On the first day of the semester I and three of my classmates are lying on the cold grass by the beach, watching the sky. An airplane arcs above us, leaving a white trail of cloud that expands into ripples as it dissipates. “It looks like teeth,” Chris says. “It looks like a backbone,” Lori says.
I like that; a backbone in the sky. I raise my hand and trace the line with my finger. That is my first drawing.
My assignment is to do ten drawings a day, every day for the next three months. When my advisor, Laiwan, gives me the instructions, I blink. I’m not a painter or a sculptor or even a photographer. And I really, really hate drawing.
“Forget what you think you know about drawing,” Laiwan says. “What matters is not the quality of the drawings; what matters is that you pay attention to what unfolds inside you as you do them.” Laiwan smiles at my scrunched-up desperation. She is a funny, elf-like person, and looking at her face is like looking at a mirror that reflects back to you the kindest version of yourself. She likes to use the Lacanian term jouissance: creative orgasmic ecstasy!
I am in graduate school so that I can learn how to be an Artist. It sounds silly; how can this be learned–or for that matter, taught? But I am 35 and drifting and there is something I lost along the way, something I need to find again if I am to be a person.
Laiwan makes everything sound simple. “Just pay attention to the world around you,” she says. “Notice what your eyes falls upon, because what you find beautiful will lead you to the work of your life.”
That night, in bed, a wave of dread overwhelms me: Ten drawings a day? For fifteen weeks? I imagine myself frantically scribbling drawings at 2 a.m., or while waiting tables at the tea house, apron askew, having forgotten to make someone’s tea.
Cloud becomes line becomes backbone.
I say to myself: Slow down. There is all the time you need.
Still, I put it off. “Monday. I’ll start Monday.”
A visual arrangement of lines, made by an implement, that translates an image onto a two-dimensional surface, and in which the line takes primacy over color, shape, texture.
That sounds pretty good. But then again, lines are not always two-dimensional. They can twist and bend through space.
Ten drawings a day, ten the next day, ten the day after that. I buy a pack of sleek black pens and a notebook with smooth, clean paper. Opening it for the first time, there is a sense of awe, like opening to the first page of War and Peace. At first, my mind is as blank as the page: what am I supposed to draw? Any shape? Any color?
But then there is a ten hour shift at the tea house and I clomp up the stairs late at night to a messy apartment where Nate, my partner, is on the couch watching a movie on his phone and we are still “working on the relationship” and the drawing has lost its luminosity.
An artist is someone who translates feeling into image, right? I look at the ovoids and experience only a distant recognition. There is no feeling, no jouissance. I scrawl nine grumpy doodles. Check.
Laiwan asks, “What is your quality of line?”
I had never thought of myself as the sort of person who had a quality of line. Still, an answer comes immediately:
My line is not thick or straight.
My line is not aggressively directional.
My line is tender and shaky; it questions its own existence.
But I wonder about my attachment to this sort of line. What makes me so sure that this is mine? Am I just projecting qualities—tender, aggressive—onto a line that is merely itself, that is not inherently anything at all? Furthermore, what kind of line does the line itself want to be?
I want to find the line that knows. That regards even as it is regarded. The line that blinks back.
Mostly, I procrastinate on the drawings and move anxiously between items on the to-do list. When it’s time for bed, I groan: for fuck’s sake. I still have to make seven more drawings. What kind of idiot agrees to this?
One day, I mediate next to my bed with the early morning light coming in the window. On my to-do list I check the box next to “meditate,” and then make coffee, feeling very proud of myself. I am so deliciously present. This must be what it feels like to be an Artist.
Still admiring my own capacity for attention, I walk to school for my meeting with Laiwan. Halfway down the hallway to her office, I look down and am surprised to see that my hand is holding the handle of a travel mug, and the mug is only halfway filled with coffee. Trailing behind me, all along the hallway, is a messy line of coffee splatter.
Furtively, I run to the bathroom for paper towels and wipe it up, praying no one sees me. When I arrive in Laiwan’s office I tell her about my hubristic coffee spill. She laughs and says, “You made a drawing!”
“What?” I said.
“You made a drawing with your coffee, a line on the floor.” Her face is a blank canvas. “Pay attention to your mistakes. Pay attention to what your body does when you’re not looking.”
