One of my most important lessons came in grade school. The teacher gave us each a piece of manila paper and told us to draw and color a picture of a house and a tree in a yard. (Even at that young age most of us recognized that our creativity was already stifled by being given paper that was tan in color. But that wasn’t the lesson.)
Dutifully I drew my masterpiece, taking special care to get the angles and dimensions as accurate as any 10-year-old could, and when it came time to color it I got out my diverse spectrum of eight crayons and diligently made the tree leaves many shades of green. As I finished, I wondered whether the teacher would be more impressed with my sophisticated shading technique or the fact that I’d made a perfect frame-within-a-frame, coloring just up to a half an inch around all borders, rather like an old photograph.
“Why didn’t you color to the edges?” she denounced.
Taken by surprise by her displeasure, but just as quickly reinforced by the artistic ground I had to stand on, I said, “I made a frame for it.”
“It doesn’t need a frame! The paper is the frame! You should have colored to the edges!”
Well, she never told us that. Nor did she tell us what many of us eventually had to learn on our own, which is: Not everyone appreciates artistic expression, and if you’re not careful there will be plenty who shoot you down when you don’t do things the way they would do it.
In retrospect, I recall that the teacher normally taught math and science, two subjects based in facts which never waver from their cut-and-dried course. I can now understand why letting my Crayolas take a road less traveled signaled an act of deviance to her. I hope the school of life has been equally educational for her, and she has come to realize that in the creative arts, 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2.
One can’t help but think about all the art classes–and writing classes–out there, and wonder how many students have not gone on to become artists or writers because someone in authority told them they ‘couldn’t’ do something.
The trick is being able to distinguish constructive criticism from destructive condemnation that has roots in ignorance or even jealousy. As Tracy Crump encourages in each issue of Southern Writers — and as Philip Levin reinforces in the new edition coming this Thursday — you can’t go wrong surrounding yourself with critics of quality … peers and mentors who have your best interest at heart.
It took a while, plus the advice of much more sophisticated art teachers, for me to rediscover not only the pleasure of creative expression but the truth behind it, which is that real art is allowed to break the rules when it has a reason to.
In the words of Mark Twain:
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as you please.”