by Melissa Llanes Brownlee
If I told you that I once got busted for doodling in my Composition Notebook in math class, my hearts carved into its speckled black and white cover, stars streaking across polynomials, dragons roaring at word problems I didn’t want to solve, would you believe me?
Until that day, doodling in my binder or my notebooks was like breathing, not a thought to what or why, just the pen or pencil dancing across blank, or not so blank, pages.
My math teacher literally took my notebook to a teacher’s meeting to show them all what I had been doing. And my punishment? I had to write a paragraph of some bullshit I don’t even remember one hundred times on college ruled paper during lunch recess and after school. All because I dared doodle in my own notebook. When my mother found out, it wasn’t a good thing. Along with my constant daydreaming and now the doodling, my mother literally beat me into being the kind of person who would do neither.
So, I stopped doodling and daydreaming.
Apparently, this event stuck with me because it has appeared in two of my stories, one in my short story collection, Hard Skin, and the other in my most recent story in Lost Balloon.
I dabbled a little in high school with art, capital A. I had large black bound books filled with paper, rough to the touch, where I would stipple mountains, sketch barbarian women, watercolor my classmates into half faceless caricatures.
Art was there for me then, but left me soon after as I went to college for a semester, dropped out, no money, became a hairdresser for more than half a decade, then I went back to college again.
When I started to seriously consider writing as that thing I really needed to do, I didn’t often feel blocked. The words would flow and the workshops would damn that flow, sometimes quite abruptly, workshops filled with “that doesn’t sound believable,” “you should put a glossary at the end of your work,” “who wants to read about kids in Hawai’i” – all making me believe that what I was doing wasn’t worth publishing.
So, I stopped writing, too. I stopped writing for six years.
Eventually, I opened up that part of myself again and started to write, and with this came so many blocks, I felt like I was climbing a pyramid, the steps so wide and high, I had to throw my leg over the side and hope my arms could lift me the rest of the way.
Around this time, I started a weekly art night with some like-minded friends, sharing creative space with them as I tried to write. One day, I looked over at what my friend was doing and thought why don’t I do that instead, his pen gliding across fresh white paper, conjuring images of Appalachian Jack, Bowie, Tokyo cityscapes, Gunma mountains. His art inspired me to take up pen and pencil again and see where that atrophied muscle lay. I figured if I could build up one muscle, maybe, just maybe, it will help me with my writing.
Guess what? It did. It totally did.
Anytime I felt stuck, an impassable wall between me and the cursor on my laptop screen, I would take out my arting instrument and arting book du jour and just start doodling, letting my writing mind rest, and exercising this other part of my creativity.
I tend towards line art: simple shapes, simple curves. I have books filled with these art night creations, and before the pandemic, these nights offered me another outlet, another way to see myself, as not only writer, but as artist.
Then, the pandemic hit and we haven’t had an art night since. So, I decided to try some daily challenges through Skillshare and Instagram, and they were and are great. Right now, I have been doing a certain daily doodle challenge on Instagram for longer than one year (it might be coming up on two years now-ish). From these posts, I have been asked to illustrate for Flash Frog as well as for my own published work.
What I have found from this daily practice, besides the fact that I need more formal training (but that won’t stop me), is that it’s a lot like writing a piece of micro fiction. Each prompt I am given, I have to consider how I, the artist, should interpret the prompt. Since I give myself about 10-15 minutes to think about it and draw, what I come up with could be amazing or totally trash, much like my writing. Should the lines be thick? Should I shade? Should I be totally abstract or realistic? Should my story focus on Hawai’i? Should I add pop culture references? Should I write in Hawaiian Pidgin Creole? All of these decisions I try to make quickly and then draw or write. Some of my best writing has happened in this state… and some of my worst.
My daily doodles help me to be a better writer.
So, when you hit that block, if you do, consider switching gears and trying something else creative, like doodling, or music, or even moving your body (hint, hint to future essays from me).
And here’s a prompt: Find a daily challenge, weekly, monthly, or whatever you have time for, and just doodle (and write). See where it takes you. No skills required. Just go with the flow. Give yourself 10-15 minutes and see what happens. As an added bonus, I will post up one of my doodles. Maybe you will be inspired to write! If it’s twitter length, post it below my tweet. If not, send it to me at email@example.com. I would love to read it!
Sending light and love. Mahalo Nui Loa and just keep doodling.
Read Melissa’s other work here at Reckon:
Fiction: Coming Home