The Usefulness of Stripey Things

Editor's note: This is adapted from a brief letter I sent my Foundations workshop students last fall. I hope it resonates for some of you! —Susannah

I've been wanting to dabble in watercolor ever since my daughter and I played with them at the Frist's ArtQuest last year and I made this little stripey thing I liked. (I can't bring myself to call it a painting.) It made me think, "Hm, I want to make more of these stripey, watercolor things."

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I also thought it'd be fun to learn a thing or two about real watercolor technique. So I signed up for a one-session class, which turned out to be just me and the instructor, which was was fine by me. As she suggested, I brought two photographs to work from, both photos I'd taken and posted on Instagram. We sat down and got to work. 

It didn't take that long for me to realize that, like most things, watercolor was going to take some practice. And that maybe I was not going to be so great at it. Or at least I wasn't great at it on this, my very first "real" try. I didn't care much; I was just there to dabble. At the Frist, I'd found my casual stripe-making process meditative, even soothing, and I mostly just wanted to have that experience again. 

The instructor gave me some tips as she worked on her own piece. She talked about "scrubbing" the page, and dabbing up extra water, and defining shapes from the outside/edges, and using colors, not black, to make shadows, and doing your background wash first, and a few other watercolor basics.

I nodded and gave it my best. But as time went by, I felt like I was flubbing more than succeeding. I think she sensed that. "Loosen up in your technique," she said.

I wasn't entirely sure what she meant. And did being told to loosen up make me loosen up? Ha! No, it did not. I grew increasingly eager to finish my earnest dabbling in "real" watercolor and just chill out with my stripes again. 

Finally, I did just that—went back to making a stripey thing—and I have to say, the rest of the evening was more like bliss: I played with color and line, and I felt I could focus more on chatting with Denise because I wasn't thinking too much about what I was doing, and it was just something pleasing to do with my hands and pretty colors and randomness, and I. was. happy.

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This all got me thinking (and at last! Here I am, getting to some my point!) about my classes, and the things I tell you guys.

I try to be serious and helpful in passing along tips about narrative craft and the revision process (which really is the writing process), because that is what the class is billed as offering. But sometimes I worry that I'm over-stressing the work, on the necessary growing pains of writing, on the failure that leads to success (see: the Claire Vaye Watkins's blog post I read to you on Tuesday), and stressing y'all out as a result. I worry that you'll be shut down by all that talk. I know you are taking this class because writing brings you pleasure in some way, feels soothing or necessary or even redemptive to you. The last thing I want to do is kill that pleasure. And I've struggled myself with the way that advanced education in the craft of writing can, indeed, seem combative with—if not murderous toward—that pleasure. 

So let me just say this: While, YES, revision and work-work-work are integral to getting a story right most of the time, writing can and should also offer a great release, a time of play and fun. I so want you to experience and never lose that gift. It is just as important that you do the writing that feels good to you, that feels freeing and energizing or relaxing for whatever reason. Do the writing you want to do and don't feel like you have to make it into anything else for anyone else. Writing can serve so many purposes; let your writing serve the purposes that you need for it to. 

Want to make pretty stripes? Make those pretty stripes, and love every minute of it. Want to push your technique further? Go for it.  Which is not to say you can't also have fun making pretty stripes; the two kinds of art-making are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think you need periods of both to feed that hunger to create. 

I'll close with a few words from Anne Lamott, because when CAN'T we use a few words from Anne Lamott? 

"Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward." —Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird

—Susannah Felts