Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Joys and Challenges (and Potential Shame) of Imperfection . . .

I've just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's marvellous memoir about learning and living in Italian, a memoir she felt compelled to write in Italian (but which has been translated to English by Ann Goldstein who is best known for translating Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, the first volume of which we are currently reading together).

 Can you imagine? A renowned, celebrated writer in English, she has, for now, abandoned reading and writing in that language (her second after Bengali and one with which she has a complex relationship) in favour of immersing herself in Italian. She acknowledges the quirkiness, even the indulgence, of her decision, and I acknowledge that many reviewers consider the project a novelty at best, a waste of time, perhaps, even an out-and-out failure. (Tim Parks, for example, whose writing on Italy I have enjoyed, is nearly churlish in his assessment, and to me, at least, seems motivated by some need to justify his decision never to have tried to do the same despite fluency in the language and some 35 years living in the country.)

I borrowed the e-book of In Other Words from the library, and because there's a long list of borrowers waiting for it, no renewals were permitted, so I haven't a copy to linger over or tell you more about. If memoirs about learning a language intrigue you, there are numerous reviews of this one available online. I found it fascinating and happily recommend it, but with the proviso that it will disappoint those seeking descriptions of life in Italy. It's a cerebral memoir rather than a sensuous one, with meditations on the relationship between identity and language, particularly for someone whose identity is so intricately connected to words.

The reason I'm introducing the memoir here, though (instead of on my reading blog) is that Lahiri's comments about her willingness to embrace imperfection for the sake of learning (or being) something new echo so articulately my forays into (very amateurish, extremely imperfect) sketching and painting.  For example, she argues that her "new relationship with imperfection" offers her "a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive."

In which case, I am feeling really alive these days. . . because Imperfect? I got that!
If you click to enlarge the photo on the left, you'll see that I've journalled my frustration with my paucity of skills in trying to record the image of an angler I passed on the seawall one recent morning. Frustrated to the point of giving up, truth be told.

But an hour or so later, I decided to try again, and when I was sketching the image on the right, I somehow heard Melanie from Bag and a Beret's voice, remembered some of what she said on our sketching expedition a few weeks ago. Melanie, pretty obviously, has artistic talent and skills to spare, but she wondered gently if I needed to be so literal and/or realistic in my illustration. At the time, I think I answered that I'd like to develop some ability to draw realistic representations before I become looser, freer, more playful, and I still feel that way, frankly. Just hearing the echo of that suggestion, though, I decided to allow myself a freer interpretation of the scene I remembered -- and I was surprisingly pleased with the results.


Similarly, I tried sketching a still life of vegetables a few weeks ago. I didn't mind the sketch, but Ugh! something went awry as I added watercolour -- and then I tried to jolly things up with some misguided pattern application and by the end I just wanted to rip the page out of the sketchbook or throw the whole book into the garbage. Here, I'll show you what I mean, although it's rather embarrassing . . . (not sure about your computer screen, but I will say that IRL, the eggplant is more purple on the painted page, the artichokes greener. . .)
 Again,  I wondered why I'm foolish enough to persevere with this project when I'm clearly so unsuited, so unable. And yet there were moments of intense, satisfying concentration while I sketched those vegetables, moments during which measured time seemed completely inconsequential, when all other concerns dropped away. And there was some childish glee, it must be admitted, in applying those colours, or before that, in mixing water into pans of paint with brushes. Even the goofy error of adding the stripes, the sloppiness of those x's which, once committed to, had to be completed, even that was fun until it wasn't. . . .

So somehow, a few days later, another artichoke presented itself, and I tried again, taking more time for details, and daring to use pen instead of pencil,
and I have to tell you that while I will readily admit to any faults you see here, the many imperfections, I was very happy to have drawn and painted this one small vegetable. . .

and encouraged enough to add another page on the same theme, but sans couleur


I'm going to eschew false modesty here completely and tell you that I am absolutely thrilled to have drawn this simple artichoke with its shadow. As recently as three years ago, I would have told you it was impossible that I could ever draw anything of this complexity such that you could recognise what I was trying to represent. And yet . . .

