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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A Kind Word

Plastic heads stand impaled on black metal poles in the middle of the studio. They're tilted up and down, left and right, their grey faces expressionless. The students -- I'm one of them -- sit astride narrow benches arranged in a circle around the cluster of heads. I draw awkward lines with the bit of charcoal between my fingers, then rub them off with the edge of my hand. My palms are black from this constant erasing. A human head has never looked this strange to me. I manage to sketch the shape of an egg, and inside it black smudges of eyes and nose and crooked mouth. I wonder what I'm doing here, in Introduction to Figure Drawing. I have no talent for this at all.

The instructor, a short man with a lively step and a smile always on his face, stops behind me to look at my work. I brace myself for a criticism. But he says, "That's good. This is hard. You're doing okay." My courage returns. I sketch another head, then another. My hand becomes more confident. The prospect of drawing a hundred of these egg-shaped heads all tilted at different angles doesn't terrify me any more. I'm excited at how much there's to learn from it.

I underestimate the power of a kind word. I'm of the persuasion that no progress can be made in any endeavor, artistic or otherwise, without harsh criticism, without having your heart and your mind broken into pieces and put together again in the right combination to make you a good artist. No ecstasy without agony. I used to feel sorry for parents who oohed and aahed at the skeletal people and rickety houses their children drew with their first set of crayons. They couldn't be honest with their children, coudn't tell them the harsh truth that their drawings were mediocre, and that to become any better they would have to work and suffer more than they could imagine.

I had a revelation yesterday in my drawing class. What matters isn't talent or being told the truth that you don't have it. What matters is practice, and keeping alive the enthusiasm necessary to see you through the many years, the lifetime, of practice indispensable to mastering any skill. My drawing instructor had the great wisdom to encourage me rather than just shut the door in my face by telling me that I know almost nothing about drawing and have no natural talent for it, both true statements of fact.

There's a big difference between a truth that is useful to the person to whom you reveal it, and a truth that is not. Too often I don't make this distinction; I insist on honesty at any price. Sometimes this price is too high. A truth recklessly thrown at you can shatter your spirit and prevent your from learning and growing. What good is a truth like that?


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