Writing is necessarily solitary, and though I get to meet all kinds of interesting people through teaching creative writing, opportunities to share experiences with, and learn from, other writer-teachers can be hard to come by. So it was exciting to attend my first National Association of Writers in Education conference a couple of weeks back, and to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other professional ‘writers in education’. Over three days of seminars, workshops and presentations we covered subjects ranging from flash fiction for beginner writers, with the hugely enthusiastic Carrie Etter, to storytelling with military veterans.
One of the most surprising sessions for me focused on the benefits of integrating drawing with your writing practice. Though there are plenty of accomplished writer-artists (strangely, the examples that spring to mind are all Scottish: John Byrne, Alasdair Gray, Ian Hamilton Findlay…) I’ve tended to think of drawing and writing as mutually exclusive activities. Drawing is about looking – looking hard – and if I’m working on a piece of writing I’m usually oblivious to the detail of the world around me, because I’m so thoroughly absorbed in the world I’m imagining.
So what was surprising about the activities our experts (Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan from Columbia College Chicago) asked us to try? After some scribbly warm-ups, we made ‘blind mono’ drawings of something or someone in the room – line drawings made without looking at the subject and without lifting pen from paper. And while we drew, we were supposed to think about a piece of writing we were working on. Holding those two activities in my head at the same time was a challenge, and I didn’t feel I managed it very well. But then we turned over our paper and began a ‘blind writing’, working fast and covering up each line of text as soon as we’d written it – and I was amazed at how fluently ideas arrived for a a story that had been stuck for a while at the ‘vague inspiration’ stage.
Philip and Patricia suggested this effect may be to do with a physical openness, a loosening up that transfers itself from the physical process of drawing to the more static, hunched-over business of writing. Perhaps it’s as simple as using movement to shake the ideas loose, in the same way that going for a walk can unstick you creatively. And I’m not sure how it would work with writers who haven’t drawn since school, who might well have negative preconceptions about their ability to draw ‘well’. But – even though I’m quite pleased with my blind mono – this isn’t about drawing well: what I learned was that you have to let go of the idea of making a good picture, to make good writing.