Doodle Do


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.

pet peeve

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.

Ta Daa!

79 Replies to “Doodle Do”

  1. I envy those of you who can draw. For a children’s book author such as yourself, it’s a huge plus, I think. You can put into an image what the words you write say. That’s pretty cool.

    1. Thanks, my friend. Drawing is an asset, that’s for sure. But I think anyone, regardless of artistic ability, can use doodles to help flesh out ideas. Or, if not doodles, perhaps collages or clippings. Building a visual reference guide to the world you’re creating can be invaluable.

      1. I can’t even doodle well, but I’ve never considered making a collage as a visual reference for my writing. That’s actually a terrific idea. Could really help with one’s descriptions.

      2. Anything visual can help a story, I think. When I wrote for the stage, I was amazed by how inspired I was by the rehearsal process. Watching the actors interact suggested so many wonderful new ideas. It was exhilarating.

  2. Gosh, the things we forget. I’ve noticed the most brilliant sketches by people stuck on the phone or while thinking through an idea. Good you have both of these going for you especially since you write children’s stories.

  3. OOOHHHH Boy…….your so funny! Each time I visit I giggle at that photo of you, then the name of your blog, and now DOODLES!….LOL….Those doodles are damn good doodles man! You have another “Gift from God”….Great Post! God Bless, *Catherine* 🙂

    1. Thanks, Catherine! I’m glad I can give you a chuckle or three!

      I have a lot of other doodles floating around this blog, so stay awhile and make yourself at home. How do you take your coffee? Can I interest you in a scone?

  4. I wish my doodles looked half as good as yours! I was about the only member of the family who got skipped over with the ‘artist gene’. My mom, my sister, and my grandpa (and various cousins) can all draw/paint/etc. Me, I just write.

    If I draw, I usually end up with deformed stick people.

    Unless I try and draw clothes. Because I’ve sewn enough clothes and worked with fabric enough that, for some reason, I can translate that to paper. It definitely lends an extra dimension to fantasy world-building to think about their fashion and how it’s related to their culture. I need to get back in the habit of it.

    1. As I was telling Carrie up there, I don’t think drawing ability is that important. Doodles (or collages, or clippings) are just another way to more fully visualize and understand the world you wish to write about.

  5. I so wish I had your gift. (I can’t draw a stick figure to save my life.) Perhaps your calling is as a writer AND illustrator? And honestly, agents like writer/illustrators much more so than plain old writers. Keep doodling. Who knows where it will take you? Happy Groundhog Day!

  6. I’m enjoying learning these new things about you with each post! You are an excellent doodler, I must say. I think I could get into sketching. I drew my boyfriend sleeping and called it “Greg’s slumber,” and I drew a car parked across the street. But this was circa 1988 — ahahaha!

  7. So THAT’S why you’re so good at drawing. I love it when you said to your mum you wanted to learn how to draw and she’s like you can and you’re like no, REAL drawing – and she got it straight away! I love reading about the history of your gifts, and how you stick things out because you’ve said you would. I’m sure that gritty determination and staying power has been as much a part of your success as your natural creative talent. Now can you bottle and sell THAT please?:-) H xxx

    1. You are one of the sweetest people, Harula! Thank you!

      Ah, gritty determination: I am reminded of General William Sherman’s description of Ulysses S. Grant. He said Grant always wore the expression of a man who was preparing to run headfirst into a brick wall.

      That, I think, sums up the writer’s life beautifully.

  8. I shared a great article about the benefits of doodling on Facebook the other day. It’s awesome! I think we can easily persuade you to get illustrating your own books, imagine what you could say without needing words.

  9. Perhaps you can explain to me the difference between what you do and being an illustrator? I can’t tell the difference.

    So should I tell my son I’m not going to pay for his cartoon drawing classes because I don’t want him to suffer from burn-out by age 18?

    The look on that pig’s face is priceless, by the way. You are such a talented scribbler!

    1. Thanks for the kind words about my doodles, Jilanne! I suppose the difference between doodling and illustrating is in the eye of the beholder, but I would describe my pig sketch as a doodle, because it is quick, rough, cartoony, and pays little-or-no attention to shading, color, perspective, composition and environment.

      But I do get what you’re saying, I’ve seen book illustrations that are even rougher than my pig and his fly. Again, eye of the beholder.

      Before I took studio lessons, I took cartooning classes. I don’t remember learning much — they were more about generating creative ideas rather than developing craft (which was what I was hoping for) — but I did have fun taking them. They also gave me a good excuse to draw more often than usual, which suited me just fine.

