Alice the Amateur Illustrator, vol. 2

Hello! This is Alice! Her adventures in line drawing continue.

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Drawing gets touted as a difficult skill, one that few master. And no doubt, it takes a lot of effort to actually git gud. But what about basic skill?grandmother tree 002

Alice thinks these drawings are pretty basic. They’ve required little effort. She certainly hasn’t put in her ten thousand hours, or felt particularly sweaty after a hot, blood-pumping drawing session. But still, she thinks her drawings are good enough to illustrate her stories.

What is “basic” drawing skill, anyway?

Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (2012) is a wonderful book that has brought Alice courage to wield the mighty ink. And Edwards points out that drawing, far from being a mystical and gargantuan skill, is natural to apes. Acquiring a basic drawing skill is not about learning, it’s about rehabilitating.

The obstacles in acquiring the skill to draw may be surprising to some. It’s not about talent, or time, or tools. It’s about mindset. Our society brainwashes us to see in a particular way, a way antithetical to drawing. Once we make the cognitive shift, change brain gears, learning to draw is about as difficult as learning to read.

This led Alice to thinking: What else is about rehabilitating? What else is by-and-large natural to apes, but has a reputation as a hard-to-learn skill? Things that make people say, “Oh, I couldn’t do X to save my life!”

Singing and other means of making music certainly seem to be one. Many people slam shut like clams if you ask them to do a bit of spontaneous singing. (And it’s not that hard. Alice took a few lessons a year ago, and she thinks acquiring a basic singing ability is pretty easy. It’s mostly about overcoming your own shaking nerves.)

Writing is, of course, another. Ask a person to tell a story off the top of their head, and odds are that they freeze.

Now, writing an earth-shattering play or a dazzling volume of poetry takes some real skill, Alice doesn’t deny that. But what about basic writing skill? You know, the ability to articulate clearly, and tell a functional story? We apes are natural in that.

For the very basic skill of storytelling, to paraphrase the brilliant Keith Johnstone, two things are required: keep introducing new things (to create forward drive) and re-visit old things (to create structure).

No talent, time, or tools needed. Again, the major obstacle is actually believing you can do this. Our society is great at wielding the shame hammer. Ever since we were kids, we get pounded on the head for daring to exercise our primal gifts. We glorify artists, but it isn’t until you’re excellent that you’re allowed on the stage. If you’re just doodling, humming, or skipping along, being happy about it, and wanting to show your happiness to another, then bam! It’s the shame hammer for you!

Shit on society for doing this. Dear reader, take what is yours by birthright. You are a drawer, a singer, a dancer, and a storyteller. No matter who you are.

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Caveat: Though Alice sings the joyful hymn of rehabilitation, she ought to remember that for some people, even rehab is hard. Some people bear tons of unhelpful habits and ingrained inflexibility. It may take real work, of several years, to unlearn all that.

Still, the aforementioned skills are natural even for them. It’s just that sometimes, even reclaiming your birthright can be all but impossible.



Alice Reads: Blindsight by Peter Watts

Recently, Alice read Peter Watts’s Blindsight (2006). It goes something like this:

“Hey, look at these cool aliens I came up with! And hey, look at these even cooler space vampires I came up with! Also, everybody in the future is so edgy.

Is it a worthwhile book? Yes. If only because it references Metzinger’s Being No One (2003). But skip if you’re prone to depression.

In case you were wondering, yes, this is a book review, Alice style.

Alice the Amateur Illustrator

Hello! This is Alice. Recently, she has tried her hand at line drawing.

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This is one of the earlier attempts, done in pencil. Apologies to Timothy, I know the proxemics are wrong! I messed up the proportions. Also, HB pencil does not scan too well, leaving the image quite pale. So, per my father’s advice, I moved quickly on to ink.

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The result is much clearer! Also, I find the somewhat unforgiving nature of ink a pleasure to work with: you get what you get, corrections be damned. (Or, well, of course you can alter inked images, just not as easily as pencilled ones…)

Now, why this sudden interest in drawing pictures? Well, Alice started a new novel, inspired by Tove Jansson. Jansson famously illustrated her own works, so Alice wanted to try her hand at that too!

To begin with, Alice wants only small, simple pictures like these, to blend in well. Nothing huge and detailed that would eat up the text, so to speak.

Also, she wants the illustrations to convey things the text does not mention. Hence, in the fencing image, the fencers are actually mice, who make no overt appearance in the text. And in the next image, Guinfanc, an important character, is portrayed as a strange amphibian horse, though the text will convey an idea of a more conventional horse.

