Drawing in Circles
I’ve been drawing mazes for about three years. A maze is a complicated story, because the audience knows most of its statements will be lies. A good maze makes the truth look like a lie. A good maze makes a lie look like the truth.
I started because the method entered my head fully formed on the way to a gig:
a) draw a shape with an opening
b) draw a smaller shape with an opening inside the first shape
c) draw an indirect path from outer opening to the inner opening
d) split the path into branches frequently
e) each time you split the path, close off all but one branch.
The gig was organized by an explosively theatrical lady who knew that her primary function in life was to be adored. She made this easy. The gig was in a theater above a pub, with proper raised seating. I spent the sound check imagining maze paths cut through the rows of chairs. I drew the first maze the next day.
It’s hard to make a maze graceful, to get the weighting of the different lines right without hinting at the correct path. My pen control isn’t good; most of my mazes fail because I close off the open branch by accident. But I’ve managed one perfectly formed maze, on the back of a flyer while I was waiting to start a gig which nobody came to.
The maze was in biro, so it looked awful. I should have kept it to trace over and make a clean copy, but the promoter was so despondent that I gave it to her to distract her.
At secondary school, I listened hard and answered questions often, but I never had my books with me and I hardly did any work. To give an idea: at the end of year nine, my history exercise book contained three pages of notes. I’d submitted one written piece of homework the entire year, on loose paper, because I’d temporarily lost the workbook.
I doodled my way through most lessons. If I didn’t have scrap paper, I’d fill my left forearm with concentric patterned rings: loops and threads and vines. The rule was that each ring had to have an even radius. When I ran out of space, I’d move to the forearms of whoever sat next to me, if I didn’t mind having them in my personal space. Responses ranged from accommodating to actively pleased.
I had an ongoing feud with one of the deputy heads. At his pettiest, he delayed starting an assembly by several minutes because we were having a staring match. He’d make me wash the ink off if he saw it. I’d draw it straight back on. I needed to replace what had been taken away, exactly as it had been.
It was three things, I think—the feel of pen on skin, the feel of pattern leaving brain to enter world, and the comfort of looking at part of a difficult body and thinking, I did that.
A tattoo is a drawing nobody can make you take off your difficult body. I got my first tattoo when I was thirteen, a letter knife down my spine (please don’t judge.) The tattooist didn’t ask for ID because I dressed like I was thirty—no makeup, a plain t-shirt, and a recently fashionable denim skirt—a technique I usually used for buying liter bottles of Smirnoff Ice.
The only people surprised by this development were my parents.
In 2016, I was in the park with a friend, about to run the first of a series of workshops called Poetry in the Pub. I provided the writing exercises and she provided the pub—the bar in the basement of her university halls.
She said, “Why do you always draw the same thing?”
I took her through the rules I was drawing by at that time—I can’t remember exactly what they were, but they ended with something like, “and then the curve has gone this way to balance it.”
She said, “but sometimes couldn’t the curve go that way?
I said, “…sometimes it does?”
At the time, I was mystified by that conversation. It became clearer three workshops later, when I picked up Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral and the final draft of my forearm tattoo fell out.
The tattoo started life as a doodle in a meeting. I was stacking weighted lines on top of each other, not looking to make anything in particular, but a figure emerged. Arm raised, hair streaming in the wind. I knew them for a guardian immediately.
I’d taken the draft to the tattoo studio tucked in the book to keep it flat. (The book has a black snake on the cover, and the owner of the studio deemed it Extremely Metal.) When the draft fell out one of the workshop participants said, “your tattoo!” and my friend said, “it’s a tattoo?!”
Turns out she’d thought I’d been drawing the same picture onto my arm in the same place for the last six months.
Being Jewish, there aren’t that many people I need to find Christmas presents for in a given year—a few friends, a work Secret Santa, a partner if I have one.
The Christmas after I dropped out of university and started working in a supermarket, I’d been dating a (with hindsight, pleasantly boring) man for about six weeks. I made little bespoke comic books for everyone who required a Christmas present, because card and ribbon are cheap, I had a day off, and I was bored.
