How Coloring Helped Me Write Again

When I discovered these fantastic coloring books by Johanna Basford, my brain just lit up. 

I immediately bought multiple copies, thinking it would be a great way to relax and use my right brain after using my left brain all day at work.

Thrilled when they arrived, I put the books and a set of colored pencils on my desk at home, where they waited for me to dive in.

And waited.

And waited.

I almost started a few times but something held me back. There wasn’t enough time to dig in is one of the excuses I often give myself, but I soon realized I was procrastinating because I was intimidated. Visual art is not my natural mode of expression. I can navigate my way around a paragraph pretty well, but drawing and painting have never been my first language.

But what safer way to be outside of your comfort zone than being all by yourself with a coloring book and some pencils?

I quickly learned what a mirror this activity is. It turned into a microcosm for working through the issues that hold me back from writing.

Where to begin? Which book? Do I start at the beginning or somewhere else?

My analytical side voted strongly for starting at the beginning. I seconded the motion and rationalized that no one really looks at the title page in a book and it would be a safe place to hone my coloring skills before I got to the meatier bits later in the book. Which made me wonder who exactly did I think was looking over my shoulder? But, by the third page, I was beginning to feel a sense of freedom. It didn’t matter where I started as long as I started.

What if I do it wrong? What if I make a mistake?

I doubted my choice of color when it didn’t coincide with nature. The last time I colored, I was in Catholic school, and what I learned there was that I didn’t want to make any mistakes, because kids at Catholic school who made mistakes got slapped.

It surprised me that this old reflex from childhood came flaring up because I know that I am the creator of my own coloring book universe and can use whatever colors I want. Invisible fences pop up when least expected. But, with coloring, I can practice breaking the rules and surviving.

After twenty minutes, my hand hurt. I held the pencil too tightly. I was trying too hard. I had to lighten up and go easy, the way you use a bread knife. Let the pencil do its work.

Sometimes things didn’t turn out the way that I intended, but sometimes they turned out better. I got better at letting go and improvising. The grass doesn’t always have to be green. The sky doesn’t always have to be blue. My flowers don’t have to be the botanically correct version. They just need to be my version, authentic to me.

Do I have enough tools to really do this justice?

When I suggested to an artist friend that I needed more colored pencils, she scoffed that what I had was more than enough. I just had to learn to blend those colors to create news ones. I have to remind myself that I have all the tools I need to get this work done. I just have to blend those tools to create what I want.

The end result doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t really matter what the result is. It’s the pleasure of doing the thing that matters. If you are brave enough to show your art (whatever that is) to other people, then some will like it and some will not. Either way, you will have already rolled on to something new because you are infinitely creative.

Being creative isn’t about the result; it’s about the journey. Inside the process is where you learn what works and what doesn’t, what the rules are and where to break them. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a surrendering.

Don’t second guess yourself. Just start and find out what happens.

We’re all out of practice. It feels safer to play small and not take chances. But life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Try new things, see if they work, and pivot to something else if they don’t. Open yourself to all the possibilities in the world. Free yourself up to be experimental.

Johanna Basford says her creativity is “cultivated by a curious imagination and a delight in the fantastic.”

I’m a lucky beneficiary of her wonderful art. She created a safe and magical place for me to color outside the lines.