Box of coloured crayons

Colouring books and creative anxiety

A couple of years ago, at the height of the craze for such things, a couple of people gave me adult colouring books for Christmas. They were beautiful things, full of intricate spirals and minutely detailed images, each one a blank canvas open to a thousand possibilities for filling it with glorious colour.

And my first thought was, What if I get it wrong?

All I knew about colouring was a vague memory of being taught about the colour wheel in high school art, and the firmly embedded notion that it was a crime against people’s eyeballs to put red next to pink. I had no idea what colours would look good together, what colours would clash, what constituted too many colours or too few. I imagined myself looking at the finished product, some glaring visual cacophony, and realising I had completely messed it up.

I didn’t touch those books for almost two years.

Creativity, anxiety, and paralysis

If you’re scoffing at the thought that someone could be paralysed by the fear of doing a colouring book wrong – an activity that is, after all, promoted as a way to relax – congratulations, you probably don’t need to read this post. But if you’ve ever had your own problems with creative anxiety, then you might have some idea of how I felt.

There are people who speak of creativity as some wonderful force that takes over your mind and guides your hand. Under its influence, you don’t need to think about what you’re doing – you just sit down and create – with the implication, it’s always seemed to me, that people who create this way automatically produce masterpieces, because they are following their muse.

I’ve certainly had moments like that; bolts of inspiration that make me leap out of bed or drop whatever I’m doing and race to the computer in desperation to get as much written down as I can before that perfect moment passes. But mostly, when I write, it’s a painful process of self-doubt and uncertainty, of rewriting the same sentence thirty times over because it never quite says what I want it to say and, in the process, feeling any sense of what I wanted to say slipping hopelessly through my grasp.

I’m sure there’s a bit of that for most writers, but having anxiety makes it a hundred times worse. Anxiety tells me that what I create won’t be any good unless I plan every paragraph, structure every sentence, carefully consider every. single. word. You don’t want to know how long I spend in a thesaurus.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for planning and for redrafting. If you don’t know where your story or article is going, taking time to stop and think about it first can help a bunch. And no one writes the perfect piece in a single sitting start to finish, with no rereading and editing required later.

But anxiety can bog you down in so much second-guessing that it takes a day to write a hundred words. By the end of the day they might be the hundred most perfect and beautiful words in existence, but they’re not going to get anything finished anytime soon (and let’s be honest, when you come back to them in a week you’ll decide they need changing anyway).

Living in perpetual fear of getting it wrong is no way to be a writer, or any other kind of creator for that matter.

Which brings me back to colouring books.

Practising creative trust

In recent months, I’ve finally taken the plunge and pulled those colouring books back out. I’m using them for a very specific kind of creativity practice (yes, creativity is something you can practise – like any skill, it’s something you have to practise).

I sit down with a book and some gorgeous coloured markers, and I open to a page covered in perfect, black-and-white spirals. I look at some part of the design, and I look at the colours I have, and without letting myself think too much, I pick a colour I like and colour in some elements.

After each element, I let myself consider, do I want to stop there? If the answer is no, I pick another bit that seems like it would go well in that colour, and I colour it. If the answer is yes, I pick up another colour that I like the look of and start doing the same thing with that.

Sounds simple, right? Even babyish. But to do it – to just sit down and colour – requires me to put aside every ounce of my anxious perfectionism, to hang up on the voice in my head that’s screaming but you don’t know what you’re doing!! and listen instead to the voice in my heart that whispers, hey, let’s try this colour now.

Sure, I’m not producing the next Mona Lisa, but I am creating beauty. And in the process I’m proving to myself, one picture at a time, that it’s safe to trust my creative instincts, even when I don’t feel particularly inspired. Sometimes I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve created, but that’s OK. I can fiddle around with it and see if I can make it better, or I can learn from what I don’t like, and take inspiration for what to do differently next time.

Sometimes I even put red next to pink.

It’s too early to say whether doing this with colouring books will help me to tap into that same self-trust with my writing – the habit of checking and rechecking is pretty ingrained – but I hope, given time, it will help.

After all, if I can trust myself to follow my instincts with indelible marker on paper, a computer document with an undo function should be a piece of cake.

And by the way? Studies of the actual Mona Lisa have discovered layer upon layer of correcting and redoing under that final coat of paint. So maybe there’s hope for all of us.

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