by Francesca Rendle-Short
It proceeds, so to speak, methodically unmethodically
Instruction 1. Draw what you see
To draw you drag a pencil across a page. It is so simple. It can be a line, a mark, shading, a smudge, or a trace. Draw as a verb comes from Old English dragan to drag, to draw, and from German tragen “to carry, bear.” It is related to the English draft meaning rough copy, something drawn. To draw, you can use pencil, graphite, pens, or other media such as my favourites: toothpaste, texts, or fingers—even breath.
Here, in this drawing, I used an HB pencil on a sheet of US Letter copy paper. It is a drawing that I did last Fall of a writing workshop on memoir called Close to the Bone that I was facilitating in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The students sat around the table, glowing and entranced, buoyed up, drawing their own nonﬁction drawings of each other. Some drawing for the very ﬁrst time (so they say). All saying they had never done anything quite like this.
Drawing is a common language beyond dialect, idiom, parlance, vernacular, or idiolect. It is like music. It touches us in the same way poetry touches us. It expresses the inexpressible, that which is seen and unseen, ineffable, that about which we dream, that which we long for. To draw is to yearn. Drawing is a form of probing. And the ﬁrst generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place thing and to place oneself (Berger 150).
When we write, we draw. When we draw, we write. Draw what you see. I instruct them.
Draw what is in front of you.
I explain a bit more: don’t draw what you think (imagine, desire) you should see. Not what you think you are thinking you see. Nor what you think a drawing should look like – an imposed interpretation, imitation, a caricature. This is not wish drawing. Draw what you are actually looking at what you are really seeing, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Draw nonﬁction. Positive and negative space. Draw truth – what you see as your perceived truth. Draw an is-drawing, what is there.
Just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness (Roberts).
Draw what you don’t see at ﬁrst glance. Draw in the way you least expected.
Be surprised (from Medieval Latin superprehendere meaning “seize”).
Instruction 2. Try
When you ask writers to draw it is a very different thing than asking visual artists to draw (although I have done this too, and there are surprises – but that’s another story). The doing of it begins as a set of instructions from the verb instruere, from in– “upon, toward” + struere “pile up.” I tell them: I want you to draw each other. You’re to look at the other person, their face, a steady gaze. Study them. You’re not to lift the pen off the page. I want you to draw what you see of their face. What you are really seeing – glimpsing, detecting, noting, recognising.
Draw what you see perhaps from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sequi, “to follow.”
It’s very simple: you just need to keep peering at your neighbour, the person you are drawing, and them at you: not at the page. Take your time. Keep looking at them. Keep trying (from Old French trier “sift”). Keep your pencil on the page and don’t look down at what you are drawing, it will distract and confuse you. Also, try not to over think it.
Openyourselfuptobeingvulnerable, exposed, tonotknowing how things might turn out, to disquiet and doubt, discomfort. It is about giving yourself permission to look, permission to play, permission to fail.
For example, three drawings of me seeing me, me seizing myself in a mirror.
The one positioned to the left is a fast one, a minute long (I have set myself a project of drawing myself each day for the duration of my visit to the States, which is about six weeks or 47 drawings in all). At a glance, at the one on the left, the quick one, there is not a great likeness, it’s not “very good,” it is sketchy – but being good or not – whatever that might be – is not the point. Drawing is. Plotting. Searching. Probing. Inch by half inch across the page – dragging, swimming, ﬂoating. Making music with a mark, a smudge, a scratch. Improvised poetry. It doesn’t matter how it comes out – in the sense of it being right or wrong – although how it does come out is very, very interesting. The point of it is in the doing.
If you write anything you have to risk something. It is the same with drawing, perhaps more so, especially if you are a writer, if you are not known for your drawing. It teaches you about being human, about being humble, unguarded. Taking risk is at the heart of the human experience. Being human is an experiment in uncertainty, like writing.
While it is in progress it is all movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation (Huizinga 9).
Taking a risk is about trying something out. To try that of “attempt to do” from early fourteenth century. Much like the verb assay “to try, endeavor, strive,” like writing this essay. I can always stand still. I can always draw me (or write me – German reißen to drag, sketch, tug). Without scruple, Adorno says, playful and free. Give yourself up. Give yourself permission to do something you’ve never done before. Go on. Give it a burl; give it a ﬂy.
Instruction 3. Go back 47 times (look at your ﬁsh)
It was the great great great grandfather of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, who declared in 1580 in a note to his reader:
Reader, thou hast here an honest book … that means preserve more whole, and more life-like … I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study or artifice: it is myself that I paint (c’est moy que je peins).