      As to your other question: Give your boy all the art/drawing/cartooning classes he wants. And then offer to give him more. Liam has a sharp visual and comedic mind. If he develops his drawing abilities the right way and puts in the necessary drive and effort, he will have the world by the tail. Believe me.

  10. Wait, first I’m still sinking in the great quote about Ulysses S. Grant – that is SO wonderful. It doesn’t describe me in my writing (I wish it did) – I’m too laid back. But I can see those of greatness with that expression – pure determination. Wonder if it can be doodled. Wonder where the expression ‘doodle’ comes from, and I wonder why the heck I don’t have the doodle ability? My doodles are stick figures, or 2 dimensional cubes, or hearts with arrows through them. Same doodles I’ve made since I was NINE. Truly. But here’s a thought, maybe if I doodle my same doodles, I’ll get back to my 9-year-old mind, which was pretty cool back then. Okay, I’ll try. Thanks for the great post!!

    1. Isn’t that a great description of Grant? I got that tidbit from the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War,” which is his best (though I also love Burns’ “Jazz”).

      You’re laid back? Laid back people don’t get up at 5 am. I suspect you have far more drive and determination than you like to let on.

  11. What I always love about your drawings is the personality that shines through, there might be ones that you describe as being not so good compared to others, but I don’t notice because the personalities of the characters is so defined, that is what we see. It really is a talent. Sure you can learn to improve skills, but what you have is proper talent.

    I know you said in a couple of replies to comments up there that you can use doodles to flesh out story ideas even if you’re not very good at doodling, but personally I find frustration in doing something that I can’t do well, even with a purpose like that, so I’m not sure it would work for me, but I will remain open minded and give it a try sometime!

    1. Aw, thanks, Vanessa!

      I can understand how doodling might not work for everyone — especially if the potential doodler is too distracted by his or her lack of drawing ability. What about making collages or compiling Pinterest images to provide visual inspiration?

  12. What an awesome story. Our oldest daughter loves to do art. She loves it so much, that I wonder if I’m not supporting her enough. We have her half finished comic books, stories, “homework,” penguins, pretend computers — you name it — all over the house. Maybe someday she will tire of art. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing until I read your post. … Maybe I should try to sign her up for some art lessons.

  13. You have stupendously lovely parents, Mike. Something tells me you’re the same type of parent yourself.

    I love when you post pictures of your artwork, your personality comes through so clearly in each drawing. And doodling as a way of getting the creative juices going is so cool–you get both parts of the brain going, or something. I’ve been thinking more about how I was when I was 9, to get some inspiration—and what I discovered was that 9-year-old me wasn’t all that different from 46-year-old me. Not because I’m still embracing my inner 9-year-old, but because I think I was already embracing my inner 40-something at a young age. Go figure.

    1. Yep, my parents were (and still are) a good fit for my personality.

      And thank you, Weebles, for your kind words about my doodles. (In the not-too-distant future, I plan to be taking requests from some of my favorite blog commenters, so do keep an eye out, ‘kay?)

      Your self-description is what I would describe as an “old soul.” It is an enviable trait.

  14. I took an art class in high school, and while I can draw things so they actually look like things, I learned two things from the class 1. A lot about the creative process (because the teacher is amazing) and 2. That while I am capable of drawing, I’m not much of a fan of it. Like you, I prefer hanging out with words.
    Recently, I did an art project as a gift to a friend. It turned out better than I expected, and I had fun the first 2/3rds. The last 1/3rd reminded me why I don’t doodle much. I prefer doodling with words.
    Also, I find it hard to draw or write with a dragon on my head.

  15. I would kill to be able to draw…even doodle. Well, not really kill, but you get the point.

    I love the inspiration, multi-tasking aspects, too!

  16. Oh how I love doodling, and the weirder the better! It seems sad, in a way, that you no longer paint but I suppose you are busy doing what you love and just because we are good at something doesn’t mean we are bound to it.

      1. Haha! That would be amazing and probably inappropriate. I am a serial doodler but mine are just weird and barely evolved from the things I came up with as a child.

  17. Doodle do…love it! The only thing I can draw are these psychedelic flowers and that is totally it.

    I thought this life story was really awesome for you to share. About having a natural talent at one thing, but having your passions lie elsewhere, then finding a place down the road where you could join the two together. I connect with that as a lifelong dancer who gave that up about a year ago to pursue writing fully. Yet the importance of rhythm, flow, and visual abilities absolutely comes into play as a writer. And I never forget where these intuitions were born.

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