What painting a coffee table taught me about success, failure, and artistic risks

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It reeked of cigarette smoke. At each corner was a leather strap, fastened by a mildew-green brass pin. Rope wound around each table leg. Someone had once set a smoldering cigarette on the table top, I think; a dark burnt mark scarred the wood. One leg was rickety. The Salvation Army thrift store wanted fifteen dollars for this delightful coffee table.

I bought it.

Call it the need for a challenge other than writing. Call it the emergence of my inner artist. Call it the influence of the ladies’ association work days and the need to upcycle every piece of furniture in a five-mile radius. Call it what you will. I needed a coffee table, and I bought it.

After my husband stabilized the legs,

and after I pulled off the rope and leather straps and those green brass pins,

and after I sanded, primed, painted, and had a messy garage for a week,

here’s the result:

IMG_6137 IMG_6136The colors look better in person, but I don’t know enough about photography and lighting for accuracy. The legs and base are a chocolate-y brown and the top is called “meadow mist.” One daughter calls it green, the other daughter proclaims it bluish; my husband, when asked, shrugs. The green daughter says it reminds her of mint chocolate chip ice cream. (This is usually followed with a “hint, hint, Mommy!” and plea to buy ice cream or take her to the frozen yogurt shop near our house. I resist.)

All I know is that the living room was too neutral for its own good, and we had throw pillows in this color. So Ms. Play-It-Safe (moi) took the chance on the mint-and-chocolate color combination. What did I have to lose?

This is a question I often ask myself when I write. What do I have to lose? 

I don’t have an agent.

I don’t have a publisher with profit-loss charts, multiple marketing/design/editing/etc. people to please, and money at stake, wondering if that Laura Droege book is financially worth publishing.

I don’t even have a deadline. (Except death. Yeah, death is kind of a deadline, isn’t it?)

I don’t have anything to lose.

While writing my third novel, I realized that a certain part lacked urgency. The stakes weren’t high enough for the protagonist. They were high, but not high enough. But I didn’t know what needed to happen. How do I change this? I wondered. I worked myself into a writer’s tizzy.  For me, this looks like getting sick and wondering if I should go to the gym (I’m being so lazy!), sleep all day (But I feel so crappy!), or hit “delete” and take up finger-painting (But I wouldn’t be good at that, either!).

While moaning into my pillow, I had an idea. More specifically, I thought of a plot development that would add urgency to the protagonist’s situation. It felt risky, though. Maybe it was stupid or clichéd or predictable.

What do I have to lose? The thought rolled through my mind. Sighing, I decided to give my idea a try. It scared me. Now I’m glad I did it.

I can take artistic risks. Paint the table meadow mist or pumpkin spice or mocha grande: why not? Add a plot twist or kill a character or use an unreliable first person narrator: why not?

In one of Louise Penny’s novels, a married couple are discussing her latest painting. Both Clara and Peter are painters, but while Peter has had a measure of success in the art world, Clara has struggled to express herself. After much agony, she shows her husband the new work.

It’s good. He knows it’s good. But Peter is a complicated man, and while he’s hated to see Clara’s struggles, he’s also been happy that he is the successful one. (Sometimes it’s easier to be charitable about others’ failures when we’ve succeeded where they’ve failed.) This good work threatens the equilibrium in their relationship. “It’s good,” he says, “but . . . do you think the colors are quite right?”

Clara, who has been certain that this painting is her best work, is devastated.

She’s also courageous. She continues to work on the painting, taking risks, scaring herself with her own intensity, and doing what artists have to do: digging so deeply that it hurts, finding that lie that reveals the truth, going to places where others will not.

In that process, she takes the painting from merely great to brilliant. 

For those of us who struggle with fear, even taking an artistic risk is a scary proposition. (Don’t get me started on the risks in relationships!) Even if I know that I have nothing to lose, it’s still difficult. God doesn’t guarantee that all my artistic efforts will succeed or that I’ll ever achieve my goals in writing or elsewhere. I wish he did.

But I’ve read that it doesn’t really matter if we make our goals, but it does matter who we become by trying to reach them. If my writing failures and rejections help change me into a more tenacious, courageous, thoughtful, and charitable person, the kind of person who extends grace to others when they fail because I know how failure feels, then that’s success.

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7 thoughts on “What painting a coffee table taught me about success, failure, and artistic risks

  1. Recently I read this quote: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” That resonated with me because I had just (yet again) received rejection emails for some poetry and stories I’d submitted to journals. It was discouraging. My first thought was, “That’s it. I’m just not a good enough writer and I never will be.” Yet when I opened some of my old Word files of stories I’d written or begun a while ago I realized I still liked them and could improve on them. That’s when the enthusiasm kicked in again — the joy of the process, regardless of the outcome. So I really like your post, especially that last paragraph about who we’re becoming while we’re trying to reach our goals. I also like what you did with that table. I love before-and-after shots!

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    1. Jeannie, your comment really resonated with me. I’ve had those rejection letters, too, and they hurt, but they’re necessary–and really, they’re a sign of success: I’ve taken a risk and gotten rejected. Surely that’s closer to publication-success than not submitting (no rejection, no risk) would be. Which reminds me that I need to work on submitting my novel. 🙂 Keep submitting!

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