Finishing Things Isn't Easy...But We Can Do Hard Things

A close-up of the center of the new Free Coloring Page on my website that shows the Glennon Doyle quote, "We can do hard things."
My Inktober-my-way challenge finished up
far better than expected! To view the full process
and see how this coloring page was created
click here.

If you've been reading my blog or receiving my newsletter for a while then you know that I’ve just finished something really big a few months ago - Feminism Is For Everyone: A Coloring Book - my second full length coloring book, a project that took me four years to complete.

That's right: four  Y E A R S. 

I thought that once FIFE was a real live book out in the universe doing its good work and getting colored by folks I would feel accomplished ("Look at this big thing I did that I wasn't quite sure I could do!"), relieved ("Yay, I finally get to focus on other projects without feeling guilty!"), and a fair bit of excitement ("I wonder how folks are going to color FIFE and use her journaling prompts in their lives?"). And I did feel those things for a day or so, but soon The After began to creep up on me.

What is The After? It's a sticky feeling that's a combination of "Now what?" mixed with "So what?", an immobilizing emotional/psychological state that is laser focused on both an imposing future and a (misperceived, of course) lackluster past, and yes, I just made that term up.

FIFE was an enormous project that forced me to learn new art skills and to commit serious studio time to research, not to mention to put my whole self out there for critique (before FIFE my politics and passion for social justice were known only by those closest to me and, let’s be honest, probably suspected by those who encountered me at a distance, but I had never been my full feminist, anti-racist, LBGTQ+ loving self in front of the public at large prior). FIFE had been a part of my daily thoughts for an achingly long time; it was what I was planning, what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing but felt like I should be doing. This project was SO important to me that I hadn’t allowed myself to think beyond its completion for fear of getting side-tracked (I am part squirrel when it comes to attention span), and when it was finally finished, I’d gotten so good at avoiding entertaining other ideas I sort of forgot how to have them in the first place. And because I am who I am, on top of that deer-in-headlights “Now what?” feeling I stacked self-loathing “So what?” thoughts: “Four years of emotionally challenging work, and what do you have to show for it? A coloring book? Grrreat.” and “It’s not as big a deal as folks think – I self-published this book; anyone could do it if they wanted to.”

As you might assume, none of the above thoughts are conducive to productivity or creativity. Despite that, I wouldn’t say that I have been completely lost at sea after FIFE’s publication: I’ve invested in an iPad and begun studying the art of digital drawing, I’ve allowed myself to follow my inner child’s obsession with watercolor and partake in a few online art challenges and workshops, I’ve taken on a couple of commissions, even a coloring commission, and I’ve opened up to new business possibilities for my colorable art. But, what I haven’t done for months is WRITE or DRAW, two things that, prior to FIFE’s completion, I did quite regularly.

Since FIFE launched in May 2021 I’ve tried to draw…but not even the scratchiest scribbles came out of me before I was distracted by social media or one of my studio cats (in my defense though, a month after FIFE was published I stumbled upon a stray, 7 week old, pitch-black kitten on my morning walk, so getting cat-distracted should probably be labelled as “raising a kitten & keeping the general feline peace”). I’ve also tried to write over these last five months, almost daily even, and my mind draws a literal blank; both my journal and my computer screen stare at me waiting for words, waiting for my thoughts…and cricket chirps, nothing.

Of course, a transition period after coming to the end of something huge is always to be expected, no matter what the project is. And I gave myself the grace and space to occupy that transition, I promise you. But as October 2021 approached, five months since FIFE’s publication, I knew what I was dealing with wasn’t “transitioning;” I was deep inside of a creative block.

If I wasn’t going to draw or write by choice, if I wasn’t even going to make paper messy with black ink in play or write something as easy as a letter to a friend, then I knew I needed to take a more sideways approach with my creative (and stubborn) self. I have always admired folks who take on an Inktober challenge (October is the month where illustrators from all over the world try to draw for 31 days straight, creating all sorts of amazing art), so at the tail end of September I got it into my head that the cure to my drawing/writing block would be to put out there on social media that I, too, was going to take on an Inktober challenge this year. But I knew myself – I would NOT be drawing every day and posting it on social media (my work life is never that organized), and I knew that unless the audience stakes were SUPER intense, I would eventually let this public Inktober promise fade into the background, posting a drawing once or twice in 31 days, if that.

To hack my brain and my life I began the month of October by announcing on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube because I am a glutton for punishment) that I would be doing an Inktober-my-way challenge, drawing as many days as I could manage during the month of October, AND that all the drawing would be done live on camera!
However, after making the first video, I realized that what I thought was going to be a fun and breezy way to force myself into a drawing habit again was actually going to be a rather difficult public display of artistic ability (I tend to creatively leap before I look). Because I promised that I would draw “live” I had to draw underneath my camera set up, which made it ridiculously difficult for me to see where my pen nib was going. Because I promised that I would draw “live” I had to go with whatever flow happened, even if that flow turned out to be wild, wonky, and nonsensical. Because I promised to draw “live” AND for only 10 to 15 minutes a day, I couldn’t spend hours staring at the paper until inspiration struck; once the camera was on, ink had to start getting laid down, whether I had an idea worth drawing or not.

And, because drawing live on camera wasn’t tough enough, when I edited and produced each of those daily drawing videos for social media I decided to add an “artist’s thoughts” voice over to each 30-40 second video (I hyperlapsed my drawing time for my audience; 10 to 15 minutes is a LONG time to watch anything that doesn’t include a car chase or an adorable cat). I also wrote long captions on these posts (they would probably equal a blog post or two if they were all put together) opening up what I was drawing to the opinions of others: What should I draw next? What do you see in these crazy lines? Do you think this is looking like it will be fun to color? An incredibly stressful thing to do, but hazzah, I was writing again, just in the wrong place!

