Purple Trees and Writing Doubts

The silver tin of crayons the teacher set out for us to draw with in kindergarten seemed to me a glittering treasure. The wealth of colors danced, sang to me like a siren song. Create, they said. I did.

I drew a purple tree. Who doesn’t like purple? It makes my heart feel bright. The little girl next to me watched. I figured she was seriously impressed with my awesome coloring skill. The key was in not pressing too hard, nor too soft. After a moment she said, “You can’t draw a purple tree.” I stopped drawing. Huh? I looked at her. She seemed very certain, very mature. Her hair was so shiny, spun honey. She passed me a green crayon. “Trees are green,” she informed me in a voice way too adult for a five year old.

I refused the crayon. I was stubborn. Still am. I have a hard time changing course and an even harder time giving up–which explains how I managed to stay married to my high school sweetheart for all these years. Well, that, and I really love him. But stubbornness isn’t why I didn’t take the crayon. I didn’t take it, because who was that kid to tell me I couldn’t draw a purple tree? She wasn’t the boss of me. (Okay, so maybe that attitude Is stubbornness.)

I kept drawing, but a little seed of disapproval had been planted inside me. I never drew another purple tree. In the years to follow, I would often stop myself in the middle of creating something–a poem, picture, novel, wondering if I was doing it the right way, feeling inadequate and a little silly. Linda Barry in her wonderful book, What It Is talks about this artistic worry and how it can sap the joy out of your work. She suggests we need to find creative ways around that doubt, to remember how to play with abandon.

The day someone on Facebook posted the above picture of a purple tree, I was delighted. Purple trees exist! That little seed of doubt was based on a lie. Colors were meant to draw what’s in your imagination and sometimes that imagination will reflect a part of your life or world you had yet to fully see or understand.

Every time I sit down to write these days, all I see are purple tree mistakes.

This morning I woke up, after a long week of long nights of not sleeping, and wondered how I was going to write. I thought about not having the energy, the clarity of vision, of purple tree mistakes then I opened up a book of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke. I read this random entry:

Go into Yourself

There is only one thing to do. Go into yourself. Examine your reason for writing. Discover whether it is rooted in the depths of your heart, and find out whether you would rather die than be forbidden to write. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, have I no choice but to write? Dig deep within for the truest answer, and if this answer is a strong and simple yes, then build your life upon this necessity. Your life henceforth, down to its most ordinary and insignificant moment, must prove and reveal this truth.
Paris, February 17, 1903 Letters to a Young Poet

So a lot of the poetry book by Rilke is about writing, and this was just a surprise random get, or maybe it’s a purple tree. Something that can’t be, an inspirational message meant specifically for me and my purple tree doubts and all my Harold and the Purple Crayon brethren reading this post. It’s your choice. Either answer can work. Pick the one that glitters for you. Now, grab the nearest crayon and have fun.

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