I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to approach writing in a similar way to how my fine artist friends approach their craft. As an undergrad, I first started writing stories at about the same time I was hired to work at the bookstore at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For two years, I spent afternoons shuffling around the store looking at books and trinkets and talking to my co-workers who were mostly all artists themselves. There was Frieda, who made hammerhead sharks out of leather, and Kim, who froze and gutted a dead raccoon to embalm in a jar. Zan made abstract paintings of spaghetti, and Hana returned to her exhibit every day through the length of her show to burn up an object she had papier-mâchéd. I listened to all these projects, amused and amazed, and thought, Why can’t I do something like that?
Of course, fine art and literature are two different art forms, but seeing all those images and sculptures and installations implanted access to original thought and feeling in my brain that I’ve wanted to somehow embody with stories. So I spent my first semester at the Writers’ Workshop sitting with nude models for six hours a week, listening to my drawing teacher show us how visual narratives are constructed with a play of light and dark.
I almost didn’t take the class. Without any formal training, I got most of my art history education from children’s books—first Adventures in Art (which made me think, Yes! Art is an adventure!) and later, in Europe, a dancing warthog guiding me through the Uffizi Gallery and describing The Venus of Urbino as “this pretty naked girl.” I wanted to experiment with the children’s-book form that uses both images and words, so I made my own picture book filled with color pencil “illustrations” of stick figures with their heads cut off. It took nearly half a year to write and draw the first draft, and then about five seconds for my drawing teacher to flip through it and say, “Are you sure you want to sign up for this class?” Still, he let me stay.
He taught us how the whole drawing has to rise up from the page at the same time, and told us not to get attached with the marks we make, but to lay them down, move them around, and feel out the shapes and layers of the lines. One afternoon he called us over to stand behind the models. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he said. The shadows of the blinds curved over their backs. The mounds of their skin reminded me of sand dunes—like we were standing over the desert.
I’ve heard suggestions that I should collaborate with a professional illustrator for my stories, but it’s difficult to explain that in “writing” I needed to do both. I think what drew me to pictures, that first day I drew the stick figures’ squiggly house, was how literally I could see it on the page. I had to draw the house to know there would be a forest, and I had to draw the forest to know there would be pears. Like my stick people, words, too, are symbols that the brain takes in and transforms into meaning—or images. And when I get lost in my own writing, it’s like I have see it—to know how to lay down the bones and let the narrative rise from slowly building up the shadows and the light.
Hannah Kimei is TIR's fiction editor and a first-year student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The top two illustrations are her own work, and the third is from Grandi Musei per Piccoli Visitatori (Grand Museums for Young Visitors): The Uffizi Gallery in Florence.