Why I almost didn’t paint.

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This is one of those subjects that I have gone back and forth on whether to be public about. On the one hand, it’s a big part of my life. On the other hand, after so much unexpected media scrutiny, privacy is vital to have in at least some areas. But after believing myself alone in this regard for so long and then finding out it’s more common than I thought, it seems like one more thing that trips the switch in my head that goes “You know what, if one of your goals in writing is to show others they’re not alone in the same way others have done for you, then you may want to think about writing this.”

So… okay. I was absolutely sure as a kid that I sucked at art. Painting in particular but also art in general. I was usually one of the slowest kids in art class (where we had to exactly reproduce someone else’s technique and subject matter) and in one of my art classes it was worse than that.

The art teacher made us paint things she had already painted in exactly the same way she had done it. And aside from being crappy at that kind of art in general, I was incredibly crappy with paintbrushes. The art teacher got so frustrated with me that she would paint my paintings for me and pass them off as my own. My parents would ooh and aah and I would be mortified. It took me a long time to figure out words for what was happening to me and even longer to overcome my terror of that teacher. She was always treating me like I was completely stupid and if she was yelling at anyone it was me for screwing up another painting or sitting around stimming on the paintbrushes (“AMANDA BAGGS WEREN’T YOU LISTENING I JUST TOLD THE CLASS YOU CAN GET LEAD POISONING THAT WAY PUT THAT DOWN THIS INSTANT!”).

The rule was you started with landscapes. If you were good at those you could do flowers. If you were good at those you could do animals (we were told we had to paint every single hair). If you were good at animals you could do humans (every single hair too). And original paintings were not okay. I wanted to paint cats and I was terrible with a paintbrush. I very much did not fit into this arrangement.

So I took to hiding in the bathroom, a strategy I had already perfected out of overload. I would pull every paper towel out of the paper towel dispenser, pull all the soap out of the soap dispenser, then play with the soap for awhile. When I was done with that I would lock the door behind me on my way out, which for some reason I found very interesting as a concept.

One day the art teacher told us that it was criminal to lock doors in this manner and that she could call the police. She said that she knew exactly who was doing this and would talk to them after class. But she never talked to me and she never called the cops. I kept locking the doors.

Anyway with that and copious other similar experiences in art class, I was absolutely convinced I could not paint. I did one crappy painting (using brushes) after that and it only confirmed to me that I was a terrible artist and an even worse painter.

For the three months when I was in high school, I had lost even my previous thin pretence of not stimming on stuff. (I was not a stiff formal autie, I was a chase after dust particles and stare at moving colored objects autie. More on that in another post, but suffice to say I was more like Luna Lovegood than Ernie Macmillan.) After I backed into a corner screaming when a math teacher changed a routine on me, he threw me out of class and publicly accused me of drug abuse. An art teacher brought me into her class instead and told me, “I don’t care if you move around or behave strangely. I don’t care if you sit under the tables. All I care about is that you produce art.” So I would go into her nearly empty classroom, sit under the table, and draw. I was more comfortable than any previous art class but I still knew I wasn’t like the other art students. I received no instruction at all.

Next year I was in college way too early considering my level of overload. Because of that (good) teacher I chose mostly art classes and did okay in them. (The most painting they required was filling in the lines of something, and I could mostly do that.) After that I did a few attempts at crappy paintings with brushes in some of the art programs I was in within the psych system over the next several years after my spectacular burnout. But again it was too much somebody else guiding me.

After I got out of all that and ended up on my own in adulthood, I basically considered myself terrible at art and even worse at painting. All of the encouragement I got was too little too late to get that one terrrible teacher’s voice out of my head. Plus, whenever I dared think of myself as an artist, there was always someone else who took that role, and for some reason in people’s heads there could only be one person who was The Creative One in any group. For instance in special ed (after my attempt at college — I’m the only person I know who this happened to in that order), there was a boy who was The One Artist in our class. He got to participate in a program for disabled artists. I got nothing. Repeated situations like that convinced me even more that I didn’t have what it took to paint.

