On beginning


Beginning starts with a dream.

A dream to draw.

A dream to create.

A dream to play the ukelele. Speak Portuguese. Ride a bike. Lose five dress sizes.

A dream to be what you always wanted to be.

A dream to finally face that part of your life that you’ve avoided so long because it shames you or makes you feel weak.

You hold that dream in your mind, you caress it at night, you turn it over and over and wish it would come true. That you could do this thing you dreamed of, effortlessly, fluidly, joyously.

And with that dream of doing this one thing come dreams of doing other things, of being other things, of feeling strong, and competent, on top of your game, happy. Complete.

Achieving this one dream feels like it could mean achieving all those others as well.

This dream means so much to you that you hold it delicately, like an egg that could shatter and dash all your expectations of yourself. To pursue this dream could mean to fail and so you take a long time before you muster the courage to take the first step towards reaching it.

So, beginning, starts with a lot—too much—at stake.

And beginning starts in a realm you can only imagine, because you haven’t ever been there. You’ve seen other people achieve that dream. You’ve seen the drawings they’ve made, heard theme singing that aria, tasted the soufflé they whipped up so easily. And you think you know what that must be like. You think you know what the journey there must entail. If only you had the courage to actually begin.

But so far, all you really have is that dream, turning slowly in your mind, lit by thousand candles.

And then a day breaks, more sunny than the rest, a day that fills you with a new type of hope, and so you decide to begin. You breathe deep and pick up that pen. You sit down at that piano. You dive into the deep end of that pool.

You are filled with exhilaration and hope. Your dream glimmers on the horizon

And then as soon as you leap, you flounder and flinch. You gasp. You sink beneath the waves.

The water is colder, deeper, and darker than you’d ever imagined.

That first line that you have imagined in your head is finally on paper. That first chord thunders across the strings…

And it is flat and leaden and ugly, the work of a fool. Nothing like what you had seen in your dream. You flail and struggle on, despair sinking like clouds over the moon, plunging you into darkness.

And then, through the shadows, you hear the first righteous wails of the monkey. Wails? Or hoots and cackles? That voice in your head that delights in holding you back has finally fought its way through the lavender  bushes and daisy fields that surround your dream, bringing with it an icy dose of ‘reality’. It delights at your failure, your hubris at thinking you—ugly you, stupid you, hopeless you—could do this thing.

It wraps a protective arm around your shoulder and starts to lead you back to safety.

“You don’t have to keep doing this,” it tells you. “It’s too hard. Your talents too meager. The teacher’s too  incompetent. This isn’t really your fault. Just don’t try it again.”

That monkey is in your head to keep from risk, from new experiences, from growing. That monkey voice was implanted in you when you really needed it, when you had to have a warning voice to say, “you’ll put your eye out with that, you’ll break your neck, you’ll catch your death of the cold.”

New things still make that monkey scamper out of the darkness with alarm. The unknown, the challenging, the scary, the hard. Things that could make you cry.

And it has a hundred tools up its hairy sleeves to keep you in check and on the reservation.  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

This what happens when your dream first meets reality. A rude awakening.

You feel shocked. You feel hopeless. You feel humiliated. You feel blind to the path ahead.

The monkey says, “See, this is why you haven’t done this before.  Because. You. Can’t. Do. It.”

The monkey says, “Stop now, stop the pain, crawl back on shore. Go back to where you were.”

The sense of failure spreads beyond the task at the hand, this particular challenge.

The monkey uses this opportunity to tell you what a failure you have always been, at so many things throughout your life, at every new effort you ever undertake.

The monkey, of course, glides over all of the things you have accomplished, all the battles you’ve won since you took your very first step at 11 months. The monkey edits your life down to show you that you have done nothing but shit since birth.

You cry yourself to sleep.

You wake up, the sun shining. You are still you. But now you have learned one lesson.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts and you should neverever try again.

That lesson might be that the pain is temporary. That you can weather it. That you are now a day older, a day wiser and that challenge is still there to be conquered.

You regroup. You uncap your pen. You charge once more.

And this time (or the next time or the tenth time after that), you suddenly feel a shift. You look down at your sweaty paper and one part of one corner of one wretched drawing gleams with hope.

It’s good, that bit there.

Through all the mangled notes, one cord rings true. Amidst all the collapsed and burned cakes and pies, one crumb of one cookie tastes sweet.

You can do it.

You have seen the first shred of evidence that you don’t utterly suck to the core of your marrow.

