Interview: Rebecca Fish Ewan, Author of Doodling for Writers

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

Editors note: This interview originally appeared on the Books by Hippocampus website.

doodling for writers cover - author as cartoon holding up pencil and a cat giving her sideeyeAbout the Book: Drawing and doodling in the margins, on napkins, anywhere can contribute to your writing process and fuel your creativity. In Doodling for Writers, memoirist and cartoonist Rebecca Fish Ewan combines her wit and wisdom with practical, engaging prompts and activities to illustrate how simple sketching can get you over hurdles, bring back memories, and even provide a roadmap for where your story needs to go. Full of encouragement and anecdotes, Fish Ewan’s cartoon-self accompanied by a few sidekicks will guide you through basics of drawing and then show you to how to apply it to your writing process through character sketches, place maps, and more.

About the Author: Poet/cartoonist Rebecca Fish Ewan’s passion is mingling text with visual art, primarily in ink and watercolor, to tell stories of place and memory. Her hybrid-form work has appeared in After the Art, Brevity, Crab Fat, Survivor Zine, Hip Mama, Mutha, TNB, Punctuate & Under the Gum Tree. Her illustrations and essay, ”The Deepest Place on Earth,” were published in the Literary Kitchen anthology, Places Like Home. She is the author of A Land Between, By the Forces of Gravity: A Memoir, the chapbook Water Marks, and her newest book, Doodling for Writers. Rebecca has an MFA in creative writing from ASU, where she has been a landscape design professor for 25+ years. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and lives with her family in Arizona.


rebecca fish ewan author

Rebecca Fish Ewan

Lara Lillibridge: How is it to have a book come out this time of year? In a pandemic?

Rebecca Fish Ewan: And right before this massively complicated election?

I haven’t been able to take the time to figure out—this book doesn’t really lend itself to regular readings, and I haven’t had time to really figure out what sort of event would work. It’s exciting to have a new book, and I love it, it’s so cute, and it came out exactly how I wanted it to.

I feel like it’s the perfect time for the book—we’re moving into winter, and people are talking about going into lock-downs, and it’s the perfect time for someone to have it and go, ‘hmm, maybe I’ll do some doodling and drawing with my writing,’ or they are so freaked out and their situation doesn’t lend itself to writing in the way that they might have previously done, and they might be feeling frustrated, then it might offer a sort of therapeutic thing for them to do.

I feel like it’s the perfect offering right now, but I don’t know how to get people’s attention so that they could even know that it exists. So that’s a little difficult.

LL: I read it, and I made myself do every single exercise.

RFE: What was that like?

LL: I loved it! My drawings pleased me more than I thought they would, and I felt like I was doing something when I couldn’t write. I felt like I was still committed to my writing.

RFE: Yeah, and that’s part of it. The thing that inspired me to write and draw the book in the first place was actually at HippoCamp (a Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers), because I talked about drawing in my flash session, because to talk about my memoir I needed to talk about drawing because it is filled with cartoons.

And people were always coming up afterwards and they sounded so sad, and they’d tell me, ‘oh, I used to draw a lot as a kid, but I don’t draw anymore,’ or ‘I’m terrible at art,’ and most of the time, these were totally unprovoked conversations. I wouldn’t ask, ‘hey, do you feel terrible about drawing?’ they would just offer that. I thought that’s sad, because drawing is so essential to my life. Sometimes it’s art therapy, very oftentimes it’s practical things that I’m drawing, and it’s creative. So I wanted to find a way to offer it to writers in a way that they could receive it and be happy about it.

LL: So once upon a time, I was an interior design student and they made me take a drawing class which I did not want to take, because like everyone, says to you, I’m terrible at drawing. But anyway, they said that everyone who draws—not artists, but people like me—develop symbols by the time we are eight, and our drawing doesn’t really progress after that. We don’t really draw what we see, but rather we draw our symbol for an eye, or a house.

RFE: Or a little lollipop for a tree.

LL: Right. And that art is all about seeing deeply. I could get into that, but it was a lot of work and time—more than I cared about. Your book, with the doodles, you were like draw these five noses and pick one you like, and that worked for me. And I’m so proud of what I drew using your book, I have to show you.

Cartoon Lara

A self-portrait cartoon Lara Lillibridge.

RFE: And it totally looks like you!

LL: It does look like me! You taught me shortcuts that add the personality my drawings had been lacking. Your book taught me a new way, very quickly, to stop drawing the same symbols and to think about drawing differently, that wasn’t just sitting and staring at an object and trying to draw it for an hour.

