Karen Romano Young

From the desk: Doodlebug: My Novel in Doodles and Humanimal Doodles, a science comic in print and on the web.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Struggle

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer." -- Rainer Maria Rilke

This quote, scribbled on one of the hundreds of white unlined index cards that surround me, hangs over my desk. Once in a while when I pause long enough to just see what's in front of me, I notice and read it, and it never fails to jolt me into what passes for perspective around here.
Because I tend to be too frenetic to notice this card, last week I drew myself a more succinct message: Stop Struggling.

I made the Stop Struggling sign after my beloved yoga teacher Rebecca kept saying it during one of the hardest, hottest power vinyasa classes I've taken. Her notion, that there's an argument inside that doesn't have to be won, just bypassed, resonated -- as yoga often does -- with my work struggle. Cross that out. (I began to hit the delete button, but stopped myself: is this a Freudian slip or something more overt?) Maybe I need to think about why I refer to my work as a struggle! What should I call it instead: channeling yoga again, should I call it my work practice? Well, what if I did? Just for the sake of this post -- which comes at the start of a four-week planned work vortex -- I'll parse out that practice idea a bit.

To stick with the yoga parallel a little longer, I'll state that Rebecca refers to us all as yogis. That sounds a little high-fallutin' to me, but she contends that anyone who practices yoga is a yogi. Is this like saying that anyone who writes is a writer? Yes. And maybe that's the first step to any discipline (another telling word): if you do it, you're a doer of it, end of discussion. So maybe the first message is to take yourself seriously, and call it what it is. That is, call yourself a doer of what you do. Which makes me a yogi, and a doodler, and an artist, and a dog-walker, and a writer, and a goof-off.

Then there's the practice idea. With yoga this means I keep on showing up, keep on going, keep on doing it, keep trying to do it better. Same with writing. Imagine the sigh of inevitability I uttered when, in yoga class on Saturday, Rebecca quoted Stephen King when he defined writing as "ass in chair" time, and said yoga was "feet on mat" time.

Wait, all I need is my ass in the chair? No, but it's an absolutely vital expression of purpose. It's a lot easier for me to get my head into writing when my ass is already there, virtually impossible if it's not, unless I'm shouting dictation from across the room. As for yoga, it's impossible to practice if my feet aren't on the mat -- and yet, Rebecca says, the key to yoga is to keep breathing. Keep focusing on inhaling and exhaling, and from that point focus on the pose you're in, and nothing else. This sounds like Doctorow's quote about how writing is like driving at night: although you can only see as far as the headlights, you can get all the way home like that.

In the last few days, I've spent a lot of time listening to Clarence Clemons' music and reading tributes to his life and music with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I'm so grateful that my sister Kim took me to Massachusetts in summer 2009 to hear one of Clarence's last concerts with those folks. It was a joy. And it has been interesting to hear about some of Clarence's ambitions beyond that band: his acting experience, his own bands, his contribution to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." From his example I see that even band nirvana wasn't enough for his spirit, and he continued struggling and striving in new directions right up to the end of his life.

Some of us just are that way. Feet on the mat. Ass in the chair. That's my aim today.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Coolest Place I've Ever Worked

Perfect timing: Robin Pulver and Rafe Martin both "shared" Paul Nicklen's amazing Ted Talk on their Facebook pages. In it, photographer Paul Nicklen describes his life growing up in the Arctic, and puts on an astonishing show of his work.

If you've been to the Arctic, the dramatic changes in the sea ice become an immediate and passionate concern, and Nicklen's Ted Talk shows why.

I can hardly believe that it's been a whole year since I set sail about the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, traveling with a group of scientists who were studying climate change. On June 15, 2010, we left Dutch Harbor, on the island of Unalaska in the Aleutians, and steamed north through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea, crossing into the Arctic Circle. That makes me an honorary polar bear, according to sailors -- but, because I left the ship before the initiation ceremony, I don't have my special red hat.

For two weeks, I was part of this cruise, called ICESCAPE, trailing around behind the scientists as they researched at scores of stations in the open water and a dozen or so on the ice. The Healy is an icebreaker, using its weight and a combination of backing and ramming to make its way through the ice.

Yes, there was ice -- even at the summer solstice. But there was less ice than before, and many signs that the ecosystem that relied on ice was suffering. Tales were shared of walrus and polar bears marooned at sea or on dry land. And, as I tried to process what I was learning, I found myself drawing -- which often happens when I'm struggling emotionally. The result was the first of my Humanimal Doodles, the Walrus Doodle, which I'll reproduce here.

Don Perovich, one of the scientists studying the ice, gave us a visual of the ice situation by comparing the sea ice in 198o to the square footage of the continental 48 United States. Before our cruise last year, the reduced ice coverage in the Arctic amounted to everything east of the Mississippi, plus a lot more. As ice melts, the situation literally snowballs: since water absorbs heat, more open ocean means even more melting ice, and more open ocean... Paul Nicklen reports that the sea ice could break down completely within ten years. Climate change, already well-established, will continue.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hot to Work

That title: should it be Too Hot to Work ? Maybe. But I don't want it to be. I've got a new idea, or TWO new ideas, and I want to work on them, even though I don't have air conditioning, I'm surrounded by panting dogs, and I'm perspiring not so delicately.