Moy que je peins.
So here, like Montaigne, it is me that I draw (je peins), one day at a time, one bathroom mirror by one bathroom mirror, one mark by one pencil mark, one eye by eye. And the result? I draw myself. Draw I/eye. A mirror me, yes, but still a me me … the price of nonﬁction is the humiliation of being found out, being seen (Carlin & Rendle-Short 6).
Here, me me by three.
Once drawn, a drawing allows us to see what has been drawn in a new way. Take John Berger’s irises for example drawn in ink in Bento’s Sketchbook (108,109). Look at them (draw them here with these words): the curl of those leaves, the frill of the edge, the stamen as if they are alive on the page like stubble, like pubic hair. Petals fold into the shape of a silk pocket. Darkness beckons. Once drawn and commanding independent shape and aspect of their own on the page, we conﬁgure them again, write our eye, colour in and make proportion. Make story.
Irises open like books, Berger writes. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture (107).
Or take this drawing of a soda pop can, a drawing an undergraduate student did when a graduate student from my memoir workshop took these drawing instructions back to the writing classroom as a TA. Drawings of soda pop getting smaller and smaller from the ﬁrst taste as the pop disappears and quickly morphs into an empty can through “crests and troughs.” “Knowing an experience and actually experiencing it are vastly different,” he writes (Bernickus).
So to return to those eyes again of mine (the one above now on the far left, the middle one chronologically – “other way this time”): looking at me looking at them looking at them in order to draw them on the page so they can look back at me to tell me something about me drawing them and the passage of time between them being drawn and them being viewed as drawing. What was I thinking? Write – what I was thinking.
Why do I paint my own portrait? asks Michel de Montaigne. I show myself in my entirety: at one view the skeleton, muscles, and veins – here a cough and there a heartbeat, and their elusive effects. It is not my deeds I write – it is I and my essence (Lowenthal 135).
Cough. Beat. Heart.
We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are (Berger 9).
Things in a circle. Us as we.
“Look, look, look,” was Professor Agassiz’s repeated injunction to his student as he studied his ﬁsh.
“Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law” (Schudder).
So when Samuel Scudder really looked at the ﬁsh, this is what happened. His eyes bulged a “huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.” He was reduced to two hands, two eyes, and the ﬁsh. The act of gazing: “conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment.”
“At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the ﬁsh; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.”
Look at your ﬁsh!
It’s taken over a month of drawings or more (c’est moy) to shift in angles, to look the other way, to really draw my face, to see something unseen. Face as ﬁsh.
“A pencil is one of the best of eyes,” Schudder’s professor Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz said, “I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked.”
So here’s the lesson. Keep your specimen wet.
Instruction 4. Draw her face
This drawing exercise I am doing with the nonﬁction writing students in the graduate program is one I did years and years ago in Canberra Australia when I was in a workshop led by Australian writer Robert Dessaix. I can’t remember what the workshop was about exactly, nor who was taking the workshop with me, but I do remember drawing one of the others who must have been sitting next to me, and I remember it was someone I didn’t know, and I remember too that extraordinary feeling of being rushed with adrenaline at being asked to look at a stranger at someone else – really look. It was incredible. A revelation.
Really looking is not what we do, normally, in everyday life, not really looking at other people. We are told it is rude, we know it is rude (we’ve learnt this from a very young age). Ordinarily, we’d be called mad if we were caught gazing. Probing. It’s not polite. And if we must do it, then do it without being caught.
As if reading. By touch.
I let the charcoal held between my thumb and two ﬁngers draw, as if reading by touch some kind of braille (Berger 10).
Drawing is uncomfortable. It is the closest you come to another body (apart from sex and intimacy). There’s tenderness to the movement of graphite over the page, the emerging colour and contour. The likeness. Truthiness. But it hurts too. Sôfte: in the drawing of body. Poetic: not trying to get it right. Dulcie: making allowances, letting it be, letting touch – essaying – trying touch.
– On the left now. Inch by inch.
(And how differently these three drawings look when they are arranged differently across the page – always looking at the relation between – this time chronologically.)
You search touch by touch, writes John Berger (Berger 22). Todrawherfaceistotouch; ourdrawingsaretheresultoftouch. It is the trace of the artist at work, a hand over the page.
