Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Painting Windmills.

Me, I have always been competitive. Not in direct comparison to other people though, that's not quite it. It wasn't, and isn't, about winning. It has always been about being the best. I didn't like sports because I wasn't the best at them, for example. I gave up drawing and a few other things because I was ok, and worked at them, but felt my abilities had reached a plateau. Of course I've learned that it's not being the best that's the point of life, but enjoying what I'm doing and not thinking about my place in the field in relation to the top (or, god forbid, the bottom). But sometimes it flashes back, for better or for worse. Sometimes I want so badly to be the best at something and get very upset that I'm not, which is invariably on  my first try. And when I was a kid, or a teenager, or a young adult, and I got into one of these moods, my dad would point to this tiny painting of a windmill we still have on the wall. A windmill is not a weird thing in our house; people have come in simply to use the bathroom, and they still got a lesson on Dutch culture and geography. So yeah, what about a painting of a windmill?

Well, he said. Do you know who painted that? No, I didn't. It was some overprinted landscape that happened to have a windmill and therefore matched the decor in the rest of the house. That's true, he conceded. But it was also a painting by Piet Mondrian. Yeah, that's right, this guy:

Based on whose paintings people have made shoes, cars, clothing, houses, kitchens, stereo systems, cake, and anything else that ever existed.

Even though I wouldn't say that Mondrian was the greatest artist, the point here is clear. You can't have an influence, or say anything of substance, earn respect, or in any way get to the top of something without a climb. Mondrian wasn't just some dude who decided to put squares on a canvas; he was a studied artist, practicing naturalistic and impressionistic painting for years before creating a whole new style of art. You must learn the fundamentals before you start a revolution.

And this, I now realize, was my reason for disliking the publishing courses at Ryerson just a little. There was nothing wrong with the way they were taught: we learned from people in the business, and we were given opportunities for internships and, later, employment. Still something lacked. An instructor in the MPub program, Mary Schendlinger, asked me last week why I'd come to Simon Fraser after studying at Ryerson. The courses, I said, were hit and miss. Unfortunately, I couldn't elaborate further (my excuse is that giving up certain things from home has triggered a relapse in insomnia, and I've been getting about 3-4 hours of sleep a night... I'm even dopier than otherwise).

I think I've got it now. These publishing professionals at Ryerson were looking for something extra special. They were looking for raw initiative, for a revolutionary, for someone who was going to show them how the looming changes in the industry were going to pan out. I felt this, but what could I do? How could I revolutionize something I knew very little about? Some were unwilling to share their projects and other examples, which makes sense seeing as they were industry professionals who were used to keeping close eyes on sales figures and potential mistakes. They alluded to them, but there were no figures, no benchmarks, and little opportunity for us to get feedback on our projects and learn from the mistakes we were making. Worse, they were sometimes unwilling to give us direct instruction on subjective aspects of the project, like book pricing. They mentioned formula pricing, but instead of explaining it, said that we would get a feel for pricing books with experience. They said this for everything. We would get a feel for it. Sure, but it turns out there IS a formula, and it's pretty friggin' simple. I know NOW that if something else makes sense to me, the price from the formula isn't set in stone, and I can change it to whatever I think appropriate. THIS is how I wanted to learn.

So I wasn't the best at those classes, and I felt like I never would be. But it's because they were forgetting the fundamentals. At Simon Fraser, I hear "can we get a benchmark number for that?" or "typically it's done this way," or "I don't know why it is, but I always see people do this" about three times per day if not per class. It's wonderful. Exactly what I needed. Brush strokes. Painting lessons. A foundation.

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