Now, that glimmer of proof may actually have been there in your first or second drawing or concerto or cookie. But you missed it. That first shock the monkey dealt you, that first brutal wakeup call, made you temporarily blind and deaf. When you first stumble and crash to the ground, your head is ringing, your nose is bloodied, and you can’t see straight. You can’t assess your work, you can only cringe and cover your head.

But when the day comes that your vision clears, your objectivity returns, you will discover the value in what you have made, the beauty, the reward.

And now you can clutch on to that one sign of hope.  You can continue even as you blunder through more mistakes, more beautiful, educational mistakes that teach you lessons galore with every ham-fisted stroke.

And that dream that started you off? It wasn’t wrong to have. Even though getting to that castle on the hill is harder going that you’d dreamt, you can look over your shoulder and see that you are getting higher and soon you are walking through clouds. That dream remains essential because it is the thing that keeps you going, especially when the going gets tough.

The monkey is still hanging on for dear life.  He still claws at your shoulders and ears as you struggle forward. But his grip is weakening. His voice is dimming. He is wrong. You can do it if you will do it.

You just need to begin and keep on beginning and discover that it’s the journey that is the reward. The dream is just to keep you moving forward, a mirage, fantasy. It’s the journey makes you smarter and stronger and better and happier.

Now, what would you like to begin?

52 thoughts on “On beginning”

  1. Brilliant, as usual, Danny. I’m beginning again every day, thanks to you and your extraordinary creation, Sketchbook Skool. The monkey’s getting quieter.


  2. “It’s the journey makes you smarter and stronger and better and happier.” But what if the journey seems to go round and round the foot of the mountain, and you’re on the same path you’ve been on for so long and you know that the path ought to spiral up sometime, into the green foliage, past the rusty monkey gate to where the package lies, the paper-wrapped manuscript which is really a screenplay which will need to be turned into the movie that you’ve dreamed up all this time, and written, too. But the pages never seem to add up and the path is gorgeous, if rocky and down-trodden in places. What if one day you realize you may never get past the beginning?


    1. I guess it depends on what “realize” really means. Is that just a temporary realization and a monkey con? And is staying a Beginner really so bad? You seem to be talking about reaching a goal, the produced screenplay, as if anything less is not worthwhile. Maybe you needn’t reach that goal. Maybe you need to enjoy walking around the base of the mountain. Maybe if you accept that you will suddenly find yourself drifting up. Do you want to have written a movie ? Or can you learn to live in the Now? I know it’s hard. I know it’s worthwhile


  3. How timely. Several weeks ago I played and sang at my first open mic. That monkey was on my back throughout my song. Who are you to think you are good enough to stand and sing in front of all these people? Who are you to perform a song that you wrote? On and on he wispered is my ears till I missed a chord and flubbed my lines… Then – applause. No one noticed my mistakes but the monkey.
    : )


  4. Finally went out for a walk before starting work this morning. I hadn’t worked out in 2 weeks. Another beginning of thousands of beginnings of trying to get into some semblance of shape. I needed this. Just texted a friend to meet for a walk tomorrow…baby steps.


  5. Thank you. Now this is the ‘parting gift’ for Lesson 1 in SBS. If you ever decide to ‘tweak’ that Lesson before offering it again in another semester please link or insert this post. I plan on printing out this post and sticking it in my journal or current ‘projekt’ and making my ‘monkey’ read it while I continue on MY journey.


  6. Brilliantly said and another of my favorites which resonates with your message is, “The Journey is the Destination,” Dan Eldon
    I’m always happy when I’m journeying. I may not know the actual details of the destination at the beginning phases but I trust the journey will land me somewhere in the ball park….and if not well, the journey was a hell of a lot of fun.


  7. Thank you, thank you for putting into printed word those thoughts that roll through my head but never quite make their way to acknowledgement!!! I am able to do and do many things, but almost always with hesitation (procrastination!!?). I am grateful for the PUSH — encouragement, non-judgmental efforts you, Koosje, Prash, Jane, Roz and Tommy are gently exerting. Today I do a watercolor sketch of what’s in front of me!!! Thank you.


  8. Thanks for this Danny. Just what I needed to read. I have begun and stumbled so many times and I think it might be getting easier!


  9. Your encouragement has been the gift of Sketchbook Skool. Thank you. The voice of judgement can be so harsh, so compelling that it can drowned out everything else. And the experience of finally trying — and then having it be so much harder — is very confusing. (I thought art making would be fun but a lot of the time it isn’t. It’s hard to weather the negative judgement especially when the work doesn’t match what I’ve imagined it could be. It requires courage to keep going.) You have clearly articulated this experience, which makes it easier to navigate. Thank you for being kind and supportive. Too often, art seemed like a club to which I could never belong. Today, for the first time since joining klass, I’m going to draw.


