If you’re following along at home, week two of my experimental creativity course is underway. I’m titling this week’s theme “Brain/Play,” because we will be learning about the brain and doing exercises that call on us to be playful and let go of expectations.
A paradox I’ve noticed, as I design this course, is that I am attempting to teach two different art forms at the same time. The first is Lynda Barry’s speciality: cartooning. The second reflects my own developing interest: drawing from life, or realistic drawing.
(None of these cats were drawn from real life.)
Cartooning relies on symbolic representations: what is the essential form (there will be variations, of course) that says CAT or CAR or CASTLE? What says TREE? It always surprised me how easily my children, from a very young age, could identify a representation of a tree—any representation of any tree—in their picture books. Tree, sun, boy, girl. They could point out any of these forms, and it amazed me, because every tree in real life is a unique tree, every boy a unique boy, every girl a unique girl; and all real things are constantly changing. Not to mention that the real sun in the real sky looks nothing like its symbolic representation.
I finally understand: these symbols, and our ability to recognize them from infancy, are evidence of our brain at work, busily categorizing and simplifying, so as to make the world and all of its unique things comprehensible to us.
So that is cartooning. Learning to cartoon is learning how to make use of the symbols that represent things, in ways that are creative and yet easily grasped by the observer/reader.
Drawing from real life is a totally different undertaking: here, we are representing a figure that looks real and three-dimensional despite being nothing more than scratches on a flat page. In order to draw realistically, you have to see the uniqueness of the form you are attempting to recreate. Instead of drawing an eye, you draw the unique lines and shadows that will make an eye seem to appear on the page. In fact, in order to make an eye appear on the page, you can’t think about it being an eye that you are drawing at all. Instead, you have to look past the symbol of EYE and let yourself see purely in shapes and lines. Further, the eye you reproduce will be a very particular eye, a recognizably individual eye. It is a mind-boggling and mind-blowing experience to discover one’s capacity to see (and reproduce) shapes and lines rather than symbols. (If you already know how to draw from real life, this will come as no big revelation at all; but to those of us who believed we couldn’t draw, it is a positively exhilarating discovery.)
Now, the question is: will learning two paradoxically different art forms at the same time help or hinder our exploration of creativity? (An irrelevant question at present, as the experiment is in motion.)
Ultimately, the coursework is aimed toward creating a short book that combines text and illustration, and my sense is that some of us will choose cartooning for our final project, while others may choose more realistic drawing: our individual styles will emerge. That’s the hope.
Put aside your potty brain, in case that’s where your mind has gone (mine did; I blame Trump, and I think that’s fair).
This post is about a different kind of flow.
As I continue to work on the curriculum for my creativity course, I’m reflecting on what this course is attempting to do. A creativity course is not a creative writing course or a drawing course, but something rather different that would use both of these forms as tools. I first conceived of the idea of designing a creativity course when I was asked to speak to a local writers’ group about time management. I’d prepared a tidy little 10-point lecture on subjects like organization, scheduling, efficiencies, with practical tips on each. But one point, a very important point, seemed to stump everyone, including me.
“Don’t procrastinate,” I said. “Get into the flow and just go.”
“But how can I do that?” one woman asked, genuine agony in her tone. “I can’t seem to get myself to sit down and just get to work.” The others agreed. Invisible barriers seemed to be invisibly stealing their time, distracting them from what they firmly believed they wanted to be doing—which, in this context, was to write.
How to get into the flow? I was unable to answer their question adequately, even though I seem able to get into the flow myself, sometimes with ease, though other times not easily at all—why is that? What does it mean to get into the flow? What, exactly, is flowing? Where is this flow located? Can I train myself to go there—wherever there is—at will?
As I continued to think about this question (or series of questions), I became increasingly intrigued by the nature of the flow mindset, by its qualities, which seem almost to be physical as much as mental, and by the similarities in experiences described across creative disciplines.
colouring page by student, Week One
Let’s consider some of these similarities in the flow experience: There is a feeling of immersion inside another world. Time slows, or one’s sense of time vanishes altogether. The smallest details pop—of action, of sensual awareness. Whatever you’ve given your attention to becomes immensely interesting, absorbing. You feel as though you are following an idea, a pattern, an image, a set of chords or musical notes, a line; you are not dragging something behind you, you are alert to what is before you. It commands your attention. You seem able both to anticipate and to be surprised by what you are making. And the feeling that accompanies you after such an experience is a wonderful high, a buoyancy, a delight in the world around you and its possibilities. You cannot explain what you have done, exactly. It is as if what you have done has been something you experienced as happening rather than made to happen. You reliquinshed control. You are yourself amazed and charmed by what you have done.