By the time I started getting these ideas in my head that maybe, just maybe, if I decided to paint on my own terms rather than the terms of others, then things would work better… it was three or four years ago and I was already getting more attention than I wanted for my writing and videos online. I felt like the world was a big eyeball and it was pointed straight at me — exaggerated, but I hate that feeling. The absolute last thing I wanted to be was “an autistic artist” instead of an artist (something similar happened in my teens with a local newspaper and some of my crappiest art), or to have the world confirm to me that I was terrible and stupid for even trying.

So quietly in private, telling only one person, I began to paint. I used acrylics. I painted with my fingers. I painted lots of things but mostly I painted cats and very abstract scenes. And when I dared to show a few more people, they liked it. Not because an autistic person did it but because they liked it.

Still I was terrified to let anyone find out I did anything, you know, (horrors) creative. Because I’m not creative, that’s what other people are.

But the other night, I told someone about the music teacher who chastised me for playing the wrong chords and convinced me I couldn’t be musically creative until I learned chord theory. (I am very easily intimidated when the charge is that everyone else is better than me at something because they can do something I can’t. And I can’t do chord theory.)

And the other person, who knows more about that teacher than I mentioned here, told me he sounded like the kind of teacher who believes music is more about technique than about passion and creativity, and who themselves hasn’t succeeded because they lack passion and creativity, and who therefore has a chip on their shoulder and tries to stomp into the ground anyone who shows more passion and creativity than orthodox technique. She told me if John Cage had tried as a child some of the piano stuff he did as an adult, he’d have been grounded for weeks and never allowed near a piano.

So I got a little bit braver and told her about the art teacher from hell. She told me it was the exact same type of person and that such people single out someone who wants to do something out of bounds, and proceed to treat them like crap. And that my troubles getting paintbrushes to do what I wanted would have only made it easier to do that.

She also told me that my fear of scrutiny was understandable, but that if I let it control me I would be as bad as the people who do whatever they think will get them the most scrutiny and attention. Because either way you’re letting other people control you. And that makes sense, this is a particular area I have a lot more cowardice in than shows openly — I hate being singled out for attention and once you’ve had CNN and Wired and the CBC in your home, that’s enough attention to leave me shaking in a corner when they leave. I only ever agreed because someone pointed out it would also bring attention to the self-advocacy movements and that I shouldn’t let my fears control me. And I’m good at pushing myself to do something terrifying and only freaking out afterward. (After CNN left I barely ate for weeks.)

So I guess this is my declaration that I’m an artist, not just an autist, and have been doing my own thing in this regard for years once I got the idea in my head that it might be permissible for me to produce art of my own kind, in my own technique, and in my own way.

I don’t know why I’m so easily cowed by people telling me that I’m no good at something, that I’m downright stupid, and that my lack of ability in one particular area means that not only shouldn’t I (paint/write music/etc) but that I shouldn’t even try. (See Why I never expect to be right.) But I am. I’m also intimidated in situations where I’m in a group of people and only one person there is called The Artistic One, The Musical One, The Creative One. I once even saw that happen where one girl was called The Musical One even though there were five other musicians in the room, one of whom had been paid for it. But even knowing it was illogical, it still made me feel like I had no right to call myself a musician, or an artist, or whatever. Combine the two plus fear of being singled out and I do it all hiding in a corner somewhere and then wig out every time I have to tell someone.

So I’m not only happy that those teachers were full of crap, but also somewhat mourning the fact that I spent over a decade too scared to defy these people that I thought immeasurably above me. Only to find out they were just people acting out their own insecurities on me. I’ve been told art and music teachers do this to people all the time, and here I thought it was just me.

The thing is, though, that creativity feels like this force inside of me that needs to have some kind of outlet or it will burn me to a crisp. But I’d been making do with writing. And even though I was writing, I’d still feel like there was this white-hot thing inside of me trying to force my body to let it do something, anything other than just sit there. And writing and painting and music all still feel like something doing me instead of me doing something, and like my consent is only a formality on the way to these things happening.

