a reminder of the beauty of a wound, of perception, and of process.
I’ll admit, it still is an ongoing practice of occasionally reminding myself that every step, every “mistake,” is useful. But really, how often do we set a plan for creating and end up exactly where we thought we should or would? Maybe never.
And if we do, maybe we ought to reconsider how rigidly we’re holding to those well-laid plans, how much we’re closing out the possibilities for sparks of the unforeseeable to enter.
The adventure often is off the map and out of sync with the schedule. The most joyful and memorable moments come when we’re caught in the rain and have no choice but to embrace it, to dance with it, to hold our chins high and catch the drops with our tongues.
I often think of John Lennon’s line, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” It’s great to start a journey with an idea in mind, but it’s the beautiful oopses that make the journey we actually take worthwhile.