truth be told


[ print available below the post. ]

at the age of ten, madison was still drawing.

in and of itself, the fact is oddly significant. by her age, most kids seem already to have identified the visual arts as something they do or don’t “do.” or perhaps something they do or can’t do.

it’s a perplexing phenomenon. most of us are pretty mediocre writers, and yet i’ve never heard somebody say, “oh no, i don’t write,” or “i only do tweets.” to be fair, drawing is less closely associated than writing with one’s appeal to potential employers, and so we are permitted, well before the age of employment, not to pursue it.

but i was among that endless stream of heretofore tone-deaf ninth-graders who decided to pick up the guitar, which remains, sixteen years later, one of the great unprofitable pleasures of my little life. once sedentary college friends found devotion to intramural sports or modern dance. who’s ever started drawing in her early twenties? “i only do stick figures,” people will assure you.

madison, in her age-inappropriate wisdom, doesn’t seem to harbor any particular artistic ambitions. and yet my sweet little cousin hadn’t yet given up her attempts to communicate her thoughts in pictures. it was nice to see, and unusual.

madison and patches

the daughter of two former coast guardsmen, one a teacher with a background in marine biology, madison was crafting detailed and impressively accurate renderings of aquatic life when she was still counting out her age on a single hand (although the drawings were not devoid of youthful fancy; often their anatomically approximate squids and jellyfish would mingle on the ocean floor with spongebob and patrick). her portraits, though less faithful to their subjects, still exuded the appealing confidence of an artist benefiting from regular encouragement. at restaurants we would draw each other pictures on napkins, she to escape the intolerable tedium of waiting to eat in the company of grown-ups, and i, to escape the intolerable tedium of waiting to eat in the company of grown-ups.

seagull by the sea

as she rounded out her first decade, self-consciousness began to seep, as is its custom, into both her work and the vocabulary she used to describe it. where once she might have announced a newly rendered likeness of her younger brother by saying “this is daniel,” she now hedged any number of bets once taken for granted: “do you want to see my drawing of daniel? it’s really terrible.” suddenly some subjects were beyond the scope of her ambition, which, like most of us, she self-exoneratingly misidentified as her capability: “i can’t even draw that shirley temple. i don’t know how.”

so when she wondered, aloud and for my benefit, with her signature blend of precociousness and melodramatic grandiosity, what she would do with her rapidly approaching eleventh year, it got me thinking. (at the time, all i said was “you’re technically living your eleventh year, now. your age is the number of years you’ve completed,” because i knew a thing, and she didn’t, which is surely one of the great joys of keeping company with ten-year-olds.)

before long i had devised the following promotional offer: i would procure her a proper sketchbook as a birthday present. and every day, she would decorate a page with a drawing (from observation, i specified in vocal italics). if she did this for one year, i assured, nay, promised, her drawings would improve exponentially. she’d flip between the first and final pages unable to fathom that they were filled by the same artist, and that said artist was she.

the cate in the hat

having never had or really given much thought to children, i can’t say for certain just what persuades people to create them. we’re told biology is a great motivator, and i don’t doubt the expectant nagging of aunts and grandparents-to-be does its part. but on my periodic breeding-positive days, what really gets my sperms swimming is the opportunity to correct the slight imperfections of my own childhood (imperfections which would not, at any other time, in any other place, even register as such, i know, but seeing as we’re all here now, indulge me).

i suppose my friends, when considering parenthood, imagine wheeling their miniature selves through the farmers’ market or introducing them to the arcade fire. i am certain that some envision teaching their young to set prices at their lemonade stands high enough to communicate the premium, small-batch, artisinal nature of their product. i like to picture myself walking with my kid, telling her the truth.

madison and patches

i tell her the truth about all sorts of things. i tell her the actual origin of her christmas presents, and explain that they appear not because she’s any more deserving than anyone else, but because she’s lucky, and loved. i tell her that curse words have never once done any harm to anyone, but like diamonds, their value derives from an artificial scarcity. i tell her that diamonds are bullshit. i tell her that no one has a fucking clue what god is, or if god is, or what god wants, and anyone that claims otherwise is lying or crazy or running for office. when she’s older, i tell her that sex is healthy so long as you are cautious, and fun so long as you actually want to be having it. i explain that drugs aren’t wrong, just stupid. i pour her her first glass of wine, and expound upon the art of savoring.

i’m aware of the best intentions that motivate us to deceive our children. i know we’re “only trying to protect them,” to ensure they “stay kids for as long as possible” in a corrupt and corrupting world. but i also hold the unpopular belief that the purpose of childhood is to end itself, to replace itself with knowledge and experience and wisdom. (as a.s. neill taught us, kids want to become adults, even if the rest of us wish not to have done so.) kids are for growing up, and our attempts to retard the process are, at best, counterproductive, and maybe a little fetishistic. we catch our children lying back to us and manage to be shocked, not so much by their undeveloped morality as by their skill at deception. against all reason, we expect otherwise.

