Before I had the nerve to call myself a writer, I spent two years coloring big paper bags, hour after hour, bag after bag. These brightly festooned delivery bags belonged to Project Angel Heart, and were later filled with a week’s worth of lunches for folks living with life challenging illness. They served a different purpose for me–coloring those bags both highlighted and neutralized the repetitive self-accusation: “You’re not an artist! How dare you think you are!” That self-hating voice—timeless, shrill, malignant—halted my creative self-expression for years. But as I colored, its harsh alarms about the self-indulgent absurdity of making art became more recognizable and less impactful day by day. “How dare you?!” became a signal that I was onto something, an invitation to enjoy making things.
After I left my full-time job, my empty calendar was an intoxicant, and my future work life was a big question mark. Waiting for direction or inspiration, I would pull a blank bag out from under the couch, grab my container of rainbow sharpees with their alluring chemical scent, and shape a heart onto brown paper, then mark a swirl through it, coloring in the curved sections with alternating blues and greens. Stars, snowflakes and layered dot patterns emerged. I’d spend five minutes or several hours per bag, then stash them again under the couch.
Twice a month, I pulled out all the bags I’d colored and stack my favorites on top. Over time, circles became rounder and flowers lovelier as my hand became surer. Progress wasn’t measured by number of bags completed or by quality of design, but by something new—the inherent perfection in the colors themselves. I spent peaceful hours coloring while I waited for my high schooler to come home, or as I listened to the snores of my decrepit poodle. Letting things get done while holding still.
But putting color on those bags, over and over, day after day, also calmed my creativity demons. Angel Heart clients could assume that my scribbled over “mistake” was the work of a gifted three-year-old. There was no obvious practical value to the bags being decorated, none besides brightness and color themselves. Beauty for beauty’s sake.
After a year or two of coloring, I started wanting words. I had stopped writing almost completely for a decade, but gradually, infrequent bursts of words landed onto the pages of a dusty old notebook. More and more, I wanted to give voice to some of my mother’s stories and possibly rediscover my own. This creative urge, though, needed help facing up to the inner accusation that I was self-indulgent and arrogant to think of myself as a writer. How dare you?!
So I put my fright in my pocket and took it with me to a class at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a thriving community of “literary types” that is housed in a beautiful Victorian just off Colfax Avenue. The class was called “Gotta Start Somewhere.” I would not have registered for the class had the teacher’s name been anything but Joy. Joy has the empathetic heart of a poet who is also a therapist. For many months, she coached me as I cried over tangled paragraphs, and she gently alerted me when a piece of writing was glaringly self-enamored. There’s Joy my wonderful teacher, and there is also the energy of joy itself, the celebration inherent in creative expression. Writing is difficult, but these days I often look forward to it like the scent of the first spring daffodil.
Early on, after Joy read an exercise that I wrote for her about self-criticism, she told me: Jenny-Lynn, this voice is not just self-criticism. It’s self-contempt. That self-contempt hasn’t gone away–my inner approval ratings often hover in the single digits. Yet here I sit with ten blog posts published and several imperfect essays out to magazine editors, all while calling myself a writer. I take classes, keep writing hours, and have inspiring, generous writer friends. And those bags? I stopped coloring them six months ago. But I admire their bright cheer when I deliver meals. And I thank the angels every day that I get to make things, to form words on the page, to dare to create.
Reach Joy here: https://www.joyrouliersawyer.com/
And the Lighthouse here: https://www.lighthousewriters.org/
8 replies on “How Dare You?!”
I remember a friend telling me a long time ago when I was getting into songwriting heavier than I should..he said “Dave, do you think you’re a songwriter?” I answered yes, and then he said ” Then you are man….now wear it like you own it”…..;)
Love reading your stuff Jenny.
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Thanks, Dave! Your music is a gift, and you do wear it because you do own it.
Hi Jenny Lynn!
Hearing about the genesis of your writing and seeing the colored bags fills in a lot for me! Thank you! Luckily for all, you’ve become a DARE-ANGEL!!
So lucky for me that you’re my friend.
Lovely description of the genesis of a return to writing. I liked putting your fright in your pocket and heading over to Lighthouse to get what you needed to get going again. Brave work! How many of us are conflicted writers, letting everything else come first, or failing to believe we really can dare. And those bags are pretty nifty too.
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So true about other things so often coming first. You have been consistently daring on your blog and an immensely generous writing friend. THANKS!
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I love this sentence – “Letting things get done while holding still.” Its an art.
Love being part of your magical journey of self discovery.
I want to hear you read this. Maybe there will be space for one of your laughs.