How Drawing Saved My Life

Liz Gilbert, author of the recent bestseller Big Magic says:

“Whatever else happens, stay busy (I always lean on this wise advice, from the seventeenth-century English scholar Robert Burton, on how to survive melancholy: “Be not solitary, be not idle.”). Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Once, when I was struggling with a book, I signed up for a drawing class, just to open up some other creative channel within my mind. I can’t draw very well, but it didn’t matter. The important thing was that I was staying in communication with artistry at some level. I was fiddling with my own dials, trying to reach inspiration in any way possible. Eventually, after enough drawing, the writing began to flow again.

“Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another…Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fear, lowering the stakes…

“In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else...Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly coloured nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t, it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

“So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.”

This is why creativity is important.

This is why creativity is important. This is why coming to a drawing class will make a difference in all other areas of self-expression, relationships, and communication. This is why I believe in dancing, writing, reading, and drawing, especially when you feel blocked in the kitchen, at work, or in your relationship.

I have come to find that self-expression is the cure for almost anything. Gilbert says it’s the only way to get through writer’s block; Robert Burton says it’s how you survive “melancholy,” and I propose that it’s also the path to overcoming cravings, emotional eating, binge eating, and general body-based misery.

Through my own practice of morning pages and self-portraiture I have moved past the fear, shame, and disgust that society used to shroud my body. In rather quick succession, I was assaulted in college, a dear friend got into some dangerous legal trouble, and my parents moved onto a sailboat. I felt unsafe in my own body, and unsure of who to tell or how to talk about it. I started a series of self-portraits on large, cheap, white paper, in black pen. I sat in front of a big mirror in my bedroom and drew myself, over and over, in my underwear and socks. It felt like searching—trying to find my Self. After so much had been peeled away (family, friends, physical sovereignty) what was left? Where was I?

I felt so trapped—in my work, in my body, in that room...

This search happened to take place during my final semester at University of Vermont, where I was majoring in painting. I was expected to be cranking out a body of work: a series of paintings leading up to a large final work. Hilariously, I couldn’t paint. I would stay up all night in the studio, taking small, timid jabs at my canvas. My work was disjointed and slow; it was barely happening. Because I had nothing else to show, I took my huge roll of self-portraits to my weekly critique. My advisor dryly reminded me that I was a painting major, and there was no paint to be found in my work.

I felt so trapped—in my work, in my body, in that room, in that city, in that whole life. After the critique, I stood in front of my drawings, pinned to the white wall of the critique room. Pinned, just like me.

Just out of curiosity, I started critiquing my work as if they were drawings, not drawings-that-were-supposed-to-be-paintings. I noticed that there were some good lines in there. I also noticed some wimpy lines, lines drawn out of desperation, without much intention. I grabbed a pot of gesso (a thick, white primer used on raw canvas) and daubed out those wimpy lines. My advisor stood in the doorway behind me, regarding the paintbrush in my hand. “Now you’re painting, Calfee.”

Somehow, I got my mojo back.

Somehow, through this process, I got my mojo back. I used more and more paint in my drawings, and worked my way up to a huge, schizophrenic self-portrait: five different me’s, overlapping and blending into each other. Almost like a life-cycle. The painting sold at my final show, for a whopping $250. And I could finally see the light at the top of the cold, cramped staircase that led me out of fear and shame and back into my life.

Now, I teach women how creativity can save their lives. I lead workshops on mindful self-portraiture, unbridled creativity, and the role self-expression plays on physical health. I work with a small number of women each year, coaching them through self-love transformations by using nutrition, mindfulness, and the creative process.

What would is your experience with creativity, self-expression, and getting over the hump or through the rough patch? I’d love to hear about it. Please drop me a line at

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