I've been teaching myself to draw. It seemed a nice way to spend my convalescence (nothing scary, don't worry), sitting in bed with the sun and the birdsong coming in through the open window and Quentin Blake and John Cassidy's Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered on my duveted lap. The book's very funny, very encouraging, very clever about how it gives you rock-bottom basic technique, and gets to the heart of the matter. And it's also being extremely salutary, because for the first time in a long time I'm trying to do something at which I'm a total beginner. Indeed, by almost all the measures you care to apply, I am Very Bad at drawing. I don't lack visual skills in the broader sense (my proudest qualification is my A Grade in A Level Photography, and I also have one in Art History), and I'm a good observer, and a better one since I started wanting to write what I see in my mind's or my bodily eye so that others can see it too. So why am I completely incapable of putting non-verbal marks on a page so they do the same? What neural channels are so blocked that my ducks don't just look wonky, they look like scribbles? Why does eye-mind-hand work about as well in me as I contemplate a teacup or imagine a tree, as it does in my two-year-old nephew?
I don't know. But I do realise the following things which I'll hope to keep with me when my self-ban from writing and doctor-imposed ban from driving and lifting ends in a couple of weeks:
This must be what a lot of real beginner-writers feel. There's stuff in their head or before their eyes which they yearn/burn to get down on paper. And when they try? It reads like scribbling. Awkward, ugly, incompetent, even incomprehensible. The one writerly skill I've always had is the capacity to bend words to my purpose (I just had to learn everything else about writing fiction). So I've never really had the feeling that the words in my hands won't do what my mind wants them to. Now by analogy I know how it feels, and as a teacher that's a lesson worth its weight in red biros.
It's lovely to do something creative which lasts a bit longer than making and eating a cake, is quicker than making a dress, doesn't need the rest of a cast or a piano accompanist, and doesn't involve a computer. Interestingly, virtually all my writer friends also have a second-string creative hobby. More seriously, it's a joy that there's absolutely nothing riding on this new hobby of mine. Once you start trying to earn your living by creative work, for good and ill your whole relationship to it changes, and what the world thinks of it matters too. My drawing doesn't matter in the least, it just satisfies me. Hurray!
Because there's nothing riding on it, and because any individual drawing doesn't take long, it's got easier to accept the contingent nature of the process. The book comes with artist-quality drawing pen and two water colour pencils, but it doesn't come with a rubber (US=eraser). First few lines are clearly wrong? Abandon them and move on. Happy accident of pencil turns your witch from scary to funny? Take the credit. It's all practising, all just eye-mind-hand. Wimbledon starts tomorrow, and I've realised that an artist with a sketchbook is like a solitary player with a basket of tennis balls hitting serve after serve after serve. Some work, some don't, and in a way that's not the point: it's the feedback of eye-mind-hand-mind-eye-mind-hand that matters. Same for us writers with our notebooks. Not everything we write has to be part of The Novel.
Having to draw something in front of you makes you really look at it. That's part of my reason for learning: I want something I can do when travelling that helps me inhabit a place but in a more sedentary and less strenuously technical (and these days less suspect) way than photography. Yes, I do have a fantasy of sitting at a café table with a glass of beer, sketching castle walls and gothic tracery. But, more to the point, it makes you think hard about what's important about what you're looking at, what needs detail, what needs definition, what needs an impression or a squiggle, and what doesn't matter at all. And oh the bliss of being able to just leave out the damn telephone wires and traffic notices!
Having to draw something from your imagination makes you really imagine it. One thing that most beginner writers have to learn is not to generalise, because generalisations don't live and breathe for the reader. When the character approaches the door of the castle are the planks thick or flimsy, solid or mouldy, painted red or sun-bleached? Is it what they expected or does it make them hesitate (character-in-action)? How does the latch feel under their hand: rough? rusty? heavy? well-oiled? And so on. New writers can find it incredibly difficult to find and keep up that level of imaginative attention: these days it's second nature to me in writing, but still hard in drawing.
But Blake and Cassidy have shown me that there's a fundamental difference between the two kinds of drawing/writing, which I'd never really thought about before. In drawing/writing from your imagination the difficulty is to create enough detail, but the aspect of it which is necessary to the story - that the door is already open, that the lock screeches like a banshee - will probably be the thing which occurs to you first. Whereas in drawing/writing things which are in front of you there's a problem of too much information. It 'feels a bit like trying to catch a waterfall in a cup,' they say: how do you chose and then catch the drops which matter? We all know the kind of passage in a book which goes into tons of detail. Sometimes there are clues or time-bombs buried in the housing estate's concrete walkways and squabbling children, themes woven through the beloved's hair, but sometimes such passages seem to have no real narrative purpose and therefore no real narrative drive.
In other words, this simple difference is also the difference between 'write what you know' and 'write what you want and make me believe you know it'. They're fundamentally different mental processes: one isn't just an extension of the other. In fiction, we're in the latter territory, or we should be. I think it'll be a while before I can sit in my study and draw a picture which makes you believe I was sitting at a café table in the South of France, but that's okay. It doesn't matter, after all. Bliss.