Saturday, November 14, 2009

redefining failure

I once received an email from a woman who confessed she had gotten discouraged by her brief encounter with etegami because it was a "one-shot deal." I assume she meant that the success or failure of a piece often becomes apparent with the first few strokes, and there's simply no way to un-do the damage. Not to mention that a perfectly good drawing can be ruined when you add the words. Or sadder yet, a poorly placed or mis-pressed name seal can mar an otherwise well-balanced piece at the very, very end. I am familiar with the frustration this causes, and have filled numerous trash bags with torn-up etegami to prove it.

When I first started Etegami, I was advised that if I was unhappy with a piece, I should set it aside for a time. It often happens that a piece which seems all "wrong" will not look wrong at all when you come back to it later. I've saved a lot of etegami from oblivion this way. But I came to realize that there was something else-- something more troubling-- going on each time I judged one of my etegami a success or failure. I was looking at my work and thinking: "Does this piece reflect well on me?" or, "Will the receiver admire me for this?" And I recognized that there was something very wrong, very un-Etegami, in those thoughts. Etegami is not about making yourself look good. Etegami is about enjoying the process, and about wanting the receiver to feel good, amused, comforted, or maybe stimulated to thought.

I've mentioned before that the motto of the modern Etegami movement can be summarized as: "Clumsy makes good Etegami." Anyone can draw etegami. You certainly don't need to be an artist, and you don't need to have what the world calls talent. The more unselfconscious the mind and unrefined the skills, the more charm an etegami often has. I confess I am weak. Praise is as sweet as honey. But in craving honey I am in danger of losing the Etegami spirit.

This is all by way of explaining the attached photo. Many things went "wrong" with this drawing of a small orange and yellow pumpkin. Almost from the beginning, I was unhappy with the shape. Then I didn't wait for the sumi outline to dry before I started coloring it, so the outline got smeared. By the time I added the words, I had given up on it, so I wrote sloppily and overlapped the drawing, which I usually try not to do. I set it aside for a time, and later decided the squashed drawing and sloppy writing had a sort of charm. Then, as I was writing out the address of a new friend, I inadvertently laid the card face down on a surface spotted from a rubber air mail stamp, and the red ink transferred to the drawing. There was no way to un-do it. What to do? What to do?! I caught myself thinking, "How is this etegami going to reflect on me?" And that did it. I was not going to let my vanity keep me from sending this card. "You don't need talent to draw etegami," I had written in my brief message on the other side. So there was no reason to hesitate. Hopefully this clumsy card will encourage my new friend to give etegami a try. And if not, it may at least amuse her.


  1. I love it! And I love your message you put on the other side. Cute. Almost all my e-tegamis fall into the, put away and think about them later pile. Although the other day in class was the first time several people came up to me and said they couldn't immediately pick out my postcard. It was a rather odd compliment. But I took it!

  2. Your writing is a fabulous reflection about the right approach not only to etegami but to all art. I think the way you do, about drawing and painting and other creative activities. I use to say similar things to encourage children and all people that feel the need to make a picture or tell a story. Like you, I put aside some of my paintings. First I saw they weren’t finished but after some time, years, I realised that it was I who wasn’t prepared to understand that nothing else should be done.
    Since August I’ve kept with me a picture-letter for you. Now I’m going to send it. I hope you like it.

  3. But I think it's beautiful. All those things your inner critic told you were negatives give the piece personality.

  4. Oh, I am so loving all of these Etegami posts, as well as the drawings down your sidebar. What a wonderful art form. And the pumpkin does have so much charm. I love its imperfections, and I enjoyed reading about your internal conflicts in considering the etegami mindset. The right mindset sounds a bit like Beginner's Mind.

  5. Thanks for the encouraging and thought-provoking comments. Even as I wrote the post I was thinking how impossible it is NOT to wonder how your artwork reflects on you. It's only human, after all. And, from the Japanese point of view at least, reflection is a good thing. NOT because you want to impress people, but because you want to identify problems in your mindset and behavior, and deal with them so that you can grown and mature. Right?