If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (or give a writer some art supplies)...
You’ll probably see some creative energy in action.
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I’ve been delightfully tangled up in a real if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie situation.
Do you know the picture book of the same name written by Laura Nemeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond? It’s a simple story about a mouse who visits a boy. The boy gives the mouse a cookie, which sets off a chain reaction. Each time the mouse receives a gift, he either needs something to go with it or notices a new desire. “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll probably ask you for a glass of milk,” the book starts. Once he’s had his milk, his milk mustache reminds him that his whiskers need trimming, so now the boy sets out on a mission to find scissors. While trimming, the mouse’s hair falls on the floor, so now he needs a broom to sweep it up…you get the picture.
Often when gifts come into our lives, they set off a chain reaction. About a month ago, I received an incredible gift from my friend and Writers’ Studio member, David. He gave me his late mother’s art supplies. Art had been her serious vocation (if not profession).
Some of the materials were brand-new, still-in-their-package (pads of tinted drawing paper), others so old they needed to be tossed (dried out acrylic inks). Some items just needed love. I found two Koh-I-Noor Radiograph fountain pens that are at least 40 years old. Once cleaned and filled with my favorite Noodlers’ Bulletproof Ink, they work beautifully.
If you give a writer an antique fountain pen, she’ll probably want to write her morning pages with it. If you give a writer 30 tubes of old watercolors, she’ll need warm water to soak them in to loosen their crusted-on caps, then she’ll need to search and buy on Amazon an empty watercolor pan set to fill with the paints, and then she’ll want to start a new visual sketch journal. She’ll probably spend hours looking for a watercolor sketchbook that isn’t prohibitively expensive, and she’ll fail, but she’ll also realize that in her new art stash there’s a huge pad of 140 lb watercolor paper. When she sees the watercolor paper, she’ll realize she can bind her own sketch journal, so she buys waxed linen thread and a curved book binding needle and watches a dozen YouTube video tutorials on Coptic binding. And then she practices binding two small pocketbook journals for practice before she moves onto the larger ones, and when she is finished, she has a private repository for her drawings and watercolors.
All this playing with art supplies has made me realize some things about the creative process:
1. Fear thwarts creation. Fear comes from a lot of places, but it often manifests as fear of being wasteful, messing up, or falling short of expectations. Professional grade art supplies are EXPENSIVE—and whenever I’ve bought costly supplies for myself, I’m too afraid to use them for fear that I’ll waste them on a project that doesn’t turn out or is ugly. This windfall of supplies—some with an urgent need to be used before they literally dried up—took this fear away. I didn’t want to spend $40 on a watercolor sketch journal because I knew I’d be too scared of making a mistake in it. It was too precious.
2. Learning a new creative skill aside from your primary medium makes ALL your creative work stronger. My first attempt at a Coptic bound journal wasn’t great. I’d bound it too loosely, so the spine literally wobbles. I also screwed up the chain stitch in a couple of places, and on an exposed binding, that error is—well—exposed! Then it hit me. This is exactly how I feel whenever I write a shitty first draft of a chapter or essay. And ALL first drafts are, let’s face it, a bit poopy in some way. Once that first draft is out, you something to clean up; you have words and ideas to work with. It’s how you get better. You keep going after your first efforts aren’t perfect.
3. Focus on the process FIRST before the product. I started drawing in May 2020 during the pandemic lockdowns. My drawings aren’t that good, but what keeps me going is that I love the PROCESS of drawing. I love the mindful concentration it takes to render something I see in pen and watercolor. I love how drawing a plant in my garden or what I had for breakfast alongside my daily dairy helps me be IN this present moment.
4. Privacy is essential to the act of creativity before it can be shared. I need scribbled notebooks, private journals, secret squirreled away pages that aren’t for anyone’s pleasure but my own. I need to make things that aren’t for an audience or for a buck or for sharing on the internet. That’s why it need to take the sheets 18 X 24 inch paper and cut and fold and bind them into journals that no one else will see. It’s where I incubate my best ideas. Social media allows us to share anything and everything at warp speed, which muddies our sense of privacy and hinders creative explorations.
5. Gifts create energy. “A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul,” writes Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. “We submit ourselves to the labor of becoming like the gift. Giving a return gift is the final act in the labor of gratitude,” explains Hyde. There’s also a spiritual aspect to this. Creativity is a gift from the Divine, but for it to be fully realized, it must be passed on, given back as it has been received. David’s generous gift allowed me to be generous in turn. It generated energy to engage in my own creative labor. I didn’t want to let these gifts go unused, so they’ve spurred me to creative action, to honoring the gift of visual creativity within me. They’ve also allowed me to pass this energy on. I knew I’d never use the acrylic paints, chalk pastels, or charcoals, so I gave them away to friends who I knew would use them. I’m hoping that the recipients of these gifts will embark on their own “if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie” situation, which will allow them in turn to share and spread their creative gifts.
When has a gift led to a surprising turn of events or creative practices?
When have you felt gratitude because of someone else’s generosity?
How do you or how might you “gift” your creativity to others?
I’d love to hear your stories about giving or receiving creative gifts. Please leave a comment and join this conversation.