Monday, October 20, 2008

perfect without practice

Jabber is almost five, but it's only very recently that he has started making any kind of representational art.

I was never too worried that he wasn't really drawing any of those little blobs with legs and arms that might be my uncle's dog or they might be my Uncle Doug. Yes, he sometimes draws beautiful rainbows, especially after starting up at the new daycare that is mostly girls his age. There were also a couple of drawings that he claimed were "jets," but they mostly looked like intricate scribblings to the casual observer.

I knew he had no trouble with fine motor skills; he writes his name fairly legibly on small lined paper, operates complex tools, buttons and unbuttons his bib overalls even in the middle of some urgency at the potty.

Part of me just thought maybe he was more of a modern artist. After all, he painted this bizarre scene that hangs on our basement door, which he named "Schoolwork Bronco." He's brilliant, you see.

But no. His problem is that he's a perfectionist. He's afraid to try drawing something that is supposed to look like something else in case it doesn't look exactly like that something else.

I discovered this when he wrote his first book, "Monster's Helper." Great book, by the way, really scary and doesn't fall into the cliche of the big mean monster is really just a cuddly nice monster and they all live happily ever after. No, in Jabber's story the monster punches everyone in the world and then he and his helper (the boy) become really bad and they zoom away in their super-fast car.

So he was working on illustrations for his book. I set him up with some paper, some markers, a couple of pencils and erasers, the whole deal. He was happy, excited. A few minutes passed. He drew nothing.

"Well? Are you still thinking about what your picture is going to look like?" I asked.

"No. I know what it will look like," he said. "But I can't do it. You do it, Mom. I can't."

"Oh, nonsense, you just give it a try! No big deal if it doesn't come out quite the way you thought. That's how art is, honey, sometimes it's a surprise!"

He shook his head morosely. "Noooooooo," he wailed, collapsing into a puddle, face-down on the floor. "I'm going to mess up! I'm going to mess up!"

I reassured him a bunch of times and finally got him to make a tiny mark on the paper. "AUGHHHHHH!" he cried, collapsing to the floor again. "I ruined it, Mom! We'll have to print out the whole book all over again! I messed up!"

I peered at the tiny mark on the page. "What do you mean? How did you mess up?"

But he was crying too hard to even form coherent words, and all I could do was wrap him up in my arms and whisper, "Shhh, Jabber, baby, it's okay. That's the best part about drawing...sometimes it looks different when it comes out in the end than you thought it would in the beginning, but you can fix absolutely anything. You can fix anything."

Eventually, after assurances such as, "Hey! No big deal if one eye is bigger than the other! He's a monster; he can look any way you'd like!" ("NO! He doesn't look scary enough that way!!!") and "Sweetheart, it doesn't matter if you put an extra finger on his hand. Maybe monsters have seven or eight fingers, you know?" ("MOM! That's just SILLY! He's supposed to have five fingers JUST LIKE ME!") we did get the book illustrated. And the little perfectionist really did seem to be genuinely proud of his creations.

Until. Lately, he's been Star Wars obsessed. So one day I came home from work, and Jabber presented me with this amazing picture of the storm troopers and a bunch of X-wing fighters. I mean, for a boy who never draws representational art, this was seriously awesome! He took it to daycare to show it to all the kiddos who are likewise obsessed. Probably also his big-boy crush, Mr. Big Kid Extraordinaire, who plays into the story later.

A couple of days later, Jabber's got the markers out again, and after a brief tantrum experience resulting when Monkey attempts to add his unique artistic style to Jabber's paper, I get the boy settled in upstairs in his room while I'm packing for my upcoming trip. The markers are all laid out in a little plastic sandwich box, looking ready to go. The baby gate is in place at the top of the stairs, sealing out meddling little brothers. Inspiration is just a marker stroke away.

Jabber collapses in a heap of tears. "I'm messing it up!" he wails.

I am really close to losing patience at this point. I mean, I get frustrated trying to reassure him over and over, so I say something like, "Honey, maybe now isn't really the best time for coloring. You don't seem to be enjoying it, and that makes me sad."


Ahh. So the heart of the matter is that he has an audience in his head, and he can't stop himself from hearing their jeering comments? Hmm, sounds familiar, from a writing standpoint.

"Well, maybe you should just do this picture for yourself, and not worry about what the Big Kids are going to say about it," I say, rubbing his little shaking back.

"But I WANT to show the Big Kids my picture!"

"Well, how about if you plan on doing this picture for practice, just for yourself. Think about it as just a way to get better at drawing your Storm Troopers, and then, if it happens to turn out in a way that makes you proud, then you can show it to the Big Kids."

This seems to be a reasonable solution, except for one thing. "But, Mom," he insists, sitting up and taking the marker back up, but still not getting it anywhere near the page, "I already practiced drawing my Storm Troopers once. I should be able to do it PERFECT by now."

Oh, sweet one. How can I possibly convince you that sometimes Life requires more than one practice run?


cowpops said...

Ah, all-too-familiar with the audience in the head thing. Wow.

He's almost 5, eh? :) Dayum.

Catherine said...

Ooh Gosh, perfectionism is going to be a real hindrance to art - esp at his age.

Poor kid, i do understand his frustration, but it's really something he needs to let go, as early as possible. Otherwise he's going to be unhappy with everything he creates.