Drawing As A Way To Think Into Writing

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Monday, 8.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

While drawing, I discover what I really want to say. – Dario Fo

When we’re young we draw unselfconsciously, making marks and following our pencils. But somehow we grow out of this – as if real grown up work is different and we have to leave behind childish ways. And in doing that we lose something. But what?

Joyce Armstrong Carroll in her paper “Drawing into meaning: A powerful writing tool” (Carroll, 1992) wonders about this – what’s the power that drawing has and why don’t we use it to make our writing better?

Before we can write something we have to find it – uncover it or discover it. An idea in one’s head is invisible, “ethereal”, it has not been brought into existence. Yet. And few of us can reach into our minds and pull out a perfect sentence that expresses exactly what we mean. Sometimes we have to sneak up on it, pouncing when we’re ready. And that process of sneaking, or quietly slipping through the darkness, is something that writers have done for a long time using drawing.

In her doctoral dissertation Ruth S. Hubbard (Hubbard, 1988) selects her title from E.E. Cummings description of himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.” Austin Kleon, the author of “Show your work”, a book that led to me starting this blog calls himself “A writer who draws”, borrowing from the self-description of Saul Steinberg. It seems like this is something we all know aged six, but only a few remember it later.

Hubbard quotes a child as saying, “If you do the picture first, then you have something in your mind that you could write. If I do the words first, then I don’t know what to draw. But I think words can tell the story better.” There is deep insight in that statement and it’s supported in Carroll’s paper by her observations and (uncontrolled) experiments. People who draw first and then write seem to find quality and depth that they don’t normally show in their work.

Does it matter what kind of drawing you do – does it have to be good or can it be shaky and unsure? Does it have to be art or can it be a doodle? The only way is to try it out. I’ve run a sort of experiment over the last few years without realizing it. After a thousand posts that start with a doodle and then morph into words I can hardly imagine writing any other way. A blank page is too intimidating and perhaps a drawing or even an outline or framework of some kind is actually scaffolding, a mental model that holds ideas that are not yet ready, not yet formed. Or perhaps it’s like a container or a web, something that holds ideas like a gas or dew – for just long enough for the rest of one’s brain to catch up and paint what it sees in words.

This relationship between pictures and words is important – it’s one that people that prefer one or the other would like to cut, to render unnecessary. It’s perhaps more general than that as well, it’s not just about drawing a “picture” but about the process of picturing – the idea that there is a space and a place for marks in addition to concepts trapped in words.

Carroll has a useful list of authors that use drawings to help their writing including

  • E.B. White
  • E.E. Cummings
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • John Dos Passos
  • William Faulkner
  • S.J. Perelman
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • John Updike

Looking at this list, it could do with a bit of decolonising but I’m not sure where to start with that. I might wander around the Internet hoping to stumble on some other examples. We’ll see.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Carroll, J. (1992), “Drawing into meaning: A powerful writing tool”, The English Journal, Vol 80, No. 6, pp 34-38.

Hubbard, R.S. (1988), “Authors of pictures, draughtsmen of words”, Doctoral dissertations

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