More lessons from life drawing! I began dreading class two days before it was scheduled. In spare moments, I'd think of excuses: “I could be sick. I do feel kind of headachey. I could plead a dentist appointment, maybe even try to get one, because that tooth really is sensitive. I have a new book coming out Friday; I could say I have too much work to do to get ready for the launch.”
It’s really bad when a dentist appointment feels preferable to class. But I don’t do anything about these thoughts, because I recognize them for what they are: the invisible opposition to any worthy, delayed gratification activity that Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance.”
Pressfield’s cult classic book, The War of Art is a vital expose of this pernicious influence. The slim tome is written in small, dense, intense nuggets, as if Pressfield had his hands full just discharging these vital one-paragraph bullets that expose the battle against Resistance. “Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from any work-in-potential. It’s a negative repelling force. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
Because I’d read Pressfield’s book, I knew the creeping dread was that inertial force at work. My personal favorite way to deal with Resistance is to outwit it.
I allowed the thoughts. Smiled at them tolerantly, even, and refused to take any action while telling myself, “I’ll call the dentist if I TRULY need to. I’ll decide the morning of class if I truly can’t make it.” I endured the mental battle without overtly resisting it. For me, Resistance is bested through a sort mental tai chi, interspersed with plain old stubbornness and refusal to give up.
Thursday morning came, and Resistance was still terrible. So bad, that I sat outside watching the birdfeeder with my morning tea and probed my mind for a few minutes, much like tonguing my still-sore tooth: what is bothering me about drawing class?
Immediately, as if launched from a cannon, Resistance sent a reply: “You’re a shitty artist. Always have been. All those grandiose ideas about your talent when you were a kid were so ridiculous. You’ll never amount to anything in visual arts. Why don’t you stick with what you’re good at, writing? Show some dignity! You’re too old to master drawing. If you couldn’t do it when you were younger, what makes you imagine you can do it when you’re FIFTY?”
The cruel, vituperative tone of Resistance is unmistakable and it pisses me off. Resistance used to tell me shit like that when I was trying to get better at writing. For thirty years I let it keep me down, sprinkled with excuses and distractions like marriage, work, and raising kids—but in spite of it, I’ve persevered in my writing until I know I’m at least decent, no matter what Resistance tells me.
Resistance made a mistake: it got me mad, and I’m a fighter when I get mad.
To seal the deal, I send a text to my my accountability partner sister, who I know must be feeling much the same:
Toby: “Fighting mental battle about attending class today. The Resistance is heavy.”
Bonny: “I know where you live. Don’t make me come get you.”
Yep, I was definitely going to class. We both know she can kick my butt and drag me in by the hair. We established that when I was twelve and she was eight: we had our final chick-fight, and she bested me soundly.
And of course, as with all activities that elicit the most Resistance, this class marked a turning point in my ability to Get It.
Some interesting things happened: first, we had a male model, and this time I really started to understand how important the midpoint was. So I worked hard to find it: and it was right in the middle of the model’s junk. Staring repeatedly, shutting one eye and using my pencil to measure, I encountered embarrassment and even some good old-fashioned prudery in my own head as I tentatively sketched “that area.” Even covered by a sort of g-string pouch, I wasn’t comfortable visually hanging out down there.
Working out from Squeamish Central, I discovered I’d gotten slightly better at guesstimating what the master came by and jotted on my pad: Mass, Angles, Distance, and Shapes as we worked with longer poses and tried to use the whole paper.
“It’s all just MADS,” he said. “Because what you are doing is taking 3-d reality and converting it to a 2-D flat surface. It’s challenging, but if you keep thinking in those terms, you are not just recording, you’re processing what’s there. You’ve circumvented the brain’s attempt to define it.”
Another interesting thing is that the master didn’t write MADS on anyone else’s paper, and he wrote it twice on mine, on two different drawings. I’m like the Special Ed kid who gets extra help disguised as encouragement. In that sniping internal voice, I recognized Resistance returning, trying to shame me.
I did a nimble reframe: I’m so special that the master can see my talent and he’s determined to help me, even though I don’t yet believe in myself. He’s not picking on me. He likes me and he doesn’t want me to give up.
With this outflanking of Resistance, I actually begin to feel a little bit happy for the first time in ten hours of torturous class time.
At the last break of the day, I went to talk to our model. Sitting on the stage, he’d engulfed himself in a matronly, fuzzy blue bathrobe. “Thanks for your hard work. You’re really good at staying so still.” He’s done forty-minute poses, all standing, his lean, dignified body a study in discipline. “Is it challenging to be so silent and still, and not have anything to do?”
He smiled, and the sternly ascetic face I’d become familiar with lit up. “It’s difficult but it’s a kind of meditation. I can’t daydream too much or things start to shift.”
“Yeah. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve found about working here in the atelier. The focus required, the lack of other stimulation, not to mention how difficult drawing is. But for you, even more boring.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind.” After a friendly chat that makes me feel better about objectifying a human being into Mass, Angles, Distance and Shapes, I go back to my board.
“This is much better,” the master said at the end of class, even as he corrected several things. Yep, special. Hard-won praise is the sweetest.
But for the first time, I didn’t throw away my drawing until I got home.