Oh, and last year someone said they’d like me to do a painting for them and that they’d pay for the materials. I wanted both to paint something and to create something that would be interesting to sit around looking closely at. So here it is. The photograph is really bad because of the flash.

catspainting

Could anyone summarize this? I’m really bad at summarizing things, all I can say is it’s three cats on a glittery and somewhat busy background with objects stuck to it.

Edited to add. Littlewolf has written a really good summary in comments, read that and my comment after hers if you can’t see the picture.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

25 responses »

  1. Why would we want to summarize it? Art is non-verbal. I love the paw over the nose of the bottom left hand cat. Beautifully captured.

    What I’d like to say about the rest of the post, is that I can only enjoy being creative if I manage to stop the “comparisons” in my head with the best in the class, some recognised genius, etc. It’s the opposite of competitive, and it’s really difficult.

  2. Your painting reminds me of work by people such as Paul Klee. It’s so dynamic and evocative with so much colour and movement. I find it absolutely delightful!

    Do you know what I think you would enjoy a lot? Monotype print making. It’s this really cool process where you paint on glass or acrylic and then you press the paper into the paint to make the final project. I remember I used to do this all the time when I had the space and order I needed, you can just apply the paint with your fingers and then push it around with your thumb or perhaps a little rubber squeegee.

  3. Wow, what a crappy way to teach painting. I thought that kind of technique went out in the 50s. It wasn’t that bad even at the somewhat-conservative grade school I went to in the 70s.

    Parallel story: at a 2nd-3rd grade kind of age, I showed some aptitude at the piano (parents never actually said this; a two-years-older friend taught me to play “Heart and Soul” and was apparently impressed by how quickly I picked it up), so I was pressured into piano lessons.

    I hated them. I could play the pieces, but not very well… and I didn’t really like any of them. I wanted to play my music — the music I liked on the radio, the music in my collection… but the meme was that you play from the awful textbook pieces, then you graduate to more complicated stuff that you still don’t like or recognize, then when you get really good you can play recognizable tunes like “The Entertainer” or “The Maple Leaf Rag”…

    …but until you can do those just right, there’s no point in going on to the ultimate real goal, which is playing formal classical pieces for the piano.

    Presumably if I had ever gotten to the point of being good at classical pieces (which I never liked), then I might have been deemed worthy of really advanced stuff, like jazz or improv… but more likely I would have been carefully steered away from them, since they’re a lower musical form or something.

    The piano teacher actually did agree to let me play some songs I liked. I brought a tape with the songs on them. She never asked for them, and I was too shy to bring it up again.

    This went on for three and a half years, until the teacher moved out of town and I was able to convince the parental units that it was enough.

    I hated pianos after that. For at least a year, I didn’t want to get anywhere near a piano.

    At some point, though, I started picking out tunes by ear. I worked my way up from single melody lines to melody-plus-chords to something that sounds like it has been arranged… and in just a few years I could do this, and this, and this.

    Now if I can just figure out how to have a steady income, I’ll manage ok. The problem is figuring out which button I push to make that happen… :-/

  4. More response to Pueblo Girl: I think I know what you mean. My biggest problem, if it’s a problem and not just an alternate way of doing things is… I can’t very often go from a specific idea or image in my head (or in someone else’s head) to drawing or painting it accurately.

    This made me absolutely dreadful at art classes for a long time. Unless I got really lucky, what I drew bore no resemblance to the assignment. Almost always there was an assignment. And the assignment was almost always to either draw from a model, or draw from a drawing or painting.

    It was only in later classes where there were no (or fewer) models, that I got better at things. But I never put the reason together until I wrote it just now. Nor did I realize that once I really started painting on my own terms, I would actually end up with far better stuff by just painting than by thinking up a specific thing I wanted painted beforehand.

    This also meant that even if I could once create something really cool, I could never reproduce it. Not even by tracing, which I found out when I lost everything but a photocopy of a pencil sketch I once did. And the way I was taught to plan and then sketch and then paint was just as bad for me as the way I was taught to write (which involved a lot of careful planning and guaranteed writer’s block).

