“The worst thing I can do when I’m stuck is to start thinking and stop moving my hands.” – Lynda Barry, author of Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book
This past March Break, I had the privilege of teaching a creative writing workshop for tweens and teens at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. The place was buzzing when I arrived – students and staff ready to dive into a day of creativity and art. My group was filled with keen, young writers bursting with energy and ideas. They happily spent much of their time scribbling character sketches, flash fiction, and ghost stories. After lunch, they broke off into pairs to “interview” each other’s characters. Every student then shared a reading or two of their work with the entire group, to cheers, applause, and well-thought feedback.
As the end of the day approached, I realized that we had a thirty minute block of time that had been allotted for “clean up.” They’d been a tidy group (even during our epic round of hot-potato word association) and we hadn’t made anywhere close to thirty minutes of mess to clear away. What to do?
My husband, Ian was downstairs teaching a “how to make your own art bot” class. (Yes, I know…my husband is amazingly cool.) During our lunch break, I’d noticed that he’d stretched out several long pieces of paper from a roll of newsprint on to the studio floor. This was so his students could let their bots roam across the paper, leaving behind a trail of art.
In a panic to fill my last chunk of time, I sent my trusty camp staffer, Rebecca down to Ian’s studio to ask for enough paper to stretch across the conference table my students were using.Rebecca soon returned, paper in hand, and we spread it down the length of the table. My idea was that the students would write a story together, each one contributing a few sentences along the way. (While this exercise is as old as the hills, I’d never tried having students write a collaborative story on a single, large sheet of paper.)
After handing the first student a picture to use as a writing prompt, I waited (along with the rest of the group) for her to write the first three sentences of the tale. It was then I felt I’d made a terrible mistake. A voice in my head scolded, “What were you thinking? What do you expect the other students to DO while they wait? This is like watching paint dry.”
Although I was sure I’d botched things up, I decided there wasn’t enough time to try anything else. I’d have to stick with it. Then, after the first student read her sentences to the group, something pretty darned magical happened. In addition to the punchy, hilarious, end-of-the-day phrases and ideas that came bubbling forth…there were pictures forming as well, right there on the paper. The students had, to a one, started doodling – filling in the gaps of their imagination and their story with art.
By the time I figured out the importance of what had just happened, it was time to go home. (Thanks to Chris O’Neill for snapping the above picture that captured part of the process.) How I wish I’d taken close-up pictures of what they created in that short amount of time, but I didn’t. (Some of the students even asked if they could tear their doodles and words from the sheet and take them home.)
I wish I’d realized what this exercise could become long before I tried it. I wish I’d given them all the things I keep in a basket next to my writing desk…coloured markers and pencils; old magazines, scissors and glue sticks; a box or two of watercolour paints. Because when I stop and think about it, I know I couldn’t write without them.
“Doodling has a profound impact on the way we can process information and the way we can solve problems.” – Sunni Brown from her TED talk: Doodlers, unite!
If you’ve never seen Sunni Brown’s 5 minute and 51 second talk on the value of doodling, you really should watch it. (If you’ve already seen it, well, maybe watch it again. 😉
People, places and cool stuff mentioned in this post: The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, Mr. Ian McKay’s amazing Art Bots, the incredible Lynda Barry, and the wise Sunni Brown.