Memory: Professor Schumacher stands in the glow of the overhead projector in the lecture hall where “Einstein for Poets” meets two afternoons a week. He is so excited about this lesson that he involuntarily rises up on his toes, as if he’s about to levitate. I am in the back, drawing in the margins of my notebook, blinking sleepily in the darkened room. Professor Schumacher draws a pink dot on a transparent slide.
“Each slide is a moment in time, and you are the dot,” he says.
Another dot on another slide, a quarter inch to the left: the next moment, a new location. Dot. Dot. Dot. Then Professor Schumacher gathers the slides, stacks them on top of each other, and places them on the projector. The resultant image appears illuminated on the wall above him: the pink dots have become a dotted line. “This is you, moving through spacetime!” he says, triumphantly. I think: it looks like a worm.
I am a worm in spacetime. I am a line.
Remembering this now, I think that this must also be true according to Einstein’s theory: all that has been, and all that will be, exist simultaneously. My crappy drawing of a fork exists, also worms, also Nate.
We are driving on a rural road near Point Reyes with hillsides of spring flowers screaming yellow, and on my lap my notebook is open and blank. Only ten drawings to go. I am crying and Nate is driving and the anger in his jaw is new. Nate has never been angry with me before. I wonder if our lines are parallel, or intersecting, or if they diverge. I turn away and draw one egg, and then another, two eggs cleaving together in spacetime.
When I look down again, I see that my hand has fallen on the handle of the passenger seat door, as if anticipating flight.
I draw. I draw on customer’s receipts at the tea house; someone spills water on my notebook and the ink bleeds in ways that are unexpectedly beautiful. I draw strangers at coffee shops, hoping they don’t notice, and I draw Nate late at night while is asleep. I begin writing little captions next to each drawing with something about my emotional state. In this way, objects—a fork, a carrot— take on a significance beyond themselves as symbols in a part of a constellation of feeling. Why is it that simply by noticing the fork, by spending ninety seconds drawing the fork, the fork is transformed into an object of deep meaning and import, if only just for me?
One evening I come home from the tea house to find the apartment dark; I stand in the doorway and remember that Nate left for a work trip. He did not say goodbye. A few hours prior I spilled hot tea on a customer, and the customer was angry, and I became flustered. I spent my break hiding in the alley by the trash cans wishing the dusk would erase me.
Feeling very lonely, I climb into bed with all my clothes on and pull the comforter up over me with the intention of finally disappearing.
After what seems like a long while, I check the clock and decide that I might as well draw. I pull out my now-rumpled sketchpad and, still prone, draw the picture frame on the wall above me, the ceiling with the circular LED light, the plastic orange bottle of Prozac on the bedside table.
Weeks later I look again at those drawings, and the cold heaviness of that night comes back to me. What is it about this arrangement of lines that carries emotional weight? Does it only carry that weight for me, or is there some inherent feeling in it that someone else might sense, too?
What even is art?
Memory: Nursery school at the cavernous YMCA. I am in the same class as Claire, my best friend, and also Allie. Allie has red hair with freckles and her Dad is a famous New Yorker cartoonist, although I’m only four and not yet reading the New Yorker. For now, Allie is just the girl who wails hysterically every morning when her dad drops her off at school. Claire and I exchange knowing looks: anxious attachment. We go back to our blocks.
My mom tells the story this way: One day, while Allie’s father was picking her up, he stopped to survey our class’ crayon drawings pinned to the bulletin board. He pointed to mine and said, “This kid has talent!”
For the remainder of my childhood, through misshapen sculptures, art lessons with Mrs. Redding, who wore the same exact outfit every week (blue tights/jean skirt/quilted sweater) and assisted me with my meticulous pastel copies of the (semi-pornographic, I now realize) paintings of the pre-Raphaelites, up until the year I was voted Class Artist in high school, I was the kid with talent. My drawings were deemed by everyone to be Good. Good and Bad were, and probably still are, the entire extent of American schoolchildren’s aesthetic vocabulary; Good usually correlated with a skill at verisimilitude born of well-developed hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. In my case, this talent also resulted, early on, in thousands of pictures of mermaids.
I think I took pleasure in their creation. I must have. Right?
It’s week six of my drawing marathon and I’m flagging. From the library I obtain a copy of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, a book about bad drawing. I need to understand: What’s special about drawing—why didn’t Laiwan ask me to do ten poems, or ten dances? What is the point?