    So a lot of my fear about this stuff came from being taught the only way to do things was a way I couldn’t do. I’ve become a lot more relaxed since I started painting lots of cats. Because at least even the worst ones were done in a way that suited me and not the way people taught me.

    I guess that means “You HAVE TO learn the rules before you can break them” (a quote from my music teacher, regarding the all important chord theory) was yet another crappy thing to tell me. It seems more like if I try to learn the rules I get nowhere and if I throw them out then stuff starts actually working. But I was taught that this was incredibly presumptuous (I got called that a lot if I bothered to do what worked for me) and that I was definitely not the sort of person who should ever be allowed to experiment.

    From what I can tell, experimenting works really well.

  5. Here’s an attempt at a summary:

    Background is bluish, darker on the left fading into somewhat lighter on the right (or maybe that could be the lighting, but that’s what it looks like to me).

    Over top of the background, but more in the middle of the painting, are gold sparkles. The top right has silver sparkles (again, might just be the way it’s lit, but that’s what it looks like from this end).

    In the silver sparkles, 3 blue pieces (maybe rhinestones? I can’t quite tell).

    Along the bottom, a design of flowers on a vine. The first flower is made out of metallic pieces, like wire and nuts (not the eating kind, the kind you use to build stuff). The second flower is made of gold leaves. Then there are 4 silver leaves, 2 on the top of the vine and 2 on the bottom. Then more nuts, and then a flower that looks like it’s made of light blue-coloured rhinestones.

    There are 3 cats in the picture. The one on the right is a purplish-blue outline, with a paw raised. The one on the top left is in a crouching curl; it’s outlined in blue with red reinforcements along some parts of the blue (e.g. along the face). This cat has green eyes. The cat in the bottom left corner is an outline done in blue, green, and yellow. This cat appears to be curled up too, but isn’t directly facing the viewer like the top-left cat. To me, the bottom-left cat looks somewhat like s/he is on hir side, and hir tail is curled up along hir side.

    Don’t know if that is helpful or not…

    Thanks for sharing, Amanda.

    BTW, I had a lousy music teacher too. He spent an inordinate amount of time berating the class for not paying enough attention and not playing things properly (yeah, because kids who are just learning are *supposed* to get stuff perfect all the time), and bragging that he could spend time teaching *private* students (AKA people who were adults and could pay him, rather than elementary school kids) and earn 200 bucks an hour. Considering that I could never get my fingers to work the way they should, I was intimidated by him right from the start, and I wanted the previous music teacher (AKA the guy who never chastised us and was endlessly patient with me) to come back. I don’t think the bad teacher lasted nearly as long at that school than the good teacher did…

  6. Thanks a lot LW! :)

    The various colored things scattered around are broken glass and pieces of colored glass. The flower on the bottom right is made out of marbles. But that’s really hard to tell with the flash.

  7. Hi Amanda:

    Not sure if you remember me, but just double-checking if this is the same Amanda Baggs I slow-danced with to “Stairway to Heaven” in the seventh grade.

    -Neil

  8. “You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is something I’ve heard a lot — and (a) while it may work for some people, it plainly is counterproductive for others; (b) I’m beginning to wonder if there’s really any evidence that it does work for some people, or if it’s just an excuse for the teacher to do things her/his way rather than listening to what the student is ready for.

    I’ll concede that I did find it useful to know the names of the notes, and the basic types of chords — but what I was formally taught in that area was only a small piece of what I eventually learned, and I suspect I would have learned it just fine (possibly with less time and anguish) on my own: after I got over my piano-avoidance, I would spend hours every day practicing and working out songs — because it was fun and satisfying… unlike the lessons.

  9. I think the arts are really supposed to be for everyone, the way more linear communication is, rather than just be for an elite. Lots of people like making music, or painting or drawing, or dancing, or acting, or singing, or whatever else I’ve missed. And the more people who do this stuff, the more people there are who really get what the pros do and can appreciate them even more. The “elite artist” mentality is so classist.