RFE: And that was the other thing, too. There are lots of how-to-draw books, so why write another one? But I know in my lifetime I have tried to use those, and a lot of them are filled with really intimidating awesome drawings that the author did, and then they want to convince you that it only takes three steps to draw a really awesome apple, but then in between step two and step three something magic happens and I just naturally know what lines to put down where, and it just comes to me, voila! And I’d get so frustrated. And I’m like, I can only do steps one and two, and I don’t see what I have to do next.

I don’t really think the aspiration needs to be, ‘oh someday I want to draw something that looks exactly like an object and it’s perfect and they’ll probably put it in a museum.’ I mean, that would be great if someone wanted to buy it for $100,000, but really what you need is a drawing that functions. That does something for you. That helps you figure out how you’re going to work out the next scene: you can diagram that. They don’t have to be beautiful, they have to be useful. That, I think, is easier to get to.

 

“…what you need is a drawing that functions. That does something for you. That helps you figure out how you’re going to work out the next scene.” — Rebecca Fish Ewan

 

LL: So my writing has been very small and fragmented since the pandemic, and I’m currently working on a segmented essay. I made the little cards you recommend in the book—you wrote about using them for a chapter or a book-length project, but it was perfect for this segmented essay.

For each segment I drew my little picture and then for three days I had them on the table, moving them around and around, and it was so much faster than if I’d written a sentence to convey what each segment was about. I could see it at one glance.

RFE: It’s a visual language, and pictures come to people much quicker than reading. I’ve always been a really slow reader, but if you can tell me that in a picture, awesome. That’s why I’ve always gravitated to comic books and graphics that can communicate in an image. I remember when I was taking a really hard math class as an undergraduate, and it had all these theorems and stuff to keep in your head. I finally started drawing them in different colors, and I put these strings up all over my room and I hung them, so anytime I walked into my room, they were in my face. I had to duck under them to get to bed. And I found that when I went to take my test, I could picture my room in my head, and I could see it and remember it much better, because I had attached the analytical part to a geography.

LL: They say that people who do those memory contests, they make a story tied to things around the room, and that if you can create a visual, you can remember it.

RFE: That’s the idea in The Memory Palace, a really great memoir by Mira Bartok, who is a visual artist. Each chapter takes you to a space—it’s a way to compartmentalize memories if they are traumatic.

LL: I’ll have to read that! One thing that was really interesting to me was how much the drawing advice sounds like writing advice.  You commented on it, when you talked about shading:

Light and Shade: A Classic Approach to Three-Dimensional Drawing by Mary P. Merrifield is filled with lessons about the relationship of light and shade, most of which sound like literary tips or aphorisms for life:

“The darkest parts of shadows are on their edges.”

“Light appears brightest when it is surrounded by the greatest quantity of shade.”

“Lights are less modified by distance than shadows.”

“Shade exists when a surface is turned away from a light source.”

And in the beginning of Doodling for Writers you wrote: “You need to develop immunity to your brain voices’ seductions of shame.” And I swear, it’s as true for writing as drawing to me. I was surprised at how much drawing and writing flowed together.

RFE: I think at some point, there are some little separations in your brain between visual language and written language, but there are so many overlaps. I still have some of the drawings from my kids, where they would draw and they’d narrate, and I’d write while they were drawing. And their drawings, I’d have no idea, sometimes how they were seeing what they were seeing, so the words were really important, too, and I’d write down the words, so we were doing like a hybrid graphic storytelling.

But I think young kids don’t separate out images from language. They’re just learning languages; their brains are more elastic. And then at some point, I think it happens around fourth or fifth grade, it’s separated, and then there’s this declaration, ‘if you draw, then you have to be an artist, and if you aren’t an artist, then you don’t draw, and you certainly don’t doodle. One of my kids, his teacher wouldn’t let him doodle in class, wouldn’t let him draw at all, because it ‘distracted from his learning.’

LL: I hear that over and over again.

RFE: But there are people studying this, scientists. And people who doodle actually retain more, so doodling in a meeting helps you retain more of the information.

LL: You said 29% more in the book, I wrote it down for my own self-defense!

memory retention 29

From the book — Very important truth: Studies show people who doodle are more attentive (one scientists found that doodlers retained 29% more rando information than non-doodlers. (Photo by Lara Lillibridge)

RFE: It’s one thing I like about Zoom. I set up all my watercolors and sketchbook so it’s off-camera, so I can not only doodle in a meeting, I can full-on do a painting. I love that. Most of my meeting notes—here’s a cat, that’s from another meeting…

LL: Can you hold one up so I can screenshot it?

