Drawing Creativity Out

Untitled image by Franz Kafka

Untitled image by Franz Kafka

During my studies, I always found that I learned best in a classroom situation if I kept my hands busy, sketching, doodling, and drawing caricatures or geometric patterns. I was always in trouble for filling my schoolbooks with (not very good) pictures, though I maintain that the practice was an essential part of the learning process, as if I was encoding the teacher’s verbal information in visual patterns that only I would understand. Drawing was a way of ordering information in my mind. Later, when I started writing, I found myself doodling once again. At first I thought its function was merely procrastination, but then I reflected more closely, and realised that drawing has a kind of meditative function that is central to the practice of writing.

When I start a story, I start with fragments: characters, plot arcs, images, settings, moods. In general, these disconnected pieces float around somewhere in the subconscious, bouncing off each other, sometimes finding edges that fit together. Some people might map the thing out, or create some kind of grand schema, but I find the act of drawing equally productive. Something about the act of visual concentration, the slow and meditative mode of creation, seems to allow those fragments to join up below the surface, eventually emerging as a solved jigsaw (or at least one whose edge pieces have been sorted).

One of my character sketches

One of my character sketches

And perhaps there’s something to it. After all, there are many writers in history who have been engaged in the visual arts to some degree or another – from the clip-art style marginalia of Franz Kafka to the (surprisingly) vibrant impressionism of Sylvia Plath.

Perhaps the most complete record of this little known practice is Donald Friedman’s wonderful book, The Writers Brush, which collects hundreds of examples: from D.H. Lawrence’s well-known paintings to Henry Miller’s watercolours; from the unique modernism of the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Kurt Vonnegut’s very collectable screen prints.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Enchanted I.O.U.'s" portfolio

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Enchanted I.O.U.’s” portfolio

The great lesson of The Writers Brush, is that creativity is rarely a beast that can be contained in one channel, or communicated across one medium. If you find yourself struggling to piece together the fragments of a story, try turning your hand to drawing – even if you’re terrible at it. My instinct has always told me that the benefits a writer can derive from the art of doodling have very little correlation to the visual result. This theory is somewhat confirmed by those writers collected in The Writers Brush whose artwork is objectively terrible, but whose writing is nonetheless inspired (Marcel Proust and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I’m looking at you).

So, next time you’re blocked – try doodling. Lose yourself in the totally mechanical process of connecting lines, and you might find, on the other side of the exercise, some unexpected narrative connections emerging too.

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