I’ve been struggling with writing, have reduced my output to notes jotted in my sketchbook. I haven’t heard a line of poetry in my head (how my poems often emerge) in weeks. My mind is stuffed with facts about COVID-19, and DIY recipes for hand sanitizer and face masks.
One way I’ve found to settle my mind and distract it for a while from the terror I feel for my family, for my community, the nation and all of humanity, is to draw. When I draw, I don’t think of it as escapism. I think of it as essential therapy.
Drawing, for me, and I think for many people, came before written language. Somewhere in my boxes of memories of my kids as children I’ve tucked away the first circle my son drew and the drawings of dogs my daughter made, all drawn before they could spell their own names or write the ABC’s. Drawing has the capacity to return us to our child mind, before we recognized how big, complex and potentially scary the world beyond us could be.
Drawing takes us on a journey. It returns us to Neverland, the Hundred Acre Wood, Whoville, Where the Wild Things Are, and that place Just Around the Corner.
In graduate school at Cal Berkeley, I had two wonderful drawing teachers, Chip Sullivan and Joe Slusky. I was their TA for a freshman drawing course, but I learned so much from listening to them teach. Their way of drawing is collected in Impulse to Draw, including this poem fragment of something Joe said in class:
“To Draw is to take a poetic leap.
The leap connects us to the world,
The leap is the translation.”
Like Joe and Chip, and the many amazing drawing teachers I’ve had, I want to offer encouragement to draw. To draw anything. To draw nothing. To draw badly. You can draw alone, at home, under quarantine. You don’t need to share your drawings to have them work their magic on you. All it takes is a pencil or pen and some paper. You can draw digitally, if you have the technology at hand. If you’re isolated and without any of these materials, you can draw with your finger on your palm. I’ve watched enough National Spelling Bees to know this kind of invisible mark-making activates the mind and conjures memories.
Drawing is a joyful act. Even a person consumed by sorrow can appreciate this. Vincent van Gogh, for instance, no poster boy for happiness, said: “I sometimes think there is nothing so delightful as drawing.”
A Drawing Prompt
I’ve been working on a book, Doodling for Writers, that was going to be released through Books by Hippocampus this June, but has been postponed to the Fall, because the pandemic has given us all more pressing things to give our attention to. I’m sad not to have it coming out sooner, but trying not to die is more important than making a book right now. The book is designed to help writers let drawing be a part of their writing life. In it there will be doodle prompts. But why wait? If you’d like to give drawing a go, here is a doodle prompt from the book to get you started.
This one is a prompt to help you play around with drawing tools:
What you’ll need:
- Paper (a variety or one kind, can be in your doodle journal)
- Permission to Play
Have you ever had a cat walk across your page while you’re writing/reading/editing? They dance over the work in an effort to seduce you into giving them all the attention you had been devoting to the paper under their paws. Think of this dance while you make a page of squares, each about the size of a cat’s paw.
Fill these small funny little kitty paw squares with doodles. For each square, you can play with a specific pencil or pen. You can use the white space around the paws to make notes about how you feel about each drawing tool.
You don’t have to draw anything in particular in the squares. Just play with what the tools can do in your hand. Press hard, be soft, try curly lines, go dark.
Try this prompt using different types of paper. Some choices to consider:
- Regular bond (plain copy machine paper)
- Rough toothy paper
- Lined paper
- A thick smooth surface like a 100-pound smooth surface Bristol.
Make notes in the white space (or whatever color paper you’re using).
I’ve been teaching myself to make fast-drawing videos that I post on Instagram (@rfishewan). I did one for this prompt to give you an idea of what you can do with your kitty paw squares. I grabbed what was at hand and didn’t pause or plan, because I want you to see that doodling can be done anywhere, anytime, with just about anything. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, just a delight in the making.
Draw, have fun, and find some peace of mind at a time when so little exists out in the world.
Wishing you all good health!
Rebecca Fish Ewan, a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Arizona with her family. Her cartoon/free verse memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, was published in 2018 through Books by Hippocampus. You can connect with her at rebeccafishewan.com