Our Own Work:
The Necessary Obstinate
by Jennifer Paros
My great mistake, the fault for which I can’t
forgive myself, is that one day I ceased my
obstinate pursuit of my own individuality.
-- Oscar Wilde
Over twenty-five years ago I was in a drawing class in which the
professor declared, “I want to teach you how to sustain your own
work.” At the time, I didn’t even know I had my own work,
but now, after years of following ideas and feelings towards new
drawings and stories, I understand why this was so important.
She didn’t want us left stuck looking around asking, “What should I
draw next?” (“What should I write next?” or “What should I live
next?”) She wanted us to pay attention to an inner pull because in
following that wanting, work and life would unfold with a sense of
meaning and sustain us, in turn making it easier for us to sustain
our efforts. Whatever we had made or lived wanted to become
something else, and that energy could lead us if we let it.
Lately, I’ve had some conflicts with my twelve-year-old son. As I
work to observe more and press my will less, I see a person who must
assert his point of view, who desperately wants his way seen as
equally valid. But as I indulge in judgment, thinking I know
better, I am not acknowledging the equality that is inherently
his. Though I say he is equal, I am still wishing my ideas
to reign over and lead his.
Something in him calls out its evolution, and he needs to find out
where it wants to go and what it wants to become. And if he
is absorbed in my way, he won’t be able to follow his own. Despite
the fears I indulge, ultimately he is the one creating his life and
must listen disproportionately more to himself than to anyone else.
Otherwise he will never be able to sustain his work - which really
means sustain his life – in a way that is meaningful to him.
All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart
is exclusively my own.
-- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
When I taught private art lessons, I had a student, Jane, who had
worked in the field of design and graphics. She told me she
couldn’t remember how to really draw any more. Her mind was
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2011
storehouse of symbols of houses, trees, chairs, and people and when
she drew, all that came forward were those symbols. She wanted the
experience of seeing new, not synthesizing a library of once-learned
I admired her skill, the cleanness of her lines, and actually the
symbols too, but she resented them. They had become a jail to
her: easy to do and technically “right” but disallowing of the
discovery that results from seeing things as unknown and
unlabeled. To see new, we must
go to a place of
not knowing. If we come in knowing, we end up with only previously
made ideas and forms.
From now on, I’ll connect the dots my own way.
-- Bill Watterson
For Jane, the convention of symbolic notations had served her well
for a time. She had become facile with working with these models.
I, on the other hand, rarely felt skilled at making things look the
way I thought they were supposed to in my drawings. I
idealized the conventional as a way to get things “right”, wished to
achieve it, yet never believed I could.
My son tends to resent convention, pushing against decorum to a
degree, protesting traditional rules and structure. Perhaps he’s
frustrated that those ready-made structures and ideas appear to take
up so much space and attention, seemingly holding the power to
dictate his reality. They’re all over the place, after all - and so
are my opinions and everyone else’s. And he knows, instinctively,
that he’s got to remember himself. So he yells in order to hear who
he is over all of that.
But like Jane and the rest of us, he doesn’t need to obliterate or
fight against the ready-mades, the already-theres - the structures
and forms previously in play - in order to see new. He can find out
what his own life wants to become next, as well as his work. And
all that takes is asking the question of himself and listening for
the answer. For it has nothing to do with being jailed by anything
made or lived before, and everything to do with letting those
previous creations inform, inspire, and lead him to his next move.
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Jennifer Paros is a writer,
illustrator, and author of
Violet Bing and the Grand House
(Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.
Please visit her website at