How often do you sit and draw in public? Or sit and write in public? Can you imagine sitting and colouring in a child’s colouring book in public? That was the first task I set for my students this week. Most students completed it. I did too.
And as I sat at my daughter’s violin lesson, crayoning colour onto a rabbit (who was wearing running gear) chasing a rooster (who was not wearing running gear), I kept hoping no one would notice. As soon as someone did, I felt compelled to explain: this is an assignment for blah blah blah. See, actually, I’m not flaky or weird. I’m doing this for a legitimate reason.
Because colouring rabbits and roosters with crayons is not legit all on its own.
Why not? Because I’m not a child.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I grew up, I put away childish things.
I don’t know where that came from — well, I do: 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 11 — but the words just popped into my head, and I want to rebel! I will not put away childish things!
I’m feeling such excitement about making space to make things. I’m feeling excitement because I’m making space! I’m making space for myself, and for others. We’re going to make so many things! We are already making things! I don’t know what these things will be. I don’t know. I’m going to let myself rest in the not knowing.
from Lynda Barry’s What It Is
… To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape!
The two questions Lynda Barry is referring to, in her cartoon, above, are the ones we’re always asking ourselves, the ones that pop into our brains unbidden and stop us from making things: Does this suck or is this good? If it sucks, why bother? If it’s good, what’s it gonna do for me?
You can’t really stop yourself from asking those questions. I mean, the critical brain has its uses. But you can find an answer that will quiet both questions.
The answer is: I don’t know. But I’m doing it anyway.
It’s only week one, but already the work my students are showing me is blowing my mind. I’m seeing in many of them this huge appetite to make things. Like they’ve been waiting for someone to come along and tell them to make things. And these things, these amazing, expressive, funny, sad, wild things are just waiting inside of them to be made.
I’ve never coloured in a public place before, though I often write and draw in public. In order to do this, I claim a built-in excuse: I’m a writer! What a privilege it is to give myself that kind of permission — permission to do these fundamentally embarrassing tasks in public.
Why embarrassing? Because someone might look at what I’m making? A little bit, maybe.
Because no one else is doing it? A little bit, maybe.
Because making things is kind of pretentious, while also being kind of childish? Ah. Yes. That.
At night, our brains dream, constructing metaphors out of images from our daily lives, whether or not we are aware of this activity. And our waking bodies and minds want to do this too — to construct meaning from the material that surrounds us, and that we carry in us. We want also, joyfully and freely, to play. To wonder. To be here and not here. To lose track of time because we’re so occupied by our task.
This is not merely a childish desire, it is a human desire, it propels us and compels us, and sometimes it makes us sick and sad and unhappy, when we bottle it up or it struggles within us, unrecognized.
The desire to make things, to express our creativity, is fundamental. It is human.
On the page with the running rabbit and rooster, I coloured the leaves on the tree green — didn’t even think, just reached for green. Why green? I thought, pressing the crayon into the soft paper, feeling a bit annoyed with myself. Does the grass need to be green, too, and the sky blue? I found pleasure in choosing magenta for the tree’s trunk. But my flowers were yellow. I wanted everything to look pretty. In the end, I wasn’t satisfied with the colours I’d chosen, but I wrote my name at the bottom in purple block letters. A child would turn the page and start colouring another picture.
I’ll do the same. Because I don’t know yet what I’m making. I don’t know, I don’t know. But I’m doing it.
Do you need permission to do this too? If it helps, you can say that I told you to. Make things. Colour in public. Draw your own tiger. You have permission. You always, always have permission.
Title: Finding Footing
Captions: I ran with Heather this morning. It was snowing. The snow was so deep we couldn’t find our footing. We talked about our words of the year: fire and fresh. At home, I put unmelted snow from my hair on Annie’s forehead.
(What I like about this cartoon is the image of the snowflake that appears in each panel. It creates a visual motif that links the pictures with the text. The “on” should be “onto” but when writing in pen, mistakes get made and they’re permanent. So be it.)
The joy of embarking on a new project is the mystery of what its process will unearth. It’s too early into the cartooning project to guess what’s yet to be learned by doing it. What I’ve noticed so far is that already I have a sense of how many words can fit into each panel. Brevity and clarity are paramount. Thematic clarity is valuable, but sometimes a scattered cartoon, written and drawn in haste, can have its charms.
Captions: This particular cartoon is very time-challenged. Things that happened today: Forgot to pick up Angus from work … Tuned out during scripture reading at church … Walked backward into the cold wind with Calvin.
(This cartoon was written and drawn in almost exactly 10 minutes, which I think is the absolute minimum amount of time required.)
Some days I’ve drawn two cartoons, one on a political subject, and the other more personal. For the purposes of keeping the project streamlined, I’m allowing myself to post only one cartoon each day (on Facebook and Twitter); so far, I’ve chosen the personal over the political. The political cartoons have gone into blog posts instead. I don’t feel that I’ve settled on a drawing singular style, yet. I like that. I like the freedom to experiment with both subject matter and style.
Title: Is It Like Climbing A Mountain Of Snow?
