So there I am at the sports bar, surrounded by televisions. I sooo love being surrounded by televisions. Televisions barfing out sports.
But one of my colleagues recently resigned — he’s one of the long-time folks, so there’s a do. At a sports bar. I show up because it’d be crass not to, but it’s basically a social event, and I kinda suck at those. I figure I’ll show up, put in twenty minutes of face time and then sneak away.
“You know that there’s no hockey on, right?” one of my colleagues says to me, to make conversation. I figure the sports-themed surroundings have infected him.
“Hockey. That’s the one with the sticks, right?” I reply, dryly. I’m accustomed to people rolling their eyes at me.
At one point I find a spot on the couch, to sample some of the munchies that have arrived. I’m sitting beside R, who works in HR. I don’t know R all that well — we don’t tend to interact very much. She’s generally upbeat and happy — not quite perky — but otherwise I find her quiet.
“Are you going to give us a performance, later?” R asks me.
“Uh. What?” I reply.
“I hear that you do performances.”
“Uh. Not that I know of,” I say.
“I think that somebody said that you do acting, or something.”
Okay, I can finally get some bearing on the conversation I’m having. Yes, one of my majors in university was Theatre Arts. But no, I don’t do ‘performances’ — certainly not in a work environment. (Back when I worked for IBM, I made a very deliberate decision to not get involved with work ‘skits’ that everyone kept asking me to join. I really only want to be involved in acting projects with people who have a certain minimum level of commitment, and co-workers never seemed to have that minimum level of commitment).
But, anyway, I decide to play dumb: “No, no. There’s no truth to that.”
“Someone told me you studied it in school.”
“I have no idea why anyone would say that.”
“See, I would love it if people could consider me an artist,” R said.
“Oh? Say more about that.”
“In my final year of school,” R recounts, “I realized that I was going to graduate with only sciences. So I took a first-year acting class and a first-year English class to round things out.”
“You don’t sound certain that it was a good call.”
“They were very different kinds of classes. I found them hard.”
“I know that a lot of people are uncomfortable being on display. They become self-conscious.”
“It’s one thing to get up in front of a class and do a presentation where you’re imparting information. You get up, and you have certain points to make, and you’re being instructional. There’s a structure to the information you’re trying to impart. In the acting class, it was very different. You had to be entertaining.” She pauses. Reflects. “The science classes were about data. The acting exercises seemed to be about me. That made me uncomfortable.”
“That’s the way it seemed to me.”
“Interesting,” I say. “I guess, I always found acting easy because I always knew what I was supposed to say next — somebody has already written it out for me.”
“I think it’s just whether or not you have artistic talent,” R says.
“It’s interesting to hear you say that. I’ve been taking these classes — cartooning, drawing, and some painting — and one of the things that really appeals to me is the way that the instructors really downplay the role of talent. They’ve been big on saying that, historically, art was taught as a craft that you just practice and practice until you’re good at it.”
“If I was going to do anything, I’d do painting. But, really… if I took a course, I’d probably get better at painting. But I’d be starting way down here” — she gestures with her hand — “and I’d only get to here.” Another gesture, mid-height. “Someone who’s got more talent would probably start way above there.”
“See,” I say, “that’s the part I don’t think I believe after hearing these instructors. I think it really is a matter of putting in the time and you get better.”
“If I took one of these classes, I’d be one of the worst people in the class.”
“When I took my first cartooning class, I was one of the worst in the class. I’m not quite sure if I was the worst or the second-worst, but I was terrible. Almost everyone was better than me. But after taking those classes for a few years, I was good at doing the work. I put in a lot of time, and I got better, and when I took my final cartooning class, I think I was in the top two.” I’m kind of competitive. I’m often evaluating myself against my peers. “I don’t think I’m particularly talented, I just worked at it hard.”
“But there’s more than just practice,” R says. “Some people are clearly much better.”
“Doesn’t Malcolm Gladwell talk about the magic 10,000 hours to become an expert in something?” She’s in HR. She can relate to this.
“You don’t think talent is a big part of it?”
“I don’t think so. I find it interesting that I’ve never met someone who was really good at something that they really disliked. I think that people who really like certain things are more likely to spend more time practicing.”
“I think it’s inclination. You have to be artistically inclined.”
“But I think I heard you say a few moments ago that you wished people would consider you an artist. Isn’t that an inclination?”
“Maybe,” she says. “If I took a course, I might learn the technique, but I wouldn’t know what to create. I’m not creative.”
Suddenly I was reminded of Dead Like Me. There’s a moment when George says:
This is where I felt it the first time. The universe was cocking the fuck-with-me gun.
“It’s funny you should say that,” I said. “I’ve been taking this writing class. Writing for Comics. I really like the comic form. The thing is, what I’ve been wrestling with all through this course has to do with the rules to creativity. My instructor has focused on breaking down for us these rules, templates and checklists for how to create stories. His argument is that if you just follow the rules, you’ve got a good chance of having a workable story. A part of me has rebelled against this format for the whole class — some part of me feels constrained by the idea that one can write something worthwhile merely by following a formula. I mean isn’t that… formulaic? But at the same time, while working with these template and formulas in each class, I ended up coming up with some interesting concepts that I want to keep developing.
“I think,” I continue, “that there’s something to the idea that creativity is also a skill and it can be learned.”
“You really believe that?”
“I do.” And suddenly, in that moment, a lot of internal conflict about my writing class found some peace.
“What about ignoring the rules?”
“I think I’ve come to accept the idea that it’s best to understand the rules and why they work before you go about trying to break them.”
“I agree with that. I mean, it’s definitely true of cooking. You have to know why something is in a recipe before you can just remove or substitute it.”
We chatted a bit more. R talked more about the idea of learning painting. Eventually, she said, “I think you may have moved me to slightly more in favour of taking a class.”
“Cool,” I said. Really, I have no horse in this race. But she seemed kind of happy about the idea.
Reminds me of this quotation from Samuel Delany (in About Writing):
“The sad truth is, there’s very little that’s creative in creativity. The vast majority is submission–submission to the laws of grammar, to the possibilities of rhetoric, to the grammar of narrative, to narrative’s various and possible structurings. In a society that privileges individuality, self-reliance, and mastery, submission is a frightening thing.”
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