I’ll declare a couple interests before I begin. First, I like JoJo Moyes. Her books have touched me, and when I tweeted about one of them I got all fangirl when she replied. The After You sample is sitting in my Kindle to be read “pile”.
Secondly, I like colouring in. I also like what I’ve seen it do for people who are struggling, so I created the hashtag #colourtogether, a mass colouring event. Twitter users were invited download an image, colour it in any way pleased, then share it using the hashtag. It proved immensely popular and I lost count of how many people contributed, many having joined on a friend’s recommendation. The Storify “gallery” is a thing of immense beauty and I still enjoy looking at it.
So it’s not surprising that several people drew my attention to a piece by Moyes earlier this week on colouring in (I would’ve blogged about it way sooner, but I was occupied with all the lively feedback from the BBC article about my wedding). Ultimately there’s not much more to Moyes’ piece than someone being baffled by something they don’t get and deciding that it therefore has no value. She does (rather perfunctorily) recognise that colouring may be of value to people with mental health problems, but the thing that bugs her is that “there is a whole raft of women who, apparently, just like to spend their hours colouring stuff. And it’s these who make me oddly uneasy.”
Moyes frets that colouring in leaves no room for imagination, for “genuine creativity” or for “working out who you are and what you are capable of creating.” It’s a shame Moyes feels that way; there is actually more creativity than you might think in colouring. Unlike painting by numbers you need to really engage with the task, looking closely at the patterns and choosing your pencils or pens with care. Some people enjoy the challenge that comes from choosing a pencil at random and seeing how they can incorporate it into the page. Either way, it’s not finger painting.
But here’s my real issue with colouring snobbery.
Not every activity has to have a purpose. Purposeless time is not “wasted time”.
I guess it boils down to this: I don’t want everything I do to need an outcome, to be defined by what I produce. For sick and disabled people, it’s a very dangerous model. The DWP is hell bent on bullying those with chronic health problems and lifelong disabilities into productivity and appears to have talked itself into the belief that with the right “support” we can all be slotted back into the workplace. How much tidier it will be when we can be measured in terms of our economic output! Sadly many so-called treatment models focus narrowly on occupational recovery. People for whom work or volunteering is impossible are either invisible or lazy
Because we live in an age of relentless productivity. We go from task to task, doing and achieving. There is a constant pressure to get things done. We do it to ourselves, creating stress through our own “to do” lists. Who, Moyes asks, has the time to colour? She believes that people’s (women’s) precious leisure hours should be filled with “a pursuit that both relaxes and stretches you, encourages you to learn something about yourself and claim some space in the world”.
I’m not going to get into mindfulness too much (again) other than to say that I believe it is intrinsically necessary for our health to take time just be or do. No active verbs. No planning, deciding, achieving, competing, resolving, generating, innovating, assessing, organising, delivering, completing, processing. No producing. Claiming your inner space in a society that is so outward facing is actually a rather radical thing to do. Tuning out the chatter by doing with no particular goal challenges our beliefs about how time “should” be spent.
I’ve recently rediscovered the art of purposeless walking. It actually started off as very goal-directed; I was trying the reach the 10,000 steps per day recommended by the American Heart Association to maintain cardiovascular health. But then I got into the habit of just walking everywhere. I started by striding home when I could have hopped on the bus but the habit has grown into walking for walking’s sake. I do a lot of it out of curiosity. Exactly how far away at street level is the two-minute tube ride? What’s up that long road I only ever pass the end of? Why is that green space on Google maps called what it is? Now when I travel to a health appointment team or go to yoga class or to a meeting I check out the local area instead of just shuttling to and from. Walking. Purposelessly. Because I enjoy it.
I guess I don’t understand what Moyes thinks is the main product of reading a novel. I’ve loved several of her books, but they don’t fall into the category of “relaxing but stretching”. I promise I’m not being catty here. I wept buckets on the plane home from holiday because I’d just finished The One Plus One. But I read her novels precisely because they are emotionally resonant but not really a stretch for my poor bewildered brain. I’m not sure that for me at the moment reading can be both. The Goldfinch was stretching. The Bone Clocks was stretching. Enjoyable actually, but ultimately too stretching. I couldn’t finish either of them.
It’s hard to see how reading for pleasure differs substantively from colouring in. If you read a novel, you get lost, just as you can in an intricate colouring page. You can always stretch yourself after reading a novel by writing a review, but check out the Amazon page for a popular colouring book like Secret Garden. Reading novels can become a social activity through swapping recommendations/ books, or by joining a book group. But #ColourTogether was a social activity. Not only did people come together for the final gallery, they passed the recommendation on.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a lightweight piece. Maybe everything I’ve said is exactly what you’d expect me to say, but I will defend my right to walk down (physical and written) cul-de-sacs if I want to. It’s been suggested to me that I should resurrect #ColourTogether during Advent. Nothing too Christmassy, but something people might like to focus on knowing that other people are just as absorbed in their own interpretation of the image. I hope as many of you as possible will join me so we can waste our lives together. Quietly. In glorious colour.