Being a Writer/Illustrator

Listening to the illicit sounds of 5th of July fireworks.

When I was a small, wee, slip of a lass, I went through a period where I made my mom draw for me. It wasn’t that I stopped drawing; she was just better than I was. Sometimes I made her draw the hands for my people. Sometimes it was the whole people. I have a memory of sitting behind her on the couch and watching her progress.

Part of this ritual was that I would weave specific stories for every character I made her draw. Each person (it was always a person) had a story and a personality and some kind of future-shaped thing they were working toward.

My mom put up with it despite the fact that she has always maintained she can’t draw. I maintain that she can–she just never nurtured the skills because they didn’t interest her. There’s no disputing that her dad could draw, and we have his legacy of iconic 1930’s comic characters, especially Popeye, saved on yellowed envelopes and scraps of paper. But he was a civil engineer, not an illustrator.

My dad couldn’t draw, but there was definitely a literary sort of world inside of his head. If writing had been a stronger skill, he probably would have secretly written thousand-page epics of frontiersmen in 18th century Canada.

Story and visual art is in my family, though I’m the first to try to take it so far. I’m also the first to combine both sides of the creative coin, a fact for which I am really grateful. I mean, I’ve heard “I wish I could draw” from wordsmiths I adore, and I’ve heard “I wish I could write” from my fellow illustrators. From a practical standpoint, it’s just useful to have both skills. Sometimes you feel limitless (well, you know, until you look down at your work and think WOW I THINK I’LL QUIT TODAY). You could think of a picture book or graphic novel and do the entire thing yourself.

Since I could write, I have combined the written word with pictures. As a primary-schooler, this sometimes looked a little like butchered comic panels. Sometimes it was a long paragraph and a picture at the top. Sometimes it was a WordPerfect document with a trackball mouse drawing. As I approached the double-digits, it became illustrated chapter books (this is also the time when I said I’d become an author/illustrator and win a Caldecott–yeah okay, dream big, kid). And that is essentially where I have remained.

The nicest thing about being a writer/illustrator is that some things are better expressed in words, some in pictures. Some inspiration hits me write in the word-maker, and some hits me in the visuals. I will find that I need to draw something or I need to write something. I can read a book and be so desperately moved by the writing that I might spend weeks writing and not drawing. Or I might be so immersed in trying to get some kind of visual world-building out of me that I bang out a new illustration every day.

It’s a little funny that I’ve never automatically gone to picture books. That’s what so many writer/illustrators are, right? Picture book people. But when I have a premise, it sprawls out into this enormous, tentacled beast. What I always wanted to do was to write and illustrate a novel. Really illustrate it. Make the pictures sing alongside the paragraphs, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten in the spaces between each color plate.

But there are still picture books on my mind. There always have been. I read them even while I was reading Redwall and Dealing with Dragons. I still buy them today. I never went through that phase of thinking they were for little kids only. If the illustrations were fascinating, I didn’t care. I never felt self-conscious.

I imagined writing my upper YA/adult novels and having kid-friendly picture books about the same characters. I have never wanted to limit what I produce to one category. I want to write for every age and make a whole universe out of it. I mean, a universe inhabited with the characters I create. So, relatively small compared to the real one. You know.

So, being a writer/illustrator is pretty nice, I think, over all. I’m my own team. I’m my own storyboarder. I’m my own outliner. But it’s double the frustration. Fighting over your illustrations and fighting over your words–double the artistic temperament! Double the misery! Double the doubt! Double the practice!

Doublemint gum!

But it’s also the double the satisfaction. I don’t know myself any other way and I don’t ever take it for granted.

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