• Gina Greenlee, Author

Giving “Messy” New Meaning

Updated: Mar 15, 2019



As a little girl I loved to play with clay, paints, dyes and markers. My mother had a fit when she saw our bathtub stained after an afternoon tie-dying session. My father, on the other hand, always encouraged my arts and crafts play. War broke out in our family the night of the infamous tie-dye tub stain. The compromise: I could dye my jeans and t-shirts but only in a bucket, newspaper sprawled underneath. And only in the presence of my mother’s hawkish stare. Tie-dying was no longer fun. After all, I could hurt something.

Like a wall.

Thereafter, whenever I attempted to create, oy, the drama! I grew up in a wall-to-wall carpeted New York City apartment. Heaven forbid I should stain it. Carpet was a luxury for my parents, both of whom had grown up poor and with bare floors. Harming the family furniture with my art was less of an issue because my mother encased the living room sofa and chairs in plastic. From the tie-dye incident forward, all of my “messy” art (what art isn’t?) was relegated to the bare kitchen floors swathed in newspaper. My father bought me (dry) modeling clay because regular clay was too messy.

My mother’s nameless anxiety was abated only by scrubbing every inch of our Manhattan apartment, and making me do it, too, after school. I attempted to abate mine by expressing myself through all forms of play: dance, storytelling, Barbie dolls, marbles, painting, drawing and clay. With parental fixation on not making a mess, play was now terror. I was committing some unforgiveable act if I dropped a paintbrush or splattered water. More and more, I played with art less and less until one day I stopped.

A Lovely Chaos


It took me decades to undo that childhood programming. So it was bittersweet for me to discover Anna Ranson’s article, The Central Importance of Play on her Web site, The Imagination Tree. She tells of play’s significance in healthy psychological development by sharing pictures of her toddlers doused in soap, water, colored shaving foam, fingerpaints, shredded newspaper and glue. These images triggered much sadness: me at that tender age yearning to explore yet feeling imprisoned; the freedom of childhood expression I missed because it wasn’t convenient for the adults around me.

I’ve spent the past 10 years of adult life re-entering the world of child’s play. Through experimentation, I’ve reframed the oft demonized “mess.” Simply, it is the organic chaos of discovery necessary to creating. It’s okay to make a mess. I don’t live in a museum. Even if I did, nobody dies. Soap and water = everything nice again. And if some household item suffers ruin, 100 years from now no one I know will care.

Today, my apartment looks like the environment in which Ana Ranson’s children are allowed to explore: boxes, cartons, color and experiments everywhere you turn. It’s me being the kind of parent for my “little girl” that I always wanted when I was growing up. As an adult, this has allowed my visual art to mature. Too, epiphanies while making a “mess” helped me recognize that I approached visual art categorically different from language art. From that “aha” came a question: “How can I extend this energy of wild exploration to writing?”

What If?

What if I didn’t start a writing session with a particular project in mind, say a book? What if I wandered toward whatever type of writing jazzed me in that moment? Initially, much of this writing was by hand in ol’ skool black and white composition notebooks. I wrote whatever popped into my head, in what I called a “fleeting moments journal.” My notebook always handy, I noticed more ideas popped: while driving, in the shower, watching a movie, walking, swimming, brushing my teeth, cooking. The notebook was an invitation. I planted one in every corner of my world. My subconscious was serving up griddle hot ideas around the clock and I didn’t want to miss any of it. Like the visual art born from the tornado of crafts supplies around my house, these random, disparate writing snippets began to coalesce into new ideas and fresh projects.

Writer’s Toy Chest

I documented my experiments in a Word document folder called “Writers Toy Chest.” Just as I had collected markers, paints, crayons and canvas, my collection of writing toys grew. I used this analog and digital storehouse of toys as entryways to writing. When focused on a specific piece of writing, I warmed up by playing with my toys. When I needed a break from a project but didn’t want to relocate from the computer: Toys!

My toy chest filled. Whenever I returned to it to I was like the child who, after not having seen a particular toy for three months, was excited all over again upon discovering it anew. This injected novelty into my writing process, which kept me energized, optimistic and moving forward, not slogging through slush but skating on ice. Also, my writing toys served as thresholds to discovery, which led to insights, breakthroughs and new perspectives on old challenges. “Messy” language arts adventures not only changed my writing process but also the writing itself. They continue to strengthen my voice (personality on the page) and advance the execution of my craft in surprising directions.


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