Volume I - 1993

Drawing on Experience: The Article
by Christine Root

Christine B. Root is a teaching fellow in ESL at Harvard University. She is the co-author with Karen Blanchard of Ready to Write (Longman), with Tsukasa Matsui of Campus Life, USA (Kinseido), and with William Grohe of Speaking Globally: English in an International Context, forthcoming (Allyn and Bacon). She has written and presented many papers and workshops on ESL methodology.

Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of an article published in the MATSOL Newsletter (Massachusetts TESOL), Volume 19, Number 2, Winter, 1993. A discussion that is closely related to the following article is "Drawing on Experience: The Interview" with john Dumicich. It appears in this issue of the Journal.

      While I was working on the plans for a creative writing course, friend and colleague John Dumicich suggested that I have students write from their own art work as one of the warm up activities. For years I had included "inkspot" art, an idea that I learned at a workshop with Tova Ackerman, wherein students each get a splash of ink and a straw with which to blow the ink around. Then, rather like the Rorschach Test, students must decide what they "see" and write a very simple accompanying poem (so-called "grammar poems"work very well: a four line poem in which the first line consists of a noun describing what is "seen," the second line of 2 adjectives, the third line of 3 gerunds and the fourth of a pithy statement about the item). I had also used Kendall Dudley's idea of crumpling, folding, tearing or otherwise mutilating a piece of notebook paper and using it as inspiration to write whatever comes to mind. I viewed this kind of para "art" work as playful and non-threatening. The idea of asking students to really draw something, be it representational or imaginary, seemed very intimidating to me.

      I found the idea threatening largely because I cannot draw. At all. I do not perceive myself as capable of replicating what I see either with my eyes or in my mind and I figured that any like-minded students would be completely turned off by such an assignment. John, however, based on the success that he had met with drawing/writing assignments, persisted and cajoled me into at least giving the idea a try as an addition to my repertoire of warm up activities for hooking students into their writing.

      As per John's suggestion, I presented the drawing exercise as a natural extension of reading done in class and then used the drawing as the basis for a writing task. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and interest that this activity engendered. Teruo Toko put it best when he wrote at the bottom of his paper, "It is very interesting to look into one's mind while listening to music and draw a picture. It digs out one's something from his mind." Not all students are great artists but they all want to express themselves and are willing to try. This type of activity works perhaps because it appeals to both the bona fide artists in the class and to those who have something to say and are willing to try a new vehicle for figuring out how to say it; drawing is simply another and very powerful way of awakening and focusing students' creativity.

      In fact, "research on the functions of the brain has shown that activities that involve the whole mind, that is both the right and left sides of the brain, make learning easier and more lasting. Activities that include the hand as well as the eye and that require the brain to create an image are psychologically more satisfying. Visual tasks permit students to express feelings and ideas that are perhaps too difficult or sensitive to express in words. They offer students a chance to communicate without words and use that result as a springboard to other modes of expression" (Mott, Handout, TESOL 1992). Visually-based tasks focus on the interconnections between images, no matter how primitive, and the tags we apply to those images. We benefit from visual, perceptual language as a parallel to the verbal and analytic thought processes (Edwards, 1986, Page xii). In his essay, "New Words, " George Orwell suggested that "each of us has an outer and an inner mental life: the former expressed in the ordinary language we use in everyday life and the latter in another form of thought that rarely surfaces because ordinary words cannot express its complexity. Our goal is to dredge up that inner life of the mind by using an alternative, visual language to make inner thoughts more visible" (Edwards, 1986, Page 66). "Symbolic language is intrinsically human and the making of art is also intrinsically human"(Edwards, 1986, Page 76). And "after drawing power from within, the human mind can then finish the work that imagination began" (Edwards, 1986, Page 228).

      Inspired, I decided to learn to draw and found a course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education entitled "Art for People Who Can't Draw a Straight Line." In the advertising blurb, Ellen Stutman describes her course as "an introductory approach to art as an expressive gesture. Emphasis will be on the creative act, rather than on technique and the finished product. The goal is to encourage students to develop and have confidence in their own creative ability." Although it uses a different medium for expression, this describes what John and I are trying to do in our writing classes.