As I root around for ways to keep this blog feeling fresh and satisfying to me,  while hoping to keep it interesting for you as well, I'm going to be sharing more of my efforts with drawing and painting.  It's tough not to be embarrassed -- even ashamed, weirdly, sometimes -- stretching myself out of my comfort zone, out of my ease with words into a more limited skill-set, a more potentially confining repertoire. Thank you in advance for your patience and encouragement. . .

Comments are very welcome, but please don't think I'm fishing for compliments. I'm absolutely aware of my limitations, and hoping to point to process more than product.

Oh, and by the way, has anyone else out there read Lahiri's memoir, or any of her other writing?

29 comments:

  1. I have not read Lahiri, but will look for it - I am embracing the child-like glee and "just" enjoying something without referencing/comparing. I would be proud of those vegetables.

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    1. Yes, it's the referencing and comparing I need to lose. Working on it. And thank you!

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  2. I haven't read Lahiri (yet!),but she's my girl-embracing the imperfection to enjoy the language and conversation-that's my story
    I know that a lot of your (and other blog's as well) readers are often taken back how I write in my imperfect (ha-!) english
    Here is the story: I have learned german(my first foreign language which I love still-and have almost forgotten :-)) for 8 years and was ashamed to speak at all. All those die,der,das things-it is really hard to learn it to perfection. After my 17th birthday I went to visit my pen pal near Aachen,Germany. I was there alone with her family and friends,speaking only german. It was really hilarious and from that summer I decided to speak ,well, almost everything. It is a great joy to speak,read or write in foreign language,it is a wealth! I feel ashamed from time to time,but this is the best way to learn,believe me! And people who try to speak my or any language could be amusing,as I am,and I kind of like some of my mistakes (spiky knife!!!)
    I love your watercolours (before the repair),be brave,be daring,there are many ways and a lots of fun on the way to perfection
    And I love your fountain and new terrace-very feng shui :-)
    Dottoressa

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    1. Yes, I think she would be your girl! (love your command of English idioms, very contemporary ones)
      I love your story of moving into another language. We talked a bit about something like this with our French tutor last lesson. She notes that I am hard on myself, pushing to use subjunctive, generally using a fairly elevated diction, and that I might try to relax into error more often. Perhaps my sketches and watercolours will lead the way for me! ;-) It's certainly true that when chatting with/reading speakers/writers of English as a Foreign Language, I'm not at all bothered by errors, but rather focused on exchanging ideas, curious about their view of the world, delighted that they've made the effort to speak my language. Now I need to assume that people will receive my French (and then Italian and Spanish) the same way...

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  3. I read Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland last year. Love her description. I haven't read the memoir... and may not since I really do read more for the "sensual" rather than "the cerebral." Thanks for this post though, Frances. I needed to hear about the value and importance of trying over achieving. As much as I make pronouncements about trying to overcome my perfectionism... sometimes my utter inability to achieve what I would like to achieve can swamp even my best efforts to ignore that inner critic. I'm "not waving but drowning" this morning I guess. Must not compare oneself to others. I know that... but, wowee, sometimes it's hard not to do it. And I'm taking Dottoressa's advice on board as well. She's so wise, isn't she? Let's you and I take a trip to Croatia together and meet her:)

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    1. That would be really great!
      And- Thank you :-)
      D.

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    2. It's sometimes astonishing how powerful the gut response is over the more rational part of us. We can recite our intellectual recognition that we needn't be perfect, and that can make perfect sense to us, but in those "not waving but" moments, what hits first is the gutpunch of comparison. We're working at it though, right? And yes, Dottoressa's advice rules!And wouldn't that be a joyful jaunt to Croatia?

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  4. But the point of sketching/watercolor/playing drawing IS the process, right? If one wants an exact representation then there are cameras. So I would suggest that each drawing is a victory? Of course my inner critic would not agree, but she is no fun and I am trying to include her less and less in my life.

    ceci

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    1. I'm trying to learn this, Ceci, and encouraging voices like yours help very much. Not sure why I'm so drawn (ha, pun unintended) toward making marks on paper right now, but I'm going to trust that there's a reason and continue to puff gently on that little flame. Boo to the inner critic when she gets too bossy and mean!

