Kits, Directions, and Being Perfect

Last Saturday I was de-stashing at a local craft store. There were about 40 people, taking their online store onto the sidewalk, or selling the items they make at classes taught in stores and online.

Typical collage kit: magazine pages, map stickers, cards, stamps, handmade paper, mulberry duo-sided art paper, butterfly transfers, sage burlap fabric, and the wonderful "Don't Throw Me Away" sticker from a package.

People wandered over–it was a great Saturday morning, sunny and mild. I saw a lot of purchasing, so I was cheered. The first person stopped at my table looked at the collage packs I had made and said, “Whose are these?” Not understanding the question, I said, “Mine.”

“No,” the woman said patiently, “Who made them?” I knew now what she meant. This was going to be hard to explain. “I’m not selling brand name kits,” I said, “These are made up from papers and ephemera I’m not using anymore, so I’m selling them. De-stashing my art stash,” I smiled.

The woman picked up a collage pack. “Where are the directions?” she asked. “What’s this going to look like when I finish it?” I needed to be brave, here. “There are no directions, you can use the material in any way you want. No directions, no sample. It’s a collection of color-coordinated papers you can have fun with,” I said, hoping I was encouraging.

The woman was not to be fooled so easily. “Well, you can’t just put papers together and call it a kit,” she said, sternly. “It has to make something. It has to have directions, otherwise you won’t know what to make with it.” I was filled with ineffable sorrow. There was no spontaneity, no curiosity, no joy of experimentation here. Just determination to complete a task.

“Do you like to work with kits?” I asked.

“Well, yes, real ones,” she said. “I have some cards I’m selling here. You should come see them! They are perfect!” she said proudly.

And they were. I wandered over to her table and saw stacks of boxed, perfect cards. The Thank You cards  were stamped and embossed on scrapbook paper. All had perfect bows tied, each with a rhinestone in the center. The Congratulations cards had bands of perfect glitter perfectly applied. Not one flake out of place. She beamed at me. “See?” she smiled, “This is what a kit looks like when it’s done. These weren’t easy.”

“They are perfect,” I agreed. “What do you think about when you are making them?”

“Think?” she said, looking puzzled. “I create a little assembly line, and watch TV when I’m doing them,” she said. “I know the steps by heart, so I don’t have to think, I can watch TV,” she said.

A vision of thousands of croppers, caught in front of their TVs, each in a confined craft sweatshop passed through my mind. “What do you do if you make a mistake?” I asked.

Her face froze. “I don’t make mistakes anymore,” she said. “I make the same cards over and over, so I know how to do it,” she added.

I smiled, “Never, ever? That’s impressive,” I said.

“Well, I wouldn’t tell you if I did. I rip them into a thousand pieces and burn them in the barbeque,” she admitted.

From the movie "Norma Rae," Sally Field, as Norma Rae, holding up the sign to break the sweatshop tactics.

I’m sure that there are thousands of happy croppers in the United States, doing what they need to do to turn out perfect cards. They are satisfied with their exactly lined up ribbons, rhinestones and glitter. But my heart aches to climb up on their worktables and hold up a sign that says, “Create what you want!” or “Do no-rules art!” or even (my favorite) “Make meaning, make art!”

There is so much more to creativity than watching TV while you roll glue runners next to a ruler, completing kits. I’d like to gather those people up and take them to my messy studio with very few rules and see if they remember how to play, how to drop into the wordless creative joy that makes rich meaning and lights up your soul and makes you want to get up every morning.

I’m happy to say that I’m teaching a class in May that bridges the two worlds. I’m teaching Postcards from the Other Side of Your Brain at Valley Ridge on May 5 and 6 of this year. There will be directions and samples. But we will start the day by walking outside and breathing deeply. We will work individually in an environment where mistakes are welcomed and worked into the art. We will share our thoughts and work privately. If you want to work differently, you can. Because we will be making meaning. And that always yields the most amazing art.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who teaches art projects that start with meaning making and include heart-deep writing, and exploration into satisfying results. If you haven’t played in a long time, really played, come join the class.


63 thoughts on “Kits, Directions, and Being Perfect

  1. This is a great (and yes, “bittersweet,”) post and thread. i used to be the woman you describe until recently. Not in art (I was too afraid of imperfection to even try art), but in other areas such as academics or work or cooking. I really felt that in order to be considered a “legitimate” human being, I needed to be perfect in behavior and in whatever I produced so as not to waste anyone else’s valuable time. It is actually the confluence of having to go on disability temporarily (I hope!) and taking the leap into playing with creative-messy artmaking that I am learning that the real joys and gifts in life may be found in the imperfect moments where what matters is not the presentation or end-result but simply being present. In allowing oneself to be open and attenuated to, mindful of, presence. I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone else, but for me, at least, it is in those rare moments I actually feel alive.

