If you're an artist, you know all about the downsides to creating. Maybe the chapter you spent two weeks writing turns out to be an unusable mess. Or that drawing you've spent hours sketching ends up with all the wrong proportions. There are countless ways you can make mistakes as an artist, and those mistakes can often have a massive effect on you mentally and emotionally. Actress Keiko Agena, best known for her role as Lane Kim on the beloved television series Gilmore Girls, has been there, too. But in her new book, No Mistakes: A Perfect Workbook for Imperfect Artists, she tries to reclaim the creative process once and for all.
"I love books like this, that dive into what we need to do as artists. So, I asked myself 'What do I need?' and 'What am I scared of?' Well, I’m constantly scared that I’m not good enough, or I’m not the right type of something, and that I’m a failure," Agena tells Bustle. "It had come to a point in my career where, even though I had been acting for a while, I was — and still am to some extent — fearful of speaking out. Even though I’m older now, I always defer. My comfort zone is to defer to other people that know better. But at this age that I’m coming into, it was a question of ‘Well, if I don’t start to feel comfortable speaking for myself and trusting my voice, then when?' If I want to do it, I’d better start now!"
"I love books like this, that dive back into what we need to do as artists. So, I asked myself 'What do I need?' and 'What am I scared of?' Well, I’m constantly scared that I’m not good enough, or I’m not the right type of something, and that I’m a failure."
Agena's book is a collection of curated activities — think, writing a list of "bad ideas," drawing a Venn Diagram of love and fear, and creating an "affirmation builder" — that slot into 10 different chapters all dedicated to learning different creative lessons including "Let Inspiration Lie Lightly Upon You," "Failure Is Fodder For Courage" and "Cherish Your Voice." The inspiration behind No Mistakes came from both Agena's work in improv — where the founding principle of "yes, and" fosters the idea of creative openness — and the way that she approaches drawing. It was her drawings, in fact, that were the impetus for the book.
Agena had been posting photos of her illustrations to Facebook for a while when fans started to comment that she should turn them into an adult coloring book. Agena initially hesitated, but fate stepped in: Amanda Shih, then an editor at Penguin Random House, called in to an episode of the Gilmore Guys podcast that Agena was guesting on, and it changed everything. Shih introduced Agena to literary agent Monica Odom, and together they teamed up to develop the idea into the book that would become No Mistakes.
"This whole journey has definitely been a process of saying yes to the very next thing," Agena says. "I didn’t set out to write a book. And way back when I started drawing, I certainly never set out to sell a piece of artwork. I was just drawing as an outlet, and as a form of therapy, and it all sort of unfolded. I will say that if there is one thing that I do give myself credit for, it’s that I know when there is an opportunity and I will fight hard to live up to the grandness of whatever that opportunity is. So, I think when this did start to happen, I just jumped on it. Even though I’m such a Nervous Nelly that I was like ‘It will never happen’."
"This whole journey has definitely been a process of saying yes to the very next thing. I didn’t set out to write a book. And way back when I started drawing, I certainly never set out to sell a piece of artwork. I was just drawing as an outlet, and as a form of therapy, and it all sort of unfolded."
Those creative jitters are something Agena has dealt with for her entire 18-year career — ever since she landed the role of Lane Kim, the drum playing, punk rock obsessed daughter of strict Korean-American parents on Gilmore Girls. Agena was just 26-years-old when she landed the role, which would last for seven years.
“For a long time, I didn’t talk about Gilmore Girls that much. And the reason I didn’t is because, the truth is, that I found it very challenging," Agena says. "I grew up in Hawaii. I did not understand the Hollywood machine at all. If you’re an actress, for the benefit of everyone, they kind of put a bubble around you. I was very confused and scared by that bubble. I was also lying about my age, not only to the public, but to the cast. Only Alexis [Bledel] knew. Another challenge was that I went from temping straight to being a series regular for seven years and I was so worried that when the show ended, I wouldn’t know how to be a working actress. So, being on Gilmore Girls was very anxiety-ridden for me."
It was her experience in improv that would open her up to a new kind of artistic outlet and a reinvigorated excitement in acting. "To me, the whole thing about performing in any capacity is that I am in search of a magic moment," Agena says. "These moments can be seconds long, it can be a breath, but it’s a connection with another person, it’s something that surprises you, a that scene goes in a direction you weren’t expecting. Those little moments are so precious to me, that I do all of this other work just for the possibility of having [one.] In improv you’re writing, directing, and you can cast yourself as anything. For an Asian-American, 44-year-old woman, it’s nice to be able to play anybody’s brother, anybody’s daughter, a cousin, an alien, you know, whatever I want. It’s very freeing."
"In improv you’re writing, directing, and you can cast yourself as anything. For an Asian-American, 44-year-old woman, it’s nice to be able to play anybody’s brother, anybody’s daughter, a cousin, an alien, you know, whatever I want. It’s very freeing."
That freedom is a major part of what Agena is trying to recreate for other artists through No Mistakes. The activities are all about reconfiguring the parts of your creative brain that are limiting, and opening yourself up to the possibility that your work, whatever it is, doesn't have to look a certain way or come to particular end result in order to be a "good" or worthwile pursuit — an invaluable lesson that Agena herself is still learning.
“The bottom line of this book is to give you permission to listen to that side of yourself," Agena says. "Because it sounds simple but it’s challenging, and I don’t know why we fight it so hard. There’s a side of my brain that knows, that has your best intentions at heart and if you would trust it, it would lead you to a good place. This book is a manifestation of that. That smart, good side of my brain has written a book that the insecure, scared, Debbie Downer side of my brain can now also look at and be like ‘Oh duh, that’s right, that's what we've learned.' I think that’s always the circular challenge that we as artists keep going through."
That smart, good side of my brain has written a book that the insecure, scared, Debbie Downer side of my brain can now also look at and be like ‘Oh duh, that’s right, that's what we've learned.'"
Beyond that, No Mistakes also has a very practical point, too: you can start it and finish it at your own pace, and choose exactly what works for you — something that many creatives don't get to experience in their every day life and work. Agena hopes her book will be a balm for difficult creative days — and what could be more valuable for an artist than that?
"If you’re sailing along that’s great, and maybe you pick it up but just for fun. But especially if you’re feeling a little jaded, then it’s a nice place to work out those thoughts and experiences," Agena says. "I’ve been in this business long enough to know that it comes around. There’s going to be a time in my future where it will be harder and it’s a struggle, and that’s OK. And when that is the case, then something like this book is a great thing to turn to."