By Sarah White, October 2017
I think I just missed the point—again—of an assignment for a class. (This time, the assignment was for my Big MFA Adventure.) This makes the third time.
Funny, the first two times were in art classes, where I thought I had natural talent that meant I could trust my hunches. And now it’s happened again, only this time in my new field of study, writing creative nonfiction. Another field where I thought I had natural talent.
The first time was in 1972. I was a junior in high school. I was taking an art course that finally interested me, because it was applied, not a study of history or theory. In this class we would create commercial art—advertising designs, album covers, and such.
For this assignment, the class was given a perfume named 4079 and asked to design a package for it. I chose a computerized typestyle and a palette of yellows and greens inspired by sunlight dappling through leaves, intending to emphasize the contrast between the random-number name and the natural environment the perfume’s light, fresh smell evoked for me. The teacher gave me a D. “You totally missed the point,” he said. He expected (and the other students produced) something sleek and futuristic, machined and shiny. I missed the point.
Eight years later, having finished a journalism degree, I was taking art classes part time at a technical school to fill in what I missed in college about composition, design, and materials. This class was basic illustration, and the assignment was about perspective: “Produce a black and white drawing that shows you understand how to represent three dimensions on flat paper.” I chose for my subject outer space, with a spaceship-sized pair of pliers speeding toward the picture plane.
The earlier assignments had been product illustrations, and I carried over to this new assignment my enjoyment of rendering different surface textures. I lovingly illustrated the detail of the pliers, its knurled handles and serrated gripping surfaces. I surrounded my realistic pliers with planets in various sizes, to indicate its enormous scale.
The teacher gave me a D. “You totally missed the point,” he said. “Perspective reveals itself through scale, through seeing the size of one thing compared to another.” This is what the painters of the Renaissance discovered, that lifted their compositions far beyond the iconic representations of those who preceded them.
Space is the one place where we do not know the size of anything. Yes, my pair of pliers was rendered in perspective—you could tell its orientation in the space it occupied. But was it six inches long in a sea of planets the size of marbles and peas, or was it the size of a football field in a sea of asteroids? There was no telling. I missed the point of the assignment again.
And now, I fear I’ve done it again. Assigned a research paper for the MFA program I’ve just begun in Creative Nonfiction, I proposed an alternate to the topics offered by the professor went own way, producing essentially a sales piece on the attractions of ghostwriting. As I began to read the papers produced by my fellow students, in which they industriously explore the academic and professional concerns of writers of serious creative nonfiction, my heart sank into my gut and twisted there. I’ve totally missed the point again. The professor will probably give me a D.
- Sarah White
p.s. In fact, I hadn’t missed the point, and when grades were issued–I got an A!