Captions: What happens if I don’t feel like drawing? Is it like climbing a mountain of snow to get to campus? Like doing the dishes and vacuuming? If I just show up, just do it, just keep going, it will happen?
(This was the one day so far that I really didn’t feel like cartooning. I’m glad that I did. It’s a good reminder to just show up and do it, even if you don’t feel like it; good advice for life in general, for writing in particular.)
Questions I’m mulling: What makes a good cartoon? What’s too personal, in terms of subject matter? Would these cartoons be of interest only to family and friends? Is it possible to find the universal in the daily? (Of course it is! The question, really, is how?)
Title: Messy House
Caption: “My house is messy,” Asmaa said, and I said, “I won’t look.” But she wanted to show me. On the coffee table, a pan of butter, markings where dough was rolled out. She brought me a plate of baklava. “Too sweet?” “No!” I ate three.
(Most of these cartoons pair random scenes from the day with largely unrelated captions, and I enjoy discovering how these two dissimilar things respond to each other, but for this one, all the scenes drawn come from the story described in the text.)
Something interesting I’ve observed: that cartoons have the capacity to envelope sad, difficult narratives in a way that eases the pain, I think. Something I think about quite a lot is how to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader. I see in cartooning a possible means of tackling challenging subjects in non-traumatizing ways. Cartoons remind me of poems, a bit.
Title: This Day
Captions: This day has almost crushed me, yet it hasn’t been hard, objectively. I felt close to collapse, inside and out. I felt swarmed inside by anxiety that was almost pain. Yet, I did all of the things.
(Here, I think the scenes from the day soften the description of depression/anxiety in the text.)
Things I like about this project: I get to draw everyday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my day, and pay attention to it in a different, unusual, creative way. It’s also an opportunity to invent thematic coherence and narrative out of the raw material of life. Life is raw. We humans, we have a tendency to pattern. Pattern may be illusion, but it is powerful. Pattern brings comfort — order to disorder, shape to chaos, coherence to uncertainty.
Title: Suddenly I Felt That I Understood
Captions: Today, I baked bread and I read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. In it, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson… “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —” Which suddenly I felt that I understood absolutely.
(The drawing of my hands kneading bread dough didn’t really turn out. But now you know what that panel is all about. Kind of looks like two islands separating in the middle of a lake … or, I don’t know; what do you see? I’m trying very hard not to re-do any “mistakes” in the cartoons, but rather to accept them as speaking from or to some secret part of myself I couldn’t otherwise reveal.)
Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
Six small, important takeaways from my winter creativity course…
- Set a timer to get started. Give yourself tasks that can be completed in a set amount of time (7 minutes or 12 minutes or 30 minutes); or, give yourself a set amount of time in which to get started, then reassess when the timer goes (you will almost always want to add more time to the clock). Getting started is the hardest part. And you have to get started over and over, so you’d better figure out a way to trick yourself into beginning anew, repeatedly.
2. Don’t worry about making mistakes. In some of my favourite drawings, I made a big mistake early on but completed the drawing anyway. The mistake became an important part of the drawing, often creating depth that perfection couldn’t have; and making the mistake unconsciously freed me as I completed the work.
3. Mix it up. Even if your larger project is all text, and your expertise is writing, take time to draw if you’re feeling cramped or blocked. (Or sing or dance, etc.) Do/make/create something completely different, seemingly unrelated to what you’re working on. Remind yourself how fun it is just to make something.
4. Do the work even when you’re not feeling inspired. This goes back to item number one: just get started. You have an infinite capacity to surprise yourself.
5. Create routines that support your creativity. Perhaps more importantly, create routines that support your own mental health. Get outside. Meditate. Make time for friends. Volunteer. Help others. Share your enthusiasms. And when it’s time to do the work, do it. Don’t procrastinate. See item number one: set that timer and make something.
6. You can’t know what you’re making while you’re making it. “A writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, knows absolutely nothing.” (to paraphrase Donald Barthelme) Remember this and be comforted, take heart. Your job is not to know what you’re making, or to explain what you’re doing, your job is to make something. See item number one.
This past winter, I developed a 12-week course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus (it’s a book), an idea that came from a chance conversation with the woman who camped next to my friend and me at the Omega Institute in New York last summer; we were all there to take Lynda Barry’s workshop. Our tent was an enormous embarrassing behemoth that towered over her one-person marvel of efficiency. Of course, she’d just hiked the Appalachian Trail. And we’d just driven in from Canada in a Ford Fiesta. Let’s just say, we didn’t exactly bond. But one afternoon, we all found ourselves in the swimming hole together, paddling back and forth through the muddy weedy water, and she mentioned that she taught Syllabus as a course (and that she was an English professor). I wondered how, exactly, she taught Syllabus as a course. But we didn’t paddle long enough for me to ask.