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The idea behind this, that the image says more than the text, is similar to how voice-overs work in cinema. If you have a voice-over that simply repeats what happens on screen, you end up with boring crud. But if your voice-overs add to, or counterpoint, what goes on in the moving picture, you approach a meaningful combination. For example:

SHIN CLANE: (voiceover) My childhood playgrounds. And all my childhood playmates. How little they’ve changed since those days. [Clane, in her bulky overcoat, roams dark streets that are swept bare of both trash and people.]

Although Alice generally hates comparisons between text and cinema, here she feels the parallel too sweet to pass by!

The same applies to illustrations. If the picture is too tame, it might just as well not be there. (As such, the image of the outer gate may never end up in the finished work.)

Furthermore, for Alice, doing illustrations illustrates a deeper principle: people should never be single-talents. Write. Play. Draw. Run. Speak. Sculpt. Cook. Humans weren’t formed out of clay only to overspecialise themselves to death. Do everything.

False promises and completed works

Hello! This is Alice. After a hideous struggle, The Dark Swords of Clairmont is live. Purchase at your own peril, mortal!

How do I feel? Frankly, like an old floor-cloth wrung dry. The Blood Cup of Clairmont had been a breeze to write. Drugged on that facility, I threw myself at the sequel like tossing a paper airplane. Mistake! What I had optimistically planned to be a month-long sojourn dragged into two and a half. Thorny two and a half.

For a writer, there’s always the lure of a quick writing progress. You know, somebody says, “Yeah, I wrote that script over a single week-end.” And we think, “Yeah, if push came to shove, I could do the same.” There’s always the irresistible idea that we have the inner strength to force the raw energy of a story into completion in just a short amount of time.

I thought I was above that. Horseshit! I forgot the secret rule: whenever someone appears to write something quickly, from start to finish, they have already thought about that thing a lot. There’s been plenty of mental groundwork. Putting together the house seems miraculously fast, because we haven’t seen that groundwork being laid.

Regardless, The Dark Swords is done now. It turned a fair bit darker and more serious than I’d thought. What I realised (maybe too late) was that there’s a real Gothic undercurrent to the story. You know, The Castle of Otranto style, where a freaking huge helmet drops on Conrad in the opening act. Out of nowhere. Now, The Dark Swords didn’t quite blossom on the Gothic front (I got too tired!) but the scent is there.

The third part of the triptych, The Black Lineage of Clairmont, remains to be written. For that one, I really need to write on gunpoint. Watergun. I can’t let it turn as serious as The Dark Swords. Not just for the sake of the reader’s sanity, but for my own.

You gotta have contrast. If you paint in all black, you’ll soon lose your taste for it. You gotta remember that, Alice.

And don’t fall for the false promise of quick rewards.


Rest for the dead

Last week, Alice wrote a post derisive of dead white guys. Are you a dead white guy? Don’t be sad, you probably still have merit. What’s more important than who you are is what you do, after all.

Feel free to replace “dead white guy” with pretty much anything. Be slime in a jar, be an Afghan bird, be a leather chair. But what do you do? That’s what makes Alice’s cash register cling.

Still, today, there’s a lot of trumpeting about who you are. Sometimes Alice tires of that. “John Strong opens with a strong debut!” And, “Another powerful John Strong novel!” And, “John Strong takes a stand against animal abuse!” Author brand and all that. But where’s the actual text? It’s as if you could slap the author name on any old piece of soap to sell it! (Wait…)

What Alice would like, for a while, is for all authors to join the dead white guys in the grave. Be deceased, for a change. It’s peaceful under the soil, where the worms are. Nobody hears, and nobody cares.

Let the text talk, if it has something to say. And if not, let it burn.

Alice believes most writers instinctively know this. The writer is less important than the writing. When Alice writes, she may have a grand plan – and then the text comes along and rips the plan apart like a playful cat. The text lives. The text has a will. And if the writer tries to force her own will over that of the text, pure A-grade shit comes out the other end.

Don’t make a number of yourself in the text. If your ego shows in the novel, get it out! Alice has heard these pieces of advice many times. Still, it’s really difficult sometimes to follow the advice – for two reasons.

One: the grandmother effect. Say Alice writes a text about child abuse. Then her grandmother reads the text. And the next thing she says is: “Oh my God Alice! I never knew you were abused as a child!”

No, grandma. I was not abused as a child. I was… Oh, never mind. (Grandma will want to find your ego in the text regardless of your efforts.)