and so i spend hour after hypothetical hour correcting for every little bit of nonsense with which i was benevolently injected, every feeble inoculation against the world as it is. some of these talks go better than others, because honesty isn’t easy, and i’m a novice. and the hardest one, i know, will be the most important, the falsehood i am most determined not to repeat, and about which i seem still to be bitter: that i was good at things.

umbrellas at the shore

my parents, like most, repeated this well-meant absurdity at every possible opportunity: upon the presentation of every new scribbling, every smiley-face-adorned math test, every basic comprehension of an adult’s emotional complexity. i don’t doubt they were legitimately surprised to see vaguely recognizable renditions of he-man produced by a four-year-old. and they wanted to encourage me, and to support my burgeoning talent. and my drawings were impressive, in context. but they were by no means good.

when we tell kids they’re good at drawing, or at soccer, or that they’re smart, we mean it the way we mean that our dogs are “smart.” it’s an abbreviation for “you’re smarter than you look with your tongue lolling out of your mouth and your nose up someone else’s hindquarters.” if the qualifying context is lost on the complimented party, it seems harmless enough. we love our kids, and want to believe they are great, and want them to believe it. so we say ridiculous things, like “he’s so good at drawing. he’ll sit there with his crayons all day. i don’t know where he gets it from; i only do stick figures.” and we pretend we didn’t just solve our own mystery.

were we to admit that our kids are better at things than their peers because they spend more time at them, we’d concede the credit is not ours to take. but if, instead, it is some congenital gift, then it is surely a gift of our giving, somehow or other. “look how awesome we are,” we demand, convolutedly, holding up their latest scribbles.

and so, like most every kid, i believed that good was something i was, rather than something i did. i thought it was a superpower. i didn’t know why i had the ability to draw, and i was constantly afraid that it would abandon me. i didn’t understand why some drawings turned out better than others, and developed elaborate superstitions and rituals to try to will quality out of my pencils. i tried everything short of working harder or practicing more. and when, in mid-adolescence, some of my peers’ talents began clearly to surpass my own, i didn’t understand that either.

umbrella sketch

in the weeks before wildwood, i bought madison at least six sketchbooks. one looked elegant on the shelf but too serious in my hands, and no artist, old or young, needs such formality weighing down her first impressions. one was filled with paper deeply textured enough to interfere with a well-sharpened pencil point, and we hardly need obstructions beyond our own limitations. one was too delicate to withstand adolescent frustration. one was bright and playful, like madison, but maybe too young, or maybe not, and how old is eleven anyway? i called cousin jen for advice.

we made it down the shore just in time for the first dinner. the cousins were already wrapped around four conjoined tables at a terrible restaurant to which we vow annually never to return, despite its unparalleled view of the sunset over the marshes. madison reopened her eyes on the colorful new sketchbook i’d placed in her expectant outstretched hands. she looked up at me with excitement, but a distinct lack of surprise. “i wasn’t really asleep when my mom was talking to you,” she explained.

i had kept one of the unsuitable sketchbooks for myself. “we’ll each do a drawing every day this week,” i offered. “at the end of the day, we can show each other what we drew.” when she protested that i had the unfair advantage of being good at drawing, i assured her i was not half as good as i would like to be.

down on the beach the next morning, we picked a common subject for our first sketch. having barely begun, madison attempted to obscure her work with her usual cloud of caveats. “it’s terrible,” she pre-empted. “i don’t even know how to draw an umbrella. i can’t do it, i don’t know how.” i told her to look, and draw what she saw, and then look again to figure out why what she’d just seen and drawn was wrong. “this isn’t going to work,” she assured me despite developing evidence to the contrary. “i can’t do it.”

“it’s the same thing i’m doing over here,” i insisted. “it works.” she peeked over my forearms to appraise my windswept umbrella. “that’s so good,” she complained. “how do you even do that?”

“i practiced. for thirty years,” i added, considering the cliche i’d just heard myself utter. “but not enough,” i confessed. “if you practice for thirty years, you’ll be much better than i.”

it was the truth, at least, but who knew i could be such a didactic bore? i felt all grown up, but for once i didn’t much mind the feeling. if you have to be an adult, this seemed like a palatable enough way of going about it. maybe that’s what having kids is for.

view from the balcony

signed 11" x 17" cardstock print • $15.00 + $4.50 s&h


  1. josh says:

    You’re on a roll, man!
    This was a particularly lovely post. It made me aware of how little I know of drawing umbrellas.