    • It’s odd how we come to feeling alive, isn’t it? I am still occasionally ashamed of my messy, rustic art. But given the choice, I want to keep doing it. I love your phrase, “the real joys and gifts in life may be found in the imperfect moments . . ” How wonderful!

  2. How sad! When you first described your kits, I wished I were near enough to go pick some up (not that I need any more, but…). I wouldn’t really enjoy her kits. And, perfect though her cards may be, I if I were going to buy one, I’d rather get it from someone who used one of your kits — and/or whatever they had on hand to create it.

  3. Wish I could have been at the craft store so I could buy from your stash. I saw that you were getting rid of some pan pastels. Did they sell? If not, I would be interested in purchasing them plus pay for the shipping to Flagstaff. You gotta know that the only place I can get pan pastels in Flagstaff is NOT in Flagstaff but online. I don’t know when I’ll be in the Valley again with time to shop. Maybe on March 23 when I have to make a quick trip to meet with Mom’s tax man for tax time for both of us. If you don’t have the pan pastels left, I can order online.


    • Ohhhh, Marianna, you know the pan pastels went really fast. I had them grouped with the sponges, at a fraction of the price I purchased them. A woman came and told me she didn’t need the sponges, so she wanted the bag discounted by half! I smiled and said, “at this price, you can throw the sponges out.” She refused, and the woman next to her waited till she left then snatched up the bag and said, “I can’t believe she left them!” and was happy with her purchase. Me, too. I wish I could send them to you, I would have loved you to have them.

  4. I can understand why kits are popular. i am familiar with a day care/nursery school setting of 2 year olds. While crayons, clay, water play, paints are in the curriculum as free play opportunities, what teacher who takes care of 6 to 8 two year olds with one assistant (ugh, just think of the toileting issue) would be excited to leave out paints and water and clay, even crayons, and let these kids be creative.

    No, so much easier to plan little projects. “Glue this here, let me put the glue on your paper, glue this cotton ball here, now put the red hat on. See, you made a snow man.” Kits for 2 year olds. AND… what does the teacher say — “The parents praise their kids and ooh and aah over the kit snowman, but the papers that are scribbles and the paintings that are blobs? Usually they are left behind in the school room, and after they’ve been in the kid’s bin for a week, never taken home, even with reminders, they get thrown away.”

    So of course your card lady is thrilled with her cards, and all the 2 year olds are taught to love the snowman they barely create, while their real creations get “lost”.

  5. Don’t lose heart! I imagine that for every person like that, you’ve reached countless others, myself included, and influenced them to let go and allow their creativity free reign. Also, it’s possible that the interaction with you has planted a seed within her, and it may start to grow.

    Small example: Due to the continued joyous reading of your blog posts, I gave myself permission to write on my own walls recently, and whilst I’m still using plain graphite pencil, I imagine that soon I’m going to break into the colored markers and paint!

  6. My brain can barely wrap around this concept…I guess this lady never colored outside the lines (which was one of my favorite places to color). I, myself, struggle with the concept of wanting to develop a technique or type of art that I can perfect, sell and/or display so that means lots of practice and lots of mistakes. I have wondered, “If I had more of an assembly line type system, would I be able to develop a series more easily?” I have found out that doesn’t work for me and I make art for the sake of making art and making meaning. I personally don’t like kits and instructions and whenever I have taken classes that have them, I never refer back to them in the future. But when I’ve taken “fly by the seat of your pants” type classes, I refer back to the techniques and ideas on a regular basis. Can you imagine this woman attempting to make monsoon papers? Wow, that would be a foreign concept to her and most likely, not one she would embrace.

    To reference your response to Lesley, many people have limited thoughts on what happiness really is. Many have no idea what they would want to do or be if they could choose from ANYTHING. I took a poll of friends and family a few years back, asking them if time, money and education were not factors, what would they want to do or be? I would say 75% of them had no idea, no dreams, nothing. They were just settling for their life as is, accepting the status quo. I have always been a big dreamer and can entertain myself for hours just imagining a bold, creative, fun, exciting, peaceful life.

