Free to Be: On Idiosyncrasy

This post may be a contribution to the vast genre of “someone finally noticed something obvious to everyone else,” but it is about something that has been a bit of a quiet revelation to me, a small insight that on my good days (I do still have a few, in spite of it all) makes me feel not just better about what I’ve done so far but optimistic about what I might do next. So I thought it was worth saying something about here!

Recently we’ve been really enjoying the shows Landscape Artist of the Year and Portrait Artist of the Year (in Canada, they air on the ‘Makeful’ channel, which is also where you can watch the Great British Sewing Bee, in case that’s your jam). Like all ‘reality’ shows, they are a bit artificial and micro-managed, and the gamification of creativity can seem problematic: much more so than with, say, baking shows, where there’s something definitive about a “soggy bottom” or a collapsed soufflé, in these shows there’s  something mysterious to us about the judging, as the judges often rate most highly the paintings we thought were clearly the worst. It’s thought-provoking, in that it raises a lot of questions about what we and they are looking for: clearly they are seeing things we aren’t, or valuing things we don’t.

But the question of artistic merit (while one I am always interested in puzzling over) is not actually what’s on my mind these days. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how these shows celebrate the value of what I will call (for lack of a better word) idiosyncrasy, by which, in this context, I mean the  value of finding the distinctive approach that is yours, or the specific thing you are good at and doing that thing, not some other thing. Given the identical task (paint this person, paint this scenery) the artists all do every single step differently: some sketch first in pencil, some slather background colors on their canvas; some work in meticulous grids, some block in big shapes; some use pastels, some watercolors or oils or acrylics. In the episode we watched last night, someone worked on scratchboard, which I’d never heard of before. The end results are also enormously various, ranging from photographic realism to much more abstract or conceptual versions of the assigned subject.

Watching the artists just do their thing, which they are often asked to explain but never expected to excuse or justify, I realized how often in my own life I have felt inept or inadequate because I couldn’t do things in a certain way, or do certain kinds of things well, across a whole range of activities from the professional (writing and scholarship) to the personal (knitting or cooking or quilting, for example … or drawing). I have often felt sheepish about the variations I was reasonably good at, or enjoyed doing even if I wasn’t that good at them, as if they signaled my limitations, not my own special (if modest!) gifts. I struggled for a long time to make quilts in traditional pieced patterns, which I love the look of–but I have always found simple applique patterns more fun and gotten better results with them. I thought this meant I was not good at quilting. I struggled for a long time to learn to knit and have never really got the knack of it; once I figured out how to make granny squares, I quite enjoyed crochet. I thought this uneven result meant I was pretty mediocre at yarn crafts. One crochet pattern I have found particularly congenial, for whatever reason, is the so-called ‘virus shawl’; it didn’t occur to me to celebrate this as my niche rather than wonder why I couldn’t do other patterns as readily.

Switching to professional examples, I found most of the critical approaches I was expected to engage with as a graduate student inaccessible, and none of the criticism I actually ended up finding meaningful and useful was ever assigned. I often interpreted this as evidence of my unfitness for academic scholarship, but what if it isn’t, but is just me finding my academic style? I seem to be pretty good at some kinds of essays – ones that think through a body of work, for example, like all of Dick Francis’s novels, or all of P. D. James’s – and not so good at, or at least not so eager to try, or able to pitch,  other kinds. What if the pleasure I take in doing that kind of work is not a sign of weakness, but (and I think this is important) not a sign of strength either: what if I thought of it instead without those hierarchical judgments, just as a mark of my idiosyncrasy, of my individual intellectual style? What if the freedom and curiosity and occasional exhilaration I experience when I’m writing on my blog, for that matter, is also about finding my own way, using the tools that feel natural in my hands, making this site a self-portrait in words rather than a shelter from the uncongenial demands of “real” academic writing? What if feeling some comfort, pleasure, and ease in a particular kind of work means that it fits, and that’s a good thing?

Perhaps this is just another way to explain what it is like to try to break out of certain academic habits of mind, and to recognize just how pervasive they are. Academia is an environment in which (for some good reasons, to be sure) we spend a lot of time trying to fit ourselves – and our students – to specific models, trying to conform to standards and practices, to produce certain kinds of outcomes and results, to attain certain styles of writing. We rarely have either the time or the courage for idiosyncrasy, and it isn’t likely to be rewarded. I’m not rejecting the whole idea of standards or rigor or expertise as foundational values. I’m sure it’s true that all of the artists on these shows have had to master a lot of fundamental skills: they can all draw anatomically correct figures, create likenesses, sketch landscape elements to scale. They have an enormous amount of technical know-how as well. But the whole point of being an artist is to go past that common ground into your own territory, which is where you really expand and define yourself. Maybe that is what’s different: a lot of academics spend a long time in that first phase, the “do it this way” phase, which fills us with lasting fear that we aren’t doing it right and so we get stuck there.

As I said, maybe I’m just restating the obvious, and maybe what I’m really probing is more an individual neurosis and not a general condition (though I expect a lot of academics will recognize my description of the way we are trained to think and work). Still, when I started thinking about idiosyncrasy in this way it felt exciting and even a bit empowering. Imagine being free to be you and me in this way! I’m not 100% sure what that would even mean for me in practice, especially as a writer, but for now I’m going to just sit with the idea that it’s not just OK but actually desirable to do my own thing rather than feeling awkward or deficient because I can’t or don’t want to do some other thing.

3 thoughts on “Free to Be: On Idiosyncrasy

  1. Jeanne November 12, 2020 / 10:40 am

    Your post came along at just the right time. I’m preparing to teach a class next week in my course called The Art and Craft of Analytical Writing, and we’re going to discuss writing (and teaching writing) as an art. I introduce them to the concept of writing as a craft on the first day of class, and they’re so relieved and excited about learning the craft that at the end of the course I have to turn them back towards the idea that writing can also be an art. What you say about “idiosyncrasy” is what I say about art–that it’s how an individual takes the tools and the technical experience and puts them to work in their own way.
    As an academic who has always been at the margin, I think it’s been easier for me to develop this idea than it would be for someone who followed a more traditional path.
    This is to say I think you’re absolutely right, and I love your example about visual artists finding their own distinctive approach.

    • Rohan Maitzen November 17, 2020 / 7:47 pm

      You are right, I am not shocked! But I’m still glad.

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