  2. Neil says:

    Chuck Jones talks a lot in Chuck Amuck about how his parents treated his drawings when he was a child. His parents never became excited about his drawings, they’d encourage him, but not make a big deal out of it. He seemed to appreciate that.

    It’s tough, where’s that line between empowering a child who doubts their abilities by debunking the myth I was certainly taught -that inherent talent is what makes you a good artist – and not crushing the fun out of drawing by saying “if you want to get good (not even great, but good) at it, you have to work at it for 20 years?”

    Maybe acknowledging the frustration we all feel when the pencil doesn’t do what we want, but pointing out the tremendous joy at the inches progress we make on the distant horizon of drawing to what we believe is our potential?

    • kenan says:

      in my pre- and early teens, i had an incredible art teacher named evelyn leavens. she taught all ages from five or six to the grave, and often had trouble with the parents of her youngest students, who felt she wasn’t training their kids enough. but she insisted that kids decide for themselves what their shortcomings were. when a kid said, “how do i make that house farther away than this one?” she’d start teaching him perspective. but if the kid liked the way his houses looked, she wouldn’t try to “correct” him. by allowing kids to direct their own instruction in this way, she felt the art stayed theirs; she wasn’t just writing herself onto other young artists. also, she seemed really to love the crazy shit her little munchkins drew.

      anyway, i tried to take this tack with my cousin. it wasn’t until she started expressing frustration that i admitted to her that art is frustrating. she suddenly became aware of her work as flawed, and i took that as my cue to intervene. i don’t know, though, it’s totally possible i got overzealous. you’re totally right, you run the risk of sapping out all the fun for kids when you start trying to “teach” them things.

  3. erin says:

    lovely post! i think there’s real wisdom to your thought that “the purpose of childhood is to end itself,” and certainly to trying to replace the precarious, narcissistic idea of “talent” with the value of practice. i’ve been trying to figure out over course of my so-called adulthood whether our generation was particularly damaged by the sesame-street-type message that “you’re great just the way you are.” obviously you ARE great just the way you are (in most cases, and especially if you’re a kid), but it’s a message that obscures the fact that there are ways to become even greater.

    • boy blue says:

      if sesame street and the muppets have done any lasting harm to our generation, i think it was in teaching us to follow our dreams and understand what’s really important in life. ’cause now none of us is making any money.

  4. Cousin Jen says:

    For my ever wise and handsome cousin… thank you so much for your beautiful words about our beautiful daughter. You touched my heart and made me laugh!!! I love you very much!!!

  5. Ribbu says:

    Dude, I could use you around here most days. Oh, the sketchbook, full of blank pages. How it haunts me.

    As one who seems to have a much better sense of how to talk to kids than I, perhaps you might have some wisdom as to the appropriate response to a child who says furiously, “NO! NEVER!” every time you ask her a question to which she does not know the answer, and coyly, “I don’t know” every time you ask her a question to which she does.

    • boy blue says:

      man your kids are so cool.

      i’m told i spent several months answering “i don’t know” to every question asked me, whether i knew the answer or not, whether it was negative or affirmative, just always. and obviously, i’ve developed into someone who will rattle on at great length on any subject at any opportunity, even when i really legitimately have no idea what i’m talking about (see above).

      so i wouldn’t sweat it. appears to be a problem that will self-correct all too soon.

  6. Lynn Prisco says:

    Dear Kenan,

    What a beautiful post! A drawing a day keeps the blues away! I should go back to doing that.

    It always drove me nuts when people said “I can’t draw a straight line!!!” i would always say, neither can I!!!

    • kenan says:

      don’t tell me you’ve stopped drawing. i’ll actually cry. actually.

      i’ve been drawing a lot lately, almost every day, and its impact is evident not just in my work but in the way i look. walking down my block is an infinitely more rewarding experience than it was a few moths ago. (of course, the weather helps.)

      • Lynn Prisco says:

        Don’t cry, but it’s true!! I think that taking care of an aging parent, who recently passed away, and a beloved aging dog passing away, has taken the wind out of my sails.
        The good news is that I am on the mend and “seeing” again. Like you seeing “spring” as you walk down the street, I also am seeing beauty in my poached egg, sitting in the sunlight as it waits for me to devour it!!! Sometimes life gets in the way of creativity but if you let it, it will come back. I’m almost ready! But your writing made me smile so much Kenan. I remember the thrill of convincing many of my art students that they could indeed DRAW! You, on the other hand, already could! Sending much love, Lynn

        • kenan says:

          i’m sorry to hear all that, mrs. p. i would submit, also, that it’s times like now when folks like us need to be drawing the most.

          can’t wait to see what happens when you get to scribbling again.