Screenshot RFE meetingNotes

Zoom screen shot of Rebecca Fish Ewan and her water color, snapped during Lara’s interview.

RFE: I’m a little hesitant to let people know that’s what I’m doing, because I don’t want them to think I’m not listening, or that it’s rude, but it really makes it easier in these really big meetings with tons of people, and it’s more an auditory thing, anyway, that you just listen to. I have two screens, and people are used to people being side-view, or not looking directly at the person talking. For all they know, I’m looking at the speaker on my other screen.

LL: Or taking notes avidly. And why did we decide notes were more important than doodles?

RFE: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s an odd thing that drawing is interpreted as a frivolous thing when it’s so useful. So that’s why in figuring out the structure of the book, I thought it would be useful if you’d never drawn to have a few useful things to feel like you have something to work on in your doodling to try and get a little better, but not have it be that intimidating.

Sometimes in these drawing books I get, you think, ‘whoa, that’s way too much theory of art and color and it’s too much to think about. And since I can’t grasp it all, I’ll put the book down and grasp none of it. So I was thinking, ‘what’s more of a snack, as opposed to a whole meal of drawing?’ And you can work for years just on the little snack of drawing technique.

“They need a primer in drawing, but not in writing. So in the back section I didn’t have to explain a lot of things, I just had to make the connection.” — Rebecca Fish Ewan

And then the second half of it, I presumed that anybody reading this book has probably spent a good amount of time writing, and thinking about writing, so they’re very sophisticated about writing, so I don’t need to tell them what I plot is. They need a primer in drawing, but not in writing. So in the back section I didn’t have to explain a lot of things, I just had to make the connection.

LL: You did that very nicely. I never felt talked down to, and you never over-explained. It was, for me, the exact correct amount of information.

RFE:  Oh good. I was definitely thinking about what the audience’s needs might be.

LL: You wrote on page 46, “Everything you see is already an interpretation of light bouncing off surfaces, so what’s the harm in extending the interpretation?”  

That reminded me so much of the conversations, which I think I’ve had at every writing conference I’ve attended, about how they say memory is always reconstruction. And I got excited reading that, I was like, ‘I made a connection! Look at me! I’m connecting art and writing.’

RFE: They are both creative, and they are both a storytelling effort. You’ve got some experience whether you’re making it up or working from your life in memoir, but you’re trying to recreate the feelings in a way that someone reading that will have empathy and feel that as well. That’s a tall order.

LL: Sometimes as a writer, if something is fuzzy, the harder I try to write it, the less I trust my memory. But if I draw it, it helps me to get back to the feeling I’m trying to recreate without chasing it away with words. That’s the heart of creative nonfiction for me—the feeling of the moment.

RFE: I do think there are certain concrete things in terms of truth that are important, certain facts that anchor it. When I was writing By the Forces of Gravity I checked the lunar cycles and the weather. I went on the almanac and found the concerts—there’s actually a ton of information you can find online, that brings you back. I found the actual set lists from concerts. And from that you sculpt the memory, so it’s a combination of concrete things and the emotion you have to reconnect to.

LL: Get back in touch with the emotion. And I wasn’t implying that I make things up, but that sometimes I feel like the harder I try to nail a memory down, the more elusive it becomes.

RFE: It’s easier for me to see the extension of the interpretation in a drawing, because of course it’s not a cat, it’s a piece of paper with smudges on it, it’s not an actual cat. But somehow with writing, sometimes it’s like it has to be precisely as it was, and if you can’t remember it, you can’t talk about it. But I think you can.

LL: When you talk about historical record, you had a lot of your original drawings in By the Forces of Gravity. Didn’t you have your old sketchbook?

RFE: I did, and I relied a lot on objects. A large part of ending up drawing in the first place for that book. I was just trying to pull the memories out of my head, and writing them down wasn’t pulling them down quite the right way. I was like, ‘this isn’t working! Duh, I have a pencil, I can draw. Draw the thing!’ I’d just start drawing, and once I realized that the drawings were going to go in the book, I started looking around for objects.

I didn’t have parents around that saved everything for me, so I got into the habit of saving things for myself from a young age. Old notebooks, all my homework from high school—normally somebody’s parents would throw that stuff out, but mine weren’t around, so I just kept it. So I had some drawings that I could put on a light table and go over, and redraw them so they would be in the pencil form, as opposed to using a photograph.

