When I was nine I decided to have a heart-to-heart conversation with my mother.
“I want to know how to draw,” I told her.
“You can draw. You draw all the time,” she replied.
“No. I want to know how to really draw,” I said. And Mom understood.
What I had been doing up to this point was filling one sketchbook after another with silly doodles – and, well, I was sick of it. My age was almost in the double digits. It was time to move to the next level. So I wanted Mom’s help (and Mom’s money) to become a real artist and create real things that looked really real.
Mom was very supportive of such things. She signed me up for lessons and, for the next eight years, I created some nice stuff. By the time I was 18, I was skilled in charcoal, watercolor, colored pencil, and oil – and was contemplating a career as a graphic designer. I assembled a portfolio good enough to get accepted into a design program at an excellent college.
Shortly after I unpacked my stuff in the freshman dorm, however, I discovered that I was sick of art. I’m not sure why this epiphany happened right after I paid my tuition bill, but it did; my new passion for playwriting had smothered the visual arts part of my brain.
I am a “finish what you start” kinda guy. That is to say, I am the kinda guy who understands that virtually nobody can earn a living as a playwright. I needed a fallback career, so I continued to stumble down the design path. I sleepwalked through my classes, rushed my studio projects, and hoped the professors would be in a generous enough mood to give me a low B. OK, a C was fine, too. Whatever. As long as I had time to write.
After I graduated, I worked as a designer for four years and life was very much the way it was when I was in college: My interest in design was half-hearted and my interest in playwriting nearly obsessive.
I got fired a lot.
Eventually I left design behind for good and found ways to write full time. What a relief that was. No more visual art. Occasionally, a family member (Dad) would ask why I don’t paint anymore.
“You were so good!” he’d say. Then he’d lead me to a wall. “Come here. Look at this painting you did. Isn’t it great?”
“You’re asking me to brag about my own stuff?” I’d ask.
“You should brag. Look at it!”
“Art no longer interests me,” I explained.
That, I discovered, was only half true. No, I have not touched watercolor paper or a canvas since college, but ever since I started writing for children, my zeal for doodling has returned with a vengeance. Thank goodness for that; I found that doodling can be an important tool for the children’s book writer.
Doodling is great way to take a break from a story without really taking a break from a story. When I’m stuck or need a little motivation, I’ll often turn away from the computer and draw a character or a scene from the story I’m trying to tell. This helps me keep my mind on the task at hand. But since I’m exercising a different part of my brain, it’s refreshing, too. I’m working and taking a break at the same time. That’s multitasking!
I also recently noticed that doodling is a great way to generate new ideas – which turned out to be invaluable last November when I participated in my first Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo). Without giving too much thought to what I was doing, I filled up one sketchbook after another with weird characters and situations. Many of the drawings were just plain awful, but they suggested stories I never would’ve come up with had I relied solely on putting words on a page.
To put it another way, I found inspiration by becoming nine again.