At some point, over the fall, I decided to try to figure out how I would teach Lynda Barry’s Syllabus as a course. The result was a 12-week creativity course, which I ran over the winter with a handful of dedicated volunteers, who answered the call-out on my blog, and who stuck with it. And let me tell you, sticking with it was a lot of work. I designed the course to fit within the parameters of a 12-week university term, which would include approximately three hours of in-class time per week, plus homework. All work was done by hand, writing and drawing, in notebooks. My volunteer students did not live nearby, so we couldn’t recreate the energy that would be found within a classroom; nevertheless, they did the work. They sent me samples of their work every week, and at the end of the course created a final project: a short book that combined drawings and text. I can’t express how much joy this brought me.
Of course, I did all the work, too. (To tell the truth, I wanted to invent the course so I could take it!)
Reflecting on its effect, I’ve stumbled upon several unexpected discoveries and insights.
So, here are two BIG THINGS I discovered through my creativity course.
One. External motivation bolsters internal motivation. Inventing for myself a tougher-than-strictly-necessary challenge allowed me to achieve what I set out to accomplish. I must stress that I did this instinctively, not deliberately. In other words, I made the task harder than it needed to be, by increasing the stakes: I involved other people. This had the effect of keeping me on track. Even during weeks that were stress-filled and busy, I continued to create course curriculum and to do the work, because my students were out there, doing it along with me.
What I learned is that a certain level of stress and challenge makes a task more meaningful, and therefore more achievable. We probably all have different thresholds for what would constitute a useful amount of stress, but my takeaway is that I must turn toward challenge and difficulty, rather than away from it.
I also re-discovered the value of creating an external reason for doing something, a goal, an excuse, even if the reason is an invention of your own making. It’s why runners sign up for races—the goal keeps them honest (and keeps their loved ones from questioning why the heck they’re spending a beautiful Saturday morning running 28 kilometres). We need tangible goals, and it helps for these goals to be connected to timelines and deadlines. A goal gives us permission we wouldn’t give to ourselves: Without the invented excuse of the course, for example, I wouldn’t have had the guts to sit in a public place sketching strangers. But the goal is also there to be completed, an accomplishment at the end of all that effort: without the course, I also wouldn’t have made the rough draft of a short graphic novel.
Two. Broadly speaking, creation has two different stages. Both are valuable and necessary. And both require different kinds of time.
The first stage is gathering. The second stage is synthesis.
At the gathering stage, you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re making things, but you don’t know how they’ll fit together; they may not seem to fit together at all, in fact. If you can let yourself relax and enjoy this stage, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. You have to give yourself permission to make what you’re making without judging its ultimate point or purpose. You’re making it because it’s an adventure. You have no idea what’s going to bubble to the surface and emerge, and you’re constantly surprising yourself. This work takes up a the bulk of the creativity course.
The wonderful discovery is that this work can be done in bits and pieces, spread out over the hours of your week. All winter, I got up early and wrote from 6:30-7:30AM, for example, never getting to finish what I’d started, and simply picking up where I’d left off when I returned the next day. It’s comforting to know that a great deal of work can be done in this way—that it can fit into lives that are otherwise occupied.
Synthesis is a totally different stage. Synthesis is when you weave your material together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. Synthesis requires an intensive span of uninterrupted time. It is much more difficult (I would say impossible) to do in fits and starts. You also need the capacity to be ruthless and focused. During this stage, you analyze your gathered material for a theme, or repeated images, and you build a coherent narrative around your theme and images. You enter the synthesis stage with an open mind. Your focus is structural. During this stage, you become inventive in terms of fitting disparate pieces together. You also throw out a lot of excellent material because it just doesn’t fit the larger purpose. This is less painful than you imagine it will be in advance because the larger purpose takes precedence. And also because you know the rest of your gathered material may be used for purposes and projects you haven’t yet imagined.
At the synthesis stage, you’re making something bigger, something that will ultimately feel complete (and also, inevitably, imperfect).
In practical terms, you need concentrated time at this stage: a writing week, I would call it. But the good news is, your material can wait for you to make this time.
The other good news is that once you’ve got your structure firmly imagined, you can return to creating the missing pieces using the same strategies you used during the gathering stage.
Here’s my takeaway, and it’s big. When we’re approaching a project, large or small, too often we expect ourselves to start with synthesis: with the big idea, the overview, the unifying theme, the purpose. We start here, even though we have only the vaguest notion of what we might find in our explorations. It actually makes no sense: our ideas haven’t yet been gathered—how could we synthesize them? The pressure can feel crushing. And nothing destroys creativity faster than pressure (and expectation).
What if we gave ourselves permission to start with the gathering? What if we let our ideas accumulate slowly over a long period of time? What if we let the story—the bigger project—find us, lead us, guide us, rather than trying to control and determine it by force? What if we found joy in the process of creation? What if the process was truly joyful, surprising, adventurous, kind of amazingly awesome, in fact?
So that’s a summary of how I spent my winter. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discoveries I’ve made through my creativity course have been huge, even life-changing. My gratitude goes out to that fellow camper in her hyper-efficient tent, for sparking the original idea. But most of all, my gratitude goes out to those adventurous volunteers who did the work along with me, and kept me honest. I can’t thank you enough.