To see someone touching is to imagine doing so; and to imagine doing so is to begin to wonder how it might feel to be that person, to inhabit the situation. (Paton 11)
Essaying touch through drawing nonﬁction is about not knowing how to draw, nor pretending you can draw. It is a way of thinking through the experience through the doing of the thing itself, through the practice of touch, of drawing by not thinking you actually know anything, but drawing nonetheless by emptying yourself out, following impulse, instinct. Like writing poetry: like opening ourselves up to the possibility of saying the very things we are “most determined to hide – even from ourselves” (Santos 11).
Mix of feelings. Yes.
I am not allowed to look at the page at what it is I am drawing. Transgressive. Of course.
I have to look at the person in front of me, the person I am drawing, really look.
A lesson in form as well as content and style.
I must commit to the page without any time to think about what I am drawing or what my subject would think of my drawing of them. I just have to keep drawing, keep the pencil moving across the page, keep being honest.
My neighbour’s face as ﬁsh.
Ordinarily it would be frowned upon and you’d be accused of being voyeuristic, socially unacceptable, certifiable even. But here, in this context, being asked to look, to really look.
To draw: dragan, tragen “to carry, bear.”
Instruction 5. Make mistakes
To give up to not knowing, to be uncertain of the name of things: that space is the place where possibility lives and in my mind it shimmers bright as a blue summer sky. (Cunningham 24) The only way to get to know something is to draw it says
John Ruskin. So here I am drawing in my orange ﬁeld book the William Merritt Chase ﬁsh I found in The Art Institute of Chicago. I see how little I saw before. Again.
Will you look at those Merritt Chase ﬁsh all silvers and soft greys and dove tones. The lobster all orange, all contrast to the ﬁsh (was it a lobster, a baby lobster, out of proportion to the ﬁsh). I’m not interested in the lobster; I’m interested in the ﬁsh. (There is no lobster in this ﬁsh drawing.) The ﬁsh exist for me in their absence.
Permission to play. Go out on a limb.
There are three ﬁsh; no, there is one ﬁsh and two small ﬁsh lying across one another. To look and really look. Really see. These ﬁsh: silvers and soft winter greys. Not the lobster. A catalogue of ﬁsh.
Even when you are afraid of failure. Even when you know that you will fail.
And what is a terrible drawing anyway? Is it something that doesn’t look like a drawing, doesn’t look like what we think a drawing should look like? Not looking but seeing; not drawing to draw.
At the second workshop we agreed to do an experiment and instead of drawing and not watching the page, we allowed ourselves to look down as we drew. But it wasn’t the same. Everyone said so. Because. We’d watched ourselves thinking through lines and marks. Our looking concentration was broken. We were working with studium not punctum (that thing that pricks, says Roland Barthes, is accident and bruise). We’d caught ourselves anticipating what a drawing must look like before it was even done. We were drawing fiction – and not was it is in the making – not nonfiction. When we finished, instead of showing off our drawings to each other and later, proudly, sticking them up on the fridge, we all ripped up those pages. We threw them away. They really were horrible. Poor, derivative nonsense. Without spark. Frisson.
Not things in a circle. Not what is present. Not as we are.
I am reading Frank Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God. Then, I get to this: Artists are like creatures who swallow themselves. We process our lives into what we make (384). And this: It’s the mistakes I’m interested in. That’s where you hit the truth button (404).
So here is all praise to swallowing. And making mistakes.
Instruction 6. Try, try, try again
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.
Fail better (Beckett 1).
We are in a memoir workshop, Close to the Bone. We are writing memoir, generating material, ﬁnding voice. We are drawing; we are putting pencil to paper.
- Draw what you’ve been writing
- Draw what you’re not writing about what’s absent, what’s missing, what you are avoiding to
- Start writing
Drawing as a generative writing exercise.
For what it’s worth, this is what they said afterwards, unprompted:
This drawing is revealing things. Helps me think in a different way. It’s nonlinear.
I’m ﬁnding out things that I didn’t know were part of what I was writing.
Instruction 7. Play
My ﬁnal instruction (one last drawing): if in doubt, I say, pretend you are playing. So, I do. For example, as I listen to Eliot Weinberger read his poem The Stars: What Are They? I draw him reading his poem. His words are an encyclopaedic rendition about stars – nails nailed to the sky. An inventory no less. They regulate the prices of ice and ﬁsh. Repetition and pattern. There. There. There. Up there. Up there. They are a kind of celestial cheese churned into light.
There. Up. There.
This drawing of line and word takes me back to the Prairie Lights Bookshop, to watching Weinberger’s brow shift and furrow as he reads, curl and sheen, to thinking about Weinberger’s connection to Australia through Giramondo Press and his collection of essays, Wildlife, and thinking really, what a small world we live in. To musing on the cold glass of water on the lectern. How good it must taste. In the end. To the thunderous serious applause when he ﬁnishes. To play.
