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Sketchbook Practice: Exercises in Observation and Persistence
A few years ago, I found myself struggling to finish things. The fear that all of my sentences were terrible began to invade my mind, like black mold or a leaking radiation. It became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy; my lack of faith in my writing poisoned the writing itself. I’m not sure I’d call it writer’s block, since I never felt the ideas themselves abandon me, but the way in which I tried to express them kept coming out crooked.
My academic advisor in college was a poet by profession. One of the things she tried to instill in us, her students—often in vain—was a regularity of practice. We all knew she woke each day at 4am, went out with her two little dogs to walk through the tall grass of nearby fields under the pre-dawn stars, and then returned to her desk to write.
The message was clear. Before we could hone, we had to gather. A writer needed to be both chef and fisherman. We could work all we wanted to prepare a dish, present it with the best garnishes, all the wrong parts taken out and all the right parts left in and enhanced to make them the most delicious. But unless we also learned to cast our nets out over the waters, no amount of salt or lemon or spices could save us. There would be nothing to serve.
Just after her death two years ago, I wrote briefly for The Paris Review about how she would generously bring her own failed poems into our poetry class, to talk with us about why they hadn’t worked. At the time it was eye-opening to realize that a writer I admired so much could make work that wasn’t already perfect, or at least a few drafts away from being so. Now, I am impressed by how casual she was about her own unpublishable writing, seeing it as simply an inevitable part of the process. They were just the fish you threw back before setting your hook again.
It’s what creativity coaches say over and over: show up, don’t wait for inspiration, let first drafts be bad, get better by seeing things through, etc, etc. I think the “casting of the nets” for my teacher was all that early morning writing, of course, but it was also the walks, and not just because she wrote about them. They were her way of nourishing a creative self.
I don’t do anything as romantic as take walks at dawn through fields every day, but about a year ago I returned to a semi-regular observational drawing practice. I go out into the world with a sketchbook and a pencil and take down some impressions of what I see. Once I get home, I’ll fill in the drawing with watercolor paints.
I don’t know that I’m especially good at either drawing or watercolor. In the past I’ve struggled with both. All my drawings have the bad habit of looking like I have done them, and the watercolors rarely listen and behave in the ways that I want. But the finished result is not the point. All sketchbooks, when every page has been filled in, are beautiful as artifacts of dedication and persistence.
During the stricter quarantines of the past year (the confinements, they’re called in France), when hanging around outside was frowned upon or forbidden and all the parks were closed, I did some watercolor sketches from photos I’d taken for that purpose. It was such a balm to turn off the news, turn on some music or just sit quietly at my desk and let the colors mingle over the page. During the summer months when the parks reopened and the limits on outdoor exercise was lifted, I would go to the Luxembourg Gardens with a small blue sketchbook and my box of paints and put my mind in conversation with the buttered light shining through the rows of chestnut trees. The sketches were unremarkable, or even ugly at times, but when taken all together they managed to capture something, even if it was just my commitment to partake in something good that fed me.
Recently, I’ve started to write more often in this way, too. To put down words without too much fuss made over them (the pencil sketch) and then, before a lot of time has passed, to polish them up as best I can (the watercolors). I make a thing, finish it, then walk away. Over time, like small fish glinting in the nets of the fishermen, something worthwhile begins to accumulate.
(Images from my sketchbooks: chestnut buds in the Tuileries; afternoons in the Luxembourg Gardens. )