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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Drawing Trees

Last month, I devoted an indeterminate, yet still large number of hours to drawing trees for Julie of Julie V. Photography.

As an artist who has spent most of the last fourteen years drawing abstract, overgrown doodles and fantastical scenes replete with dragons and fairies yet lacking in flora more than hinted-at with daubs of paint, I approached this tree-drawing project as a welcome challenge. When Julie showed me the concept art upon which I would base my drawings, it made me go “hmmmm.” I was more than happy to give it the ol’ college try but skeptical about my own ability to pull it off.

I needn’t have worried. Though I remained — as always — too much of a perfectionist to be satisfied with my own sketches, Julie loved them, and so was born a tree-graphics collaboration. I sketched, she critiqued, I sketched some more, and finally we had a series of trees that met her needs for the first stage of the site project.

Until further notice (i.e. until the next stage of the project began), my brief love affair with trees was over. But the experience left me ruminating upon the clear parallel between my drawing craft and my writing craft. Gather ‘round, my dearest inklings, and I shall share with you the wisdom the aforementioned parallel doth impart.

(Technically, it should be “parallels,” as there’s definitely more than one. But I wanted to use the word “doth,” which is third person singular, not plural. So nyah.)


Julie wanted a hand-drawn look, so I set my customary oil paints aside, took my trusty 2B mechanical pencil to hand, and started sketching. When the paper before me showed a recognizable tree instead of an amorphous form easily mistaken for the weird demon bunny from Donnie Darko (click that, and you’ll see what I mean), I switched to my black rollerball pen and inked the lines. At the same time, I added touch-ups and flourishes to stylize the tree a little bit, just for kicks ‘n’ giggles.

The first draft of a story requires a similar process. From the start of this blog and yea verily up to this very week, Aaron has mentioned regularly the benefits of outlining. When he first started talking to me about it in pre-Unstressed-Syllables days, I balked, thinking that something as analytical and dull as an outline would surely suck the creative juices right out of my fingers, not to mention my brain. But guess what? It works. I outlined my last NaNoWriMo novel, and it was the easiest NaNoWriMo I’ve completed to-date.

Thus, my tentative, penciled, non-demon-bunny tree is prewriting’s general story outline. But things get more solid when you pick up a black pen and start inking: tweaking your outline, adding a bit more character definition and, golly gee Wally, maybe even a pre-written scene here and there. Just for kicks ‘n’ giggles, y’know.

Coloring Between the Lines…Or Not

After the inking was finished, I reached for my color pens and markers and started filling in some color. Julie requested trunks and branches of reddish-brown and leaves of teal and light green. I did the best I could with the implements I possessed — but since I usually work in oils for anything not black-and-white, I had neglected to acquire a varied supply of pens and markers. Colored pencils didn’t quite do the job, either.

Practice makes better, and my second and third tries revealed a clearer vision and more skill than did the first. I had to scrap a few inked sketches, but finally I had some colored trees to my name. My stylizing lent them the hand-drawn, personal feel Julie had requested; and I had even managed to incorporate a natural, organic look. Those leaves seemed to move…thanks to “try, try again.”

The same goes for story-crafting. First drafts are a mess, and sometimes, you have to scrap them and start over. Sometimes, you can get away with backspacing (a lot). Either way, you’ll eventually be ready to fill in some color. You’ll merge Character A (that boring knight) with Character B (that irritating barmaid) and end up with a most vivid Character C (a female assassin with an affinity for bar-hopping?). You’ll delete some pesky verb-adverb combos and replace them with verbs so lively, they leap right off the page. You’ll tweak here and stylize there until your story (by now, in its third or fourth draft) sparkles with your style, speaks with your voice, and moves like a living organism.

Crossing The Line

In our minds, we creative types draw lines for ourselves that we don’t cross. “I write short stories — I wouldn’t know how to finish a novel.” “I like __________ (insert genre here) — but I have no experience with that, so I can’t write it.” “I’d love to write, but I just don’t have time.”

You just read it, my dear readers. The previous paragraph contains that one, huge, black, uncrossable line we draw for ourselves: I can’t. That phrase is the deadliest thing any creative person can say. It saps the will, drains the motivation, and kills every ounce of imagination.

Last year, a friend (who shall remain nameless 😉 ) said, “I just don’t have an epic in me.” This year, he is proving himself wrong with a sci-fi tale of magnificent proportions. At some point in the past, I told myself, “I just can’t draw trees worth a fart in the wind.” Well, that statement turned out to be incorrect, too.

Let’s cross our lines, people! Let’s dare to tackle exactly those creative endeavors we’re convinced we cannot master. The tools we need are contained within those endeavors themselves: just as the tools for my story-telling were grafted into my act of tree-drawing.

So, cross the line. Consider in which ways you’re already creating, and extrapolate. You already have the resources you need. You already know everything you need to know. Work at it until you get the demon bunnies out of the way, and see what beauty can grow.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

(Click that link up there to see the demon bunny — buy the demon bunny movie or anything else within the same browser session, and I might get enough pennies to buy some new colored markers.)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

2 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Drawing Trees”

  1. Don’t you have any Prismacolor pencils? I couldn’t have made it through college without them.

    Anywho, I’m really wanting to see the finished product now, or at least just tree sketches! You should post a pic.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Becca, I did acquire some hand-me-down Prismacolors last year — I just didn’t remember I had them until you asked! *sigh* Oh well, next time, mayhap… And in the meantime, I’ll see about posting some pics of those sketches! Sadly, I don’t have a scanner, though. :/