During this past October I would regularly say to myself “This Inktober-my-way challenge is not fun; it’s f*cking hard AND a lot of work!” But, instead of giving it up I did something for myself that I rarely do: I treated myself like I was someone I love. When I got cranky and scared about what I had chosen to do, rather than silence my inner toddler by given it exactly what it wanted (the permission to quit and throw a giant tantrum), I gently reminded myself that “We can do hard things.” Yup, I’m that friend, sister, daughter, mother, partner: when the going gets tough, I like to cheerfully (and, let’s be honest, it’s occasionally obnoxious, too) remind the folks in my life that we have done hard things in the past and therefore we can do hard things again right in the here and now. That is why this small collection of words wound up becoming the focal point of this coloring page, filling in almost completely the very first set of lines I drew (the giant circle in the center). To view my full live-drawing Inktober-my-way experience, which ended up being 21 itty bitty videos with voice overs about my process (along with a few kitten hijinks), click here.

I would love to say that I thought of this powerful and stress-reducing phrase myself, but alas, I did not. I came upon it at the beginning of the pandemic while listening to Brene Brown’s excellent podcast Unlocking Us (a regular habit of mine when I create – both Unlocking Us and Dare To Lead are fabulous listens). In this episode Brown was interviewing author and activist Glennon Doyle, who had just released her book, Untamed. During the interview, Doyle tells the story of this phrase and how it changed her life. These five words hit me like a tidal wave as I listened because, hello, at that time (and still today) every one of us was in the middle of an enormously terrifying global experience (the COVID19 pandemic), something we all thought was just too challenging for us to get through. But of course we could all get through a pandemic; we humans have done tons of hard things throughout history, way too many to mention here, and we can do hard things again (damnit). 

Life seems to get continually harder and harder, but I don't think that the world we are living in today is any more challenging than what our ancestors had to deal with, in fact, I'm pretty sure that they, too, felt like life was tough and always getting tougher. But, the opposite of hard and tough is easy and soft; would it make sense for something as complicated and multifaceted as life to be easy and soft? I don't know what y'all think, but my gut tells me no. Since hearing Doyle speak that phrase, “We can do hard things,” I have chanted it to my friends and family, typed it into texts and emails, and put it up on our kitchen refrigerator. I’ve basically wall-papered it anywhere I thought it was needed, but until this Inktober-my-way challenge I hadn’t put it anywhere permanent. As we get closer to the end of this year, I've begun to feel strongly that setting these words in stone, if you will, was something I needed to do both for myself and for the world at large, and that is what I did with the outcome of my Inktober-my-way project, this inspirational coloring page.

The full sized Free Coloring Page with the quote "We can do hard things" on it is positioned next to the Glennon Doyle book that inspired it, Untamed.
I seem to have developed a habit of adding
phrases that I find inspirational to my Free
Coloring Pages. This habit started three years
ago
. Some phrases have been from famous
folks
, like with this Inktober-my-way illustration, and 
others have just been words that bubbled up in 
my head
while I was drawing.

I never know exactly where my harebrained ideas come from, but I am happy when I listen to/ follow through with them (for the most part - I tend to give myself insanely difficult assignments, so sometimes I curse myself, too). This Inktober-my-way experience has definitely helped me find my way back to drawing more regularly (Now that this coloring page is ready to be shared with my newsletter subscribers I'm focusing all this renewed drawing mojo on a long-shelved project I'm excited about: colorable postcards!) and the fact that you are reading this blog post is proof positive that my writing mojo is back (mostly - IMO, a writing practice is tougher to stay committed to simply because of all the distractions that are literally at my finger tips, so I'm still a work-in-progress there, and maybe will be forever). Creative blocks are HARD, y'all, and if you, too, are in the midst of one, I feel for you! But, please remember this: we can do hard things. You will find your way out of your block (and maybe in an even wackier way than I did) if you do not give up (see, I told you I can be obnoxious with the folks I care about).🤓

The full sized "We can do hard things" coloring page is positioned in the middle of the frame surrounded by Koh-i-noor Polycolor colored pencils, ready to color.
The "We can do hard things" Inktober-my-way
illustration is the 11th Free Coloring Page I've
shared with my newsletter subscribers! 
As this is the first time I've ever gone back
and counted the number of Free Pages, this
number comes as a shock to me! The number
is approaching full-sized coloring book length;
how cool is that!

And now for the great part! If you would like to make some collaborative art with me by coloring this page, you totally can! To share your creativity with mine, all you need to do is subscribe to my coloring & creativity newsletter! Click here to get started, follow the prompts (and be sure to confirm your email address AND add Michelle M. Johnson with Have Color Will Travel to your address book), and this illustration will be sent to your inbox as a digital download! Print it up however you wish (I've decided to print this coloring page on regular printer paper as I am trying out a new brand) as many times as you'd like (Ooh, an inspirational coloring party sounds EPIC!), and have a fabulous time! If you decide to try printing it on sturdy cardstock or watercolor paper, be sure to look at your printer's settings and align them to the quality of paper you are printing on so that your printer ink plays nicely with your art supplies. And, if you're feeling brave, I'd love to see your WIPs and completed colorings of this page: tag @havecolor_willtravel on Istagram or share it directly on my Have Color Will Travel  artist's page on Facebook (and be sure your post is "public" so I will be allowed to see it!) or direct message them to me on either platform if you're feeling bashful (which I totally get - sharing your art on social media is intimidating). Seeing y'all's color-sense shine through my black lines makes all effort it takes to get them out of me feel absolutely worth it! Lastly, a reminder that these Free Pages are for personal use only; if you'd like to use my art in another way, please reach out to me with your ideas by tapping my photo over on the left side menu of my website!

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