What if the way kids draw—that kind of line that we call ‘childish’—what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand? A live wire! There is an aliveness in these drawings that can’t be faked, and when I look at them, that aliveness seems to come into me…
Real aliveness of line is hard to come by. When someone learns to draw—to render—it’s the first thing that goes—the aliveness—and it’s what some artists spend their whole lives trying to get back.”
The lines in my middle school copies of the pre-Raphaelite paintings are definitely not alive. Deadness, I must have learned, was Good, and as a girl I very much wanted to be Good. The sketchy, the uncertain, the childlike—these were Bad.
As my eye became better trained, I worked on proportionality, contour, texture. Studies of fruit, a deer skull, the human form. I repeated these shapes endlessly: the margins of my math notebooks were covered in tiny pencil drawings of perfectly shaded apples and perfectly proportioned heads. Thousands of apples and heads.
To answer the question about whether or not my drawings already exist in a universe of simultaneity, I call my brother, Gregory, who by age eight could cogently discuss things like Superstring Theory. He has just come home from his job assembling barbecues at Home Depot. I describe my memory of Schumacher’s physics lesson.
K: So my conception of spacetime, is this true? The dots and the worms?
G: Those dots you’re describing are a series of moments. When we talk about time, we’re talking about an infinite series of moments and we’re going from one to the next at a fixed rate. At least, that is one of the theories. Do you have a pencil and paper?
K: Um, I think so.
G: I’m going to start with the Many Worlds Theory of time travel. First, draw a number line.
K: Time travel? OK.
G: Now add numbers.
K: Like, how?
G: [Sighing loudly] Just dashes, and then you number them, like, 1-2-3-4-5, going from left to right.
K: And this is real?
G: [Sighing again] Yes, this is real. This is going to represent the progress of time. So, say that three dashes are a minute. That’s time in our universe. And now, draw another timeline and put it above ours. That’s time in a different universe. Now, there’s no reason for time in that universe to be the same as ours, so three dashes could still be a minute, but they could be spaced closer together, or wider apart. Or going in a different direction.
G: Now if—and this is a big “if”—you can jump from one universe to another, you’d be drawing a line straight up from one to the other. And then three dashes are a minute there, but a minute there will take you back to a different place here. That is effectively traveling through time.
K: And do we know this for a fact?
G: This is, again, a theory. No one’s ever tried it.
K: No, I know no one’s ever tried it. I’m just wondering. Mathematically.
G: [Annoyed] These are all theories.
So my drawings might theoretically already exist in spacetime, but we’d have to travel between universes to find them? I realize that he didn’t really answer my question about the worms; he probably just wanted to talk about time travel. But I like thinking about the freedom of escape, of stepping away from one’s fixed line and onto another. And there’s something soothing about the idea that my drawing of an egg, and the assembly instructions for a barbecue, and Van Gogh’s sketches for Starry Night, all of these exist as objects, as matter, equally legitimate and equally miniscule.
Rush hour on the 32 bus with my sketchbook open on my lap. After trying twice to draw the profile of the women sitting in the row in front of me, I give up: the bumping and jostling makes my pen jump wildly across the page.
Instead, I decide to allow the bumps to dictate the movements of the pen, which I hold lightly between my fingers. When the bus jumps, so does the line on the page. I’ve become a seismograph, and what emerges is a map, of sorts, of the city’s terrain.
I lose track of time. Did I miss my stop? Looking down, I feel a spark of something; is it just me, or are the lines alive?
Bed. 12:05 am. Nate asleep beside me. Lamp throwing misshapen shadows on the bedroom walls. I have missed several days of drawing but am resolved to come back to it, to not berate myself, to simply start again. But I’ve already drawn everything in the shadowy bedroom, have already drawn Nate, asleep. I decide to ask my hand what it wants to draw, what feels good.
I’m not sure. I close my eyes, touch charcoal to paper, and draw a line. The sensation of friction runs through my fingers and into my hand, and I begin to make wider and wider arcs across the page, like a pendulum. The feeling, when I pay attention, is pleasurable, and for a few moments I become lost in it. When I open my eyes, there is a messy snarl of lines; my childhood self would have recognized nothing Good about this drawing. Nevertheless, I repeat the experiment nine more times. I turn out the light, curl up next to Nate, and fall asleep. When we wake, everything is smeared with black flecks of charcoal dust: the white sheets, our cheeks, our arms. We lie facing each other in the bright morning, blinking.
Kristin Moe (she/her) is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work can be found in places like National Geographic, NPR, Orion, Moyers & Co, and Yes! Magazine. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College.