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  5. Remember you are the woman who drew (I think it was pen and ink) those blackberries. Maybe last summer?

    I am going to try to reserve that book at the library. Language interests me. The isolation when you can't communicate well is so profound. Dottoressa, you are such a wonderful example. I will think of you when the verb tenses threaten to stop me! I am starting French classes next week after Duo-lingoing for several months.

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    1. Thank you Georgia! Just think how much more you know than before and go-remember Nelson Mandela: It is not important how many times you fall but how many times you rise :-)

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    2. You remember that drawing? That means a lot -- thank you! It's true that every so often, I look at a page and realise I'm really pleased with what I've put there.
      I think you'd find In Other Words worth reading -- and you can read either Goldstein's translation into English OR read Lahiri's Italian original. Both are included in the e-text, at least, although it took me a while to catch on to the hotlinks. I'm not sure how the paper version is set up, but I'd imagine there might be Italian at front or back with English in the opposite half.

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  6. I have not read Lahiri either. The overpowering urge to "get it right" is certainly a mixed blessing. In art, there is no "right". Dottoressa is wise. I still hesitate, even in French, sometimes because I am afraid of a verb error (subjunctive usually). Who really cares? That inner critic trying to be "perfect" is often just nasty. Keep sketching.

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    1. Thank you Madame!
      It is important to get over one's fear- because when it is not your native language,you are not suppose to be perfect,aren't you? You just have to start somewhere and be better than yourself,not Francoise Sagan :-)
      D.

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    2. Yes, it's the subjunctive that I generally hesitate over -- my husband, by contrast, eschews it altogether and goes for simplicity. Because he's less hesitant, he gets understood much more quickly, despite having a much poorer accent than I do. His "faked" confidence (determination is what it really is -- he sets a destination clearly and achieves it by sentence's end) pulls his listeners along. I'm trying to learn from (rather than resent, which I ashamedly admit is the temptation) his approach. . .

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  7. I read Lahiri's The Namesake a long time ago and have always meant to read more. There are probably other books on my stacks (real and virtual). A good cerebral memoir sounds like a treat though. I love your sketches, especially as part of a journal, it adds a dimension of memory and discovery, and that is the point, is it not?

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    1. I know you'd enjoy the book, Mardel, and it's quite slim, so can be read quickly.
      Thanks for the encouragement re the sketches. I feel compelled to continue, oddly. . . and I do think that the dimension, as you say, of memory and discovery are what I hope for here...

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  8. Sketching's surely all about the enjoyment of getting lost in the process , not about exactly reproducing your subject . Otherwise why bother ?
    And I'm afraid I tend to feel that way about speaking other languages , too . Conversation's all about sharing a particular moment with someone ... in Holland they say that you sometimes have to make your meaning clear with hands and feet .

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    1. Oh! I admire and envy your conviction that sketching's "all about the enjoyment of getting lost in the process" -- I never, ever thought that until several years ago. Somehow the "otherwise why bother?" for me had always been preceded by If you're artistic/skilled/able to produce an aesthetically pleasing rendition of your subject go ahead, (Otherwise, why bother?)
      With languages, it's easier for me to accept imperfection in the name of communication. I'd hazard a guess that this has to do with the obvious practical use of language, however imperfect, whereas, as an astute commenter remarked here a while back, sketching or painting were perhaps a marker of class, of leisured indulgence. Not my family's bailiwick, really...

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  9. I haven't read Lahiri's book but I did read an article or two about it (maybe one by her talking about the process, and another review -- but a distinctly non-churlish one). I found her thoughts & words on the topic very moving and I'd like to read the book (in fact I harbor fantasies of reading it in some language that is not my first, how perfect would that be?). I think the fact that English is not her first language, and in fact to her ethnically/culturally is the language of a colonial power, adds an extra dimension to her project -- makes her determination to just up and choose a third language that carries none of that baggage all the more resonant.