    There are way too many things to say in response to Pete’s posts so the only reply I will make to ALL of his posts is, “So what?” I look at creativity quite differently than Pete and I embrace and appreciate creativity in all its forms. Creativity may truly be just building upon past creative ideas but again, “So what?” I still appreciate the effort it takes to build upon those ideas. Maybe “creative thinking” isn’t the best terminology; maybe it should be “cumulative creative doing”.

    • I love the idea that outside the lines is your favorite place. Like you, those “fly by the seat of your pants” classes are my delight. And like you, people without big dreams, huge things they would like to achieve at any age, break my heart. I didn’t know they existed until I was about 35. Now I see them every day. i just love you for your big spirit.

      • Oh, thanks so much Quinn! That’s the same reason I love you…your big spirit and free-thinking, “fly by the seat of your pants” classes/play dates. I still get excited thinking about Magic Words!

  7. Quinn, So bittersweet. Sweet in that there are people like you that “get” why we would “play” with art materials just for the joy, the fun of experimenting, the sense of wonder, the experience of getting lost in all of it. Building precisely designed cards on a production line while zoning out to TV = producing “stuff” which just happens to be a greeting card. It could be anything at all, even a kit for planting tulips. In doing art we are present and mindful of the brush strokes, the images, the way the ink moves across the page. {And I disagree with the premise that there are no new ideas!}

    • It was bittersweet, thanks for supplying the word. The new idea/ no new idea is a matter of perspectives, not absolutes. In my opinion, the view is different from where you stand.

  8. I’m learning to play again after a life-time of working hard and pragmatism – and believe me it’s not as easy as it sounds although it is pleasurable. I’m luck to have to grand-daughters as my muses. Revisiting play as a serious past-time!! It’s one of the reasons why I began a blog recently.

  9. Here’s the core of what I’m mulling over. I think. For an individual, it may well be pleasant and rewarding to think and “ideate” (I know, annoying word).

    It makes sense from the point of view of an individual to say something is original if for that individual it’s newly formulated (thought up or made or written down, etc). Just being original to an individual, however pleasing it may be to him or her, doesn’t seem particularly significant at any larger scale.

    This is what I mean by ‘larger scale’: We are not simply individuals; we function in all sorts of larger combinations. Friends, families, companies, communities, societies, and I suppose “species” at the high end.

    The larger the scale, the less _possible_ originality seems to be. For one thing, at any scale bigger than an individual there has to be some kind of action or outcome beyond just a thought because more than one person has to be involved. For another thing, while an idea might be unique for one person, the history of ideas shows that the same ideas tend to crop up at about the same time to different people in different places. Even when they arise at different times, ideas appear over again. Thus while it might be true that a given individual originates some percentage of thoughts, that’s only _local_ originality. To be original at a larger scale is a much harder and rarer thing.

    For example, the iPad is clearly something that did not exist a few years ago. So in some sense it’s original. But in another sense it’s not all particularly original; I’m just one of hundreds of thousands (at least) of people working in technology, and I’ve worked on FIVE different tablet projects going back to the early 1990s. Two of them were at Apple, and one of those became a product, although not a particularly successful one.

    Moreover, you can trace the _idea_ of the iPad all the way back to the 1940s and a guy named Vannevar Bush. And if you really dug, I suspect you could find expressions of the idea far in advance of that.

    So there it is:
    – things do change, so something is clearly going on, and
    – everybody probably has ideas unique to them all the time, which may well make them happy and satisfied, but
    – ideas are hardly ever original beyond oneself, and
    – this is annoying/interesting/irritating/puzzling.

    • I see what you are saying, and in that light, well, I’ll just say that I define creativity differently than you do. I think there is room for both of our ideas, however, and I appreciate the path that has brought you to where you are today. (And, for that matter, where I am.)

      • Also remember about the hat 🙂
        I’m not trying to discount personal creativity; just seeing where taking a different tack will lead.

        I’m also fascinated by the idea of “ideas”.

        • I see this has really created a spark of interest in you, Pete. I feel honored to have done that. And I love watching what direction you take. It’s always unexpected and always reminds me of how really smart you are.

  10. I worked at a scrapbook store for several years, and loved to see all the new “kits” and products that came out every few months. And I would make scrapbook pages with them, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But then I found an old “scrapbook” of my grandpa’s that was pictures and papers and “ephemera” from his life, and I was much more drawn into that book, because each little thing had meaning. It was more than just color coordinated stickers and papers. I realized that when I do create scrapbooks, and art in general, I want to quit using the “kits” so much and go more organic and free with my art and creativity.
    I love your blog. It gives me inspiration and motivation to be more creative every day.

