Writing on Drawing on Writing

By Nathaniel Bellows on 4.08.09

When I was working on my first book, On This Day, I was so daunted by the idea of writing a novel that I turned to drawing to help me through the process. I’d always made drawings in my life, so it was a natural and comfortable practice to fall back on. As a result, the book developed simultaneously in both visual and verbal forms—on some days I’d draw from what I’d written and on other days I’d write from what I’d drawn. The two disciplines became interconnected in telling the story and showed me how combining them could not only support and inspire the process of writing the book, but also result in an unexpected final product. (The drawings were used as endpapers in the hardcover and paperback editions of the book.)

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So far, I have not used this visual approach with my poetry. I’ve had a hard time “illustrating” the poems that I write, and furthermore, I’ve not had much success using a poem to explore my process of making visual art. The only poem I’ve written that approaches an analysis of craft is called “Work” (mp3 above) but it’s less a poem about my own art as it is an homage to my printmaking teacher from college who was one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the opportunity to learn from. (It’s also a poem about visiting the dentist.)

All this being said, I do think that writing poems and making drawings come from a very similar place in my brain. In both genres, for instance, I have a kind of build-and-burn mentality. With poems, I’ll write a lot of material, delete most of it, and then write from what’s been saved and from the fumes of what’s gone. The poem develops very slowly as the images and narrative threads gradually fall into place. It’s similar with a drawing: the drawing comes together by a slow accumulation of images and textures and colors, but if I feel it’s getting too overworked or I find myself being too precious with parts of it, I’ll often cut it into pieces and start again with one fragment or cover over parts with new, clean paper.

There’s something about the flexibility of both of these forms—the inherent freedom, inventiveness, and fluidity within them—that allows me to explore the somewhat intangible themes that preoccupy me: memory, narrative, landscape, human emotion. At the same time, both of these genres challenge me to be as precise and accurate as possible in rendering my thoughts and ideas. I realize some of my poems are long and some of my drawings are densely layered, but I am always striving for economy in my work—searching to create that line, drawn or written, that expresses an entire world in a single gesture or phrase.

Art by Nathaniel Bellows

Editors Note: Want more? At TheMillions.com you can read another essay by Bellows. After a cliched question at a reading stumps him, Nathaniel examines his literary motivation and learns more than he planned.

topics: Columnists