    I think it’s like sports, something that people are better off doing than watching, to the extent they can. It doesn’t only belong to a select few, it belongs to everyone.

    Nice cats! And thanks for writing about this.

  10. Drawing is frustrating to me. I know it doesn’t seem like it with my art popping up in my blog, but to me drawing is another way of me communicating and it can be frustrating.

    I tell stories with my art, sometimes the stories don’t come out right.

    and it’s frustrating…probably one of the reasons I haven’t being painting myself.

  11. Neil: Yep that’d be me. I was really into that song. Amusingly, I was writing about those dances for my next (at least my next planned) post, although I’m not planning on naming names.

  12. Anemone: I think you’re right. I suspect a lot of people would find themselves better at various art forms if it were creativity that was stressed more than always getting things perfect.

    Also, I heard a lot of really elitist crap about who was allowed to break the rules. Like, it was always if you were a famous artist then you could do it but you obviously weren’t so you couldn’t. With no mention of the fact that many famous artists became famous because they defied their art teachers before becoming famous.

    What was good about my college art classes was the teacher’s assignments were incredibly loose. Like “make a sleeping place out of wood and superglue”. I went into the woods, found some sticks, and mounted one so it looked like a miniature tree. Then I created a mini nest type thing hanging off the branches and put a piece of wood whittled into the shape of a human in it. (That was “3d design”.) So there were very few limits put on us and it was better than that awful art class I took in 3rd or 4th(first time) grade.

    One exception to the breaking rules are only for famous people thing was that music teacher. I remember him almost throwing a fit over Syd Barrett missing a chord. He was angry that famous people got away with that while “the really good musicians” never got famous. But he was a bit of a snob. Syd Barrett was widely acknowledged as a musical genius.

    Another thing I just remembered (off on a tangent) is exactly how much my skills flipped over, or seemed to, at a particular point in my life. I don’t know how much was really the skills changing and how much was the environment changing. But I totally lost my technical skill at the violin, became a better artist, became a better writer, lost my skill at science, lost my apparent skill at speech, generally became more creative and less technical in all areas. All over the course of a few years. Sometimes I attribute it to just burning out in areas where I was trying way too hard, and as my brain forcing me to do what I was actually good at instead of what I was putting in huge amounts of efforts to seem good at, but it really took quite a lot of adjustment. And getting better at creative stuff was part of that. It was like something in me was telling me forcefully to be what I was instead of pretending to be what I wasn’t.

  13. No problem! :)

    And now that you mention it, I can tell that the bottom right flower is made out of marbles, and that what I thought were rhinestones are pieces of glass.

    BTW, does the painting have a name/title?

  14. I hate the whole ‘only famous artists can be different’ thing. It makes me want to shake the people who say such nonsense and say, “What the hell do you think made them famous in the first place?! Drawing the same stuff people have been drawing for three hundred years?!”

    For people that are very obviously different, I think this effect is magnified. There is this whole mindset of art that is different being this virus to traditional art. But when it’s made by people who are also very different it’s like another symptom to the more ‘traditional’ folks . To them it’s their duty to stamp that symptom out
    so the entire ‘different’ person will go away.

    And that sucks.

    I hope this made some sort of sense, I’m bad at this sort of thing…Sorry if it didn’t.

  15. I think there is a widespread belief that representational painting requires more skill than abstract painting. The former is “real art” while the latter is just playing with paints and colours. It’s the “my three-year-old child could do that” attitude.

    But there is the reverse artistic snobbery that art which is difficult to understand is somehow superior to obviously art. That art which is “challenging” is better than art which is beautiful. By beautiful I don’t mean traditional. There is a lot of art snobbery around conceptual art. I am thinking here of people like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Art which seemingly requires little skill can sell for astronomically high prices. But imagination and creativity are essential in art.

    I was no good at drawing or painting in art classes at school. I could not, and still cannot, draw perspective. It is amazing to me that distance can be represented on a two-dimensional surface.

    Thirteen to fourteen years ago I went on an Art and Spirituality Course where the participants did abstract water colour painting. I enjoyed that very much and since then I have been on similar courses which I have also enjoyed and on which I did abstract paintings.