  11. My entire house sometimes feels like messy randomness… ;^)

    And agree that art for sale is different from art for art’s sake or for personal satisfaction — I have an artist neighbor whose personal work is very different and unique, but what he sells is art prints that look pretty and happy, since that’s what lots of people want in their homes.

    The sadness is that is what we are trained to want in our homes, rather than a real reflection of who we are and what we love.

    • Very possible; which means we all define creativity and success on our own. Again, fine. But creative play is an important part of creative devlopment, and it’s sad she’s missing that. Because when it’s all about business, sooner or later you are making creative decisions through your bank account, and that’s no longer meaning-making.

  12. Wonderful true story and insights, Quinn. We should give her credit for making SOMETHING. It is so sad that she is locked into that box of perfection and not-thinking. We can’t rescue them all but the work you and I, and so many others, do does make a difference in so many lives.

    A+ for trying with her!

    • I wasn’t criticizing her in any way, as she was happy and not seeking help, and even as a creativity coach, I don’t give advice. (Another whole blog post!). I am glad she is happy. I just think she re-defined happy to the limits of her experience, and will re-define art and creativity to those limits. And then you are thinking from a completely different base. She belongs to the PTA. When the vote comes up for getting rid of art, would she think, “Well, there’s not much to it, anyway, and those kits are expensive, so yeah, let’s get rid of it. At least with sports, the kids are DOING something.” I know, it’s kind of a big leap. But I do go there.

  13. “What do you think about when you are making them?” <= This is why you are a favorite person of mine! Precisely why! That woman would really make a face if she saw a pile of random items of junk mail, old receipts, words torn from advertisements, and various torn pieces of paper with notations and quotes that is in my overflow stash! lol! 🙂

    Let's change the world one messy page of randomness at a time! Collage and raw journalers unite! :: flings glitter ::: :: waves picket sign ::: 😀

  14. “Creative thinking” is generally not a worthwhile goal. In fact, there is very nearly no such thing.’
    Gosh Pete, I guess I don’t get your comment, what is that about? Creative thinking is important in almost every job, occupation etc. Steve Jobs was a creative thinker, car engineers are creative thinkers – creative thinking isn’t limited to the world of art. I dare say we would have very little of what we do now without creative thinking. Even chefs or home cooks making a meal have to be creative thinkers.

    • (Remember my devil’s advocate hat is still on.)

      What I’m getting at is things like these:
      – Thinking is an internal state of no use to anyone else (here I’m contrasting it with doing)
      – A lot more rare than generally acknowledged; really creative thinking (both original and unique) happens occasionally — not occasionally to an individual, occasionally in the world

      Maybe I’m just setting the bar too high; I’m suggesting that putting preexisting thoughts a slightly different order doesn’t qualify as all that creative.

      I’m generally considered pretty creative in my field. I have patents and stuff like that, and there’s one very common feature of personal computers and other consumer electronic products that might have largely come from me (it’s actually kind of hard to tell). However, if asked how many actually creative thoughts I’ve had in my life I’d be hard pressed to set the total as high as 5. Also, a weird, wild-card sort of notion that seems to be true but I don’t have an explanation for is that any creative idea seems to “occur” to more than one person at about the same time.

      Jobs was a lot of things. I worked at Apple for almost a decade; it was quite an experience.

      • I think the redefinition I left at your earlier post is almost the same as what you are saying here. I think you are a lot more traditionally creative than you give yourself credit for. Heh-heh, I’ve seen that horse you can draw!

  15. I have to confess wholesale ignorance about scrapbooking; kits or not. I’m arguing that “creative thinking” is generally not a worthwhile goal. In fact, there is very nearly no such thing.

    • OK, let’s see if I can re-define. For me, creative thinking means dropping into wordlessness (a meditative state of non-attachment) and working from there. Hard to explain how it works. For the work-day world, let’s define creative thinking as a combination of analytical thinking, problem solving, and (sometimes) non-traditional process development.

  16. Excellent post Quinn. The idea that you can just play and not think about the end results at all is scary for a lot of people. It is exactly the sentiment I try to teach in my classes. Don’t worry about results. Don’t stress over comparisons. Try to play. Have fun. Relax. Laugh. Get paint on your hands. Think spontaneaously. Some people get it. Some people don’t.