Athletes experience this during games; musicians experience this in performances (and in practice); writers experience this as they write; and artists as they create.
The experience is a gift. But it must be said that it’s also the result of discipline. You can’t improvise on a theme without knowing how to play your instrument, without practicing to create a foundation to ground you.
All of this I know.
But is it possible to teach this?
colouring page by student, Week One
This course is my attempt to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
How do I do what I want to do, which is to create? What if the barriers to creativity are built into our brain structure? How can we convince the left side of our brain to cede control to the right side? How do we see with eyes that recognize the uniqueness of every grain of sand, every line, every shadow, every eyelash? It can feel overwhelming to the left brain. It can feel scary, because we are letting go, we are letting ourselves be flooded with sensory material, because we are leaving ourselves behind, in a way, in order to be immersed in a different experience, and because we are seeing differently, in ways that defy assumptions our left brain relies on to keep our world organized and our brain operating efficiently.
my own colouring page, Week One
You may be changed by opening yourself to the flow. Your left brain knows this, and it’s afraid. What does it feel like to let go and be led? When is the last time you did this? How to create trust in this process, to bring us all to a different place, or way of being, so that at the end of a 12-week course, we will be able to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
Most of the time, I am not afraid to step into the flow. I make time for it, and when I do, when I’m there in the flow, I am perhaps the most content and at peace with my life that I could ever hope to be. I know the delight it brings me. I know I can’t get stuck there, and in fact that I am lucky to be there, in those moments. I know, too, it’s always there, waiting for me to return.
So. This is my starting place. I’m excited to see whether this is something I can share with others.
If you’re following along at home, here is one version of my course outline for week one.
One of the exercises is to memorize and illustrate a poem.
This is my daughter’s version.
I think it’s insanely beautiful.
We drew from pictures we’d clipped from the newspaper and magazines. This is my version. I started with a cartoon, but switched to realistic drawing after the first panel.
This is the second time I’ve done this exercise. Here is my first version of the same poem, illustrated.
I think the exercise could be completed in a number of different ways. It could even be done without doing any drawing whatsoever: the text could be illuminated with interesting lettering, or by changing the shape on the page.
The poem is “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty,” by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks, if you want to look it up.
PS The tiny print at the bottom of the Record/Collect section of the course outline includes the instructions to collect graphic novels and comics you admire, i.e. Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki; and Jane, the Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabella Arsenault. I will keep adding to this list. Do you have any favourites?
Happy New Year!
I am gathering materials for my experimental 12-week creativity course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, which could also be called a writing & drawing course, a cartooning course, or a graphic novel course; it encompasses aspects of all of the above.
Here are the materials I’ve gathered:
*Books: Lynda Barry’s What It Is, and Syllabus. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. (I’m still waiting on the arrival of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, by Ivan Brunetti.)
*Materials: 48 Crayola crayons; 12 Primsacolor pencil crayons; Uniball vision pens, fine; Black flair pens; a non-photo blue pencil; pencil sharpener; travel watercolour set with fine brush, brand name Winsor & Newton; India ink; Elmer’s glue and a glue stick; scissors; a box cutter; 1-inch Chinese brush; nylon brush; cork-back 12-inch ruler; a Staedtler pencil set. (Note: most everything on this list was a Christmas gift from my family, and mainly from my husband, with help from the woman at the art store on our corner.)
*Paper materials: compositions books; index cards; copier paper; watercolour paper; blank sketchbook; scraps of different kinds of paper saved from a variety of sources.
I’m going to test out Week One of my course curriculum tomorrow, possibly with the participation of a child, who has expressed interest in joining in. I’m aiming for three hours of dedicated “classroom” work each week, for twelve weeks, plus smaller homework assignments.
This wall of colouring pages, which includes work by friends from last night’s New Year’s Eve party (yo, I know how to throw a rocking party….!), is just the beginning.