My sister was always good at drawing, and I was good at writing. So that’s the way it went with us: she studied Graphic Design and I studied English Literature. I would watch her work on her assignments, try to copy her hand writing, and think how clever she was to do such amazing work with ink and paper. I studied art in form 5 (year 11), but left it there.

Instead, I became a doodler. On the phone, sitting and waiting for someone, or having a coffee — if there was a pen and paper, I’d mindlessly create shapes that sometimes turned into something: a tree, a face, an animal. But usually I drew patterns; they were easier because they didn’t have to ‘look like’ anything.

I loved watching my kids begin to draw and paint, moving from simply learning to put colour on a page to creating shapes and colours that held a story.

And, despite my own silent unease about drawing things that looked like something, I was completely happy with encouraging my kids to draw and make whatever they wanted, without constraints. Verisimilitude doesn’t rule. That’s not the point of drawing, I knew.

At a teachers’ night when my son was in grade 3, his fabulous teacher told me that he loved to draw pictures of little characters, almost cartoons, in his notebooks. ‘It’s great that he loves to draw, so I’m encouraging him to draw them at the end of a line, and not in the middle of a sentence,’ she said. Bless her! I imagined him writing along the line, pausing and letting his mind wander, then drawing, probably more easily than putting down words.

He still draws for fun, but also for work as well.

When I finished my PhD, stressed and exhausted with the effort at structure and argument, and so many words, my kids all bought me a rubber duck to keep me company in the long baths they said I deserved to take, a book of cartridge drawing paper and a packet of crayons so that I could let loose and draw. That book still has lots of blank pages.

Nonetheless, the desire to draw hasn’t gone away. When I began researching Book of Colours, I thought it would be great to draw some of the pictures from the illuminated manuscripts I was writing about. Not the illuminations themselves, but the funny little creatures in the margins, or the doodles that the limners created. Here are a few that I drew in the British Library. I was a bit disheartened that they weren’t very good, and when I got home, the writing took over and my doodling stopped.

These faces are developed from the notations on a piece of music in a psalter. I think they’re especially beautiful and not really doodles at all.

I’ve been reading, almost jealously, about writers who doodle. In a piece that I can’t find now, Jen Storer describes how important it is for her to keep drawing, not as part of her work, but because it is play. She says that at night she sits on the couch with pencil and paper, and draws, plays. Play! That’s it. Belinda Broughton is an artist and poet who has a fabulous capacity for play in her work. You can see it her in her blog, and especially in her 30 Days of Drawing:

I’d love to do that. I’m hoping to learn, or allow myself, to draw with no judgement, no purpose but to play, to let loose that young child with the fat paintbrush. No, to be honest, I do have a purpose, but a wide-ranging one: to encourage right brain creativity, which will, I hope, allow my writing to be more easily set free from my thinking, controlling brain. I’ve read that doodling can assist focus and memory, so that doodling during a lecture can help attentiveness. So, perhaps my son’s teacher was very wise in allowing him to doodle while he wrote his sentences.

But I’m out of the habit of playing with ink or pencil, and I’ve lost track of the freedom I once had. I know the answer is Just draw, but when I try that, my old critic scampers in to tell me I’m not doing it right. I’ve been talking about all this with Dan, who loves to have a pen or pencil in his hand, and paper of any kind; his work involves design and drawing, but he still doodle just for fun.

Which brings me to the point of this piece. Recently Dan gave me a book of colourful paint blobs, designed to encourage doodling, because there’s something on the page already; the shapes and colours set loose imagination, free up the pen. In so many ways it’s like writing a first draft, removing the tyranny and terror of the blank page.

And so I’m beginning, trying to give myself space and freedom to play. This is the beginning of an experiment for me, and I’ll post again to update and let you know how I’ve been going. Who knows what will happen?

Do you doodle or draw? Does it help your work or your writing? I’d love to hear more as I set out to play.


Belinda quotes Gunter Grass:

With drawing, I am acutely aware of drawing something on a piece of paper. It is a sensual act, which you cannot say about the act of writing. In fact, I often turn to drawing to recover from writing.

Hhhmm. I agree that there’s a difference between writing and drawing, and I can well imagine that drawing would offer recovery from writing — especially editing!  But I’m not sure that writing can’t be sensual. What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Doodling

  1. Oh what fun that book looks! And your play.
    Re writing being sensual, I think it is based in sensuality, one’s receptiveness to sensual details. These are in the experience of the writer and the reader, even if ‘only’ (lol) imaginary. But personally I don’t find the act of writing very pleasing sensually, (the scratch of the pen, the texture of the paper, let alone padding away on a computer) whereas art materials and tools are often a feast.


    1. Thanks for reading and replying, Belinda.
      The book is great fun, Belinda, and it is helping me loosen up a bit. I’ve yet to let myself play the way that you do, but working on it! I agree with you about the sensuality of a writer’s and reader’s experience, but I also love the act of writing. I love the feel of a good pen on paper, or a pencil. One day hopefully I’ll sit down at the feast like you do. The computer is love / hate for me. I love the way I can so easily change, and therefore play, with words and ideas, but I hate that it’s not me physically touching the words. I’m going to try and write my next novel first draft on paper.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually love writing on paper and, although I have written a few poems on the computer, I find those sort of surprising gifts of weird juxtapositions and unexpected words happen more often when writing by hand. Perhaps I’m deluding myself. Of maybe if I typed with any speed it might be different.


  2. Yes I was so obsessed during studying Art at uni that I stopped painting and started doodling….. loved it as it catches the essence of what you are seeing.

    There can be quite a bit of movement in this sort of Art and the use of symbolism seems heightened .

    Enjoy your doodles !


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