November 21, 2022
By Nancy McCabe, faculty, fiction and creative nonfiction
I gave up ballet when I was twelve because I was too tall. I stopped taking piano lessons when I was fifteen because there was no way I was going to be a concert pianist. Now, while I’m awed by writers who’ve mastered multiple art disciplines, who also paint, play instruments, quilt, produce gourmet meals, weave textiles, do woodworking, I also have come to appreciate Henry van Dyke’s quote, “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” And I’ve also come to believe in the value of dabbling. The processes and techniques of other art forms can sharpen our reflexes, renew our approaches, and, for those of us who also teach, remind us what it’s like to be a beginner again.
Here are some things I’ve learned from sometimes-brief amateur forays into other forms:
1. Drawing a Hand
A few years ago, I sat in on a drawing class taught by my colleague Anna in which she gave a lesson on how to draw a hand. Before that, on the rare occasions that I had attempted to draw a hand, the fingers were all out of proportion and looked like limp strings. My drawings resembled those turkeys you make in second grade by tracing your hand, fingers becoming the feathers, with the final touch a little wattle beneath the thumb.
Anna showed us how to outline one section at a time, each phalange, the shape of nail beds, the patterns of wrinkles and veins, the whorls of knuckles. I was amazed when a hand appeared on the sketchpad beneath my pencil.
“Now practice,” Anna said.
On a new, blank page, I reverted without even thinking about it to outlining the outer edges of my hand as if I was drawing a turkey. It was like I’d totally forgotten the lesson I’d just learned.
Finally I came to my senses. I started on another new page. I drew a hand one line at a time.
Building slowly is usually better than trying to tackle everything all at once.
And also: refreshers are good. When we don’t remember how to do something, it can help to go back to the beginning and relearn the lessons we’ve forgotten.
And also: this is why sometimes beginning writing students seem to grasp the idea of concrete images, but then revert to abstraction. I did the visual art version of the same thing.
2. Making Potholders
When I was about eleven, I was briefly obsessed with weaving potholders, something I’d totally forgotten until a friend adopted this hobby as a soothing pandemic evening activity. I discovered that it was indeed relaxing to loop yarn over the frame to form the warp, then weave a second strand of yarn over and under one at a time to form the weft. There were predictable repetitions and predictable intersections of those colors, but especially since I lack visual-spatial ability, sometimes the pattern didn’t fully emerge until I’d finished the whole thing. It was like magic when I’d see that I’d just created a smaller square of color within a larger square, or a series of boomerang shapes or diamonds or barbells or plaids.
But finishing the edges with a crochet hook, it was easy for the whole thing to pop off the loom and start unraveling. The first potholder I wove came apart on the last side, like Penelope’s shroud. I had to reweave the whole thing. This time I paperclipped the last row of loops to the frame so I could keep it intact.
Resonant writing is all about repetition and patterns. The patterns that emerge seemingly organically are usually more interesting than the ones you force.
Also: I’m sure that weaving and unweaving was very meditative for Penelope and after twenty years of that she had reached an impressive state of detachment from the material world and a high state of enlightenment, but still, that had to have sucked.
Also: You can accomplish a lot with patience and paper clips.
And finally: A tight weave of images can be pleasant, and the even chain of crochet stitches that finish off the edges is also pleasing, but to hang the thing up, you need that one loop that sticks out at the end.
I took years of tap dancing—it really is very satisfying to make a lot of noise with your feet—then switched to clogging, which involves double taps and even more noise. But the first time my clogging group performed publicly, to the Train song “Hey Soul Sister” at our local campus’s Cultural Festival, the performance turned into a small nightmare. The first notes of the song played, and we did two basic steps, a triple, a cowboy before a sudden high-pitched shriek tore through the speakers. Hastening to silence it, the sound guy somehow changed some setting so that, I kid you not, the audience still heard “Hey Soul Sister” playing, but on stage, we were trying to dance to a mishmash of tuneless sounds that included our song overlayed with the belly dancing music for the next group.
Pushing off and chain rocking to the right, we exchanged panicked glances. Heading into the left chain rock turn, our leader sent questioning looks over to the sound guy. In the midst of the cacophony and confusion, some of us stopped altogether, expecting that any second the sound guy would stop the music and let us start over. Gradually, it became horrifyingly apparent that he didn’t realize there was a problem.
In fact, nobody but those of us on stage could hear the belly dancing music that was drowning out our song. Someone to my left pushed off and chained-rocked toward me and to avoid getting mowed over I chain rocked away, at which point I finally just turned back around into the side steps and shrugged and clogover-vined to the left.
It’s a good thing I’m a writer, not a dancer.
Also, writing is way more forgiving than a lot of art forms, because there are do-overs in the form of revision so nobody has to witness your humiliating failures. You get to revise until your writing is closer to your original vision. The great thing about writing is that you can do it over and over and over again until you get it right.
Even then, you can survive failure and rejection. There’s always another chance to do it better.
Still, it would have been totally okay for us to stop and ask the sound guy to let us start over.
Also—eight years later, that whole dance to “Hey, Soul Sister” seems embarrassingly easy and actually kind of boring. Even if you’re not great at something, you get better with time.
Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, with a seventh, the young adult novel Vaulting through Time, forthcoming in 2023. Her other books include the novel Following Disasters and four additional works of creative nonfiction, including From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, After the Flashlight Man: A Memoir of Awakening, Meeting Sophie: A Memoir of Adoption, and Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter’s Birthplace in China. She has received a Pushcart Prize and had work listed nine times in the notable sections of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series.