I like to watch my kids play. I like the way they throw themselves into it. They make things up. They dance. They sing. They draw. They paint. There is nothing better than a child being creative. It’s messy, crazy, and uninhibited. They don’t color in the lines. They don’t worry about something looking perfect or being the right color. They don’t follow the rules. They don’t always use tools the way they are intended. And when they are done? They are proud of it. They show you.
This is how my kids are and from what I’m seen and heard, this is how most kids are. That means that when I was little, I was like that too. So were you.
My mom kept stories that I wrote when I was in elementary school, stories that were complete nonsense, but that I remember being so proud of. I made up dance routines with my little sister in our back yard. I recorded songs on cassette tapes. I made a big lion fish in fifth grade out of paper mache that I thought was perfection.
That same grade (I think), I, with three of my friends, did an entire lip sync routine to “It’s in his kiss,” for a talent show in front of the whole school. I think we used the version sung by Cher. And before you ask, it was wonderful. We were amazing.
There was no art form that I didn’t think I could do. I don’t remember when I stopped thinking that. I don’t remember when I started saying things like:
“I can’t sing.”
“I’m the worst at dancing. I have no rhythm and no coordination.”
“I’m not good at that.”
At this point in my life, I think I would rather die than get in front of a group of people and lip sync the song, “It’s in his kiss.” And seriously, why did we choose that song of all songs? We were in fifth grade in like 1993, not 1964.
So, where did all of that go? Why did I stop dancing and singing and painting and writing?
For me, I think the thing that killed my creativity as an adult was this idea that there had to be some sort of profit from creating. If I was going to be a painter, then I needed to paint things that people would want to put in their homes. If I was going to be a writer, then I needed to write books that could be published. I am an adult. I needed to be professional. I had to be the best. It wasn’t something that I could do for fun anymore.
But that put a lot of pressure on me and so when I sat down in front of a blank canvas or an empty screen, I was paralyzed. There is a quote from the book “Art and Fear” that pretty much sums it up:
To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do – away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.
I had gone a long spell without creating. I painted here and there, but never as much as I wanted and I always left more paintings unfinished than finished. I couldn’t remember the last time I had written something outside of course work in college. It felt like my creativity was just all dried up inside of me.
And then the craziest thing happened several months after my son was born that pulled me out of my creative funk.
There’s a subreddit on Reddit called redditgetsdrawn. How it works is that people upload photos of themselves or their kids or their friends or their dogs and they ask artists to create something with them. I started creating portraits, first with pens and markers but then with watercolor and even oil paint. I became obsessed. I spent nearly every moment of my free time creating these pictures for strangers on the internet. I stayed up late at night because I couldn’t pull myself away. It didn’t matter if they didn’t look great or if what I was experimenting with didn’t work out. I was a faceless person on the internet. When it failed, I just shrugged and moved to the next thing. If it succeeded, I was motivated to do more.
For months I did this. I have stacks and stacks of portraits of strangers in my house. I have a tumblr that is nothing but these pictures.
Then one day, I was reading a book and I told my husband that I thought I could write a book too. He said he believed me but I wanted to prove it. And I did. I wrote a book. It was garbage. Total, utter garbage. But I had failed before. I shrugged and moved to the next thing. I rewrote the story. I’ll probably rewrite it again. I’ve also written another book, a book that needs some work but a book that I like, that might just have the capability of going somewhere.
I have my creative mojo back.
I hope it will stay. I’m clinging to it tightly, pushing myself to work every day, even when it’s hard and I don’t want to, even when I’m still a little afraid that I will only fail. I don’t want to lose it, but if I do, I have a little more experience in finding it again.
As for the singing and dancing thing, we’ll leave that for dancing with my kids in the kitchen and singing in the car. It’s for the best.