For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself a creative. As an eleven-year-old, I found myself routinely caught in the crossfires of my deeply artistic heart and my very unartistic everything else. I was prone to long walks among the trees in bright blue gauchos, dramatically dragging my fingers along the weeds thinking of all that I could create and be in the world. I took big clunky steps in my orange Crocs and felt, to my very core, I was an artist.
Because of this, I enjoyed practicing a variety of artistic skills, especially at my grandparents’ lake house, where I spent many of my summers growing up. Set on a large hill, the neighborhood around the lake house is known as “The Mountain,” partially due to its incredibly steep hills and partially due to the fact that Oklahomans don’t have a very good understanding of how large actual mountains really are.
One rainy spring afternoon, I tried my hand at drawing. I sat on the back porch and observed the blooming crepe myrtle about halfway down the hill. In perfect stillness, I nibbled on my eraser and absorbed all I could about the tree. The drops of early spring water on the purply-pink
blossoms. The general shape. The color that exploded from the blossoms, seemingly glowing against the dull woods. In the presence of this beautiful thing, everything felt significant and profound. Brimming with the kind of inspiration that only an eleven-year-old can possess, I took it to paper.
I wish I still had a copy of the image that emerged. Imagine if straws of hay were spread out upward in a fan, covered in pink cotton candy, and then smattered with various blue dots and dashes—I distinctly remember how important it was that my raindrops be individually unique for the sake of authenticity.
When I sat back to see what I had made, I expected to be as astonished by my art as I was the object. Immediately I felt disappointed. I felt inadequate. I did draw a tree, but I was very, very bad at it.
My disappointment contained a discovery. My poorly drawn tree gave me a gift that day, the gift of doing things badly. As an adult, I’ve come to love my talent for drawing poorly. When I do things I know I’m good at, I strive for my personal best. When I write a poem and see its flaws I go back through to examine and re-choose each word with care. With poetry, I am always looking for spaces to edit and polish. That growth is important. It’s how I make things that point to truth in a unique and beautiful way. If I never improved, I wouldn’t make beautiful things, and that would be tragic. I want to make beautiful things, but oftentimes in striving for excellence, I lose my heart for making things altogether.
I like to draw. I draw very poorly. I can confidently say that I’ve never improved. When I get stuck looking for the right word or the right sentence, it’s very helpful to draw. There’s no need to screen for grammar or spelling errors when you’re scrawling out a sunset. There’s no need for carefully chosen words. I feel free in those moments, free from critique and change and the constant need for improvement. My fear of failure and inadequacy as an artist seem to hold much less weight when I fill a page with balloon-like clouds unworthy of an art gallery. It’s therapeutic. It’s fun.
The Joy of Not Improving
In a highly productive, interconnected world, doing everything with some level of excellence has become a neverending expectation. Our careers are full of quarterly averages and yearly goals. We have countless platforms to ascend and corporate ladders to climb. We have things to do, dreams to achieve. Unwilling to risk a detour, we require every attempt at anything we try to be a step in the staircase that leads to life we’ve imagined. Each step feels like an ascension but we never really seem to arrive anywhere. We walk a cultural Stairmaster.
I can’t count the number of hobbies and pastimes I’ve given up because I sucked the fun out of them by adding goals and expectations. In choosing to keep drawing even though I do it poorly, I’m relieved of the responsibility to improve and ascend. I don’t need to enjoy my particular drawing skills to enjoy drawing. I just like playing with my pencils.
When I draw, I enjoy and better understand the talents that other people possess, and I marvel at how beautiful it can be to convey your feelings without words. By drawing poorly, I teach myself to enjoy things for what they are at their core and not just enjoy my own skills and abilities. With my ego out of the way, I’m reminded of just how fun creativity can be. When I draw poorly, I also remember my limits as a human. Before I seek to be a creator, I am first the created, and in the face of the creator who spoke a universe into being, what I create will always seem crude and lacking, no matter which medium I choose. In all I write, all I create, and all I am, I am a reflection of my maker, who designed the blossoms of the crepe myrtle in my backyard. So whether I write or draw, I can do so joyfully, as one who knows the gift that it is to create things, no Stairmaster required.
Cover image by Sheldon Liu.