Embrace Messiness

Don't be afraid to get messy.When I was a kid, my mom gave me motherly wisdom as most mothers do: “To have friends you have to be friendly; if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; you have to get messy to make art.” All true statements and all not readily absorbed, especially the first and third ones. To the first, I was a shy kid who struggled to make friends, and, to the second, I hated to get messy. I loved art, but I hated to get paint or glue all over my hands. Perhaps I already was exhibiting an inclination toward perfectionism.

In any case, it took years before I began to embrace the concept of messiness. I think I embraced it in my first art class. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was determined to do well in the class. Thus, I worked – no, I slaved. I slaved over my art. I drew during the day. I drew at night. I drew on the weekends. I practiced and practiced and practiced the different strokes. I experimented because, no matter how well the professor explained the concept, the work was up to me. I had to figure out my own way of drawing whatever she asked us to draw. I’d draw for hours then wander around in a stupor until I happened upon a mirror. I’d be startled by my reflection: a charcoal smudge across my nose or cheekbone, a streak of the stuff across my arm, a fine layer of charcoal dust or chalk pastel on my clothes. I didn’t have a choice. Charcoal and chalk pastels were and are messy media. The only way to work with them is to get good and messy, to embrace messiness and to accept it as a part of making art.

Writing bears a similarity to such work although the medium is different. Very few writers are covered in paint or charcoal when they work. Their medium is words, but they, like fine artists, have to stop expecting perfection when it comes to putting those words on paper or the screen. Their job is to write first. They have to record all the words, then worry about how it reads. Nothing can happen until something is written just as nothing can happen until a stroke is placed upon the paper. Artists and writers have to embrace messiness in order to make art.


  1. I think that’s true for anyone, don’t you? Nothing is always going to be perfect, and often you have to go through many, many iterations before you reach/find the one that sits just right.

    • Shonali I think so, too. I focused on writing and art, but it’s true for everyone. You have to start somewhere and go from there.

      • magriebler says:

        Erin F. Shonali I’ve always loved the phrase: Perfect is the enemy of the good. If we try to avoid the mess, we might stay neat and tidy but we won’t be creative. And sometimes, in the messiness, we are able to mine something truly precious and unique.

        • magriebler Erin F. Shonali I feel that way when I write or draw. I just dive into either one and trust that something good will make an appearance. If not, well, there’s always next time. Shocking words from a perfectionist…

  2. Love this post. Get messy. Iterate. Feel loose. Let it flow! Flow is the way to get the best stuff out, doncha think?

    • rdopping I certainly think so. I don’t like to have everything figured out when I start writing. I typically run out of words fifty words into a thing. I just need a starting line, and I’m good to go for the most part. 🙂


  1. […] getting there required getting good and lost. To study and write poetry at a graduate level meant getting messy. It meant making mistakes. It meant sharing baby poems with an audience that had been writing poems […]