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The Tiny, Unexpected Joy of Being Bad at Stuff
and why you have to be a full grownup to really enjoy it
I am, I think, in some senses of the word, an artist. I am definitely an author. I used to be an actor. I do a lot of the things artsy people allegedly do. Wear what I want with little concern for how others will feel about it.. Went to theatre school. Kept a journal. I like museums. I love artsy films. I like the word film. But when it comes to the visual arts, I am woefully inept.
This is not a small thing, for me, a person in the arts. Growing up, my group of best friends from a very young age were the other kind of artists. Dana, Emily, Lydia— they were all full on talents in visual arts. So good at such things that they started careers or side-hustles in calligraphy and design and it was obvious, even when we were very young, that they had that special something.
We were all in an after school art class together. I believe the teacher’s name was Sharon but it could have been something else entirely, my memory of the details obscured by the way I came to realize I was artsy, yes, but not good at art. I loved art class. I loved projects. I loved the idea of what these projects were supposed to look like, what they did look like when Dana and Emily and Lydia made them. But the things I made did not have finesse. Or vision. Or even the very basics of prettiness. Visual art is something that eludes me. My strengths are not things like precision, patience, spacial awareness. And no matter how hard I tried to cultivate these skills, they simply were not— are not— available to me.
For a while I liked photography, but even in that space I could tell I wasn’t good the way other people were. My photography teacher always seemed a little wary of my photographs, even the ones I was proud of. He saw some lack that I did not see. I had ideas— lots of them, big ones— but I didn’t have the actual practical abilities necessary to make those ideas come to life.
I of course chose to enter possibly the only field in the world where I am asked, on a regular basis, if I “do the illustrations too”, a field where I have to constantly admit that no, I do not draw my own characters, design my own covers, I am not an author/illustrator, I am not the platonic ideal of a children’s author. I’m the kind who looks in awe at the work of designers and illustrators, wishing I had a tiny sliver of what they have.
These are the things that have always been true. But then something new happened, a new truth, a new wrinkle to this narrative of myself as the artsy non-artist. I had a kid. And that kid was drawn to art.
It was apparent quickly, that Fia was a craft kid. She likes projects— she likes structure and a reason for doing something and a goal. She likes colors, and sparkles, and the expression of herself through colors and sparkles. And she loves, most of all, art. Even in early pandemic days when she was two and I was doing my best to approximate nursery school at home, it was obvious that our best days were ones where I came up with a craft project to do together. Fia lacked focus, when it came to play, bouncing around from cars to blocks to train sets to dolls all in a three minute span (literally). But a craft project could hold her attention. First for a few minutes, and then as time went on, for longer and longer. And now for whole swaths of time. Hours of coloring. Drawing. Sticker-booking. Gluing. Collaging. Crafting.
But back to those early pandemic crafting days. We were all, of course, looking for things to anchor us. I had lattes, maple scones, the library books I’d borrowed and was unable to return when the libraries closed, that Sesame Street version of the Feist song, JackTV games with my best friends, long walks in the park or the cemetery, and art projects with Fia. In coming up with art for us to do together, I found the fun of art, the joy of it without the judgment. To a two year old, I’m actually great at art. Even five year old Fia thinks I am good at drawing, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. I found, in those long, long, long pandemic mornings, a new side to art. A willingness to connect with it, a love of doing it, a dependence on it. It was something we could enjoy together. It was a part of parenting I loved, a part of the day I could look forward to.
As time went on and Fia returned to school and I no longer needed to be a haphazard nursery school teacher, I found I didn’t have to always come up with the projects, at times I could just enjoy the evolution of Fia’s skills. Currently, she draws everyone as a mermaid. Her palette is decidedly rainbow. She is a coloring perfectionist, she loves making a birthday card. She needs to know the color of her subjects’ eyes. She has the precision and vision that I lacked. She is one of those girls who is good at art. I’d be jealous all over again if it wasn’t an absolute slice of magic watching your kid find a thing that is theirs. Art is hers. It’s What She Likes To Do. And I know a little about how it feels, to find something that belongs to you in that way.
