Sunday, May 26, 2013

When Life Hands You Lemons, Draw Them

It was almost exactly 38 years ago that my high school art teacher took me out in the hallway and gave me a little blank book to draw and write in. It was hardbound, maybe 200 pages, and I'd never seen a book like that before in my life. 
I'd used diaries (hated, HATED the lines and confining dates in them) and I'd used sketchbooks (loved the textured paper, disliked the spiral binding that always let go of the pages) and I'd used scribble pads (loved the smooth paper and low price, disliked the poor binding that fell apart; I never filled them). I'd never seen a blank book that I could fill however I wanted.
Today these things are everywhere. My favorite brand is Moleskine, but I'll use anything in a pinch, and often make my own.

Though I was immensely grateful, it took me a long time to get up the guts to ruin that book by writing and drawing in it. It helped that she wasn't going to grade or approve my work. I'd had a spotty record of turning in work in art class, just a couple short years earlier.
These days I talk about this wonderful teacher -- and awesome teachers who go beyond what's expected to help the most wretched kids, like me -- in almost every single author presentation I do. 
That's many hundreds, so far. Maybe thousands.

This teacher gave me a way out of the scary, ugly stuff in my head and in my life. She gave me a safe way to vent. She gave me a way to remember the good things for my whole life. And she gave me, ultimately, a career. Ellie McDoodle is my character who records her life in a sketchjournal. 

I still keep a sketchjournal with me almost all of the time. I'm not big on constricting, useless rules, so I don't make myself draw in it every day, and I don't keep it with me in the shower, and I sometimes make mistakes or leave blank pages or write or draw something that isn't my best. Eh, it doesn't matter. The perfectionist in me is muted now that I am over 50. And maybe my collection of about 450 imperfect sketchjournals from over the years will be useful to others someday.

For now, for me, they're a daily reminder of what that first book from Mrs. Elizabeth McCarthy taught me: 
- when life hands you lemons, draw them.
- keep track of both good and bad; someday you'll be glad you did.
- it's okay to make mistakes. Most mistakes are funny, years later.
- keep a sketchjournal. And then take good care of it when it's full.

Here's a sketch from that first sketchjournal, from 1975, in my 16 year old hand. 
I'm pushing my younger brother on the tire swing at a picnic.

Here's a page from one of my recent trips to the Upper Peninsula. That's my husband and me on a Lake Superior beach in Marquette. It's surprising to me that my art is so similar, almost 40 years later.

I tell kids to keep a journal. I think it's the single most important thing they can do to figure out their lives. And who doesn't need that?

I'll share more on great teachers in a future post -- I certainly have been lucky to know very many.
I'll share more from my sketchjournals in future posts, too. But maybe you'd like to see what others do with their Moleskine notebooks. Click here:


Ann Finkelstein said...

I'm not a sketcher, and I'm bad at keeping a written journal, but posts like these make me think I should start.

Anonymous said...

U r the one who write ellie mcdoodle book?

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Hello, anonymous commenter. Yes, I'm the one who writes and illustrates the Ellie McDoodle books. The sixth book in the series comes out in Fall, 2014. :)