And back when we could have in-person book release parties, [for the Gravity event] I made this 30-foot long painting and what I had done was I went around and photographed all these little objects that I had written about and I decoupaged them onto canvas and then I put the drawing that I had done, and then I painted all this stuff. It was crazy big. I don’t get any bigger than this now (holds up regular-sized notebook) for drawing because it’s still in my closet. What am I going to do with a thirty-foot long painting?

But one of the reasons that I did that was that [Gravity] was such a fantastical story and the drawings are cartoony and you can make them kind of magical. Cartooning is a magical realism realm—you can make people fly, or turn them into bears. I worried that people would think it was fiction, that I had made it up, so I wanted people to see the actual objects and the drawings to verify—like there really was an antler roach clip, because I still own it.

collage of three by the forces of gravity banner photos - two of a stetch, with people looking, and one close-up of a picture of her patched jeans

A few images of Rebecca’s 30-foot mural, which was filled with illustrations from the book and photographs of real-life objects/relics from her childhood, such as the patchwork jeans Becky Star Fish wears throughout the memoir, By the Forces of Gravity. (Photo: Hippocampus archives)

LL: My youngest draws, and he was always buying sketchbooks. I’d find a sketchbook, and he’d have drawn three things in it, and then he’d want a new one. And I was like, ‘what’s the deal kid?’ And he explained that he’d messed it up—he’d made a bad drawing. I told him, your notebook is like your journal, and you can watch yourself get better, and in the future, you can look back and see how you’ve improved.

So he stuck to a whole notebook until he finished it. This was a few years ago—and he recently found it, and he was like, ‘oh my gosh, look at this!’ And we sat down, and we could see how his intention was still the same. His style and his skill had developed, but those old drawings still had charm, and they could bring him back to how he felt when he did them, and what he was obsessed with.

RFE: Exactly. There’re some pages in By the Forces of Gravity where I re-wrote an essay by putting it on the light table, and then I incorporated it into another drawing, but it was the exact words, And there is something in the eye-hand-brain connection. I was writing in the script that I used as a freshman in high school. I had been a hippie-drop-out, and my handwriting had all these misspellings and recreating the loopy-loop way I was writing, I couldn’t have gotten the same feeling if I had typed it up. It wasn’t about the words; it was about the motion of writing like that that got me back to being that person.

LL: That’s really interesting. I have handwritten terrible poems I wrote in high school with very round loops.

RFE: My handwriting is getting closer to my dad’s as I get older.

LL: Back to the book—I have this quote here, you wrote on page 124,

Hybrid form is experiencing a beautiful bloom right now, not just as a mingling of poetry and prose or other textual cross-breeding, but also in inviting images onto the page.

And I think it goes into our conversation now, about how the hybrid form becomes its own thing. You can see it particularly in By the Forces of Gravity, and also in your art I’ve seen on Instagram that is not part of the book, but paintings with words in it.

RFE: Yeah, I really like doing that.

LL: It does become its own thing with a distinct feeling, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

RFE: I always really loved medieval illuminated manuscripts. Now, I can’t read Latin so I don’t know what they are about, and a ton of them are about the Bible, but they have this really beautiful way of mingling drawings in that makes it much more than the words. It makes it hard to talk about because it’s not that you read it, you read/see it.

LL: Just flipping through your memoir, here’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle from your book.

Page from By the Forces of Gravity showing a cartoon Rebecca amidst curvy lines that reveal Heisenberg's principle: If you want to follow the light, you can no know how long it will take you to reach it."

Page from By the Forces of Gravity showing a cartoon Rebecca amidst curvy lines that reveal Heisenberg’s principle: “If you want to follow the light, you can no know how long it will take you to reach it.” (Photo by Lara Lillibridge)

 

You can’t separate out the words from the drawing. So the first time we met you gave me this tiny Zine you had made back in 2017, so my experience of your work has always been hybrid. Do you ever do things that are only one thing or another and that’s all they’re meant to be? Or is writing and doodling and art all one source for you?

RFE: I’ve done just straight writing, like I write for DIY MFA. I’m their Books with Pictures columnist. That’s almost always just words. So I do writing that doesn’t have drawings attached to it, and I do a lot of doodling type drawing, so they are separate. But I do see a distinction, because I follow a lot of people who draw on Instagram, and they are pure visual artists, and they might be working towards a gallery show, or selling their art, and I don’t go that far with my drawings.