    From about the ages of 12 to 14 I had piano lessons outside of school and learnt to play simple classical pieces. My mother was a good pianist.

    I would have that the stereotype of autistic people is that they are good at drawing objects with lines and regular shapes like bridges or skyscrapers or pylons.

  16. Bullying by people who are supposedly charged with helping kids along in their education……needs to be talked about more. It’s not right that kids have to “suffer” for years because of idiot teachers….

    That’s what disabled people suffer from, not the disabilities themselves (thinking of autism, CP, etc and some physical disabilities too) but others’ insensitive behavior towards them because of their disabilities.

    Nice painting. You know what, perhaps you could do prints if you like….like greeting cards or whatever…..in addition to selling shirts at Autreat, the cards could be a part of the fundraising…..

  17. Your painting is dazzling and I can so relate to your post. I’ve only begun making art in my 50s and have suddenly discovered that I’m an artist. Who knew? I steadfastly refuse to compare myself to others. I did that with music for so long that I robbed myself of a lot of joy–so much so that I don’t play the piano anymore, although I still sing.

    There is a reason that the Buddhists call comparing oneself to others “the hell-realm.”

  18. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Janet Frame (a New Zealand writer), but in her autobiography, she described running into problems with the idea of there being The Creative One in class, because she didn’t have the personality type the teachers considered creative. Even after having stories and poetry published repeatedly, she was still convinced she wasn’t creative, because she still believed that idea.

    If you haven’t read anything of hers, it might be worth a shot.

  19. I love that, it’s beautiful. I had to look several times to see the cats, but it’s a ‘deep’ glowing picture that gives me a similar feeling to the pleasure of strong colours in clothing.

    This entry resonates with me because I’ve had those mental voices telling me ‘you can’t do this’ several times in my life.

    Have now done my first blog entry in this persona, on blocked creativity, at spastigirl.livejournal.com.

  20. Pingback: Music and me, Part 1: musical thinking « Urocyon's Meanderings

  21. A lot of this feels really familiar to us in… a lot of ways, some of which are hard to talk about. But I think the main thing that it reminds me of is how we felt about learning languages for a long time. At one of our schools, we had this Spanish teacher who was similar in some ways to the art teacher you described. She’d often single us out for yelling and snarking at, and rip us down for mistakes when other people had done the same things or worse. We did know, at least, that we weren’t the only ones who had problems with her– she was apparently so nasty to some other kids that their parents talked the school administrators into removing them from her classes and doing independent study instead, and we heard stories about her doing stuff like throwing things at students who misbehaved in class. (And honestly had no reason to doubt any of what we heard, given what we’d seen.)

    But… anyway, we were never able to get out of her classes, I’m not sure why, maybe because some of the kids who got out had diagnoses like ADD and we had no diagnoses at that time. The school also couldn’t get rid of her (as we later understood it), because they couldn’t find anyone else to teach language classes, but wanted them to be mandatory for all students. So we were stuck in her classes for four years. During that time, she seemed to be constantly finding ways to covertly humiliate us so that if called on it, she could claim she was just correcting us or something. Anyway, we got the impression from her that you should never even try to use a language at all if you can’t use it absolutely perfectly, and that there is a very specific order you have to learn things in, and should never attempt to use the language in any way that’s “beyond” the current “level” you’re learning it at. We got this big Spanish dictionary early on, and when we were given composition assignments, we would use it to look up words and verb forms we hadn’t been taught in class, if we needed them to say a certain thing. She got really bent out of shape every time we did this, especially with verbs, and told us to never use vocabulary that we hadn’t learned in her lessons. “Don’t use that. You haven’t been taught how to use it properly yet.”