  17. Just to play devil’s advocate for a sec, thinking without action may be ego-gratifying but outside the internal state of the individual it’s meaningless. Kits and instructions are nothing new — we’ve just gotten better at it over the years. I would also argue that out of the very, very few individuals that will produce something of value to others (any kind of value, I don’t mean money), most of them will begin by following instructions and (if they’re lucky) with materials in some stage of prefabrication.

    We are not transport devices for our brains.

    • If it were true that scrapbooking kits led to explorations and creative thinking, I wouldn’t have written the article. For many years I held out hope that kits would be a gateway to imaginative thinking and creative play, eventually to meaning-making creative work. But I’ve seen very little of it, and some of it has been wishful thinking. The other thing that bothers me is that kit companies push out hundreds of proprietary tools that edge you closer to perfection with no creative thought. So people are spending hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to “keep up” with the tools and accessories but not feeling satisfaction. It’s the fast-food of the craft industry.

  18. Take heart, Quinn – I used to be that woman. Ok, not exactly – I don’t do kits and cards – but I so relate to her unrelenting desire for perfection (tearing something up into 1000 pieces to obliterate that I ever made a “mistake”). That thought that if it isn’t pretty, it’s not “good”, it doesn’t count. I couldn’t work in an art journal for years after I first saw them, precisely because there are no rules. But I wanted the pretty – pretty art to make my life look prettier than it is. And my first art journal pages were exercises in anxiety and terror. Now, however, I’m starting to enjoy the *process* of my art journal. I came at it backwards, I suppose – wanting the pretty, and then finding the process, but that’s just how it worked for a perfectionist like me. I was really impressed with how gracious you were with her – that encounter may stick with her for a long time to come.

    • But you came to your own healing creativity. That’s what’s really important. And I’m glad for you. I try to be polite to as many people as possible. My way is not the only way, and if she is happy, I won’t dissuade her. It would be sad, however, if she taught art.

  19. sad about those ‘perfect kits’. hope you were not biting your tongue too hard…earl nightingale once said that 85 percent of folks live a good life, good job, etc. and never THINK. AHA!!

  20. I’m reminded of silk purses and sows ears for some reason. 🙂
    From experience, I understand your frustration.
    One wonders if the woman from your story would choose a TV dinner over a home cooked meal. Ah, there in lies the problem. Home cooked these days means opening the right cans and boxes — and not heating in the microwave. 🙂

  21. There are people like this in just about every type of creativity. I make art quilts – fiber art. When it is on display and I am around, I am asked where they can get a kit, no kit. Where can they get a pattern, no pattern. Where can they get the book (obviously I must have copied it), no book.

    This drives me crazy. I tell them I can teach the techniques so they can make their own design, they walk away.

  22. Hello Quinn. I read your post with interest this morning. Later, while walking the dogs, I found myself thinking about the woman again. Somebody, a long long time ago, made her very very afraid of getting something wrong. Its what happens to so many of us.

    I started my Creativity Club for kids recently, and the core message we started with is ” there is no way you can get this wrong. There is no “wrong”.”

    They have done some fantastic work, which you can take a look at on the Moneystown Creativity Club blog at

    Last week we did fabric painting, and you can see the fantastic t-shirts they made on the blog. It was really interesting to see the differences in approach and result.

    I’d love to help people like that woman unlock the fear and their own creative power. I hope to develop workshops for adults.

    • Love the T-shirts–that vibrant color is wonderful! What makes me know it will be hard to fill workshops is that the woman was happy, loved how she could produce stacks of perfect cards. For her, creativity IS the assembly-line, perfect-card ideal. It’s just so sad to think that that’s her art experience. No wonder people vote against teaching art in school.

      • I also experienced a similar woman at a “freeing the artist within” workshop. She painted very neat watercolour landscapes, and found the challenge of the workshop too much. She left on day 3 of the 5 days. Someone who knew her well commented that to open herself up to the process would reveal too many truths about her life. Many people cling to facades of happiness, too afraid to enter their life experience and explore it. Too afraid of the enormity of it.
        People cling to safe, neat and orderly. Facades of happy.

        • How very sad for her. But it made me smile, also–how true that opening yourself up to creativity breaks open your soul. It could have been a lovely experience, supportive and rich.

  23. The world today is so goal oriented that it is easy to forget the importance of the path and the journey. (Oh, dear. Flip the words around and that sounds like something Yoda would say.)

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