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When The Art You Create Disappoints You

At our house, a lot changes between Saturday morning and Saturday night. We have six children, and often someone has some kind of sports ball thing happening during the day.

And of course, there is the almost-weekly cleaning of the house, all hands on deck.

On especially beautiful Saturdays, there might even be time to go to the park and then naps for everyone. A nap for you! And a nap for you! And a nap for you!

But on one particularly slow Saturday, when there was not much cleaning to be done, and there were no athletic competitions to attend, and everything outside was gray and cold and damp, the eight of us remained inside.

My 13-year-old daughter Lucy began work on a painting she had been talking about for months. I peeked into her room from time to time, checking on her progress.

She had envisioned a little girl walking into a dark and foreboding wood. The painting would be of the girl from behind, in a white night gown. In front of her would be the shadows from the trees and fog drifting over a narrow path, and deep in the recesses of the painting she imagined tiny flashes of light: faeries waiting.

It was fun watching her progress, catching snapshots of the emergence of this image. I stopped by her room every hour or so.

I had to go away for a few hours later in the afternoon, and when I came home, I couldn’t wait to see the painting. But as soon as I walked in the door, my 8-year-old son gave me the news.

“Lucy painted over her painting.”

She painted over her painting?

“She did what?”

“She didn’t like her painting, so she painted over it.”

My son seemed oddly unaffected. I, however, was heartbroken.

Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards—the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees—have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

I have continued thinking about this thing my daughter did, this painting over of what I thought was becoming a lovely creation.

I know why she did it—I have had, and sometimes given in, to that impulse as well.

A short story goes nowhere? Delete it.

A poem stares back up at me, impotent and lazy: ball up the paper and throw it in the bin.

I stumble on the first 15,000 words of a novel that never quite survived its birth? Put the entire folder in the trash.

I know what it’s like to feel disappointment in what I have created.

And yet.

I wonder.

Are our creations, our stories, our paintings, our photographs, our sculptures, our pottery, our sewing, our songs…are they always meant to be these shining beacons, things we put up on pedestals and worship, as at the end of a pilgrimage?

Or are these creations of ours actually more like mile markers, posts that show us both how far we have come and how far we have yet to travel?

I am leaning towards the latter.

If we do not paint our paintings, and show them to those around us, until they are perfect, we will live long, fruitless lives. If we do not write our books until the ideas are fully formed, and our conclusions sure, and our skill at its peak, will there be any books?

Our creations remind us where we come from, and they can also lead us home.

Later that Saturday night, my daughter wandered into our room.

Nearly everyone else was asleep, and it was unusual for her to come and search us out. She leaned against the bed, and I asked her about her painting, and when she told me she had painted over it, I smiled. I encouraged her.

We talked about the journey of art, and I showed her the video where Ira Glass talks about The Gap.

She pulled out her phone and showed me a photo she had taken of the painting, and I was glad, because there it was, preserved after all, a mile marker for us both.

Shawn Smucker is the author of the award-winning YA novel, The Day the Angels Fell and the sequel, The Edge of Over There.

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Becky Woodhouse

    I often see work that I think it’s great and accomplishes something only to realize that, had it been mine, I would have rejected it based on one small flaw.

    • Shawn

      So true, Becky.

  2. Rachel

    I’ve quit painting. I’ve quit writing. I’ve quit.

    Thank you for this message today….i needed to hear it.

    • Shawn

      I’d love it if you started writing again, Rachel.

  3. Jacki

    I walked away from drawing for more than 2 decades. I quit in 8th grade because I couldn’t get something on paper like what I saw in my head. Now at 42, I’ve taken it back up. It still doesn’t look like what I imagine, but the feeling of flow fills up my depleted bucket. But I do wonder often how much better I would be today if I had not stopped practicing for 20+ years.

    • Shawn

      It’s hard not to look back and wonder, isn’t it? I’m glad your back.

    • Jill

      Jackie, I am so happy to hear that you have found painting again. I also took a long hiatus away from making and am just finding my way back to it as well.

      What gave me the courage to try again was reading the research from Brene Brown. Here is an excerp: “When I started the research on shame, you know, 13 years ago, I found that 85% of the men and women who I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. But wait – this is good – fifty percent of that 85% percent, half of those people: those shame wounds were around creativity. So fifty percent of those people have art scars. Have creativity scars.”

      I realized I stopped because i was emotionally wounded at a young age. I was able to move through those wounds and scars and dared greatly to put myself and my work out there again!!!

      You can do it too! You already are!