    1. I feel like that too Erika, that it’s a club full of confident successful people. But I’d rather try to think that here I’ve found my tribe – a very large inviting tribe and I’m so grateful to belong to it.



  10. Danny, this was so timely for me….it made me cry:). Each little step takes us somewhere new and different, even if it may feel like we’re walking ourselves in circles. Focusing on the joy of the process brings so much more to life than the fear of the product!


  11. I had to stop reading several times to wipe the tears from my eyes. This is exactly where I am in Sketchbook Skool. I’ve wanted to learn to draw for such a long time. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is. I picked up my pen, started, and…ugh. Mortification. I know a few tries isn’t going to teach me to draw. My mantra for the last few days has been “I am an artist. Danny Gregory says so.” Thanks for this writing, Danny. I will pick up my pen…again.


  12. I learned recently my monkey likes to set up false hurdles, like I don’t know what to draw, there’s nothing interesting to draw, oh my! I’ve taken to drawing ‘something’ every day. It gets easier and I get better, and once in awhile I draw something I really like. Every day.


  13. You are sooo good and you know it !!! Your writing is so damn good!!! It touches deep to my core/ my sensitive/artistic-heart. Its so great and so true that it inspired me to write.
    So here I am writing more then drawing. You are distracting, Teacher! :0)
    I can’t really tell if you are a better sketcher or a better writer. Not, that does really matter but what do you think ?
    Don’t answer if you think is a silly question.

    Thank you very much for putting down on paper/screen your thoughts and giving us (for free) those amazingly motivationally blogs !!!


  14. I think you always carry some sort of monkey, or maybe it is a tribe of monkeys… The parenting monkeys, the get fit monkeys, the I’m going to give up chocolate monkey…. Ok maybe the last one can hang around…anyway…. I used to have art monkey chattering in my ear every blog post and drawing, but when I was diagnosed with cancer he became the cancer monkey… Same process exactly but more intense, but as treatment went on and the diagnosis got better he receded but he was still there at times… All the way through it when he started whispering in my ear I reminded myself it was just like when I was being creative and shut him down… Sometimes he was too loud, but mostly I got through the whole process in a good frame of mind… And every time someone commented on my great attitude or frame of mind I told them it was because I had drawing and painting in my life and it had taught me so much about resilience… So this week I have moved into survivor mode cancer wise and that cheeky little monkey tried to change back to the art monkey… Had a great time kicking him to the curb… He will probably be back though… They always are, but now I have this bookmarked to add to my monkey butt kicking arsenal…. Thanks Danny


  15. awesome, thanks so much Danny. I cannot tell you the difference that SBS has made to my life, suddenly having permission to draw has made me so happy. I love sketching – even though I am a true, true beginner, having hardly lifted up a pen since school-school. I suddenly feel free, and it doesn’t matter if some of my sketches are totally rubbish, some are ok, some are good, but more importantly I am enjoying myself and feel like my creativity has been unleashed. That has made me whole again as a person in a way that I haven’t been for a very, very long time. I will be signing up to semester 2 as soon as it is live.


  16. Danny, you express this so beautifully. But then your “Creative License” did too — and sent me on a journey when I read it 3 years ago and started sketching and watercolor journaling. I just recently went back and looked at my earlier sketchbooks — and it finally hit me that I am getting better and I’m actually starting to develop my own style. The process can be a joy, a meditation, an (at times) frustrating experience — but the journey as a whole is so rewarding. Plow past those monkeys — whatever type they may be — it is so worth it. Thank you, Danny, for your coaching, encouragement and your wisdom.


  17. Dear Danny
    I have always loved your art-from the first time my brother showed me Everydaty Matters. And I cried as I read about the harsh things that happened to you and your family. But it wasn’t until today’s essay that I realized just how Good a writer you are. Thank you so much for sharing your riches. It means a great deal to me, and therefore I assume, thousands, or tens of thousands, of hundreds of thousands of others. Please don’t stop!
    Ps. I can’t thank you enough for my Sketch Skool Skolarship. I am having a fabulous time. Learning and practicing and sharing with the others. And what a great bunch they are. Everybody seems to have interesting stories, drawings, experiences to share.

    I notice that you call this Sketch Skool session 1. Does that mean that you have a different second term planned? Or will you rerun these Klasses again, starting later in the year?

    If you have a second term, of new material planned, I would like to apply for another skolarship. I would fully understand if you wanted to give someone else a try instead of me, but I thought, surely there would be no harm in asking? Except I’d sound terribly greedy!

