For most of my life, I was a perfectionist. My OCD was legendary. I was born into a people-pleasing existence and learned early on to keep everything in its place, both inside and out. My earliest memory of creating art was met with, “You’ve made such a mess!” My inner artist went underground and didn’t risk stepping out again until I bought my first sketchbook at age 24. Everything from that time until entering college at 36 was self-taught. I created art here and there between carpool, laundry and nap time. It was some time before I shared my art with anyone, even those closest to me. Creating was hard. I was so worried about making a mess.
Fast forward to age 42…I entered my last semester of college. While earning my degree in graphic design, illustration had not available. During a chance conversation with a new professor, I discovered he had taught illustration previously and was willing to do an independent study. Upon approval from the department head, I payed the tuition and waited for the semester to begin. Not three weeks later I received an email from the department head stating someone called her looking for someone interested in illustration. Ask and you shall receive…
I met with my new client and a deal was struck. I dropped the independent study and agreed to illustrate the first book for free having no prior experience illustrating and designing a children’s book. Fear was a constant companion, but accountability kept me moving forward. I had to produce 30+ illustrations and create a cohesive story line. No pressure.
During this time, I discovered a pattern. I would get into the flow of creation, fully absorbed in what I was doing. I would finish an illustration and clear the space for a new one, usually stopping for the day. My art supplies would be in perfect order and my drawing board clean – no mess here. Inevitably I would face the struggle of the blank page the following day, no matter how many illustrations I produced. Finally the lightbulb went off…leave something unfinished on the board. From that point on, after completing an illustration I would start another rather than clean my space. Just enough to easily pick it back up. I learned to be okay with the mess. This process continued over the course of five books.
But old habits die hard. I haven’t been creating much by hand lately with other design work keeping me busy. During the rare moments I began to create for my own pleasure, those familiar messages from my childhood would creep in. I face them in my writing as well. During the time I’ve spent writing this post, I started my grocery order, ate breakfast, did yoga and played with my dog. Avoidance at its finest. But I’ve kept returning to the page, so I consider it a win.
I realized I needed to create space, not only on my calendar but also in my studio, for myself. So I did. Even if I only have fifteen minutes to play in a day, I can begin and leave it in progress, easy to step back into. I can leave the mess.
This is true about people too. You know those who have a seemingly perfect life – the house is pristine and decorated just right, the kids are flawless and life seems wonderful for them in every way. But when you talk to them, something feels a bit off, like it’s all a little too perfect. That was me for years. For a long time, I carried my pain carefully hidden from view beneath various masks. On the outside, it all looked good, but my inside was a mess. I had to learn that in order to live with authenticity, I had to be willing to be vulnerable, to embrace my mess.
If you’re struggling with keeping it all together, stop. Be kind to yourself. Reach out to a friend. Go see a counselor. Share your pain. Open up. Sometimes in sharing we ease the burden just enough to find peace and strength to carry on. We are all walking this life together. Our paths may be different, but we all face struggles and experience pain. If you know someone who appears to have it all together, look a little closer. You may find they need a friend, a safe place to reach out.
I encourage you to embrace your mess. It’s part of what makes you beautiful. Be YOU. You’re the only one qualified for the job.
For more on my design work, go here.