Don’t be Afraid to Suck

really bad hand lettering

Terrible first attempt at lettering.

Because sucking at something is the first step towards being kind of good at it.
I became interested in hand lettering around the time I quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom. I was terrible at it. And I suffered from a crippling perfectionism that made me scared to try and my failures tore down the courage it took to begin with. Enter my first art journal on the cover of which I wrote in big letters, “An Exercise in Imperfection.” Yes, it took a lot of agonizing to get it “right.” The point is, I was giving myself permission to screw up whatever I put in this book. Don’t matter, don’t care, just do it. I’d like to say that was the end of my struggles, but it wasn’t. Five years later, I still struggle. The more I fantasize about a project, the harder it is to get started. I’ve built it up too much in my mind. But I struggle less. You know my giant sketchbook? I made it so big so I could draw the same idea over and over again on the same page so I could monitor my progress, repeat the things I did well, and improve the things that sucked. I’ve reached the point where I know it’s not going to work the first time, but with persistence, I know I can get it there. I’m even comfortable offering it as a service.
Mid century modern lettering by Sarah ( Our Adventure Book is the most popular item in my Etsy shop, and people frequently ask to customize it in some way–usually adding a globe or leather tie to the cover. My two favorite customizations so far have been with lettering. One guy wanted to use the album to propose to his girlfriend and he wanted to put pictures of the two of them in the first few pages with a title page saying, “What We Did,” and other dividers for guest signatures at the wedding, pictures of their wedding, their honeymoon, and for the future. I thought it would be awesome to model these dividers after vintage travel posters, but for cost reasons, he opted for just one poster-y divider and the rest were simpler. When I agreed to this project, I had never done anything like this, but I gathered some inspiration from Pinterest on lettering from that era and just got going–no obsessing. The shipping deadline helped with that 😉

Rejected first try.

Rejected first try.

The second guy also wanted to use the album to propose to his girlfriend. His idea was to hide the ring in the book somehow and I made a couple of suggestions. I could make the back cover thick enough to carve out a space for the ring, or I could just put a petal envelope somewhere in the book with the ring inside. I thought it would be cool to do some lettering saying, “Will you marry me?” But he returned with, “Will you join me on a new adventure?” which I thought was adorable. He rejected my first try, which was fine by me. Based on his feedback, I tried to come up with a different composition and decided the square petal envelope was really holding me back. I first thought of the petal envelope because it would be easy to get the ring out, but I thought there’s got to be a way to have the ring sort of pop up when opening a regular envelope so she wouldn’t have to fish around for it. So I devised this envelope (after many prototypes), and the ring slides up when it’s opened.

pop-up ring envelope by Sarah (

Then the composition fell into place, and the lettering looks much nicer.

Hand lettering sketch by Sarah ( with envelope by Sarah ( with envelope by Sarah (

Now back to the real message of this post. Don’t be afraid to suck. The hard thing about reading about people doing what you want to be doing is that they so rarely share their failures. You only see them being good at it. So I’m sharing some failures of mine to let you see that I didn’t start good. I’m still not that good. I still fail. That just means I’m on my way.
What inspires you to try something new?  To persevere in the face of your failures?

About sappling

When God created the world, he did it in six days and rested on the seventh. I always wished there was just one more day in the week, an eighth day just for me to pursue the thoughts in my head and translate them to the physical world. There are only seven days, however, so I steal my creative moments in between being a mom and my work binding books and making boxes for clients all over New York City. I love working with my hands, learning new things, and I'm here to share those lessons with you. There are only seven days in a week. Why not eight? Guess I'll ask when I get there.
This entry was posted in Arts and Crafts, Bookbinding, Lettering, Paper Arts, Paper Cuts, Scrapbooking, Visual Arts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Don’t be Afraid to Suck

  1. Amy says:

    Great advice, Sarah! I am frozen by doubts way too often. Funny thing…when I saw your blog post title and picture of the envelope mechanics on my feedly, I thought it was a pacifier…must be the mom in me 🙂

    • sappling says:

      That is too funny. I can see why you would think that.

      Sarah Mottaghinejad On Feb 12, 2015 10:36 AM, “Why Not Eight” wrote:


  2. I feel you Sarah!

    It’s not easy to avoid being haunted by perfection when you are -what else- a perfectionist craftsman! It is good when used as a driving force towards improvement but in some cases it actually takes effort to get rid of that guilty feeling and simply admit “it’s not good enough, but the earth won’t stop spinning”.

    As for your questions at the end of your post… What inspires me to try something new despite the horrendous humiliation of utter and unforgettable failures? Well, I suppose it’s simply the desire to acquire a specific skill. If I like what can be achieved with the said skill and enjoy the process of learning it then sucking at it seems less terrible since it means I’m already able to use it to some extent!

    • sappling says:

      You’re right. Perfectionism is part and parcel of being a bookbinder, bixmaker, or craftsperson of any kind. I’m never going to encourage sloppiness, but I sometimes wish I could be. I like how you said that when you’re learning to do what you want to do, it’s fine when you mess up because at least you’re doing it.

      Sarah Mottaghinejad On Feb 12, 2015 4:32 PM, “Why Not Eight” wrote:


  3. Marci says:

    Thanks for sharing this, your stuff always paralyzes me since I feel deep down I’ll never be able to produce anything so beautiful. Nice to know you started with something that wasn’t quite as perfect at the beginning.

    • sappling says:

      Not quite perfect is an understatement. I have more bad stuff than good. But I keep trying. I’ve got a lettering composition that started out pretty awful, butI’m bringing it around.

      Sarah Mottaghinejad On Feb 12, 2015 8:06 PM, “Why Not Eight” wrote:


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