Two: the ego is insidious. We’re happily writing along, letting the text plot its course. Then, we have a dazzling idea for a character, or a fancy turn of phrase! Only, it doesn’t fit the text. And the text is queen. But somewhere along the line we forget that. And so the clever phrase finds its way in, and the reader reads, and thinks, “So, they just had to show off…”

Lastly, a combination of one and two: It’s just too sweet to hear, “John Strong surprises the reader yet again!”

Unless you’re not John Strong.

Who is the best writer?

Alice asks Google.

Google responds! “The Best Writers of All Time.” Top 10: Nothing but dead white guys! Figures.

Alice imagines the Board of the Best Writers convening – a gathering of the shambling dead, their flesh rotted, mummified, or blasted off entirely, so that they droop as inert skeletons, mouths hanging open in a slackjawed grin. Their conversation consist of nothing but silence or wordless groans. They hunger only for the brains of living writers.

The upside? Once you’re rotten, nobody knows what colour your skin was.

Or do they?

The thing about dead writers (usually dead white writers) is that there’s more of them every minute. Then, in Litican there’s Book Pope with his Writing Cardinals, choosing who among the noble, rotting dead gets a spot at the Best Writer Round Table. And based on that, there’s always someone out there trying to guilt-trip Alice into reading something she doesn’t really want to read, but if she doesn’t, she won’t be “genteel” and “well-read” and “cooltivated”.

Well, screw you, Book Pope. Alice has long since decided that she will read what she will read. To keep up with the canonised white guys, plus all the hot new white guys, plus everything in between, would be to suicide under a tottering mountain of printed word.

Alice does like recommendations. She does like it, when someone points out to her something that might be worth reading. But she hates obligation. Obligation is, all too often, just a veiled attempt of trying to boss Alice around.

History is too full of text for even full-time historians to make sense of it. For Alice, to feel guilt over things she has not read is senseless – akin to feeling guilt over the fact that you can’t be a competitive swimmer, sharpshooter, figure skater, hockey player, discus thrower, chess master, and ski wrestler all at the same time.

On the other hand, ignorance isn’t bliss, either.

All the can’ts

I can’t write because I don’t have the time. I’m a single mother, I work two day jobs to support my children. I can’t write because of all the household chores. I have to cook, vacuum, do the laundry, the groceries, the yard, walk the dog and repair the doghouse.

I have to read all these books, see all these friends, phone all these relatives, do all this exercise, sort all these photos, edit all the photos I’ve sorted, post all the photos I’ve edited. I can’t write because I don’t have the time.

I can’t write because I have no energy. After the day’s chores, I’m spent. I’m exhausted from sitting all day in the office, I’m exhausted because I jogged ten miles, because I cooked a five-course meal, because I went to CrossFit, because I played with the kids and weeded Grandma Ellie’s overgrown garden.

I can’t write because I have nothing to say. I have no words. Everybody I talk to, I tell the same thing. I have no words. What could I say. I can’t write.

I can’t write because everything I say is garbage. I can’t say anything new. I can’t put a new spin on old things. All the stories in the world have been told already, anyway.

I can’t write because I’m sick. Yesterday I drank a bottle of Jack, today I’m so sick I can’t even open the blinds, light hurts, sounds hurt, just thinking about opening the laptop and typing a word hurts. And I’m also sick because I banged my shin on a coffee table, because I have recurrent headaches, because I have a queasy feeling in my stomach sometimes, my tooth hurts, my head spins when I get up too fast, and I have to see the doctor, so I can’t write.

I can’t write because I’m horny. People have less and less sex these days. But I have more and more. I need to fuck, so I can’t write.

I’m going to write soon, I promise. But first, I have to read all these books. How to Live Like a Writer and The Three Golden Rules of Writing and The Writer’s Guidebook to Writerly Writing. I have to be prepared. Before I can write, I have to know how to write.

I can’t write because there’s an emergency! My daughter fell down the stairs, Grandma Ellie saw a spook, I have aural migraines, they must be symptoms of brain cancer!

Alright, alright, there’s no emergency. But I can’t write because I need some peace and quiet. This house is so noisy with all the kids, and my head is so noisy with all the thoughts. I need a Buddhist temple, a serene pine forest, a tranquil lake, hundred-year-old parchment and a quill from the tail feathers of a black swan. I can’t write on a laptop at home, inspiration won’t come.

I can’t write because I’ll fail anyway.

I can’t write because nobody will read it.

I can’t write because I’m scared. I’m scared that somebody will read it. I’m scared that I’ll fail. I’m scared that I won’t fail. I’m scared that I’ll be mediocre. I’m scared that I’ll be good.

I’m scared.

I just can’t, okay?