The inner medicine of sketchy, half-baked creativity

So you’re sitting there scrounging Netflix for one last show that can pique your interest, while your thumb scrolls Facebook and you’re not looking at the pile of laundry down the hall.

It’s week three or three thousand or whatever of this weird pause in existence caused by a global pandemic.

Part of your brain is vigilant for the ding of an email notification that might spur you into momentary action—but please god, not another message from The Gap or someone about their COVID-19 response. Also, please not yet more invitations to free masterclasses about chakra clearing, how to maximize EVERYTHING ALWAYS, or “the art and science of toilet scrubbing—the Zen way!!!!” *

You’re hungry for something that isn’t in your cupboards or fridge. You’re feeling anxious about things beyond your control. You’re dealing with vague fears about how life will look on the other side of this mess.

You’ve already cleaned the oven and underneath the sink. The laundry is there to be done, but it can wait. It’s not like anyone in the outside world can see the wrinkled t-shirts and sweats anyway. You’ve walked to the window twenty-three hundred and eleven times, looking out at a world that is being slowly invaded by the forces of spring.

Something restless is rising, something wants to be born.

What is it?

Is it the manuscript of a novel you started writing three years ago and can’t bear to look at it again? Is it that pad of sketch paper and brand new pencils you bought but haven’t touched yet? Maybe it’s something more or deeper than these, even. Maybe it’s a creation known as you.

Well, that got serious all of a sudden.

Maybe none of the above describes you, or maybe you can relate to some of it, at least. Your personal situation is likely too complex to be reduced to a couple of paragraphs of tongue-in-cheek descriptions.

By now you’ve probably heard from many experts telling you how to make the most of this strange time. It can be overwhelming sometimes—especially for those of us who are caring for children and others at home. It can feel like just too much to move in the direction of something creative with anxiety, various kinds of stress, and distractions creating so much static in the air right now. It’s a psychological fact that when faced with fear, uncertainty, and too much unfamiliarity, the nervous system tends to move into “freeze” and this often means that we tend to engage in numbing behaviors rather than act in more usual, resourceful ways. The idea of engaging in a big creative project might feel like “the impossible task.” (Follow the link to see a fascinating article about “the impossible task” as a commonly overlooked symptom of depression.)

But what if there’s another way?

Expressing yourself creatively has been proven to have many surprising benefits, including the following:

  • Reduce anxiety and depression

  • Boost the immune system

  • Ease and facilitate the processing of trauma and grief

  • Shorten the time required for physical healing

  • Improve relationships and learn new things about ourselves

There’s so much more and you can read about it in this comprehensive review published by the American Journal of Public Health.

With all of that in mind, why is it so hard to get started? Seems like drawing, painting, singing, dancing, gardening, writing, baking, or you name the creative thing, would be the first things we’d turn to when we have time. It’s fun, it feels good, and it’s good for us, so why is it so much easier to grab a beverage and zone out?

There are a bunch of psychological reasons, but I feel that the top two for many people are:

1). The tyranny of the perfect—if I can’t produce a finished product, then there’s no use in starting.

2). It’s not “practical”—it’s not going to pay the bills or solve other adult problems.

I’d like to invite you to try something as an end-run around these dragons at the gate.

To get started, please let yourself go back in memory to when you were a child or at some point before you were in high school. Think about something you loved to do back then. Did you love to draw, or sing, or dance—paint with your fingers, make cookies with your mom or dad?

Don’t let me put words in your mouth. You’ll know what’s true for you.

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After you’ve found yourself in a memory, doing something you loved, take a minute or two and let the scene grow clearer.

Were you doing this alone, or was it something you did with others?

For example, I used to draw while my mother or father read aloud at night. My brothers and sisters were nearby and we’d usually draw scenes or characters from the stories we were hearing. After the story was finished, we’d show each other our art and talk about it together. We loved it. I loved it. I haven’t sketched for many years. I mean to change that now—even though I’ll be rusty and the horse will probably look more like an ostrich or something.

Do you have something in mind now?

Think about how you can do that thing today—right now, if possible.

Maybe you won’t have the right materials. Improvise. Be creative, be inventive. Maybe you won’t remember how, it’s been so long since you tried this thing. That’s okay.

In fact, it’s more than just okay. It’s the point of this exercise.

There’s medicine in your creative self but the only way to get to it is by letting it come out in fumbling, awkward, imperfect attempts.

Many of us adults have forgotten the creative child and the joys it once took from simple things—from imperfect, unmarketable, unprofessional things. Many of us compare our old, buried talents with those people we see getting thousands of “likes” on Instagram or Facebook, and we immediately walk the other way.

What I’m inviting you to do is let yourself go, let yourself play. Give yourself just 10-30 minutes a day for creating something that’s only yours. Rather than boxing it in with the need for perfection or dismissing it as a waste of time in the midst of so many legitimate adult obligations, allow yourself to experience this part of you that has been waiting to be heard and seen for so long.

In my work with people as a creative guide, I seek to help them establish a “creative practice.” You can read more about that in this older essay. What I’m describing today is one way to begin a creative practice. If you start now and give it a little time each day, within the next month you will find yourself feeling better or gaining more perspective—likely in areas of your life that seem unrelated to what we might commonly call “creative.”

Remember, it’s okay to make a mess. It’s okay to create a blooper reel. It’s okay to start something and leave it unfinished or imperfect.

It’s more than okay—this is how you begin healing the connection to your creative inner self.

You know what? I’d love it if you want to leave a comment below telling us about something you loved as a young person. That might be the easiest first step.

P.S. If you want more help with tuning into the needs and wisdom of your inner self, click here to download my free ebook, “How to Establish Your Creative Self Journaling Practice.”

* I think that chakra clearing is wonderful. And my toilet needs a good scrubbing even if I’m not zen about it.

