in which I exhort you to paint some perfect little trees (we are all perfect little trees)

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last month, possibly six weeks, working on this Craftsy class. It’s work, but the sneaky sort- there’s this flurry of up- front activity, a bunch of calls and Skype calls, that work I can see, plus what the Craftsy people call “homework”— the things an instructor prepares for the class, handouts and anything you have to show on camera. The real work is what’s happening in my head, though- all the “how to show” thinking that’s chugging along.

I’ve been teaching in one form or another now for what feels like a long time now. The bare- bones “how to train someone on any fool thing” training I received in the military- I think they might have been calling it “How To Train A Trainer” when I went through- it’s amazing, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, and it’s where I learned how to teach. Being able to break a task down into its composite parts, look at how a beginner might need it described, and figure out how to teach it in a genuinely useful way- I can’t place a value on that. Thanks, Uncle Sam. I had several different courses on “how to teach” throughout my military career, but that one was the best of the bunch.

There have been a bunch of long drives in which I’ve mostly just been talking to myself, trying to work out how I’d teach X or Y on film, or how I’d show something on film vs. in person, which seems like it’d be pretty much the same but it turns out is NOT the same AT ALL, just frustratingly similar. It’s a series of puzzles which are delightfully new and I’m really enjoying it all.

The process has brought me to thinking about creativity constantly, which is both wonderful (it’s endlessly fascinating and I’m surrounded by creative people so there’s lots to study) and probably super aggravating for the people around me (I have a lot to say and need a new subject to talk about already). As I’ve been assembling class content, I’ve also been continuing to teach myself how to paint, which has been this incredibly awkward experience, and I’ve been writing, talking, and thinking a great deal about uncomfortable spaces in the creative process.

Any time I’ve gone to learn anything- anything at all, from a language, to yoga, to how to paint, there is that broadly uncomfortable period where I am in real ignorance— before I have any actual tools in my new subject’s space. It’s a terrific place to be inside: wide, open possibility. You still have no idea how much you’re going to like this new thing. You still haven’t found out which parts you will be naturally adept at and which parts will challenge and help you grow. It’s exciting. It can be intimidating. It’s a vulnerable space. So much can happen when folks allow themselves to get comfortable in this very uncomfortable space. It can really help expose those places in ourselves that we aren’t happy with, and help us do really solid, expressive artistic work; it is a practice that can also help us dig deep and get comfortable with an ever- shifting world, and there’s nothing about that which isn’t useful.

Leaving yourself open to judgement like this is HARD, though. Every person I know has had the experience of being told they drew a tree (or stars, or a house, or a person, or a dog) incorrectly, or not very well, maybe not as well as yesterday, possibly just not as well as somebody else thought you could, or as well as the person across the room. Whatever that criticism was, so many folks have these awful voices in their heads stopping them up from creating anything, keeping them from trying new things, or discouraging them from keeping with something if they aren’t super- amazing at it right away.

I’ve noticed that when I teach folks how to dye there’s always a point in which a student will seize up and start thinking of the yarn or fiber as too precious for whatever it was they were thinking of doing to it a minute before- you can watch it happen, that moment when they decide that their idea isn’t good enough. Teaching people to say, “It’s just yarn,” is one of my favorite things to do. Don’t be afraid to use your materials. That’s what they exist for. Use ’em up, and if your finished objects start to take up too much room, give it away, or sell off the excess to buy more art supplies. Trust me, there is a friend’s wall, craft show, Etsy shop, or farmer’s market that wants your art.

Look: your painting of a tree is 100% perfect. It is perfect because it is your picture of a tree. Nobody is going to make a picture of a tree (or stars, or a house, or a person, or a dog) the way you do. Your picture of a tree (or stars, or a house, or a person, or a dog, or any other fool thing you want to make) is perfect because only you could have made it. Anybody else would have made something different. Your tree is precisely what it is supposed to be (just like you). Make your tree purple with blue polka dots: it is exactly right for this moment (yup, just like you). Don’t let anyone denigrate your tree. If you want your picture of a tree to look differently than how it turned out when you finished with it, paint EVEN MORE TREES. You’ll get where you wanted to go eventually, and if you allow yourself to be uncomfortable, you’ll really enjoy yourself along the way. Chances are the tree you end up with will be much better than the one you’d originally set out to make. Stop judging and keep making. We improve via persistence.

