Our Own Work: The Necessary Obstinate Pursuit
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 a 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 forms.
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.