The merits of doodling

“I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (and not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.” –Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve just started reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and I love the way she talks about writing as practice and meditation, and all the things that you, and only you know.

A view of Rodin's thinker.  Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
A view of Rodin’s thinker. Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think everything that’s good and true in my life and the direction thereof, I owe to my mother–especially that ninth grade world lit class that she pushed me to take when I wondered why anyone would take two English classes at one time (!) and whether it was kosher for a lowly freshman to enroll in a senior-level course.  And then, there I was with that young, handsome teacher and a classroom of older students that I found so momentously  my equals, but most importantly, with a stack full of books from authors like Camus, Achebe, and Shakespeare, who I began to believe  might actually want something to do with me.

Looking back, however, I question where or how I lost that enthusiasm for books or English and somewhat, history.  Or writing, for that matter–where did I become convinced that the few things I loved and was good at paled in the shadow of the world’s more noble pursuits of science, objectivity, and real life?  I think it was Clifford Geertz who said that all anthropologists are really just wanna-be, disguised, or failed writers, and I suppose the real question is, can we be both?

Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.
Light bulbs over a Paris cafe.

I have not read like I did since that high school English class, or written the sonnets, the stories, and the prose that used to win me awards, even.  Anthropology, yet another pursuit that my all-knowing mother launched me toward, has opened up so many doors and windows into my soul and others, brought me to so many corners of the Earth, and taught me new languages, and not just the ones we speak with words, but the deeper meanings of life, culture, and spirituality.  But what doors has it closed?  As I began to call myself an anthropologist, rather than a reader, a writer, or a poet, did I, in some ways, surrender the creativity in my mind to the limited ways of being found in this world?

View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.
View of the city from the dome of Sacre Coeur, Paris.

In Paris this past week I’d see people painting scenes of the city and the gardens, scribbling into notebooks in cafes as I imagine Hemingway doing, or even doodling shapes and faces while listening to lectures at a conference at which I was presenting.  I used to doodle, I thought, as I watched the glamorous professor from Milan to my left sketch the contours of others’ cascading hair, sloping shoulders, and curved backs.  I don’t anymore.  In fact, my second thought was to wonder how an assistant professor can doodle, so juvenilely, during a conference presentation to which I assumed she’d be rapt with attention.  Perhaps that’s what the Italians do, I thought, but then I glanced around the room and the other scholars–French, Portuguese, Brazilian…all doodlers.

The fact is, it seems novel to realize that I, the committed anthropologist, can pick up a pen or a pencil and create something other than empirical social science, and that I want to.  In many ways that’s what this blog has been for me, a place to doodle a bit and without crafting a conference paper or treatise, dream something a bit more “inner worldly” rather than the worldly travel notes, kinship charts, or ethnography I’m used to writing.  Perhaps that’s why the words have often so hungrily leapt onto the page, why posts can feel effortless even while the conference papers won’t come.  They are vestiges of that innocence, that playfulness and self-discovery that led me to read in the first place and to even dare to call myself a writer.

The view inside Notre Dame.
The view inside Notre Dame.

I’m not wanting to part with ethnography–in fact, I’m writing one, and I love reading them because they capture some of that creativity, that art that life clearly has and science tends to stifle.   I often tell people that I love anthropology because it’s deeply concerned with culture but at such a fundamentally human, relational level.  I love ethnography because it doesn’t efface the author, but brings he or she into view, into relationship, if you will, with the other subjects and cultures and problems.

But the anthropologist isn’t her own protagonist; she relies on others.  And she doesn’t write about all the little things, the things that I and only I know so firmly.  She doesn’t write about her mother, her freshman English class, Camus, Achebe, Shakespeare, or a life trajectory that includes physics and Puerto Rico, ministry and China.  Those kinds of stories, I’m realizing, are left to be written and pursued, by doodles, scribbles, and practice, one word, dream, and recommitment to the world of imagination, at a time.

What about you–do you doodle? What stories do only you know and have left to tell?

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