One of the best things (for me) about painting is how horribly ugly things can look during the process. I like that about dyeing yarn and knitting lace, too- the “oh my glob everything is awful, I’ve spent all this time & effort making hopeless garbage- BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE” magic that can happen right at the very end. When I’m making my funny little nebula paintings there are moments in the blending where everything looks utterly useless. There have been a few that folks have LOVED in the end which I had come dangerously close to throwing out mid- stream, and only “meh, I’ll experiment on this because it’s trash now” saved. There’s experience in there to be had, for sure— I’m new to this, I’ll get better at seeing how things will go— but also an element of unpredictability that’s really enjoyable. I mean, look at this:


All that inexperience- that room for error, the weird “I don’t know how this works” feeling- it’s refreshing. Knitting, dyeing, textiles- there is a LOT I still don’t know there, it’s a huge subject, but so much of it is familiar that it’s really exciting to move into a completely new subject. That’s something I’m enjoying about the Craftsy experience overall, actually— the foreignness of it, and how happily uncomfortable some aspects of it are- or promise to be, like standing in front of a camera, for instance. That’s the one aspect of this entire business which I’m trying to acclimate to. I know I’ll be completely fine once I get there, but ooof, it gives me nerves. Every so often Sam will make a joke- like just chuckling the words lineless pause at me to get me riled up- but most of the time I’m pretty okay about it, because sharing information is awesome.

I don’t care if you paint little trees, really. It doesn’t have to be trees. Or painting. It could be macrame owls, or ceramic shoe racks, or artisan dog treats. Build model trains. Overhaul a ’69 Camaro SS. Make something, though. It’s good for you, it makes you feel good, and here in a readymade, mass- produced world there is something truly transgressive, a defiance surrounding any spontaneous act of creation because in fact, it isn’t necessary for hand- to- mouth survival any longer. Rather, the act of creation is now essential for your own growth, your happiness, and the feeding of your soul. That stuff still matters. It isn’t just for teenagers and early twenty- somethings. Have a hobby or six.

Make stuff, even if you think it’s silly: it makes you feel nice, and you’ll always have gifts on hand, which is wicked convenient. Try new things. Get uncomfortable. Get good at being awkward. But make sure you’re still moving, because the key to this thing is to keep flexible, to keep learning, and to never let the bastards keep you down. Remember: your trees are fucking perfect. Paint yourself a forest to keep the monsters who want to tell you how trees need to be out.

  One thought on “in which I exhort you to paint some perfect little trees (we are all perfect little trees)

  1. March 7, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    …I love you. Thank you for this post. I hope so many people read it and they all take it to heart.

    • March 7, 2016 at 7:12 pm

      Hey, I miss your face, lady. You’re the sweetest! So much love & thank you so much. ❤

  2. ëlle
    March 7, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    i do not know how my path crossed yours~ how i stumbled across your writings??? but, at this time in my life when I needed to hear words of bravery, fortitude, & empowerment~ it has been a wonderfully starlight guided road.
    thank you for your beautiful honesty.
    with sincere gratitude,
    ëlle~ a girl by the sea…

  3. Mechele
    March 7, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    I loved this! I am transitioning into a new career – was caught in a RIF of 350 folks at my job that I loved – at a company that I loved. Now I have to look for a new marketing role. I have felt devastated and gutted and reading this gave me inspiration among other blogs that you’ve written. I met you in Maryland and thought you were special then…you truly are and the more I read, the more special you become. Thanks for sharing your life and your words of wisdom. They really mean a great deal! I do enjoy my creative time of knitting, jewelry making, painting, spinning, whatever I decide to indulge in or learn new – keeps me happy.

  4. Lynn
    March 8, 2016 at 9:41 am

    Thank you. Thank you for writing and sharing, and touching people and stretching through the unknown to the empowered. Today, you are making my day better by challenging me to make it so.

  5. CJ
    March 8, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I LOVE this. It’s so important and true. The place I get hung up the most is this exact spot, but the materials!!! And I work hard to repeat the “it’s just clay/yarn/paper/paint” mantra to myself. Interestingly I was having this conversation with my daughter yesterday. She wants to try a new paint technique and her first thought was “I don’t want to waste paint”. I told her that’s what the paint is FOR. So I guess I am at least getting the message even if in practice I’m not so good at following it. I’m going to print this out and hang it up where my whole family can see it. 💗
    Thanks Sarah.

  6. rainbowgoblin
    March 10, 2016 at 6:11 am

    I needed to read this today. I’m learning to sew, and today finished a top I hate with fabric I love. I’ve been trying to convince myself that I needed to learn from my mistakes (and successes: the neckline is actually awesome) more than I needed another top. And where would the fabric be if I hadn’t made this hated top? In a cupboard, making me feel guilty. Your post made me believe my (somewhat forced) thoughts of encouragement.

    • April 8, 2016 at 5:41 pm

      I feel this so hard, though. I’ve burned through so many supplies that I loved and felt like I’d wasted them. I remind myself every time that okay, it’s at the very WORST all a part of the process of learning to make things, right? And you’re right: what a waste, to just let these things sit. That’s the worst thing of all. ❤ Here's to learning, and USING OUR STUFF.

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