Right Brain Friday

This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach.  I’m taking Drawing 101.  I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff.  So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again.  And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!

I am actually learning how to draw.  But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of.  One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind.  I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing.  Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do).  The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.

For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed!  The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all.  The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.”  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.

So I took a break.  I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is.  I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over.  And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate.  Not exactly like it, but more like it.  And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.

What did this feel like?  It felt like Wow!!!  I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse.  It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night.  Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy.  I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud.  Yeah!!!

The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education.  The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking.  And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future.  I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important.  BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.  

Art is not a luxury.  Art is what makes science GO.

(steps down from soapbox)

Anyway.  Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom.  In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects.  (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.)  As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class.  I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.

Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain.  My mind became as a blank whiteboard.  All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????”  Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where.  By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.

But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart.  And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five).  And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.

And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months.  Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain.  I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use.  And I feel like a million bucks.  And I can’t describe it any better than that.