Just the Right Number of Mistakes
or, how a writer turned to graphic novel production and learned to draw a perfect circle in one easy step
I was supposed to be a writer. I was supposed to get out of school and work a desk job for a year or two so I could say I did the desk job thing once and then I was supposed to go back to school and publish a bunch of short stories that would effectively silence the debate over the existence of an imaginary line between “genre” and “literature” and then the novels and the interviews and then the money and the fame and the autographs and then the tragic death at the age of 104 and the long life after death down through all the following generations down through the words I’d left behind and the being the inspiration where once I’d been the inspired.
The circle of life.
I certainly wasn’t supposed to be a designer. Didn’t even know there was such a thing until I got that first job and started working for a graphic designer in an off-shoot office of a giant science-and-technology-related company, and I’m sorry I’ve never been able to find the way to properly thank her for putting up with me as I figured out that life wasn’t going to be all sunshine, roses, and yellow brick roads to fame and fortune, all while opening my eyes to the fundamental importance of good typography and layout and color.
The circle becomes a squiggle.
You can draw. You know how to draw. You do. You, yes, you, who were once me, you who say, all the time, to friends and strangers, “I can’t draw, I don’t know how to draw,” the fact is, the living breathing biological bloody categorical fact is, you do know how, you do. You were born for this. You pick up the pencil or the pen or the marker or the crayon or the burnt bit of branch at the end of your smores stick or the near-empty tube of deep red lipstick and you put the dark bit or the light bit or the wet bit down on the paper or the board or the walls of your kitchen or the back of your geometry text book or your lover’s back and you make some marks. You’re drawing. You know how to do this. What you mean is you don’t know how to draw well. And even then, you just mean, you don’t believe you can draw the way you think you’re supposed to, which, when did you start caring about the way things are supposed to be, the way you’re supposed to be?
I wasn’t supposed to be a writer at all. I was supposed to be a scientist. Or I was supposed to be an engineer. I was supposed to do whatever those people do all day and I was supposed to make a lot of money doing it and, like, be awesome, in some entirely different ways from the ways writers are awesome.
The circle was never a circle. The circle was a lie.
Sketchbooks and Paints
Skip forward from your first job past a lot of life and life events and wandering and failure and success, pausing for a moment to wonder at which exact moment one should pause to see the moment your writerly ambitions failed you—when you stopped trying to publish that novel you spent two years writing? when you stopped bothering to send out your short stories to litmags that didn’t give two poops about you? when you last sat at the laptop with a cup of coffee on the table next to you with any final remaining gristly semblance of a desire to write compelling fiction?—before skimming past everything else again and past the period of unemployment and into the job that came after the unemployment where you’d been hired first as a technical writer and then as a marketing writer and keep going and keep going and slow down as the days blur together and watch the breath sink out of your lungs as you think no, no, no and then feel the hair on the back of your neck rise as you think but oh maybe why yes and you sign up to go back to school for graphic design, what the hell?, much to the surprise of basically literally anybody with a pulse, and go a little faster through the application process and the acceptance and the first tuition bill and the class selection and your first syllabus day in almost a decade and then oh stop, stop, right here, in this arts and crafts supply store on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, on August 25, 2008, as you walk the aisles, class supply list in hand, as you walk the aisles, shopping basket in hand, as you walk the aisles, selecting pencils, selecting small tubes of watercolor paints, selecting palettes, selecting brushes, selecting a sketchbook.
Just…stop.Here, in this aisle full of blank paper.
Because this is when everything begins to continue to change.
Feel that thick black-covered sketchbook between your fingers.
The impossibly full white pages skipping past in an instant.
There will be more sketchbooks after this one, but this will be your first, and none other will be the first, and however many there ever will be none other will really compare, whatever art or design or spilled paint or nonsense eventually might go into it, whatever at all.
Fun Facts Continued
Drawing well, the way you think you’re supposed to draw, is actually really hard to do. Yup! It’s true! Odds are, you suck at it. Most people are probably completely justified in doubting the strength of their drawing skills.
I mean, life drawing, drawing a naked human being so well that someone might look at your drawing and see not just a bunch of marks but actually a very specific naked human being’s body, with accurate proportions and proper volume and depth and shadow and light, it’s rough. That’s hard! Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and also probably a thousand times more intuitively talented than you or I ever will be and their opinions can safely be discounted because we live in the realm of messy people and mortal achievements and have no need for the meddling derision of the gods who walk among us, mocking us.
Fact is, and this is a really good thing, there’s a lot more bad life drawings in the world than there are good ones, counting the ones that get torn up and blown away the moment they’re completed. I know this because a significant percentage of the bad ones (i.e., more than zero percent) are in the stack of drawings I took with me from my time in the undergrad design program at Cleveland State University.
That said, you can get better at it. It just takes time and practice.
Practically speaking, drawing gets a lot easier when you stop trying to draw lines and start trying to draw values and shapes. When you see a big black shadow and you just take the side of your stick of charcoal and make a big black shadow on your page rather than trying to lasso the imaginary version of that shadow in a thin line of pencil.
It’s a simple thing, an amazingly obvious thing, to me, for me, in retrospect. That it took so long for someone to teach me this simple fact I’ll never really understand.