    Thanks Danny. Your books, and now this Skool have literally changed my life for the better. Thank you so much. If you ever need a place to stay in tiny little St. Mary’s Ontario, Canada, our spare room is ready for you. 😀


  18. I love this. I’m afraid there’s been a little freezing and thumb sucking at my house this week. I was doing OK and got bogged down by dislike (hatred) of my “art of breakfast.” I couldn’t move past it. It was the strawberries that looked so lifeless on the plate, and the colors so drab. Started avoiding finishing. Yet today I mustered my will and treated myself to a more expensive cobalt blue to do the plate under the berries. I’m a whole week behind and haven’t even gotten to Koosje yet! I hope she waits for me. Thanks for putting words to the monkey stuff so well.


  19. Great piece, Danny. Very motivating and inspirational. However I have a problem….I am a great starter but not a very good finisher. I am the train that leaves the station but gets off at the next stop then staying a while then take another train (or other mode of transportation) and take off in another direction. With that said, I have a stick-to-it problem. Never can figure out how to persist to completion. Maybe I get bored, too slow, lose interest or the challenge is not worth the effort on my part. I need help.


    1. Rene, I just read or heard something recently that has profoundly helped me with the same problem. You know how, when you’re doing washing, you finish the cycle because you don’t want the clothes to mildew, and you dry them and rush to get them out because you don’t want to have to iron (at least that’s my pattern). I keep hearing that anonymous voice gently reminding me to . . . . “finish the cycle”. When I start to walk away from something unfinished or not put away (which has been my lifelong pattern), I hear, “Finish the Cycle”. I don’t know why, but that phrase feels like magic.


    2. Oh, I hear you!!! I am the SAME! I love art, and I know that I have a talent…but wow, my eyes wander…and I know it’s a way the monkey on my back keeps me from truly becoming great at any one of the many forms of art that I dabble in and have spent LOTS of $$$ on supplies for!!! You name it…watercolor, acrylics, sketching, encaustics, collage, stamping,…mixed media, obviously, with all of that, and art journaling…I love it all…but I don’t practice any ONE of them frequently enough to really become great at them. I just keep dabbling…BEGINNING…over and over. Today one, tomorrow another, next week something else. I sign up for online workshops and don’t finish them. Wasted $. And now we’re in a place where I have no more $ to spend. I saw Sketchbook Skool and it looked interesting, but we are trying to sell our house and move cross-country…and there’s no way I can be spending any money on art or art supplies right now. So I feel very STUCK.


  20. Excellent. Sometimes it helps to take stock as well. Recently, I looked around me and realized I had achieved one of the dreams I had at 25 (centuries ago). If I had known that the road was going to be so long and so hard, would I have clung to that dream? I like to think so, because the alternatives look dismal if the Inner Critic wins. I might add this bit of advice to those at the beginning of their dream: Once you learn to cage the monkey, then you can let it out occasionally and make it work for you. On most of my art projects, I hear at the beginning “That’s the worst thing you’ve ever made”, which no longer scares me because I know I’m into unchartered territory and learning. If that voice doesn’t crank out the comment, I worry–the work might be too safe and boring. So ultimately, bad is good……..


  21. This is profoundly moving and beautifully written. I’ve begun challenging the monkeys to a throw-down, and I think I’ve won a couple of matches so far, thanks to your encouragement.


  22. Nobody needs to see Volume 1…. There is a big difference between Volume 1 and Volume 5 already. Now I’m curious to see what Volume 15, 20, …..100 will look like. Go away monkey, I’m busy drawing now. Too bad if its bad…… or good….


  23. Danny,

    These beautiful words of truth stuck a chord with my heart strings. That darn monkey! You are so gifted in writing and illustrating daily life! Thanks so much for having the courage to share your soul with us!

    I was wondering if you would grant me permission to publish this in a Fine Arts Journal for the Alberta’s Teacher Association called A Fine Facta? I have signed on to be the co-editor, and am looking for articles to publish. We are non-profit and would not gain anything financially from your article, but we would gain soulfully, I am sure.

    In appreciation,



  24. One of the hardest judgements I struggle to overcome is the indifference of others. Not everybody is into art or knows what to say, so they say nothing at all to your hopeful art offering. I try to think of their non- applause as their own creative block perhaps, afraid they will say the wrong thing or miss the point of the drawing. it’s a theory anyway.


  25. I really like your thoughts. I did some paintings without an end in mind, just to experience the act of painting, and it was exhilarating to create without an expectation of the result. Joy in the journey!


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