I know it’s going to be a good lesson when the class starts with a groan.
“This is a writing class,” says one of my students, “not a drawing one.”
This is true. It’s an introductory creative writing class. And it’s also true that I’ve just told them today’s lesson is going to focus on drawing, not writing. I can’t blame them for groaning—they’re operating on a fundamental assumptions of classrooms: distinct subjects and disciplines that fit in easily digestible bites. Drawing is not writing, and that’s that. But that’s not how knowledge actually exists. I’ve got to lay some foundation to ensure my students are making the leap with me.
“It’s not about drawing well,” I say. “It’s about stretching new parts of your brain. The part of your brain that draws is different than the part that uses language.”
I want to demonstrate this on a practical level, so I warm them up by having them illustrate their writing space. This is a natural leap from the homework, which asked them to describe their writing process’ physical and embodied elements. When they’re finished drawing, I ask what they honed in on.
“I love writing in Philippe Park,” says the same young woman from earlier, “it’s where I’m happiest. There’s something about the quiet—and I take my dog there, after getting Chik-fil-A, and the sun seems to shine differently there.”
She’s drawn all of this, though she acknowledges she hadn't written about it in her homework. We end up making a list of ideals for writing spaces as a class, all taken from details in students’ shared drawings:
We’re warmed up now, so I write our day’s question on the board: Where does our imagination live? And I point to the schedule: “Teach me.”
Teach Me is an activity they’re well accustomed to at this point. They get in groups for discussion, and afterwards they teach the rest of the class what they learned. But this time, they can’t write any words—they can still talk when they present, but the board’s for drawing only. I break up groups into “Where does” (what's the source of our imagination?), “our imagination” (what is imagination?), and “live?” (how do we communicate imagination?). Throughout discussion, they’re laughing and nodding and, mostly, talking to each other.
Here’s what they create:
The first group talks about pulling insight from nature, from family, from asking questions of and being surprised by the world around us. They draw an exclamation-point sun poking out behind clouds - representation of the ways in which merely looking at the sky invokes creativity (i.e., what does that cloud look like?). One young man always imagines what his beloved grandmother's young life was like, and she's drawn, as well as another's couch where he comes up with his ideas, which he hauled for a mile on his back after his moving truck broke down, and a swimming pool, which is where a third member does her best thinking. Their takeaway: approaching the world with questions can be intimidating (that's a question monster at the bottom), but the surprises you find when doings so kickstart your brain in important ways.
The second talks about the boundlessness of imagination—they end up erasing the lines I’ve drawn on the board to separate the groups—but that the best writers trim imagination and help it grow well. A young woman tells the class that imagination is like a clown; it's fun and entertaining and designed to push you towards experiences you wouldn't expect, but it can be scary depending on your environment (like when you imagine someone following you). One explains it like this: imagination is a portal that you have to leap through in order to become creative. It's intimidating, because you can't see the other side, but knowing where imagination comes from (concrete things, people, places, etc.) allows you to know that you're tethered to reality.
The third talks about writing, dreaming, talking to each other to get imagination flowing and onto the page. Sometimes it's a matter of wakefulness, represented here by a coffee cup. But another student draws imagination's path as a connect-the-dots line: you start in the concrete and the known, and then imagination takes you from one idea to the next, and you'll never know which one is going to end up in a story. A young woman closes by describing the forking paths her imagination takes: often it's not the first, or even second, idea that ends up being the right one for her creative output--it's the fourth or fifth leap from idea to idea that lands best.
Each groups’ presentations brings audible “Aha” moments from the rest of the class—reactions to the connections between ideas and the drawings representing them.
That’s the key to drawing in a writing classroom: it forces students to approach what they know about writing from a completely different angle. They're forced to drop the pretext of their academic voices and determine how best to represent what they know using simplistic images. And when they do, they surprise each other--and themselves--with how articulate they can be about where creativity comes from.