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby

Jacob Nordby is the author of The Divine Arsonist: A Tale of Awakening, and Blessed Are the Weird – A Manifesto for Creatives. His quotes have been shared millions of times around the world. He leads the Creative UnBootcamp course for students around the world, and offers transformational group retreats and individual creative guidance sessions. His third book, The Creative Cure, is set to release by Hierophant Publishing in 2021 with a forward by Julia Cameron.

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18 Responses

  1. I love to draw – have done it since childhood. And I am so glad I never stopped. I love to try to catch movements. But it is always easier to do something "useful".. in stead. First all the duties – so the funny parts.

  2. Whenever I’m doing something creative, I find myself most often in a completely different mood or mindset. It’s not always pleasurable, some forms of creativity are hard, or frustrating, but I’m definitely THERE, in it, in the midst…and sometimes in the zone. Contemplative. Or playful! And it feels good…

  3. It’s funny but this exact thing happened to me this past weekend after I got inspired from a museum’s Instagram post. Here’s what I wrote about it:

    I used to love to draw. Then I came to the realization that I’m not very good at it, so I stopped. And over the years every once in a while I would buy a sketchbook or some supplies, thinking I’d start up again, but the fear of being awful would always stop me. Until recently I stopped thinking much about it. But because of COVID 19 a bunch of pages I follow on social media have been encouraging everyone to get creative. Mo Willems has been teaching kids to doodle, Christina Tosi has been doing her daily baking club, Elia Saikaly has a really cool photo editing project, and Getty Museum has folks recreating famous works of art. Yesterday my favorite museum, The Norton Simon Museum, posted the first of what will be a weekly drawing challenge. So, I thought I’d break out the old colored pencils and play along. Because I’ve come to realize it doesn’t really matter how good the finished product is. What matters is how much enjoyment I get from doing it.

  4. Thanks, Jacob. Had to think back beyond my voracious reading of science fiction and fantasy to something more from inside of me. I loved to perform as a child. Dancing primarily. I also loved conversing with the grown-ups. I’ve been thinking about an Instagram video series lately. Time to begin a moving conversation, methinks.

    1. Methinks so, too. We’d love to see you moving joyfully if you want to share that with all of us. 🙂

  5. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing a page in my journal every night of "good things" – even though a lot of my life is a complete shitshow right now, it helps me sleep if I write down the small happy moments of the day. It puts me in a better frame of mind, plus I’ve started getting more creative with it. It started off as a bullet list, now I’m grabbing pages from magazines to glue in, using up old un-sticky stickers, and I even pulled out my dymo machine. The creative part settles my anxiety and the gratitude soothes my anger and bitterness and keeps me from feeling sorry for myself. I’m still a horrible person but at least I don’t take it out on my family as much. ; )

    1. ah wow. This is great. Thank you for sharing with us, Shelley.

      "… I’m still a horrible person, but…" haha

  6. Jacob, so grateful for your optimism and encouragement that you extend here!
    I see creativity as something that will get us through to the other side of this pandemic experience. I hope that creativity becomes the new norm for us all to help live kinder, more loving, and curious lives. This is what’s kept me being unafraid and optimistic these last several weeks. I imagine that my sketching, listening and dancing to Latin music, and reading has helped.
    Listening to and enjoying music is a carryover from childhood. I loved playing records and would spend hours listening to my older sisters’ 45s – incomparable music from the late 50s and 60s.

    If I sketch I’m not embarrassed about the quality.

    I couldn’t sleep one night so I sat and drew bad dog portraits of some rescue dogs. The dogs are quite good – I would adopt them all!

    One out of the three drawings actually resembled a dog. 🙂 I’m guessing I connected with “Johnny Cake” through his photo in order to create the dog’s portrait.

    That particular creative exercise was a tool for grief management as well. My dog passed away a week before we all went in quarantine. I still turn to some sort of pencil, music, journaling outlet to buffer my sadness.

    Creativity might be what saves us! It’s a good mission to be on!

    Be safe and well,
    Karen.

    1. I really love that you shared this with me and all of us. Also, I’m sorry about your dog.

  7. I just finished a paint by numbers piece and am hooked! I love being “told” what to do by the numbers on each paint pot that direct me to the corresponding numbers on the image I’m about to bring into being. No decisions to make just dip, locate the space and smear the creamy colorful goodness onto the canvas. I’ve lost all my substitute teaching jobs for the rest of the year (maybe more?), have no other job prospects and just spent more money from the dwindling bank account to buy more paint by number kits. I’ve justified this because I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs or over eat. The kits have been ordered to keep me sane! Thanks for your encouragement (my painting skills are crappy but I love smearing the paint more than I feel bad about my skills!)

    1. oh yeah! That’s so good… it makes me happy to hear about how you’re doing it. 🙂

  8. I used to love oil painting with Marlene Pleak when I was in elementary school at Boise Christian. For years I have wished to take it up again. Maybe I will!

    1. Hey, cousin! I’d love to see it if you do (please?). Also, maybe you’re more like me right now and it’s better just to do it and let it be all ragged and not need to show anyone. Either way, thanks for being here.

  9. So very true! I paint, do art in many different forms. This gift of expressing without perfection as a goal has carried me thru some very trying times over the past ten years. Now it is an automatic go to during this time of isolation. I enjoy getting up most every morning in good self care and then care of the home, plus doing my art. Some days are really rough and challenging, I am not perfect but I know the good habits win in the long run.

  10. I love love love this, Jacob! And I have been trying to really run with hula hooping, which is something I have kind of done for years. Now you’re inspiring me to maybe pullout those colored pencils from my closet and grab some cardboard. Abstract coloring sounds fun!

    1. Amy Lou,
      Thank you for stopping in to talk about what’s calling your name. I love this…

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