Skills and creativity

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

My mother was pretty much a part-time monster but she had big talents and one immense virtue.

She had been trained as a seamstress in a good technical high-school. Sometimes, when my father was working at night, she would hustle the five children through a hasty dinner of coffee with milk, bread, butter, jam and cheese and then, send everybody to his or her room. (She had to do that behind my father’s back because he belonged to the old French school that believes that if you don’t get two five-course, balanced meals a day, you will sicken in a short time.) She would lock herself in the dining room with fabric, her sewing machine, and her big scissors. By morning café au lait time, she would have a new outfit of extreme chic with appropriate gloves and detachable collars. Once, she produced in two nights matching tweed overcoats and golf pants for the three boys. Even little boys could see that the outfits were exquisitely elegant though the pants felt scratchy. No matter, we had to wear them to church and for a part of Sunday afternoon.

As long as she had defenseless offspring at home, my mother never saw a children’s costume event she did not like. She would enter as many of her children as would submit. The last time it happened to me, I was eleven and tall for my age. She dressed me up as a Roman legionnaire, with a cardboard armor ingenuously painted with stove silver coating. It almost killed me, not the armor, the embarrassment. I never wore a costume again until I was twenty-five though I must admit I have retained a certain flair. At least, I was never one of those social cowards who go to a Halloween party in jeans and keep a cowboy hat in their car just in case everyone else is costumed. (You know who you are, spineless scum!)

I was aware early that my mother used her talent to gain face and to pull rank on almost all other neighborhood women. Nevertheless, watching her cut and sew through the glass door exposed me early to the concept of creativity in general, and of visual creativity, in particular. I also picked up the broad notion that creativity not served by solid skills is meaningless. In my fifties, I began to paint, without hesitation although I am quite critical, because I had retained from observing her two forceful ideas: Skills will reveal talent, if any; with practice, skills can only improve.

My mother’s living example of inventiveness was at the antipodes of the narrow, sober petty-bourgeois values my whole environment projected. It belied what she was trying to teach her children every day. She contradicted with her hands what she  preached with her mouth.

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