      At the first drawing class meeting, we were asked to think of someone or something that made us really angry. We were told to use only lines to express that anger. "Don't make a picture," she said, "just use your charcoal and sketch pad and whatever kinds and combinations of random marks you want." The results may not be everyone's idea of art, but I felt great when I left that class. I had vented my anger over an upheaval in my life and I knew that I could go directly home, put pen to paper and, catharctically, let it rip. Unsuspectingly, Ellen had touched a nerve and it was very easy for me to get to what Zen refers to as "wild mind, " where the magic of personal, expressive writing leads to self-expression as well as self-revelation. My simple, primitive line "drawing" opened the floodgates. In another lesson, we worked on the precise kinds of marks that are necessary for "photographic" representation of an object, the parallel in writing being observing carefully, narrowing the subject, adding enriching details and building a picture in the reader's mind. In art, these different impressions are achieved through exerting varying amounts of pressure on the medium, using varying surface areas of the medium and using different colors. An artist is always working toward closer observation, more expert technical manipulation, clarity, and a properly narrowed focus so as to achieve a well-defined yet comprehensive and communicative final product. Stated somewhat differently, these are the very goals of writing. In writing, as in drawing, it is important to work on contour and gesture as expressive devices. It is important to concentrate and to focus and to layer so as as to achieve texture; it is important to get away from the surface and the superficial so as to expand the work and make it richer.

      To facilitate the transfer from drawing to writing, it is helpful to have students do a 10 minute "rapid-write" on the subject of the drawing as a warm up activity before they embark on a writing task. Known also as "freewriting," Peter Elbow has been credited with inventing rapid-writing, a technique used by many established writers for getting ideas down on paper as quickly as possible without censoring or editing. It is writing in streams of consciousness without worrying about mechanics and grammar. Its purpose is to let ideas flow so that there is substance to work with when it comes time to do the "real" writing. This has to be explained to students. Natalie Goldberg has written some excellent rules for rapid-writing that you might want to use to give your students as a guide. (Goldberg, Page 2-4):

1. Keep your hand moving. Once you start writing, don't stop for any reason. Just keep writing as the ideas pop into your mind. The purpose of this is to keep the editor and the creator from becoming mixed up. "If you keep your creator hand moving, the editor hand can't catch up with it and lock it."

2. Lose control. "Say what you want to say. Don't worry if it's correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip."

3. Be specific. "Not car, but cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren."

4. Don't think. Free your mind so it can wander. Go into wild mind.

5. Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar

6. You are free to write the worst junk in America.

7. Go for the jugular. "If something scary comes up, go for it. That's where the energy is."

      In writing, it is important to find a vehicle for getting into the right brain so as to tone down the left brain and its overly zealous obsession with (premature) editing and correction. It is impossible to create and edit at the same time yet it is very difficult to get disengaged and into the right brain where the creating takes place because the left brain is always trying to take over. Because the left brain rejects rapid-writing, it is very useful as a means of getting into into the right brain; It breaks the left brain's hold. It is not uncommon for students to lose all track of time, to feel "transported," or completely absorbed when they do a rapid-write as a result of having gone into the right brain and unleashing creative energy. Its purpose is to help students relax and create, to help them lose control and find "wild mind." They can edit later.

      Listed below are steps that work well in preparing students for drawing/writing activities:

1. Talk in general terms about the subject of the drawing, either as a class, in small groups or in pairs, working from prepared questions about the subject.

2. Give the students 20 minutes or more to draw their illustration. Background music adds immeasurably ("new age" music is especially good for this purpose).

3. Have students rapid-write for 10 minutes, based on their drawing. Again, "new age" music suitably creates the mood.

4. Have students mine the gems of their rapid-write, find the parts that they want to keep and develop for the final essay.

5. Revise, edit, polish and proofread for the final piece.

      Some recommended drawing/writing exercises include:

1. Choose an emotion (anger works well!) and have students express that emotion using whatever random lines they want. You may prefer to have them draw a picture.

2. Ask each student to go back into his or her childhood and draw a childhood home. For many students it becomes easier if you tell them to pretend they are five years old. They should do the exterior of the house and the landscaping.

3. Have students think of and illustrate a very happy memory from childhood. Students enjoy incorporating Carolyn Graham's "memory poem" ideas into this project (Graham, Page 25).

4. Have students think about where they will be in 10 years and draw the setting in which they envision themselves.

5. Use an article, poem or story (those of Hemingway, Grace Paley and Langston Hughes, among others, work very well) as the basis for an illustration.


Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Artist Within. Simon and Schuster, New York 1986.

Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.,

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