Around the time Fia stopped needing me to do every step of every art project with her, I started noticing an art class being listed at the studio where I used to take her to do art as a pre-covid toddler. I’d always loved the cozy space, was planning on signing her up there for after school in the following years, and had never seen before that they offered classes for adults. I knew I wasn’t interested in a class that would bring out my old insecurities— things like figure painting seemed too exacting, too official for me. But there was a mixed media portraiture class that sounded less terrifying than the other classes, less demanding of perfection.
I signed up.
This is not a story about me finding that I am actually a secret genius at art. This is not even really a story of me finding out I am more capable than I thought. This is a story about how it didn’t matter, that I was still really that same girl who doesn’t have the skill set but enjoys it anyway.
The class was small and cozy, the teacher kind and fun and so creative, the materials offered were exciting and new. There were pastes and paints. Wooden tools and exacto knives and all sorts of substances and strategies to try. I didn’t know what I was doing with any of it, really. I did a photo transfer onto a piece of wood. I stained and sanded and glued and glazed. I watched as the other students worked— their hands familiar with the materials, their sense of a whole clear, their rela-tionship with curves and colors and that elusive something else that makes are beautiful was strong. Lovely to witness. Inspiring. I still felt like the outsider, in some ways— always rushing there from the middle of a chaotic bedtime routine with two kids, and never remembering which paste-y substance to use for which cool collage-y technique. I could see the polish in their final products, and I knew it wasn’t there in mine. I didn’t suddenly become an artist.
But. I didn’t feel that old shame, that shrinking embarrassment. In the mornings after class, I’d show Fia pictures of what I’d done and she’d wonder when she could try the same things. I felt myself exploring in this new medium the same things I do in my books— mothers and daughters, generational trauma or understanding, love, perfectionism. The artwork I came up with was even a pink-gold color that felt uniquely my own, the sort of palette I am always dressing myself in, always decorating my home in, always finding myself drawn to. I was still myself.
What is different about writing and art is, well, a lot of things, but for me the act of revision. I am a perfectionist when it comes to personal relationships, but not my work. It is a strength and a weakness. I turn in messy drafts. I forget important plot points. I have trouble with the logistical touchstones of storytelling— time and space and consistency. I have big ideas that I can’t quite pin down within the constrictions of a book at first. Or even at second.
But this all means I am also a great reviser, unbothered by letting go, by rethinking everything, by making bold new choices and changing everything to make them work. I like to start over. I like to restructure. I like to make scary choices that change everything about my story but ultimately make it better. I like to find my way in a circuitous, unexpected fashion. I like to surprise myself and everyone else, too.
I found it hard to do art in that same messy way. Once something was done, it was hard to undo it. I went into the work without a central vision, the way I often do with writing, and it showed in the final product. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together. I couldn’t make it look the way I felt. I couldn’t trust in the process, trust in the mess leading me somewhere great.
It was fascinating, to see my creative process show up in this new space, and to have to confront its limitations there. I am the same artist in writing that I am in mixed media portraiture, I just have better access to my tools as a writer. I understand how to revise in that space. I know how to reimagine the whole.
Maybe if I took a months long class instead of four weeks, I’d understand enough to become a revising artist. But I think probably not. I liked the playing part of art, but the work of it didn’t interest me as much. As a writer, I love the revision process— it’s filled with epiphanies and collaboration and excitement and joy. It is such hard work, and that hard work exilerates me. But as a visual artist, I liked experimenting and playing and failing, even. I liked wondering what it would look like if I did this, or this, or this. I liked thinking about the subject matter of my art— I used an old photograph of my grandmother as a starting point, and incorporated some of Fia’s drawings into the piece to create a sort of multi-generational bit of art. I liked the idea of it, and the colors in it, and the class itself, and the being around all that paint and paste and mysterious little tools that make all kinds of delicious textures, but I didn’t ultimately need it to do any more than that. I didn’t need it to tell the whole story of my grandmother, herself an artist, an expert and celebrated rug hooker (at her funeral she was praised as a “wonderful hooker”, a perfect and hilarious moment I will never, ever forget and that her puritan New England self would have been appalled at). I didn’t need that piece of art to tell the story of Fia and her love of art, the way she is only ever calm with a marker in her hand, a set of watercolors in front of her. I didn’t need that piece of art to tell the story of me, a mom taking four evenings for herself to do something wildly outside her comfort zone just for the sake of doing it, just to see what it might shake loose, what I might discover, if I return to that place where I used to feel such fear and shame and anxiety and hopelessness.
