I’ve been drawing a lot recently. Drawing, not writing. And it freaks me out.
Lots of people like my drawings. That’s cool, I guess. I’m not trying to be modest; actually, I’m bewildered. When I say I’m a writer, not an artist, I’m not saying that I don’t have drawing talent. Apparently I do. I’m saying that drawing was never my plan. My plan has always been writing.
So where the hell are these damn drawings coming from? Why don’t want to write these days? Does this mean something? Am I wrong about who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing?
I come from a father and stepmother who are very intellectual. My father’s whole life and universe are made up of words. When I grew up with him, we were always in conversation: bantering, joking, analyzing, arguing, crafting. The house is filled with books: classic American novels, French novels, dictionaries, nonfiction books about wars and history and trains. My stepmother got her bachelor’s in English Literature and her master’s in Library Science. The job she retired from was perfect for her: she was a reference librarian in the rare books and special collections section of an academic library, designing displays of the materials in the collection, such as notes from a famous novelist who donated all his papers to the library, or photographs and newspaper articles about the 1960s race riots in Rochester. Words, words, words.
My aunt Anni on my mother’s side was an artist. The general sense I got from my father was that she was “never that successful.” But some of her art hangs in my house. It’s beautiful and evocative. I remember that every letter she sent me had faces or other tiny shapes cut out of the top of the paper, little drawings of seagulls or kisses in the text. Creativity poured out of her. When we lived with her in Israel I remember the smell of the turpentine that she used to clean her brushes, still one of my favorite smells. I saw photographs of the stunning costumes she designed for a troupe of stiltwalkers who put on plays.
Recently I have been asking myself, What does successful even mean? I think my father and stepmother view creativity as a means to an end. It produces a product, which can be sold, and if many people want the product or it contributes to the knowledge of the world in some way, you have a success. If you produce many of these products, your career is successful.
By this measure, the last seven years of my life have been… unsuccessful. I have completed the first draft of a memoir, but I find myself unmotivated to edit it further. I have sold and published one essay. I have written a handful of other essays and submitted them to a few places, which have rejected them. And I no longer have a daily writing practice. I even recently started and then abandoned a bullet journal. I seem to be sick of words.
In the last two to three years, I have been taking photographs like mad. I have posted many to Facebook. I’ve created an Instagram account to share a few more. Many of my friends have praised my photographs.
I guess I’m OK with that praise. Photographs are something real and tangible. I capture a way of seeing things, but I can also give big props to the camera. Yes, I’m the one who picks the subject and the angle and the scope and the focus, but nature is the one that staged the scene.
Also, beginning in 2016, continuing in 2018, and ever more recently this year, I’m been drawing. And I’m letting my pen get wilder. I’m learning to let my hand show me the way to go, instead of starting with an idea that I try to ink onto the page. In fact, I notice that my best drawings are the ones that come to me instead of the ones where I am striving for something specific.
I used to write this way, once. I seem to have forgotten how. Writing has become heavy with purpose and intent. I have to make a story out of my childhood and my young motherhood. I have to show people how I escaped the postpartum-whatever-I-experienced so they will know what to do if it happens to them. All that pain I went through has to mean something, and somehow I believe that it won’t redeem itself until it’s captured between the covers of a book that retails between $15 and $25 at your local bookstore.
When I let my pen write what it wants, I journal a lot and bore myself doing it. Or sometimes a fairy tale captures me for a while, but it often feels forced, or I kill the spark by trying to analyze where it’s coming from while I’m writing it. Like the little duck in that children’s book who keeps asking, “Are you my mother?” every time some new kind of writing comes out of my pen, I wonder, “Are you my purpose in life?”
That same part tries to query my drawing. But I can ignore it longer because drawing is much more fun, and the result is prettier. I can lose myself in the shapes and colors until the piece is done… at which point I go back to this existential angst (“Is this my purpose?”) until the next thing I draw. Congratulations! I’ve found an escape that creates more angst to escape from!
Lots of friends have praised my drawings and photographs. They’re not freaked out by the fact that I’m drawing and not writing. They talk about learning to communicate in a different language, and they seem to believe I’ll come back to writing.
Writers are storytellers. Right now I don’t know the end to the story I’m writing, and it’s making me nervous.
I feel like the Warner Brothers coyote, painting a tunnel and a road on a wall and then watching the roadrunner speed down the road and through the tunnel. Or like Harold and the Purple Crayon, drawing the world around me as I need it. Could my hand draw the path while I’m walking on it?
I can’t draw any conclusions yet.