In this first month of the year, it's exciting to envision good times ahead, to imagine accomplishments and successes piling up like drifts of fresh snow. This year, I'm also looking forward to goof-ups, flops, bungles, epic fails. To dumping garbage, if you will, on all that pristine snow.
Seriously? Seriously! It’s my intention to embrace failure, to view it as a teacher, not an indication of my worth.
This is not an easy mind-shift to make. I've spent most of my life aiming for success (however I chose to define it) and avoiding screw-ups. I've taken risks, but they've been calculated risks that I had reason to believe would turn out all right. For the most part, they did, or at least I convinced myself they did.
So why am I so intent on failing now? It's because there are things I want to try without worrying how they'll turn out. I'm not talking about major undertakings like kayaking across Lake Michigan, just small endeavors that previously have intimidated me.
For example, I have always wanted to draw, but my drawing ability plateaued around age seven. In college, I signed up for an introductory drawing class with a young, hip professor named Larry. For the first few weeks I looked forward to every session. Larry put on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album, demonstrated a technique, gave us an assignment, and cruised around the room offering suggestions. To this day, when I hear "Marrakesh Express," I'm back in that classroom, immersed in the scratch of pencil on paper, the magic of images taking shape beneath my hand.
Drawing was a joy, and I thought I was making great progress. Then one day, mid-way through the term, Larry made a comment to a mutual friend, and the friend (who was not known for his tact) repeated it to me.
"Larry says no one in your class has any talent."
That did it. I finished the class, but my enthusiasm for drawing died. I packed up my pencils and never gave them another thought . . . until recently, when I realized I still have a desire to draw.
It's a modest desire. I don't care about creating realistic likenesses, I just think it would be great fun to draw whimsical, cartoonish figures, faces, flowers, creatures, and objects. I envy friends who embellish their journals and notepads with fanciful doodles that seem to flow from their pens as easily as words.
So I bought a sketchbook and a book called How to Draw Almost Everything, which promised step-by-step instructions in the kind of drawing I want to do. I filled a page with with cartoon-y faces, first copying from the book, then making up my own. It was fun, and the results—while still at seven-year-old level—pleased me. With practice, maybe I could progress to advanced seven-year-old level!
Emboldened, I added bodies. Not too bad. Then I tried animals—squirrels, to be precise. The first one came out kind of cute, but the more squirrels I drew, the more bizarre they looked. Hunched backs, distorted bellies, fierce faces. All of a sudden my seven-year-old talent had regressed to kindergarten level. And not even cute kindergarten level—more like extremely disturbed kindergarten level. I tried clouds, trees, suns, stars, ballerinas, mermaids. All disastrous.
I remembered Larry's comment: no talent.
I laid the sketchbook aside and didn't open it for a few days. But then two things happened. First, I came across a couple of quotes I had copied from The Artist's Way when I re-read parts of the book during a creative slump:
Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.
A few days after encountering those quotes, I was cleaning out some old files and found the first articles I wrote for the science writing class that led to the internship that led to my thirty-year career as a science writer.
My first attempt, a story on the health hazards of photocopy machine toners, dated August 30, 1980, was covered with red marks from the professor. And with good reason. My lede was leaden, my verbs flabby and passive, and story so full of qualifiers, readers would be hard pressed to draw any conclusions from it. In short, a failed attempt.
Yet if you had asked me—before I unearthed that old story—how I learned to write about science, I would've said it came naturally to me. Clearly, that's not true. I was once a beginner, and only by messing up and trying again did I get better at the thing I ended up doing best.
So I'm giving myself permission to be a beginner at drawing and all the other things I want to try or improve at: writing flash nonfiction, trying more challenging photography techniques, mastering yoga poses that don't come easily. And that means allowing myself to fail and try again.
What do you want to fail at this year?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.