What It Is: How Drawing “Helped Me to Stay”

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“[Drawing] was a form of transportation. I did it because it helped me to stay by giving me somewhere else to go.” — Lynda Barry, What It Is

In high school my notebooks and paper bag-covered textbooks were a mess of my graffiti. I spent every non note- or test-taking moment drawing my personal doodles of frogs and bees, and creating never-ending, constantly dividing tendrils, using my collection of gel ens to draw them and then fill them with the vibrant, shiny color.

Focusing his never been my strong point; I have a mind that tends towards wandering. If I don’t want to lose track of where I am, something needs to anchor me. Writing I can focus on, but only that. For something like Biology class, I needed something to take up the part of my brain that tried to slip away. Drawing—sketching—doodling—that was perfect.

Sometimes, my reasonings for this were not understood, and I was called out on it. Once, in Math, I set to drawing an Orca on the front cover while some classmates spoke at the front of the room. My mistake was shading; the teacher heard the scuff of my pencil, and chastised me for being so rude and not paying attention. I put my pencil away, and had to focus on my classmates without looking at paper or moving my hands. She never did confirm whether I’d really been not listening.

Then, other times, it didn’t bother the teacher at all. I doodled on my folder while the Health teacher explained alcohol poisoning. Suddenly he turned to me and asked if I was listening. “Yes,” I said, without looking up, and repeated what he’d told us. “All right!” he responded, and continued on.

Recently I read Lynda Barry’s What It Is, part graphic novel, part collage, part memoir, part writing guide. The above quote gut-punched me as so weirdly but completely true. Drawing gives you somewhere to go—letting my mind wander, as it will—and helping me stay, letting me pay attention to everything going on around me. I was taken right back to high school, when I did the most drawing, now having words to describe something I always knew was true. I drew then to keep myself in that fantastic in-between place. I want to draw more now, so that I can find it again.