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How I Learned to Love Grown-Up Coloring Books

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

I confess: when adult colouring books came out, I thought they were totally stupid. Why would anyone spend their time coloring in existing images? Kids basically stop coloring once they learn to draw, right? So — why? Also, the name made me giggle incessantly, in the same way that “adult lifestyle communities” make me giggle (I imagine it’s not 72-year-old bridge enthusiasts living in these communities but instead a giant front for a porn studio, with or without the 72-year-old bridge enthusiasts). Besides, I’m a reader. If I have downtime, I will read a book thankyouverymuch. And you should, too. Insert self-satisfied sniff of superiority here.

Fast forward about a year and I own a 50 pack of Crayola Super Tips Washable Markers and several coloring books, which I dip into two or three times a week.

So what changed?

Well, fellow Rioters, this might appall you all, but I don’t always want to read. I teach books and write about books and blog about books and speak about books and sometimes I am just too tired of books for books. I like the idea of filling all my waking hours with literature, but sometimes my brain steps in and says, “Lady, we are out. Show us one more metaphor and we quit for good. For realsies this time.”

The thing is, when I found myself in these moods I realized I was filling the time I normally read with, well, honestly, nothing that made me happier or more relaxed. Candy Crush marathons. Instagram stalking. Filling e-shopping carts with merchandise and then closing the browser window. Infinite scrolls of Twitter. And then I’d look up, and three hours would be gone, and I’d have no idea where it went.

My husband often tells me I need a hobby. I like to tell him that my hobby is work, and it really is — I have a bad case of workaholism, and I have no real desire to change it, because I really like my job. But it’s true that unwinding has always been a struggle for me. Usually I watch TV, but I felt like this past summer was a television wasteland (thanks, The Fosters, for being there for me) and I haven’t found a binge-able show to dig into for a while.

And at a certain point, one’s body does rebel. I tend to work flat-out for weeks on end, take one day off, and immediately collapse with the flu. It’s not what one might call the world’s most sustainable relationship to stress, but it’s been who I am since elementary school, when my parents couldn’t tell me until the last minute that we were going away, because the anticipation of vacation always resulted in me getting sick.

(I’m really fun at parties tho.)

So I’ve been looking for a way to encourage myself to get in some downtime. At first I wanted to take up cross-stitch or crochet, but I am super not crafty and got frustrated and angry pretty much immediately (and thank you for the offer but no, you probably can’t teach me to crochet, because I am hilariously incompetent). Also I hate being bad at things. But I do miss having a creative outlet, having meandered away from writing creatively for the past few years.

So. I wanted a hobby. Something relaxing. Something that required minimal commitment. Because I have a bad track record with hobbies, I wanted something low cost and easy. Something I wouldn’t be bad at. As part of managing stress, I’m trying to get into meditating more regularly, so something that encouraged mindfulness would be good, too.

And then I saw it. The coloring book display at the centre of Powell’s Books in Portland. And suddenly, for the first time, I got it. I could see immediately the appeal of coloring in someone else’s drawings: there’s no way to be wrong, there are no barriers to getting started, and it’s an utterly low-stakes form of creativity. I bought a book and I’ve never looked back.

Every night at ten, in an effort to improve our sleep hygiene, my husband and I “unplug” in order to get some time away from blue screens before bed. In the time between unplugging and going to bed, sometimes I read, sometimes I journal, but more often than not these days I color. It’s a slow process — I gravitate towards fairly intricate patterns, so it takes weeks to finish a piece at the pace I move. But it’s also meditative to watch the finished image emerge, to make deliberate marker strokes, to count patterns of colors. And it’s low-stakes, so I forgive my own mistakes easily and and with an open heart.

I was a cynic, but coloring books for grown-ups are now a central part of my life, and a small piece of the puzzle of becoming a more balanced human. My name is Brenna, and I love to color. Do you?

A work in progress. Like me.

A work in progress. Like me.



Get suggestions for grown-up coloring books here!