"But I Like the Lines" and Other Excuses of Creative Resistance

An invitation to play, for grown-ups

"You haven't even started and you're already overthinking it," I teased. My mom had just bought an adult coloring book and was consulting me on every decision: "Should I use pencils or washable markers?" "Do I just copy the sample parts that have already been colored in?" "Are these ones with all the space okay or am I supposed to draw in the empty spaces?" Conversations with my mom are always interesting because I can trace my perfectionist neuroses back to their origin. "Can I still do this? I've never been good at art." Sound familiar?

I like to tease her and give her advice in feigned frustration because it is like talking to myself. We are cut from the same cloth, the kind that is properly measured and doesn't do well when wrinkled. Even our handwriting is the same (but that might be from all the times I practiced forging her signature in grade school; it seemed like a useful skill to have). We always dot our i's and don't go past the lines.

And yet this blog is my attempt to grow past that and to nurture creativity in myself and in my kids. Writing about my artistic pursuits—which are just that: chasing after art rather than actually achieving it—is a way for me to stay mindful of my tendencies to control and correct rather than to observe and invite. It is still a struggle because, as I've mentioned, it's deeply ingrained in me to stay within the lines and to never settle for mediocrity. My mom and I, we usually don't attempt things we're not confident we can do well. But, for my daughter, as a three-year-old, there are few things she can do well the first time. What's lovely and inspiring is that she does not yet know that she can do things "badly." Is there a wrong way to splatter paint on paper? Or to use a leaf to paint? As a child, she just does it; as an adult, I judge my technique. In leaf painting, people.

Imperfectionism is a Process

But I am not a lost case. Following her lead, I am learning to love the process, regardless of the product or the progress. In turn, I want her to see me make mistakes and be okay with them so she can feel safe enough to try things for the sake of trying, for the experience, for the story, not just for the accolades and awards.

This is hard, living in a culture where multi-awarded is a common word and preschoolers are given grades and ranks. My mom still remembers which honor I got in nursery school. I just remember crying through the ceremony.

Watercolor painting has helped me heal in this area. I've had other hobbies, like baking, gardening. But baking, I follow to the letter and it is harder to improvise successfully. Similarly, in gardening, it's hard to sustain a love when your creative efforts end up in death. With watercoloring, there is less at stake and enough freedom for me to play without significant casualties (just a few dead trees and picked flowers sacrificed for art's sake).

It took a medium that embraces imperfection and defies precision to teach me that there is beauty in relinquishing control and learning, adjusting, and letting go as you go. As a professional, the blank page represents paralysis. As an amateur, it symbolizes possibility.

My mom praises my work and says I should try to sell them, they're that good (she's my mom; she's supposed to say that). I remind her that that's not why I'm doing it, that to put that kind of pressure on the creative process would be to rob myself of one of the few things I do where I leave judgement and criticism at the door. Just this once, I'd just like to paint because I like to paint. I'm even resistant to taking classes and workshops because then I'll see how flawed my technique is, how mediocre my work is. Just for a little while, I'd like to be gloriously, happily mediocre.

Not that I don't put my heart into my work or do the drills or try to get better. As Anthony Bourdain writes in his essay on his love for Brazilian jiujitsu:
Jiu Jitsu makes me very happy — regardless of how good or bad I am at it — and how dim my prospects of ever excelling at it...It just means that I worked really, really hard at something. And that presumably, I suck at it just a tiny bit less.
There's something to be said for loving something that may never love you back.

Everyone Starts Somewhere

It has been days since I have been able to paint. E used the last page of my sketchbook and I've only recently had the time, transportation, or resources to restock. I never imagined I would feel the anxiety over not having put paint to paper, but I feel it now. It's like a part of me has not been fed and it is hungry, even if the other parts of the machine that I'm operating have been polished and refueled: the mom part, the worker part, the thinker part.

Funny that, only a few months ago, this need would not even have existed.

Thinker and author Osho writes:
One thing: you have to walk, and create the way by your walking; you will not find a ready-made path...You will have to create the path by walking yourself; the path is not ready-made, lying there and waiting for you.
As we put down the phone, I know she is still going to follow the colors on the cover of the book. She will take the suggested sample and regard it as truth. That is her way, and if it makes her happy, to see that she has correctly replicated the work of another and adhered to the pre-approved standard, then who am I to tell her how to be happy otherwise. She will have to find her own path, to wake up one morning and find that the guidelines have blurred, the fence doors are open, and she will not get burned if she ignores the cautionary signs and steps into the light.

Choosing Bravery Over Perfection: An Addendum

A few weeks after I first started writing this, I found this TED talk. I watched it with my daughter.

What she got out of it: her first sight word, "TED." What I got out of it? This quote:
I need each of you to tell every young woman you know...to be comfortable with imperfection, because when we teach girls to be imperfect, and we help them leverage it, we will build a movement of young women who are brave and who will build a better world for themselves and for each and every one of us.
So, I think tomorrow, when Mom calls, I'll stop teasing and start encouraging. Because when she learns to be brave, she'll teach another girl to be brave. And while that girl won't be me, it could be my daughter.

By the way, this post has been in my Draft box for weeks, just another way I am still not brave enough to show imperfection. Like I said, it is a process. Draft after draft, I write, then doubt; write, then delete; write, then decide not to even start putting a thought or idea into writing. But I'm sharing it now, unfinished sentences and all, because the more I second-guess myself, the less I will write, and soon, the harder it will be to find my voice at all.

Does this sound like you? You're not alone. I won't judge you if you won't judge me. Let's be scared but brave together.