What Matters

I just finished taking my second drawing class of the year.

I’ve always wanted to be able to draw, but back when I was a kid I was told I was no good at it, and somehow I took that to heart. After all, I had lousy handwriting (still do) and poor fine motor skills. And the myth that you had to have “talent” to do all kinds of things was overpowering back then.

Maybe it’s still overpowering.

Anyway, I’ve now taken two drawing classes, picked up some technical skills, and lost my fear.

I’m not doing this for any particular purpose. I just want to draw. It seems to me that understanding the basics of drawing – the tools, the techniques, the ways of seeing – is very useful regardless of whether you want to be serious about making art.

The underlying context I picked up as a kid was that if you aren’t naturally good enough something, you shouldn’t waste time on it. Only do things you’re good at.

And of course, if you did have enough talent to be seen as good at something creative, you were told you shouldn’t do it because it wasn’t “practical.” How are you going to make a living with that, everyone said.

Our drawing teacher told us this week that he quit his career in architecture to make art full time and is so much happier. Practicality isn’t everything.

He also told us he really enjoyed teaching us and he was very good at being encouraging about our efforts while still showing us what we missed.

I think part of the reason he liked teaching us was because we were a bunch of grownups taking a class for its own sake and invested enough to do the work. Because the work is the whole point here.

That was one of things I always liked about teaching Aikido: people were serious and were there to learn. People trained because they wanted to train, not with any larger goal in mind.

I trained for those reasons. And, by the way, I was not “naturally good” at Aikido. I just loved it – and karate before it – too much to be discouraged.

There is a saying that no one on their deathbed ever says they regret not spending more time at the office. Classically, they regret not spending more time with their families.

Now I’m inclined to think we do a lot of mushy thinking about families in this culture, so I’ve always rather dismissed that.

But I do think that what people most regret is not having spent enough time on the work that matters to them. Or maybe the play that matters to them.

Now I have become a writer, and writing is something that matters to me, matters on a deep level. It’s not just the stories or the essays or the poems, but the use of words, not just to make good sentences or images that pop off the page, but to discover.

Because when you try to put something in words, you have to figure out what you really mean. And that opens up something else.

I know you do the same thing when you train in Aikido or other martial arts. I’m beginning to see how that works with drawing. Maybe if I’d kept singing and playing music longer and been more disciplined about practicing, I’d have a deeper understanding of how it works with sound.

If I have regrets about choices I made over the years, they are about not learning to draw until recently, not playing more music, not taking up martial arts when I was younger, not getting serious about fiction earlier.

Those things are not related to money. They are not even related to success or fame or stardom. I’ve invested enough in my writing to want to be read and respected for it, but that’s about as far as my ambition goes these days.

Except for martial arts, the things I’m drawn to are mostly creative practices. But at the core, what really gets me – and what ties Aikido to the rest – is doing things that open up another level the more you work at them.

The world is full of things like that. I imagine that’s what draws a lot of people to science and to academic pursuits. It’s the essence of philosophy. It underlies invention.

It’s not just doing something well enough to get by; it’s finding a level of deep truth and then discovering a few years later that there’s even more to it than you thought.

If I have any real regrets, it’s that I didn’t understand this earlier. Obviously I figured some of it out on the unconscious level because I spent so much time in Aikido and finally got serious about writing. Those things always mattered more than any job I had.

But if I’d known all this at, say, sixteen, I’d have done a better job of figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Better late than never, I suppose.

4 thoughts on “What Matters

  1. “And, by the way, I was not “naturally good” at Aikido. I just loved it – and karate before it – too much to be discouraged.” That was me with stage combat. Someone asked me (when I was in training and flexible and, oh yeah, young) if I was “naturally athletic.” I think my response was that there was nothing at all natural about it. I loved it, so I worked at it.

    I’m glad you’re taking art classes. Despite having classes and encouragement as a kid, it isn’t something I gravitated to (perhaps because my father and brother were both hugely talented visual artists, and I knew damned well I couldn’t compete). But art, and making things with an eye to design, continues to be a part of my life. And if it gives you joy, and brings you back to work another day, that is more than enough reason to do it.

  2. A lot of people who are naturally good at things don’t stick with them when they hit a rough spot, I’ve noticed. But I do notice that those with a lot of natural ability who also love what they’re doing and love working on the hard parts become very, very good.

    Yeah, the art classes are good. They’re making me fearless in a way that I think I’d forgotten how to be, the kind of fearlessness that comes from being open to useful advice and critique because you’re not afraid they’re going to laugh at you.

  3. It seems to me you were young when you took up martial arts — you were in your twenties when you studied karate I believe. And you did stick with music for quite a while, playing in the UT band. I think you’ve been a fiction writer all your life, starting with the stories you made up for us to act out when we were kids. Just to let you know, I always thought you were a great artist when you were drawing back then.
    My way of saying you don’t need to have regrets about timing or when you figured things out.

    1. The regret is mostly about it taking so long to figure out why certain things mattered and why other things really did not even though they took up time in my life.
      And I was a month short of thirty when I took up martial arts. Given how it affected me, I suspect my 20s might have been easier if I’d started much earlier.

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