I didn’t need the art to do any of that. To be anything, really, aside from there.
And you know actually, the art I did in that magical little class tells that story anyway. It doesn’t tell it with the same finesse that it might if I were a Real Artist, if I knew what I was doing, if I knew how to hold a paintbrush, how to tell a story visually. But on that one block of wood, I don’t have to tell the story perfectly. It won’t be reviewed later, it won’t be sold or consumed in any way. I don’t have to answer to editors or reviewers or readers about why I did it this way or that, I don’t have to make it make sense, I don’t have to apologize for the parts that aren’t quite what I wanted them to be.
Back when I journaled, something I am trying to start doing again, there was writing for writing’s sake. That’s harder now, over ten years into writing professionally. But through that Thursday evening class, through the work of mothering an art loving toddler turned art-loving five year old, through the actual just living of life and accepting of self, there can, it turns out, be art for art’s sake.
I am not the girl in the room who is the best at art, and like so many people, I am most comfortable when I am the girl in the room who is good at whatever it is we are doing. But I’m 40, and these days I’m in many rooms— bowling alleys, trivia nights, karaoke parties, my own home with my kids who are challenging me for one reason or another— where I’m not the best. That tiny little art studio near my home with the lovely teacher and kind, quiet, talented other students and slow movement of evening hours is no exception. It is one more place where I am not the best.
And actually, that’s just as it should be.
THE WIDELY UNKNOWN MYTH OF APPLE AND DOROTHY, my next middle grade novel, comes out September 19th. Pre-orders help books like mine SO MUCH, so if you have a Greek mythology lover, an 8-12 year old reader, or just a person who loves books about complicated friendships in your home, please take a moment to place an order for this one!
The book also received two gorgeous blurbs:
“It seems a simple choice: to live as a god on Olympus, or a human on earth. But the brilliance of this novel comes as Corey Ann Haydu weaves a familiar myth in unexpected ways, to show how the ways of the heart are complex beyond comprehension. An amazing story about the costs, losses, and absolute glories of friendship.” — Gary D. Schmidt, Newbery Honor Winner of The Wednesday Wars and Printz Honor Winner of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
“Gorgeous and inventive and poetically poignant. Kids will connect deeply with Dorothy and Apple!” — Christine Day, author of I Can Make This Promise and The Sea in Winter
LAWLESS SPACES was selected as a “recommended title” by the Kansas National Education Association’s Reading Circle Commission! If you haven’t read this novel in verse about mothers and daughters and generational trauma yet, know that it pairs well with the art work I spent this newsletter discussing and that you can see at the top of this newsletter in all its glory.
There is more news coming soon, more exciting stuff in the works, but nothing that has been announced yet, so stay tuned!
I am absolutely obsessed with this perfect salad, which is the only thing I ever want for lunch, is filling and delicious and just an ideal recipe in my opinion. Make it immediately if you love sweet potatoes, chickpeas, provolone cheese, comfort.
If you have a kid, this scavenger hunt game is perfect for a day that they want to play and you are really tired. Which is, by my estimation, every day.
The author recently came out with a new book, but I hadn’t yet read her first one, this really powerful exploration of diet culture, body image, parenting, and living in a world dominated by troubling ways of talking about food. I found it not just moving and educational, but also quite engaging and propulsive.
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