When I was growing up I drew all the time, I was constantly drawing, and I had aspirations to be an animator for Disney—I had an uncle who worked for Disney—and I thought that would be the coolest thing, but that didn’t work out. Then when I got into writing in graduate school and went through the poetry program, they were very anti-image. And so I went through this whole period of time where I hardly drew at all.

LL: That’s sad.

RFE: Part of it, too, was I was taking an antidepressant for a number of years, and my drawing just disappeared. When I stopped taking that, I started drawing a lot and I haven’t stopped.

LL: In Doodling for Writers you wrote about the castle keep.

When I was in poetry school, I was admonished for putting a tiny picture of a castle keep on the page with one of my poems. A castle keep is a fortified area where royalty retreats with what they hold dear, what they hope to keep, so the objections—the poem should stand alone, the drawing is a crutch—felt ironic, like this tiny picture threatened the purity of the written word.

RFE: I swear to God, it was just a photograph I got off the internet in 2003, when downloading a little image took five minutes. It was like literally this big [indicates thumbnail size] and they said ‘visual imagery is a crutch, the language should carry all the weight,’ that was the message I got.

LL: I think it’s got to be hard to hold onto your confidence in yourself as an artist, and I’m using the word artist to include writing and drawing, but to believe in your own vision, when the “experts” are telling you how wrong you are.

RFE: Yeah, and maybe it comes with age. At a certain point you’re like, ‘you know, what? I don’t have that many years left. I’m going to do whatever the hell I want. Screw you, what do you know.’ People do declare things as if they are fact, like, ‘it’s not possible for someone to be an accomplished visual artist and be a writer.’ I’ve read that multiple times, and that’s not actually true. Kafka—he drew. He was very self-conscious about it and depressed, but he was that way about everything.

There are a lot of people who draw, but they don’t really publish it. And one of the things that I’ve noticed since COVID and the lockdown is that a lot of people who are famous for something else, like they are an actor, will be interviewed and they’ll say, ‘yeah, I started drawing again.’ And they’ll show their drawings, and since they’re famous, some of them are getting published. But I think this time is making it easier for people to acknowledge and spend time with other aspects of their lives. Maybe because we’re locked at home, and we have no choice.

LL: A lot of the writers I talk to talk about being fragmented, unable to focus. There is so much stress. And you wrote on page 93,

The important fact is that drawing is close to writing, but is not writing. It keeps you near what you love while you can’t stand being intimate with your beloved.

That to me, was very much what we started the conversation with. When I can’t allow myself into the emotional space to write, by drawing it keeps me thinking about my project, it keeps me connected. It’s like a postcard to my art: oh essay collection, we’re still friends.

RFE: Wish you were here.

LL: I’m coming back to you! And the other line that for me really resonated during COVID, that gave me so much permission to accept where I am, was when you wrote,

You are not a broken writer, just a deciduous one, weathering the barren season to prepare you for the abundance when spring comes. And it always comes. At least until Earth’s orbit slows and the planet collapses into the sun.

It’s just gorgeous. And so too is this idea that we’re deciduous, and if it’s a barren season right now, spring always comes.

RFE: It will pass. I don’t believe Trump when he says we’re rounding the corner. I think we could be riding this for a while. And it is hard—I haven’t been doing that much writing at all. The book was supposed to come out in June, so a lot of the writing was already done. It’s a lot easier to edit words that already exist, that’s a different kind of brain. But the creative part of it, I do feel fragmented for writing, and I’ve been doing a lot more drawing. And I thought about it that way—seriously, it is just putting marks on a page. How is writing not that? You really are, as far as your brain is concerned, it’s pretty much the same thing.

So whatever is happening with the doodling—if you’re a writer, your expectations for doodling are probably pretty low, which is nice. Sometimes when you expect more of yourself in your own area of expertise, it’s harder to get things going.

That might be part of what writer’s block is about. We think, ‘this has to be good, because I’m good at this.’ With a doodle, it’s like, ‘I’m not good at this, oh well.’ But it’s the same part of your brain, so I feel it’s sort of like writing when you’re not writing.

LL: Absolutely. And I think that coming to something totally new you come in without expectations that you have to be good, or that you know everything. You can set your ego aside and be prepared to learn something new. Since doodling is so new to me, I’m just pleased when one out of the five things amuses me. Little things make me happy, and right now we all need a little more happiness in our lives.  

Doodling for Writers is out now with Books by Hippocampus. Find Rebecca Fish Ewan on her website,  Twitter or Instagram.


Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program. She also writes for children under the name L.B. Lillibridge.

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