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As mothers, we spend so much time nurturing others that we sometimes forget to nurture our own passions and talents, and it feels like they’re lost. The following is an excerpt from How Are You, Really? by Jenna Kutcher, and it’s about finding an identity she thought was gone. Jenna is an Author, Digital Marketer, Educator, Dreamer, Mother, and host of the successful “Goal Digger” podcast.
Lined floor to ceiling with art supplies, that basement was a crafter’s heaven. Even though the whole family joked about “the puff paint room,” I found myself giving thanks to my mother-in-law’s tendency to hold on to things. Looking around the room, we both thought a hobby might offer me a welcome respite for my tired eyes and overworked soul. Something creative to cling to while I rested from my busiest wedding season yet and geared up for next year’s (even fuller) calendar. As I dug through her boxes searching for a just-for-fun creative outlet, my fingers grazed against a watercolor palette.
This was the time when watercolor art was everywhere. The logo I had designed for my business was watercolor, watercolor calligraphy quotes were blowing up on Instagram, and watercolor wedding invites were the gold standard. You couldn’t log into Pinterest without seeing watercolor work popping up under almost any search you’d sling.
I loved the idea that a fun activity I tried as a kid could become something meaningful with a little paint, a dash of water, and the right weight of paper. My mother-in-law, of course, was game to support my latest curiosity. She dug out tubes of watercolor paint, a handful of brushes, and equipped me with every tool I could need to get started. I wanted to experiment and relearn how to watercolor, fully expecting to complete somewhere between four to five sad-looking flowers before discovering I had the talent of the back half of an earthworm.
Once home, I dumped all my gifted art supplies onto the dining room table, and thus my painting station was christened. For twenty minutes a day, I committed to sitting my butt down at that table and painting whatever came to mind. Overlooking the Wisconsin cornfield that was our backyard, seated in an uncomfortable chair I got on clearance at Target, I shut my laptop and grabbed a brush, waiting for inspiration to strike. Slowly, each page took shape with words, flowers, abstract designs, my dog, and my coffee cup. Some days were easier than others, but I slowly started to look forward to my watercolor breaks. My creativity was slowly trickling back in.
A few weeks later, I was with my mother-in-law in a huge, beautiful auditorium waiting to see the play Wicked. While the room was still buzzing with people finding their seats, I opened up my camera roll to show her what her art supplies were turning into. I was pretty shocked by her reaction … she loved them!
She notched her glasses down to the tip of her nose to see them up close and turned to smile big at me. “Jenna, these are lovely. Have you shown anyone else?” Truth was, I hadn’t. I wasn’t painting for anyone other than myself, my feeble attempt (that was working) to feel creative again. She encouraged me to post a picture of my paintings online and stop keeping them all to myself, to let people into what I was doing in the same way I had brought my coworker Cathy into my photography dream. She passed the phone back to me, and I felt the tiniest prickling of nerves.
This wasn’t my first rodeo of exposing my imperfect art to the world, but she was right. I’d already been in the habit of sharing everything from my morning toast to my throw pillows on social media, so what was the deal with my watercolors? Maybe it did actually mean a lot to me. Maybe that’s why I was keeping it close. I was staring down at a picture of me holding one of my paintings that Drew had taken, a floral wreath with the words “Let’s be adventurers” written in the center (long before that phrase was, shall we say, overdone). Just before the lights in the theater went down, I decided to go for it. I posted it on Instagram, immediately slipped my phone into airplane mode, and sat back for (arguably) one of the best Broadway performances I’ve ever seen in my life.
During intermission, out of habit I pulled out my phone, turned service back on, and saw the notifications flood the screen. There were comments like, “Wait, can I buy that?” and “Please tell me you’ll sell this! I want it!” I quickly shut my phone off completely, not knowing what to make of those questions because, frankly, I hadn’t even considered such a notion. Plus, we were next in line for the bathroom, and I’ve got the smallest bladder on earth.
Later as I was responding to the comments on the post, totally floored with gratitude, I started to think about what this hobby could mean in a larger sense: Was my art worth something? Would someone really pay for these creative explorations? I had originally turned to watercolor painting as an outlet for me to detach from my business and all its pressure. Nothing more, nothing less. But what if this creative spark might actually turn into something more? What if I sold that painting? What if I sold more paintings — enough to splurge on a date night with Drew? What if I sold enough paintings to take a weekend off in the middle of my next wedding season? Heck, what if I sold enough paintings to sustain me during the entire off-season of weddings, those lean six months I experienced every year?
In the months to come, I’d pull up to my painting station and churn out a growing variety of sentiments, quotes, and floral arrangements, slowly building up my inventory of watercolor designs. With a little research, I discovered a site where I could run my own little printshop and all I had to do was upload the art and they’d take care of the rest! My prints could be put on things like mugs, pillow covers, phone cases, T-shirts, you name it. Within a month, my digital printshop had launched.
A few hundred dollars the first month turned into a thousand dollars the next, and pretty soon my watercolor hobby was paying the monthly mortgage on our house. I was going over my latest sales numbers from the week and took a sip of coffee out of a mug with my own art on it when my phone chimed at me. Another handful of sales had rolled in. I thought, Wow, am I really doing this? Is it actually working? The watercolor paint stains on my shirt responded, “Yep.”
When I initially picked up a paintbrush, I didn’t have plans or ambitions, or even the insight to think that it could become a business. That was never the goal, or the why. But those little pansies and peonies I was painting had other ideas! As the sales in my printshop grew, my newly found passive income meant I could book fewer weddings and watch more reality TV on the weekends with Drew. As my overworked body and mind regained their vitality, I learned this invaluable lesson: short-term play reaps long-term rewards.
The reward is in the process itself, that flow you can reach when you lose yourself in a state of momentary, outcome-free bliss. “One way to think about play is an action you do that brings you a significant amount of joy without offering a specific result,” writes Jeff Harry, a positive play coach. “A lot of us do everything hoping for a result. It’s always, ‘What am I getting out of this?’ Play has no result.”
The lesson here isn’t to turn your watercolors into your work. It’s to turn your work into watercolors. It’s to take the hard edges of your day, or your commitments, or your responsibilities, and make the decision to soften them into something playful. Inviting joy, wherever you can. Inviting play, whenever you can. Inviting creativity, however you can.
Maybe “creative” isn’t a word you’d use to classify yourself or a title you’d claim. But creative is more often an adjective or adverb, rather than something you do. Whether you’re a mother attempting to meal-plan for a decidedly picky kiddo, a newlywed trying to make ends meet, or an accountant swiveling in the chair of a cramped cubicle, I believe we all are creative beings. But time and time again, we lose the title or claim of creator. We forget that these hands were once covered in finger paint.
Maybe you lost your creativity the way I did — on a fast track to burnout. Or it vanished when you began to learn how to “color within the lines” in order to collect grades in art class. Or maybe you’ve quieted the creative voice inside you with a digital pacifier, spending hours scrolling through the creative passions and dreams of a perfect stranger rather than scraping together your own.
Perhaps your most playful muscles have grown atrophied from leaning on the guide books, the how-tos, and the proven methods so much that you’ve started to doubt your ability to return to the posture of creating just for fun.
However you think you’ve lost it, the good news is this: It’s still there. It’s always been there. It’s in you. Creativity is inherent, ready to be unearthed in any given moment. It doesn’t require a basement full of watercolor supplies, a supportive mother-in-law, or even a moment of career burnout. It just needs an outlet. A reason. An invitation.
From HOW ARE YOU, REALLY? by Jenna Kutcher. Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Kutcher. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.