    And even if she was nastier than usual in her attitude about it, her whole general approach to teaching languages– that there are “levels,” that you must never try to write or say anything above your current “level,” that you have to learn things in a very specific order, and that absolute technical perfection is more important than actually being able to use a language for real communication– seemed to be a fairly common one. We genuinely felt for years that we didn’t “deserve” to use a language if we couldn’t use it with total perfection, that if we messed up verb conjugations or dropped accent marks we didn’t “deserve” to use it, that we were just making a mockery of ourselves and the language. There were languages we genuinely wanted to study, but we’d get afraid and embarassed every time we even thought of picking up a book about them– we worried that even self-guided study would be an endless series of humiliations, that we’d just come face to face with our “inadequacy” over and over. Because we never did get very good grades in language courses, even when we had better teachers– we were horrible especially at comprehension– and we just took that as an implication that we weren’t good enough to learn other languages.

    Even when we were able to get past the idea that it was somehow wrong for us to be interested in learning languages in a way it wasn’t wrong for other people to, and to study them on our own if we could emulate someone close to us, we would still give up in fear and shame if we weren’t “getting it” from the first few lessons, and decide we’d never be good enough at it to bother trying. It actually only occurred to us very recently that since we didn’t learn English in anything resembling a typical manner, it was ridiculous to expect ourselves to learn any other language in a typical manner either, and that we shouldn’t expect ourselves to necessarily get much out of “standard” methods of teaching languages, but instead find ways more compatible with our neurology.

    And looking back at what independent study we have done, it seems to bear this out. For example, ten years ago, I studied Japanese a little bit on my own, because a friend of ours was also studying it. I learned hiragana and katakana and then did about five lessons in a self-study book, before I started to feel like I was in over my head. I decided I just wasn’t good enough to deserve to learn it and let it lapse. But I did have various opportunities to be exposed to Japanese, usually in the form of subtitled shows and movies and song lyrics, even when I wasn’t actively studying it, and somehow the patterns our brain picked up from that plus what I actually did learn didn’t just sit unused in our brain for the past ten years; they have somehow been doing things without my realizing it.

    One thing I did notice when originally studying, was that I could often predict the initial consonant mutations that occur in some words when they’re combined with other words, which the book didn’t even explicitly cover. I don’t even remember the Japanese name for the consonant mutations any more. And I can still barely construct a basic sentence. But for some reason my guesses about those are usually correct. There was just some kind of underlying pattern to them that our brain automatically took in. And I’ve also noticed that when listening to speech, or songs, in Japanese, I can often hear the exact words people are saying/singing– like, if you asked me to transcribe them I could transcribe a fair bit. I can tell what sounds go together to make words and which words are separate from one another. I just have no idea what 95% of the words mean in context. I think this is actually very similar to the way we learned spoken language at all in the first place, except that we were eventually able to make the leap to connecting those sounds and words to meanings in English.

    And all of that was actually somewhat hard for me to talk about, since it falls into the category of patterns of skills and disabilities that people in our past have insisted are impossible. Including the fact that some of the skills that seem to be involved are ones that most people aren’t supposed to have after childhood. (And those also aren’t skills we have all the time, or can do equally well all the time, but which seem to be more available to us when we’re at what most people would consider a “lower functioning level” than our normal one. And the only reason I even feel safe saying that at all is because you described something similar in your “hills and cliffs” post, so we know it happens to other people too.)

    So… going back and looking at all of those facts in context makes me realize that, no, our brain does not necessarily suck at learning languages; it just learns them very differently. And most methods of teaching are not geared to accomodate it, so we have to come up with our own ways, and those will probably involve a lot of accidental/inadvertent learning through pattern absorption and picking things up in bits and chunks, piecemeal, all over the place, and often result in us being able to say things that sound meaningful without having any idea what we actually said. And knowing this makes us hope that we can go back and actually study languages we’ve wanted to learn, without being terrified to even look at or listen to a basic lesson. I don’t know if this will ever lead to anything resembling fluency in any of them, but realizing this did cause a major paradigm shift in some ways for us.

  22. Pingback: Music and me, Part 2: Enter the snakes « Urocyon's Meanderings

  23. Wow! The colors are so vibrant and the textures are add a lot. Visually, there’s so much going on and it comes together beautifully. This is really lovely.

    I’m glad you’re making art!

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