For the past year at least, I’ve been struggling with writing. The struggle is against a sense of futility about words that begin in my journal as reflections on my own mind and experiences. Who cares about my son’s bedtime, the trees leafing out along a bus route, the music the metro escalator makes as it howls and sings along its rusted track? My words are outdated vehicles for tired ideas, or so my jerk-brain tells me. I “should” be writing well-researched pieces about student development. Or finely crafted poetry. Or even fiction. But I don’t. Instead, snapshots of this little corner of the world (and my bumbling interactions with it) fill my journal and eventually make their way into my roughly drafted pieces.
To journal is to doodle. This is what I do. The act lacks structure. It meanders. It is satisfied with mediocrity and unconcerned with its lack of purpose.
This narrative turns those snapshots into junk. Why bother writing them when they are so clearly pointless? If I’m going to doodle, I might as well do it properly. So I shifted gears and recently started filling my journal pages with shapes and wriggles instead of words. It’s a way to kill time and feel creative, and honestly, it’s nice to be an amateur at something. No pressure to craft a narrative. No need to be good. The standards stay right down there in the basement where they can’t even nip at my ankles.
Convalescing after a recent knee surgery might have been a perfect opportunity to write. Unfortunately, writing loomed too large, and I lacked the courage to push past the judgments. Drawing was a more soothing distraction. First I explored Zentangles, an obsession of a friend. Their form was too stifling so I tried playing with graded lines, gesture drawing, and sketching objects around my room. The upside-down face of W.E.B. DuBois graces one corner of a page. On another, a single crutch. A chair, a table, a pill bottle.
Now back at work, I kill time on the metro and at meetings drawing . I turns out — much to my surprise — that sketching and doodling are different activities. One is trying to capture what I see, and the other is trying to give shape to something not yet see-able. One is tight, one is loose.
Slipping back and forth between these visual exercises illuminates their dissimilarity. The media may be the same — black ballpoint pen, page, setting, a segment of time — but within these parameters, the activity itself changes depending on form. Undoubtedly entire nations of artists have debated the terms for these approaches. For me, the words are much more familiar as metaphor. Someone sketches a plan, someone draws out a response.
Doodling wanders. Sketching renders.
Within the parameters of setting, time, and media, sketching zeroes my gaze in what is in front of me. It tries to, at least. Rendering the pitcher and glasses on the table here is so different than the symbol of “pitcher and glasses.” Indeed, this is what I want to see:
My untrained mind holds these flat shapes as a sufficient representation. But if a pitcher and glasses are on a table here in front of me, they are as removed from this symbol as map is from place. I actually have to un-see what my vocabulary throws in front of me through the prism of language (look! A pitcher! And glasses!) and instead see only What Is.
This means shifting my gaze to catch light, shape, grades, boundaries. It means noticing texture. On the table here, the the cloth is black, the pitcher silver and sweating with condensation, and the glasses striped with the silvery-white reflections of a dozen bulbs. The objects are much lighter than field, which means their edges cannot be drawn in black pen on a white surface. My ink has to capture absences. I work from the outside in.
The name of the object and its functional purpose are irrelevant. My rendering is inversion. The image must rise from a forced unfamiliarity, from a choice to view this place in front of me as a completely alien terrain.
This inversion also turns the initial assumption inside-out. Is journaling doodling? Or is it sketching?
Is it drawing?
Is it art?
Right at the moment when my doodles are taking up more space than words, I read Holly Wren’s difficult and lovely reflection on her poetry and on the value of what we make, simply because we make it:
It’s not so different from my commitment to laying a beautiful table, using my grandmother’s linens and good silver, even on a Monday night. These acts originate in my commitment, my pact with myself, to pay attention to life—my one and only life—and the little world I inhabit. They also give me pleasure, make me happy, and provide a way to create beauty, through meaningful work, using really basic materials.
– Holly Wren Spaulding, “Worth”
“Pay attention.” This directive blurs the distinction between these forms of art. Yes, journaling is doodling, and it is art if its images rise up from an awake and playful mind. Yes, writing is sketching, and it is art if its slices of the world resolve into focus through a gaze that’s chosen to see.
Attention is the condition that defines an act of creativity. Attention differentiates between junk and treasure, between monotony and energy.
Now I give myself permission to follow my intrigues and let my gaze settle wherever it chooses. My journal is a museum of curiosities. On June 18th, an oval clock-face appears, surrounded by eyes and the filigreed teardrops of falling numbers. This morning’s story is about communication and commitments. This afternoon’s, Against his ear, a song thuds. He knows it but can’t remember the name his father called his mother before he spit her teeth from his grip. Someone erased the story of his second beginning.
The choice then is not to define the act but to position myself in a state of attention. Journals and doodles, works and ink are, as Spaulding notes, “really basic materials.” And they allow me to create small acts of beauty, to do meaningful work.
When I decide to see, the direction of the gaze is irrelevant. Whether I am using line or letter is irrelevant. Any medium will do. Skill will come with practice. Practice begins with presence. All art begins with attention.
Image: Sketch by Paul Heaston at Paul Heaston Art