Memoirs of a bad artist

Now and Again

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The first complete story I can remember writing, with binding and everything, was called “The 22 Caterpillars.” It was a very character-driven piece, and the crux of the plot was that there were a lot of caterpillars who all had different names and different things going on. Mrs. Sontagrath, my first-grade teacher, politely pulled me aside and suggested I abridge the story so that Author’s Chair, at which the kids all read the stories aloud to the parents at the end of the year, would be over before Memorial Day. Always one to be receptive to edits, I started pulling random caterpillars out of the story and never changed the name. At some points there were three caterpillars, at other points there were 17, and some segments still addressed the original 22. My plot had entirely fallen apart (because of poor editing), but Mrs. Sontagrath didn’t venture to give my opus any more edits after that.

When I finished Author’s Chair, however, I remember the mom of one of my friends coming up to me and telling me that my story had been ambitious. At the time, I had no idea that this was adult code for “You bit off more than you could chew,” so after that, my shooting star kept right on blazing.  

In fourth grade, my essay about my educated decision to never smoke weed or drink alcohol was chosen to be read aloud at the end-of-year D.A.R.E. assembly. In fifth grade, I successfully bullshitted a book report about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and my teacher never even called me on it. I got second place in a slam poetry competition my junior year of high school.

But just after graduating from high school, something changed. I didn’t have any classes with teachers asking me to write creatively. I didn’t join any clubs or know of any local open mics. I didn’t know whose arm to twist to get my plays on the big stage, and I wasn’t surrounded by people who knew me as the kid who was going to be a writer. I was just one in a huge pile of creatives, and my inability to create for myself anymore convinced me that I hadn’t even been an especially good writer to begin with.

School was harder in college, and I spent about as much time “mentally decompressing” by watching “Gilmore Girls” and noir movies as I did on any hobbies I had cultivated. And as with any muscle, without any use, my ability to write creatively weakened and weakened until it disappeared almost entirely.

Going into last year, it was clear to me that I was missing a creative outlet. I knew writing was no longer a possibility. Every time I tried to write something, I became so discouraged by its quality that I stopped and called my mom.

“I can only write characters who are me but skinnier!” I would shout into the phone between sobs.

I started taking classes at the Berkeley Art Studio in figure drawing. I don’t say that I was the worst in the room to be self-deprecating or hyperbolic. I say it because it was the truth.

The teacher would walk around each class and give people little pieces of feedback. For some, it was, “Focus on the shading in this leg,” and for others, it was, “You seem to have mastered the form; maybe look at drawing the background features.”

“You see,” my teacher said, squinting his eyes at my piece with a piece of charcoal pressed to his lips, “you put her legs down here,” pointing at the toe of the woman lying on the table, “and they should be up here.” He circled a section somewhere near her belly button.  

After each drawing, we had to walk around in a circle and look at what everyone had drawn. Occasionally, the models would hop off the tables in a wrap dress or robe and look at the interpretations of their naked bodies.

Once, I was tidying up my space before leaving when I saw the model meandering around. I clenched my jaw as she walked past and violently avoided eye contact. She eyed my piece closely, leaning in.

“Whoa, no one has ever drawn my leg hairs before!” she said, beaming at me.

She didn’t see that I had no idea how to draw hair so I’d just sort of scribbled on top of her head, or that I had run out of space on the paper and had to make her torso about a third of the length of her legs, or even that I had given her six toes on her left foot for some reason. Or maybe she did see all those things but chose to point out the leg hair anyway.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to get into that place with writing again — where I just finish something even if it’s bad and not let it get to me, where I dive in blind and hectic and hopeful. But I do hope that if I do, when I do, I am able to find the leg hair on my own and try again.

Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.