It also helps, helps even more actually, to have a significant percentage of the bad drawings in the world in your personal archive of drawings (i.e., more than zero percent). For every five, ten, shamefully-felt more than ten drawings I’ve totally or mostly or generally felt like I’ve totally flubbed, for every half-drawn breast or nightmare face or malformed appendage, for every extra night of drawing practice when I’ve walked out feeling like even more of a failure than I felt like I was when I walked in, there’s that one drawing that isn’t awful, or is okay, or is maybe even kind of good? The one where the practice and the training and the desire to succeed and the skills and the lights and the pure whims of fate all clicked into place and I made just the right number of mistakes. Because drawing gets a lot easier when you give yourself something to fix. When you make your first, second, …, nth mistake.
Of course by “it gets easier” I mean “it gets a lot more like you’re actually trying instead of just talking about trying and totally annoying all your loved ones by sounding like an endless bag of hot air.” At least, this is how I finally broke past “I can’t draw” and into “Well, okay, I can draw, I just wish I had started my ten thousand hours of training about ten thousand hours ago.”
The feeling of landing a good drawing is a great feeling.
The only cure is to ruin the next one.
Tigers and Nightmares
My worst academic design project ever, and this had nothing to do with my lack of or perceived lack of drawing skills, came when I was in the middle of moving from one apartment to another and I tried Photoshopping a tiger mask onto the moon for a poster advertising an event at the local zoo.
That project was a nightmare.
That Photoshop job was a nightmare.
That poster was a nightmare.
Moving from an apartment I’d lived in for nearly ten years and throwing out a significant percentage of the crap I’d accumulated in that time was kind of a nightmare, from the vantage point of an early-stage pseudo-hoarder.
Yet, moving was not nearly as awful, as much of a flat-out waking nightmare, as the nightmare mask-moon Photoshop job.
I think some days that I learned more from that project than I did from all my more successful projects combined.
I signed up for my first drawing class during my time in the design program because in the process of going through the design program and learning about things like typography and layout and color, the stuff I’d gone there to learn about, I found myself engaging with art, and I started trying to draw, like really draw, more on my own, going out on sketch crawls and stuff like that, trying to draw street corners and buildings, trying to draw the cat when he would be kind enough to not try to stand on the drawing paper, because I realized that I had, whether or not I’d admitted it to myself, always liked the idea of drawing, the idea of being someone who was awesome at drawing, but aside from a couple pictures I’d drawn during college of rooms and chairs, I’d never really actually tried to draw that much, and in trying to draw for real I’d get frustrated with my failures and more frustrated with my successes because they were so much less frequent than my failures, and I figured taking a real drawing class would be a good chance to force myself to put up or shut up, to the tune of an extra tuition bill, and of course I wound up taking two more classes after that first one and I learned I really enjoy drawing, full stop, even if I did largely still feel like I sort of sucked at it, which two facts were two of the competing, cooperative impulses at the root of my delving into graphic novel production.
Drawing is a skill, much like writing, both of which can be learned in and of themselves, but taken on their own, independent of purpose, they’re sort of nice but pointless. I knew this about writing, I had tried my hand plenty at both purpose-filled and purpose-less writing, probably learned it more and more as I wound my way out of that stage of life when I was trying so hard to be real writer, man, but I hadn’t realized that drawing was just the same as writing in this regard, so I was, hilariously, caught off guard when I learned that I couldn’t just draw whatever the hell was in front of me at the moment, but instead had to pick things to put in front of me and make the drawings of those things serve some kind of purpose or point or idea.
I’d never thought past being able to make the drawings look like good drawings. I had to draw subject matter.
Well, didn’t have to.
Shame on me, I guess, for never having thought what it was exactly I wanted to draw about.
Truth is, I still struggle with this. Which is fine. Which is good. The struggle is half the point; I like solving but hate the solved.
Fun Facts Forever
Here’s how you draw a perfect circle: you get yourself a bottle cap, you get yourself a coffee cup and you slam the coffee back in a couple big hot gulps, you get yourself a big old bowl of popcorn and you eat all the popcorn and you throw the unpopped kernels away but for the couple you save to chew on nervously as you wait for the next bit to begin, you jack the tire off your neighbor’s car because you’re going to need your own to take your perfect circle to the art gallery right away, and you trace that thing, you trace like your life depends on it, you trace until the sweat blinds you and your hand cramps up and you run out of paper and there’s no more perfect circles left in the world without the taste of your pencil’s graphite clinging to their lips, and then you lie like hell about it when you’re done, because you’re awesome at drawing perfect circles and life is too short to not be really insanely awesome at drawing perfect circles.
The Reds is the graphic novel I started drawing and writing in my third drawing class because of course I was supposed to draw a graphic novel, I was a writer in a drawing course, wasn’t I? The hell else was I supposed to do with all that, not draw and write a graphic novel? Come on. I started drawing it and writing it because there was a story that was bubbling up and starting to burn inside me, a story about mortality and memory and how ridiculous life and complex and painful and brilliant life is, and how it will always mean something different to everybody at every stage of their life forever and ever and always, and this was how this story could get out. I could draw but not as well as I liked and I used the hell out of that fact and after four months I had a complete chapter and you can find it online, right now, for free, and I hope you like it or hate it or just feel literally anything about it, because that’s what’s supposed to happen next.