Another View - Sketching to scribbling: what I learned about writing from drawing class

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Before I came to Eureka Springs, the only thing I knew how to draw was money out of my ATM. So, when Barbara Kennedy offered her drawing classes for a reasonable $18 for 90 minutes (www.BarbaraKennedyStudio.com), I thought I'd take a new muse out for a test drive.

Drawing classes, I thought, might give me an emotional break from the sorrowful book I am writing about my work with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Despite Kennedy's supportive and inspired tutoring, however, I can't claim I'm Ms. Picasso, but I did get interesting insights into improving my writing.

"Of course," responded Kennedy when I told her my discoveries. "It's all the creative process."

Here are the top 10 lessons about writing I drew from drawing lessons:

1. "Practice looking and seeing," Kennedy told our cheery group of seven the first Saturday morning. As obvious as that sounds, observing -- and noting those observations -- is a learned art. A writing mentor once suggested that during every interview I jot a few lines to correspond with each of the seven senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, temperature and texture). In her first exercise, Kennedy taught us to look at a flower pot from all senses.

2. "Give up perfection," Kennedy told those of us reluctant to start sketching. Yeah, right! But I know from my own writing she's right. There are times when it's nearly impossible to move to Sentence Two when the first words aren't singing. It takes cajones and faith to keep going, trusting the melody will emerge. I finally committed my pencil to paper and eventually others in the class actually recognized leaves.

3. "Notice interactions," Kennedy instructed as she outlined the "negative spaces" of a stool she wanted us to draw -- except we weren't supposed to draw the actual stool, just the spaces between, the angular rectangles made by the seat and legs. I was forced to notice the relation of the spaces to each other, much the same way I attempt to relate seemingly unrelated scenes to each other in a chapter. Transitions are my Achilles' heel.

This was my toughest exercise. The idea was to "create" the object without actually drawing it, to create it by fleshing out its surroundings, by insinuating its relation to its surroundings. As a journalist, I describe what I perceive and leave little interpretation to my reader. Here, I was challenged to learn a new way to define the object of my scene by describing her surroundings and relationship to it.

4. "Incorporate your mistakes." Kennedy discouraged using erasers, which intimidated me until I realized that I write the way she was encouraging us to draw. "Mistakes" are just unintended ideas. While I don't save old chapter drafts, I do paste my deletions into a "pull-outs" page for potential future use. OK, pencil to paper!

5. "Draw from different angles" one lesson taught us, as I struggled to sketch a potted plant from another point of view. I once rewrote one of my essays from my Iraqi subject's point of view, as an exercise solely for my consumption, to attempt to more fully describe my reactions to him.

6. "Look at shapes the shadows make." Drawing the blanket Kennedy had draped over her stool was the toughest thing I tried to sketch. "Objects take shape through shadows," Kennedy peered at my hard-penciled outline. Blankets are defined by their drape and require the subtleties of shaded shadows, shapes and patterns. But I'm too literal as a journalist and wouldn't know subtlety if I stumbled over it and it bought me a vodka martini at the Grand Hotel.

7. "Notice how empty spots on the canvass detract from the subject matter" Kennedy said while I stifled a snicker. Just that afternoon, I had presented a chapter to several members of Eureka's Zona Rosa writing group and we agreed there were parts of my thorny chapter that were just plain boring. "Bathroom breaks" I dubbed them -- places where, if they were a movie, everyone would beeline for the bathroom.

8. "Don't be afraid of contrast -- of darks and lights" Kennedy suggested in one of my favorite lessons. For me, good writing does not shy from conflict; it revels in conflict's description and resolution.

9. "Sketch the big picture then go back and fill in details." Ah, the sage words from an artist who's never slaved over an outline for an unwritten book. But, there's a reason why outlines work! They do provide the "big picture" and an opportunity to create proportion -- plus a chance to make sure it all fits on the page.

10. "Don't be afraid of your paper and pencil. Just start!" Kennedy chuckled at my first-day frown. "You look mad at your paper, Kelly." Since being mad at my paper had never gotten me far, I trusted that the muse of the moment would see me through. I now have a disproportional sketch of what one friend calls my "Sarah Palin" eyeglasses, a rather Seussian sketch of some flower-from-a-catalog and a melting Munch outline of my coffee cup.

But I do leave Eureka Springs with a stronger sense of my creative process and a fearlessness to tackle sketching fruit.

[Editor's note: Kelly Hayes-Raitt has spent the past three months in Eureka Springs as the Gorrell-Nelson Travel Writing Fellow at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow. She leaves Eureka Dec. 10, heading south to the diamond mine, to two former Japanese internment camps in southeastern Arkansas, and to the spot where Bonnie & Clyde were ambushed along I-10. After a brief sojourn at her home in Los Angeles, she will travel to Ajijic, Mexico, to finish her book. Follow her trail at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org and at www.ScribblersPath.com.]