    I like your sketches very much and yes, the looser sketches are more evocative to my eye. I like how, in the second watercolor of the artichoke, you've brought in the colors of the other vegetables but in a much less literal way. It seems to me that watercolor is a medium that really benefits from -- even demands -- a bit of loosey-goosey-ness.

    And, to bring it back to language, it strikes me that speaking (vs. writing) is basically the watercolor of language. So let's all dive in!

    (Ha ha, do as I say, not as I do -- I'm a relentless perfectionist myself.)

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    1. Sarah, the first review I read about this was forwarded to me by a friend who loves Lahiri's work and who speaks a few languages, lives mostly in "another" language, and I'm so pleased it brought me to her -- I think you'd glean so much food for thought from it -- you're already tuned in, obviously, in your recognition of the complexities involved in English's colonial weight.
      Thanks for the encouragement/feedback re the sketching. And I love your analogy to language. . . I will keep it in mind through my French lesson this morning ;-)

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  10. I don't know the book but from what I know of working/living with people with second languages for decades is how frustrating it must be to be treated on the basis of one's language delivery, the thinking that an unripe delivery equates with an unripe mind. Oh-ho-ho, woe betide the person who underestimates on that basis. I see it at all social/professional levels. Not sure how this connects with your post... Heh.

    As for your artmaking, hurrah, I am so glad you heard me and my good intentions - I do catch a vibe from your drawing. I enjoyed our day out. And I am glad you're cutting yourself some slack. It's the process and the seeing of things that are most rewarding here. I'd eat those veggies!

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    1. This is it! I've only lived for relatively brief periods in a second language, but it's as if my IQ drops, in others' perception of me and hence their responses to me, by at least 50 points. . . .so frustrating and oh my, such a damnably efficient way to set off a downward spiral. . .
      Thanks for the inspiration and guidance re the sketching -- I hope one day we might find the opportunity to sketch together again.

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  11. I never heard of Lahiri, but I find both her project and her ideas on imperfection fascinating, so I will have to find that book somewhere. (Might be a bit difficult here.)
    Speaking of imperfection, I finally signed up for a Turkish course again. I wonder if I'll ever be able to write a coherent text in that language...
    Your two artichoke portraits (different as they are) are absolutely stunning! And very inspiring. I wonder if I should take a sketchbook on my little autumn holiday trip...
    And I really think one day we should all meet up in Croatia (or Venice?).

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    1. Once again, I must applaud your determination to take on Turkish. I've been moving between French and Italian and Spanish DuoLingo and even in that comfort zone of Latin-based languages, I struggle. . .
      Do take a sketchbook with you -- where is this autumn holiday?
      Oh, what a dream, to meet up in Croatia. Or Venice, indeed (I haven't been to either. . . yet!)

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  12. Frances, when my father passed away in April, we found portfolio after portfolio filled with sketches and drawings he had made over the years, many we had never seen. A number of the sketches were wonderful, many not so much. We were delighted to uncover these treasures. As the saying goes, it's not the destination but the journey. Each sketch is a little piece of that journey...

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Smithposts. I do begin to think ahead to legacy, not that I need anyone to save sketches that I'll leave behind, but that I want to communicate as much of myself as I can, in some ways at least, to future generations. Or somehow, it's more that I want to fulfil some small responsibility of moving bits of the past forward. Or something. . . . tracing the journey, as you suggest. . .

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  13. I lived and worked for 10 years in the Swiss-German area around Zurich. I could make myself understood in slightly 'gebrochenem Deutsch'. I never did learn to write grammatically.

    Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman - I read in Zurich, communicating in German with a colleague from French-speaking Geneva. Both of us LIVING that lost in translation.

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    1. That was a wonderful memoir -- and what a great experience to have read it while living a version of your own.
      Thanks for sharing your own experience with "imperfection" -- I've not yet been to Switzerland and hope to get there someday -- I so admire the flexibility with languages there.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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