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“You see,” said Thurber sadly, “that’s the way life goes. I write stories with the utmost care, rewriting every one from three to 10 times. I have written so many of them for the New Yorker that six volumes of prose have already been published in book form to only one of drawings. Yet they say, ‘Thurber? The bird who draws?’”
I’m not an artist. I’m a painstaking writer who doodles for relaxation. But it’s those doodles they go for. Do you wonder I think it’s a screwy world?”
He looked around furtively and, I thought, a bit scared.
“They’ve even labeled me a Dadaist and a surrealist. When the Museum of Modern Art put on its big exhibit of fantastic art they had a bunch of my drawings right on the tail end. Can I help it if I doodle?”
Conversations With James Thurber by James Thurber
It’s true that many of the napkin artists at the Sea Gull Cellar Bar were just doodling. Sometimes there may have been sketching out of ideas for future compositions, sometimes there may have been making a political statement, sometimes they were just showing off, but often the napkin artists were just fooling around. That’s a good thing. The art of doodling has great benefits for the doodlers and for the rest of us too.
I’m not going to pretend these doodles are elegant masterworks – they are literally the product of a few restless nights – but looking back on them, they do actually say a lot about what I want to achieve in the future. My mission statement has always been to be serious about joking around (and conversely, to joke around with the serious), and for me these postcards are something like visual puns. Many of my favorite artists and filmmakers, such as William Blake, the Chapman Brothers and David Lynch, operate heavily on this playful duality.
According to Daphne Gray-Grant doodling can improve your memory, help you to pay attention and focus better, entertain you, help you get unstuck, and help you to see the forest and the trees. In other words, a doodle a day can keep all kinds of problems away. Daphne Gray-Grant says: Doodling is not about drawing; it’s about thinking. Or, more precisely, leaving your brain time to think. Doodling is what I’d call a “mindless” activity. You shouldn’t have to work hard at it. It’s simply something to keep your hands busy while your brain works. For this reason, don’t try to make your doodles pretty or beautiful. Instead, simply keep your pencil-holding hand moving.
Scientists doodle or at the least they think about doodling.
On an ordinary day he (Charles Dickens) could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Curry
Anyone can doodle. According to historian David Greenberg, doodling was a favorite habit of many U.S. presidents. Some scientists think it helped them focus on the hard problems they had to solve. Theodore Roosevelt sketched children and animals, while Dwight Eisenhower drew self-portraits and weapons. Franklin D. Roosevelt doodled gunboats, and John F. Kennedy drew sailboats.
When I was in college I was an inveterate doodler during most of my classes. I doodled all over my notebooks, and I wasn’t the only one. Later, as a financial adviser, at the boring educational sessions I once again I found myself doodling. In between, while at the Sea Gull, I was passing through my Chauncey Gardner years. (You know, that movie Being There where the main character says “Iike to watch.”) I stopped doodling and suffered for it.
It is said that doodling “activates the default mode network (DMN) — the brain’s unfocus circuit. And, don’t let the word “unfocus” fool you, either, because the DMN is all action. When turned on, it becomes one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain, eating up a whopping 20 percent of the body’s energy at rest.” This part of the brain supports short-term memory “even when the task at hand is incredibly boring.”
Toulouse-Lautrec did his best creative work at night, sketching at cabarets or setting up his easel in brothels. The resulting depictions of fin de siècle Parisian nightlife made his name, but the cabaret lifestyle proved disastrous to his health: Toulouse-Lautrec drank constantly and slept little. After a long night of drawing and binge-drinking, he would often wake early to print lithographs, then head to a café for lunch and several glasses of wine. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Curry
One place where doodling can occur is in a diary. I don’t keep a diary. I wish I did. You should. I’ve tried many times but can’t keep it up. Most people say they want to keep their diaries private but the diaries of famous people often become public. I was amazed the day I saw the extraordinary diary of Frida Kahlo when I visited her home, now a museum, in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Frida took her doodling to the level of true art.
to link up
It looks up . .
and has no name.
— We’ll give it One:
THE horrible EYESAURUS!
Astonished she remained seeing
and the live-dead world
and being in the
From the Diary of Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a remarkable human being, an original artist, and a doodler. So was the cartoonist Charles Schulz.
At 8: 20, Schulz drove the kids to school in the family station wagon, stopping to pick up the neighbor’s children on the way. Then it was time to sit down at the drawing board, in the private studio beside his house. He would begin by doodling in pencil while he let his mind wander; his usual method was to “just sit there and think about the past, kind of dredge up ugly memories and things like that.” Charles Schulz, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Children love to doodle. The children of Charles Darwin left doodles all over the manuscript for Origen of Species. Somewhere along the way too many adults lose their doodling skills. That is a shame.
Some of the first artists were doodlers based on what can be seen in the ancient cave paintings recently found in Spain (see The Sea Gull As Art). Maybe doodles were the first human art. “Arguably, making graphic marks predates verbal language, so whether as a simple doodle or a more deliberate free-hand drawing, the act is essential to expressing spontaneous concepts and emotions.” (The Cognitive Benefits of Doodling)
The doodles of several famous authors have been collected and analyzed HERE (Idle Doodles by Famous Authors) and HERE (Ten Perplexing Doodles by Famous Authors). Some doodles by ordinary people have been analyzed HERE (What SoYour Work Doodles Say About You). There is evidence that doodling can help your short term memory and keep you focused in boring business meetings (Why Successful Leaders Should Find Time to Doodle).
The Sea Gull Napkin Artists did lots of doodling if the napkins I’ve collected are any indication. That’s a good thing. According to Doodle Lit by Jennifer Adams: “There is magic in doodling. when you draw or doodle without planning and thinking you let your creativity reveal itself without your brain getting in the way, so whatever you make has a story to tell you.”
So, when something goes wrong and you need a little relief, think about doodling. Maybe this will work for you as it has for others.