I don't want the idea to cool. Don't want the heat to go out of it. Want it to keep on cooking, and don't want to just back-burner it and leave it to simmer.

Yes, those are some thermometer-oriented metaphors. Interesting, isn't it, that the level of vibration and resonance in an idea finds parallel in relative temperature?

So what are these two boiling, pot-lid jangling concepts I can't put down long enough to cool off, or should I say chill out?

One is the new graphic novel I'm working on, called Yeti and Yak. It's about a girl who's working on a graphic novel, when a character on her inspiration wall (something like Pinterest, which I have become quite pinterested in during the last few days) comes to life and insists on being put into the story. He's so desperate that she does his bidding -- and then has to deal with the consequences. Just sorting out the ramifications of my main character's action has kept my mind spinning for several months of drafting, and now that things are somewhat unraveled I'm working on weaving visuals into the story. I've decided that the visuals will be on two levels: one is the graphic novel my character is creating; the other is the character herself and her environment (which includes the guy in the picture on the wall...do you get why I've been spinning?) So one of this week's tasks has been to nail down the look of my main character herself. You can see my first efforts above and here.

The second idea? It's actually a major revision of an idea begun in rough form nearly two years ago. Unlike my new graphic novel, this book (whose title keeps changing, but it's about my journey to the deep sea in the little submarine Alvin) began with images, and when all the pictures were done, I did a draft of the writing. Now I see things differently, and I'm going back and rescanning all my art, rearranging it, rewriting it... I am inhaling this opportunity to do things over. Remember DO OVERS from games played as a kid? Because I'm midway through a writing project I can have as many DO OVERS as I want -- or as many as I can stand.

I'm off to grab a popsicle and work some more. I've discovered that time with unfinished ideas is kind of like play. And what's not cool about that?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Richard Scarry and other giants of doodling

Thanks to Grace Lin for pointing out that yesterday's Google Doodle honored the birthday of Richard Scarry.

My little brother Bill was born six years after me, and I spent a lot of my early years "reading" Richard Scarry to him. I've heard that some parents (or adult sibs, or whoever's doing the reading) would rather read something that has more words or story or something, but for Bill and me, Scarry was the bomb. Plenty of story there, and we made up our own words whenever necessary. We pored over the pages of tiny drawings, scoping the big picture but also looking closely to find the little accidents that were always happening in the details, as well as repeat characters such as Bugdozer, Bananas Gorilla, and my favorite, Lowly Worm. No wonder I'm good at finding Waldo. I learned about the visual story -- and scanning -- from Richard Scarry.

I've been thinking about Scarry and how he put together those big spreads of pictures, back in the day before Wacom boards and Adobe this-and-that. While googling (naturally) Scarry illustrations, I came up with this piece of art being offered for sale. It seems to be an early drawing (maybe a draft, or something from early in Scarry's career) about a bunny going to the doctor.

Those things flying through the air are band-aids -- all that might be required to fix a hurt bunny. I love thinking of Scarry sitting drawing those zillion band-aids, and wonder at the mind that created those giant spreads full of minutia. Yes, Scarry was brilliant at his drawings, but what I loved the most was the sense of humor that came through. Example: the pie faces in the book cover here:

Once in a while I revisit something I used to read and realize in one of my DUH moments that this old thing must have given me an AHA moment as a kid. As in "Aha! It's cool to be whacky and insane and smart all at once" -- like Scarry. And it wasn't an easy trick, either -- take it from someone who has tried.

Thanks to Google for encouraging Scarry's kind of whacky, insane smarts -- through their ingenious logos. Some favorites of mind are here (for the 94th birthday of cartoonist Will Eisner)

here (for Japans' Girls' Day celebration)

and here, my very favorite ever, for Jules Verne's birthday:

I appreciate Google's competitions because they encourage people to explore the visual side of a story or celebration. A wonderful writer friend, Debbie Duncan, sent me this link to a story about Matteo Lopez, the young doodler who won the Doodle 4 Google logo contest. May it inspire more doodling! Here's his winning logo:

Doodle on, dude!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Doodled Interview with Ben Hazell

To say that there are some amazing doodle artists and writers out there is an enormous understatement. In the nearly-a-year since Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles came out, I've done a stack of doodling workshops. And I've found that:
• Just about everybody has a picture or symbol or word or SOMETHING that they doodle over and over again.
• Although lots of people get in trouble for doodling in school, like Dodo does, most people seem to agree that doodling makes it easier for them to listen and focus.
• Kids love to discover the power of doodle-writing to tell their own stories or to help them illustrate their stories.

Today I'm happy to share with you page one of the doodle-written fantasy Zombie Unicorn by Ben Hazell, age 12, whose animations and comics are brilliant and beautifully drawn.

After reading Doodlebug, Ben took a shot at doodle-writing and came up with Zombie Unicorn. I interviewed him about this work, using doodle-writing to do so -- of course! Our interview follows, and at the end of this post, I'll put the rest of Zombie Unicorn.

Here's Ben's response:

And what are those two things?

I completely identify. I asked:

Ben doodled on:

I had a few favorite items in Zombie Unicorn:

I wanted to know what else Ben was working on.

He's got a lot going on, including:

We were both tankful to have had this doodled conversation:

Here's the rest of Zombie Unicorn. TOO. MUCH. GREATNESS. Thanks, Ben!