The Secret Art of Dabbling

By Elise Winn

Earlier this year, my husband and I found ourselves in his grandfather’s office—a cramped room tucked in a corner of a packed St. Louis basement. Bill passed away years ago, but, standing there, it was easy to think he might have only stepped out. There were piles of paper on the desk, business cards, forms, and files, as you might expect, but also stacks of how-to books, hand-written recipe cards, complicated-looking circuit kits, Nintendo games, video cameras, tubes of paint and boxes of watercolor pencils and pastels. 

The office was as much devoted to play as it was to work. My husband said his grandfather collected hobbies—he’d made a life out of dabbling, looking for new things to learn.

Once we hit a certain age, the overwhelming message seems to be that we must pursue excellence; pursue perfection. Devote time to a craft only if you’re going to master it, only if it’ll make you money. At some point we start apologizing—I’m no artist, no writer. We stop considering ourselves creative. We stop making art, making worlds out of words, making anything.

Bill rejected this message, and this year I’ve made it my goal to reject it as well, and to encourage others to join me. It requires active resistance, small acts of bravery. With this in mind, I started Bake Club, a school of un-perfectionism. In short: I invite people into my kitchen and ask them to remember what it feels like to be creative. We bake; we write; for a few hours, we are all bakers and writers, whether or not we would claim those titles normally.

For a few hours, we are devoted to playing on the page, dabbling in dough. Together we remember what it’s like to be in the middle of making something.

Here is an act of bravery: choose to try something new, choose to make something—and refuse to worry about what you’re making or if it’ll be any good. Yes, this is often so much easier said than done. I struggle with it nearly every day I gather up the courage to write, knee-deep in a novel. Here are a few ways to silence those less-than-helpful voices and get started, gleaned from Bake Club:


Enlist wisdom from your kid-self.

What are some of your first memories of being creative? Of getting lost in play? Make a list. One of mine: I’m outside under an oak tree, making a meal out of grass and clover, only it’s not grass and clover—it’s spaghetti. I’m stirring a pretend pot with a stick. Pick a memory that’s especially vivid and write about it. Start with the words “I am….” Put yourself back in that place.


Get something in the oven.

Distract your critical self—give her a recipe to follow and ingredients to measure. It can be something sentimental (your grandmother’s chocolate sheet cake with the weird, crackly glaze), something new (from that cookbook you’ve barely cracked), or as simple and satisfying as a pan of Rice Krispies Treats.


Set a timer, kitchen or otherwise.

Maybe you can only spare ten minutes, or five, or maybe you’ve got so much time the expanse is intimidating. “Start small,” Dani Shapiro advises in her book Still Writing. “If you try to think about all of it at once—the world you hope to capture on the page, everything you know, every idea you’ve ever had, each person you’ve met, and the panoply of feelings coursing through you like a river—you’ll be overcome with paralysis.” Give yourself a set amount of time to write, or paint, or draw, and the urgency will crowd out some of the worry and doubt. Maybe some days you won’t want to stop.

I returned from St. Louis with souvenirs from Bill’s office: a pack of rainbow-colored pastels, a lettering kit, a pair of small black scissors, and the conviction that creativity isn’t talent—it’s bravery and wonder and curiosity, and it doesn’t go away. We’ve all got it. What are you going to do with yours?

Originally from Missouri, Elise Winn (@joinbakeclub) is a writer living in Northern California, where she’s at work on a novel and short story collection. Learn more about her work at or at her tumblr site, Bake Club.