Nothing can go wrong with play because it is just that – play. Even making mistakes are the expectations of playing. There is a great sense of surmise and anticipation. It is performance and theatre. It is both writer and reader. Johan Huizinga says it creates order – it is order (10). We can practice our playing by playing. Practice at doing something we have never done before.
It is Huizinga who directs our attention to the value of play (8–10). It is in fact freedom, he writes. Play is “intermezzo.” It is “an interlude” in our lives. Play as a necessity is characterised by being ﬁnite. It is safe to do. It doesn’t have to go on forever. While it is in progress it is all movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation (9). We can make mistakes – in truth it’s better if we DO make mistakes (mesprendre). We become children again. Anything is possible. Nothing vexatious. How could it be otherwise when the verb play comes from Middle Dutch pleien to leap for joy, dance, rejoice, and be glad?
That day we played. That day we drew each other in our nonﬁction class but not in silence. Everyone laughed. All the writers in the room that had never done such a thing (not that there was anybody there that wasn’t a writer), they didn’t consider that they were artists that they drew when they started. They were writers. They wrote. But look here. Here they are drawing. Hooting. Flabbergasted. Here they are so pleased so glad with the results, with the doing, the tragen/dragan – rejoicing, leaping – in marks and smudges and shadings all over the page.
To play. Draw. Also to write. How to essai: “to succumb to happy accidents” (McCrary 71).
The surface of the drawing – its skin, not its image – make me think of how there are moments when a dancer can make your hairs stand on end (Berger 14).
So here we are, dancing. Hairs. On.
Adorno, T.W. 1984 “The Essay as Form,” New German Critique, No. 32 (Spring – Autumn), pp 151– 171.
Barthes, Roland 1981 Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang Beckett, Samuel 1983 Worstward Ho, New York, Grove Press
Berger, John 2011 Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin? New York: Pantheon Books
Bernickus, R 2013 “Pop Can Essay,” via email correspondence with Olivia Dunn and the author
Carlin, David & Francesca Rendle-Short 2013 “Nonﬁction Now: A (Non)Introduction,” in TEXT Special Issue: Nonﬁction Now, eds D Carlin & F Rendle-Short, No. 18, October
Cunningham, Sophie 2012 “Kind of Blue”, Better than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers, ed Don George,
Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications
Huizinga, Johan 1949 Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge
Lowenthal, Marvin (ed.) 1999 “The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne,” New Hampshire: Non Pareil Book, David R. Godine
McCrary, Micah 2013 “This Essay is a Dress”, The Essay Review, Vol 1, Issue 1, Spring
Montaigne, de Michel 1580 “To the Reader,” trans Charles Cotton, from The Essays of Montaigne, Complete, Project Gutenberg, September 2006
Paton, Justin 2001 “The Pitch of Attention,” in J Paton (ed), Anne Noble: States of Grace, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 7-18
Roberts, Jennifer 2013 “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention,” Harvard Magazine, November–December (accessed 23/12/13)
Santos, Sherod 1993 “Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun: Toward a Notion of Poetic Thought,” The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6 (November/December), 9-13
Schaeffer, Frank 2008 Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press
Scudder, Samuel “Look at Your Fish!” http://grammar.about.com/ od/classicessays/a/Look-At-Your-Fish-By-Samuel-H-Scudder. htm (accessed 1/1/2014), ﬁrst published in Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading (April 4, 1874) under the title “In the Laboratory with Agassiz,” by “A Former Pupil”
Francesca Rendle-Short grew up in Brisbane, Australia. She is a novelist, memoirist and essayist, author of the critically acclaimed memoir-cum-novel Bite Your Tongue and the award-winning novel Imago. Recent short memoirs have appeared in Killing the Buddah, The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 (NewSouth) and Just Between Us (Pan Macmillan). Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, online and in exhibitions including Overland, Bumf, Rabbit, Axon: Creative Explorations, Queensland Historical Atlas, Hecate, Verity La, Australian Women’s Book Review, Real Time, Australian Book Review, Art Monthly Australia, Text Journal. Her artwork is in the collection of the State Library of Queensland. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong, is an associate professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, and co-director of the nonfictionLab Research Group and WrICE (Writers Immersion Cultural Exchange). In 2013 she was a writing fellow at the Nonfiction Writing Program in the Department of English at the University of Iowa. She lives in Melbourne. www.francescarendleshort.com