I found my son destroying a drawing. He’d worked on it for at least half an hour, one of his monster creations with a thousand eyes on a hundred heads with a dozen arms reaching across the page. At one time, the monsters were a coping mechanism. As a little boy—three, four, five—he was plagued with worry. Any transition was painful, any change in routine meant chaos reigned. Getting him to school was like a funeral procession: tears and hugs and woeful silence. His afternoons and evenings were wretched affairs. Repeated, oft-answered questions filled our dinner plates, “Will you leave me at school tomorrow?” “Will you pick me up?” “Will I be able to see you when you get there?” “Will you see me?”
Yes, you know I will, of course, yes, you know I will, yes, of course. Answers weren’t important. The questions ruled the roost.
A wellspring of worry. Worry without cause or purpose. Nameless, shapeless. I asked him to describe the worries.
“They’re like little things in my head that I know aren’t true, but they won’t leave me alone.”
I asked him to draw his worries. “Lets draw them so we can get rid of them.”
I gave him a pad of paper and a black marker. He drew a blob with three eyes and a gaping mouth. I suggested that once he threw it away that worry couldn’t come back. He put it in the trash. He drew another. I left him alone with his worries. A short while later he came out of his room.
“I want to keep them.”
We found a tissue box that was almost empty, made it so, and labeled it “Worry Box.” He shoved his worries into it. He added to it for days. He’d take his worries out and look at them, count them.
“I have so many worries,” he said proudly.
“That’s great,” I replied. Enthusiastic. Encouraging.
He drew worries all the time. He was calmer. He’d carry some paper in his pocket on the way to school. He’d show me the worries he’d made during the day when I picked him up in the afternoon. He’d squirrel them away before bed, stuffing them into the Worry Box atop all the old ones. Panic dried up. It still burbles occasionally, but doesn’t flood like it once did.
He grew. He’s still a decade from voting, but at eight he seems a lifetime away from the worried little boy who clung to my leg at preschool, crying for promises of my return. The worry box was filled, emptied, filled again, and then, after several years, forgotten. It’s somewhere in his room. Maybe under his bed. Worries are forgotten but not gone. I used to find little drawings of monsters in his pockets when doing laundry. No more. Now I find large, carefully rendered creatures in his backpack, or strewn across his bedroom floor. They fill the page, with eyes and teeth and arms too numerous to count, with scales and antennas so small I wonder how his pencil has a fine enough point to scratch them out.
So here was my not-grown-but-so-much-bigger-than-little-son destroying a drawing, a detailed monster, but with an anger I hadn’t seen before. He crumpled and ripped the paper. His teeth grinding and bared. This wasn’t shedding a worry, this was destruction. I asked for calm, for a deep breath, for a reason why.
“It’s not right. It was different in my head and it isn’t right.”
“Well, I thought it looked great.”
“No, it’s terrible.”
I thought about arguing the point. It was terrific, I thought. But something had taken the usefulness of his creating, the digging out of his troubles that had no source other than being human, and turned it against him. Here he was, pounding the table with his tiny grown-up fist, yelling that I was wrong, that he was terrible at drawing, that he was never and could never be any good at it because what was in him was still in him and not out, not on the page. Perfectionism. I wanted to argue, but knew I couldn’t. How could I argue against something that plagued me as well? “Do as I say, not as I do and do and do” only works so often, which is never.
I said, “You know who you sound like?”
I said, “You sound like a guy I know who tries to write books. For a long time he worked and worked and worked on a book and he couldn’t get past the first page. Sometimes he couldn’t get past a sentence. He wanted it to have the exact shape and feeling and smell that it had in his head. He couldn’t get it right on the page and so he never got very far. He was frozen. It took a long time for him to realize that each time he wrote he got a little closer to that thing in his head, that each day was practice. Now he gets more work done, and he finishes books, and he feels much better because sometimes he gets the work out and it does feel and smell like it did in his head. It’s not about getting it right, it’s about getting it out.”
“Who is this?”
“He wears your dad’s clothes,” I said.
My son screwed up his mouth and rolled his eyes the way he does whenever I refer to myself indirectly. The man with his father’s hair and beard likes to think he’s clever.
“I still don’t like it,” he said. “It’s not right.”
I said that was fine. I said he could throw it out if he wanted; could shred and bury it under eggshells and banana peels if he needed. I wouldn’t and couldn’t stop him. I said that my point was that it’s okay to be dissatisfied, but not to be cruel to the artist who is only trying his best.
He nodded. “I know. I’ll draw it again later.”
“I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”
I asked him if he wanted to see what I’d been drawing. When he said yes I pulled out the most recent printed draft of my current project. I still edit on paper (the man wearing my shoes is old) and the pages were full of crossed out lines, arrows, footnotes, and scribbled revisions. I told him I was getting it into shape. But never on the first try.