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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Does Coloring Help or Hinder Your Writing and Reading?

coloring book 2 writers blockKerri Miller, MPR host, encouraged Americans to put away coloring books and pick up real books instead in a post on The Thread.

If coloring books were the cause of Americans reading only 4 books a year on average, I’d agree. But I highly doubt the trade-off is between real books and coloring books.

I suspect that coloring is instead a substitute for time spent engaged with electronic distraction devices (EDDs as I call them): laptops, tablets, phones, TVs, video games, etc. Reducing Americans over-consumption of electronic media is bound to have a positive effect on our brains, bodies and creativity.

Coloring or any other form of Process, aka creative play for the sake of play – sketching, painting, fooling around with an instrument, playing with Play-doh™ or Legos™, making collages, whittling, building models or with toothpicks, knitting or other crafts, etc. – creates a relaxed, meditative state and enhances creativity.

The Huffington Post discusses the psychological benefits of coloring. “When coloring, we activate different areas of our two cerebral hemispheres, says psychologist Gloria Martínez Ayala.” (read more)

Beyond the obvious benefits of stress-reduction, Process allows our brains to function in dramatically different ways. I explain in Around the Writers Block:

“Sharon Begley observes ‘Although most of us think of motor skills and cognitive skills as like oil and water, in fact a number of studies have found that refining your sensory-motor skills can bolster cognitive ones. No one knows exactly why, but it may be that the two brain systems are more interconnected than we realize. So learn to knit, or listen to classical music, or master juggling, and you might be raising your IQ.’”

Backlash Against Play

play brownSo why is Kerri Miller inclined to criticize coloring books for adults? Why did many of her audience say “they worried that adult coloring books were more evidence of an ‘infantilizing culture’ that condones childish pursuits for grownups.”?

What’s so bad about childish pursuits for grownups? The human brain – both in childhood and adulthood – needs play, as detailed in the ample and significant research laid out by Dr. Stuart Brown in his book Play and his TEDTalk.

Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to dismiss creative play as “silly, a waste of time, unproductive, childish, or unimportant.”

It’s hard to wrap our Western sensibility around the idea that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing in particular. It’s hard to fathom that sometimes the best way to spend our time is to “waste” it.

Still I Agree…

open mind canstockphoto4053172Kerri Miller writes, “Colored pencils are no match for the rich and vivid worlds of a Dickens, an Allende, a McBride or an Irving. Put down the crayons and find out why!”

Miller is absolutely right that we need the rich and vivid worlds of fiction. Our brains function differently when we read fiction. Reading improves brain function. (read more)

But we don’t have to put down the crayons to enjoy and benefit from reading. This is why I recommend writers build habits and invest time in both Process and Product Time (which includes writing time, time to read as a writer and other activities that support writing).

Who knows, coloring books might a gateway to other books.

Have you bought a coloring book? What did you stop doing to make time to color? Does coloring or other forms of Process improve your writing life?

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9 Comments on “Does Coloring Help or Hinder Your Writing and Reading?”

  1. Lucy February 8, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

    Hello, Rosanne,

    When I saw this, I had just ordered another batch of adult coloring books from good ol’ Dover. I wanted to laugh, but Kerri’s article reminded me of my Fine Art professors sneering at people (like my mother) who enjoyed paint-by-number kits. Under such “guidance,” students quickly learned to devalue and criticize.

    As a foster mom, I can assure Kerri that many third-generation dope-disabled kids will never be able to read beyond special books. And at book-signings, we’ve met spouses who admit they read aloud to illiterate partners. Why would a caring person want to shame people for not reading, or mock adults who color to relax?

    I’m amazed she would publicly proclaim that if we read at least four books a year, we are allowed to color, but if we don’t meet Her 4-book Limit, put those pencils away! Wow!

    It’s difficult enough to battle learned limitations without strangers imposing rules to further inhibit individual creativity. Instead of condemning, perhaps she should spend a few days in a special-needs class to learn all about limits versus possibilities.

    Thanks, Lucy


    • rosannebane February 9, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

      I feel called to defend Kerri Miller because I don’t think any of the negative results were her intention. I think she reflected (and unfortunately, unintentionally reinforced), not caused, our cultural bias against play and “childish things”.


  2. Catherine Brennan February 5, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Rosanne, I am so glad to see you addressing this. I heard Kerri Miller going on about this on the radio, and I suspect that she is prone to what the Bhuddists might call “monkey mind”. Though rich with ideas, she seems to have a bias, completely understandable in our culture, against standing in the void. Just to let your mind wander in what must be the creative equivalent of letting one’s ground go fallow. The ground is enriched by the break. I know that when I play with colored pencils (thought I do not use a coloring book), I enter into a different state that helps me transition for focus on my own writing. Thanks, I would add, to your class.


    • rosannebane February 6, 2016 at 11:04 am #

      Thanks for sharing your experience Catherine. We are of like minds about the value of mind-wandering.


  3. Anonymous February 5, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Nailed it! 🙂


  4. Bela February 4, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Why does answers to everything have to be this or that? As a writer, reading great literature, taking a painting class, watching a play, watching a movie (with a storyline), coloring, going for walks/runs, spending time with young people or animals AND staying in touch with my family and friends via the social media or phone are all very inspirational. So is learning to do new things like a new language or a game (eg.Mahjong, Bridge). They help me focus, motivated and creative. BALANCE in everything is the key!


    • Catherine Brennan February 5, 2016 at 5:47 pm #

      I agree Bela. It actually helps me focus better.


  5. Joel D Canfield February 4, 2016 at 9:45 am #

    Amen to that.

    Letting go of my Puritanical need to be productively engaged every waking moment is one reason I’m working on books 15, 16, and 17 simultaneously with books 18-21 trembling in the wings.

    Time spent staring out windows, coloring, whittling a piece of wood into shavings: it’s vital to my creativity.

    And no, it doesn’t take away from my reading time. It takes away from my EDD time.

    My wife buys coloring books. All three of us color and doodle and find ways to do nothing, nearly every day.


    • rosannebane February 4, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

      Thanks Joel for your testimony to my thesis that coloring means less time with EDDs, not less time reading. AMEN to the value of doing nothing.


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