      • kddomingue

        As I read your reply, I had so many moments from my past flash through my mind in startling detail. Stepmother making disparaging comments about anything that I made, father making dismissive remarks that while not unkind let me know that creating was not important……and I could go on and on. I remember feeling shame, feeling deeply hurt. I remember feeling inadequate and not good enough. I remember feeling a reluctance to show anyone anything I’d done. As an adult, if anyone praised anything I’d made, I felt that they were somewhat deluded or just being kind because nothing I did was special or really good. The wounds are deep and the scars are ugly.

        I have a five year old granddaughter. She gets frustrated when she can’t do something perfectly. And I tell her that none of us do “perfect”. But we practice and practice makes us better and better at the thing we’re trying to do. But we can’t get better and better at it if we quit trying because it’s not perfect. There is no perfect. But there is better and better. I should listen to myself instead of the whisper of voices from the past that linger in my head.

  4. Kristin

    So much to think about here. Your daughter has such talent in both her vision and her skill!!

  5. Meredith Gould

    My last job as working artist was in 1973. I became a sociologist, was a college professor for a decade, moved into marketing communications, started writing non-fiction books during the mid-1990s, became a digital strategist and social media expert during this century. And now, after and as a result of that journey, I’m forward/back to defining myself as an artist. A mosaic artist, to be more specific. Rolling out my website for that…soon! My prayer for your daughter is that her journey is as interesting as mine but not as time-consuming. Our world needs artists!

    • Shawn

      Yes! Our world does need artists, and I’m glad you’re back in the game, Meredith. As an aside, I think we met two years ago at FFW!

  6. Ranee Boyd Tomlin

    And often appreciation is quite subjective! As I read, I had formed in my mind a vision of your daughter’s painting that might explain why she painted over it. But when I saw the photo at the end, I heard myself murmur a spontaneous “Oooohhhh” aloud. I truly think it was/is beautiful; and if it had been mine, I would have prized it always.

    Which made me think about the 10,000-word start to a novel that I’ve been considering deleting . . .

    • Shawn

      Yes. Good point. Sometimes we can be too close to a thing to be able to get a good look at it.

  7. Jill

    I took an arts-based course on The Gifts of Imperfection with Brene Brown. In this class I completed an exercise called ‘Permission Slips’, where we granted ourselves permission before we started our art making.

    A few of my favorites include:
    – permission to try really hard, make mistakes and try again
    – Permission to not throw anything away
    – permission to be disappointed and believe that I am still enough
    – permission to date greatly and try something new without shaming myself.

    Perhaps a helpful resource for sweet Lucy ?

  8. Rob Vitaro

    I’m glad she snapped a picture of it (and that YOU shared it with us), it’s really quite beautiful. Hopefully she’s glad too.

  9. Joanna

    I love this story and message, Very powerful.
    I’m a creative but have never really created something. Beautiful thoughts here. The world need artists- ❤that!

  10. Susan

    Thank you so much for this. And the link to the video. This year I’ve started a few new things and I’ve been kinder to myself with my expectations. But at this four month mark I’ve begun to waver. This was a much needed reset.

  11. Ray

    Beautiful story, Shawn. And quite meaningful for me today because my writing has come to a dead stop for several months now. I’m attempting to clean out my home office and keep coming across old versions of my book. I’m starting to wonder if I’m just going in circles and maybe my newest draft really isn’t any better than the older ones. But this piece from you helps to re-center me, and I know where I can get help to sort this out.

  12. Rachel

    Thank YOU for sharing this, Shawn. I am often one of those people who can come up with a million reasons why I’m not ready to write or how what I write isn’t good enough. Thank you for the reminder that art is less of a destination and more of a journey.

  13. Lee

    On the other hand, if we treat every creation as precious then we get frozen. Try, erase/delete, try again. It is a process.

  14. Diana Trautwein

    So lovely, Shawn. And so sad, too. The painting is exquisite! I hope she perseveres and learns to be kinder to herself and to her work. You, too. And me, too, too! (I’m toying with the idea of dabbling in long form again, something I tried four years ago, just before enduring foot surgery and a long recovery (which continues on a few levels!) Terrifies me and I would likely self-publish — if it ever got finished! But it’s intriguing to me that I’ve taken the idea off the shelf it’s been sitting on since my mom began her final decline. Something about the one-year anniversary of her death seems to have triggered it. Time will tell.)

  15. Ronda

    I love this!
    I used to teach pottery and my heart would break when kids and adults would smash their creations into a ball. Though I do think it is harder with your own work when what you want in your head just isn’t coming out to not give up or destroy what you created. Though some of my favorite pieces of mine have come from one of my perceived imperfections that sometimes I need that time (and grace with myself) to step back and see it with new eyes later to not just focus on the imperfections but the beauty of the time it took to create and the piece as a whole. Thanks for the reminder about the process.

  16. Lena (sitting in her mom's lap learning about grit)

    I feel the same way when I make art all the time

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