Each comic featured the person I was drawing it for as the main character. They were stick figures because I wasn’t capable of more. Black ink, accented in three colors because those were the only still-sharp coloring pencils in the pot in my older brother’s old bedroom.
Dad tried to tell me that this was too extravagant a present for the pleasantly boring man.
I said, “Don’t be silly, it only took me an hour and a half. That’s not even a tenth of the time I spent on the whole project. Safia’s comic is twice as long. And I even made one for Alex, and I don’t even like them that much!”
Dad said, “Anna, he won’t see it like that.”
I brushed Dad off.
The pleasantly boring man’s comic’s storyline was ripped off “The Land Where One Never Dies”—his character wore out a cartload of shoes, wandering around lost. I’m not positive what the character was looking for, doing all that walking, but I have a still-sinking feeling it might have been me.
We exchanged presents in a Chinese restaurant in Soho. I’d taken him there once because it was the one I used to go to as a teenager when I came into London with friends. We’d kept going because it had got a bit posher in the meantime and did deep fried soft shell crab, which the pleasantly boring man loved. Once, as we walked through Soho to get there with his university friends, he’d asked if we could divert to Wardour Street instead of cutting through the alley with all the sex shops on it. I’d thought he was joking.
His present for me was a huge Moleskine I wouldn’t have ever bought for myself (too posh to scribble in.)
I gave him the comic. He cried. He said that nobody had ever done anything like that for him before.
I realized I had gravely miscalculated.
I’ve got packs of abstract drawings on small cards all around my flat. Occasionally, I use them (postcards, bookmarks), but mostly I just make them and then try to move each tower out of the living room before it makes my flatmate sad.
They go through phases, but the overarching rule is that every line needs to touch the main body of the drawing, so that every point connects to every other point.
A year after I moved to London I was in crisis. To get an emergency psych appointment, I had to sit in a waiting room for a long time. I wasn’t allowed to leave and come back, I suppose because of the chance I’d not come back at all.
There was another woman there with her social worker. Until she was called in, we talked quietly about the woman’s husband’s job, the social worker’s house move, my flatmate’s cat.
After the two of them left, I was shaking almost too hard to draw, but I drew. Laying one line down, then another, then another, until I wasn’t crying. Once I was steadier, I went back and cleaned up the rough edges, so you could no longer tell I’d been distressed.
The practice manager (I think that was her title, I’m a bit hazy on the details) saw the drawing when she came to collect me for the appointment.
Once we’d discussed toxic work environments and housing instability and how deciding to up a dosage isn’t the same as failing, the psychiatrist asked about coping mechanisms. I said, “I draw.” The practice manager said, “Yes, I saw, you draw beautifully.” The psychiatrist said, “Can I see?”
And I said “yes,” and I passed him the pack, and he leafed through, and said, “This is what you do to keep calm?”
And I said “yes,” and he said, “You’re working really hard to be okay, aren’t you?”
And I said “yes,” and (this bit is not hazy) he said, “I know it feels impossible right now, but this, it tells me, you’re going to be okay.”
After I was a long way from crisis, I took some drawings into a (different, non-toxic) workplace to scan, and the Brand Director asked to see them. She told me which ones she liked, which was sweet, and why, which was interesting, and that I should think about selling them, which was wildly off-base.
I didn’t quite know how to tell a member of senior management this, but commercializing the output of your disorder does not seem like it will lead to a sustainable life.
This workplace is covered in cartoons I’ve drawn. My teammate has my sketch of his gravestone (he is a goth; this was not a threat) and a small forest of skulls on struts all over his desk. One of the developers said he wanted the painting from the “brother may I have some oats” meme for his wall (he did not know about the meme, he just liked the two excellent pigs)—now he has it on a yellow Post-it. The Chief Technical Officer wanted credit for not complaining about an Oxford comma on the site, so I drew him a narky certificate.
It’s not that I’m particularly good at drawing jokes, or even that I find them pleasing. It’s that when I think, I wonder if I could make that work on paper, it requires much less energy to draw the thing and find out than to keep wondering.
Wondering is exhausting.
I’m trying to learn how to draw faces, because it annoys me that I can’t. I speed-sketch commuters in an exercise book. So as not to be caught I stick to people who are lost to the world, which means that most of them look deeply miserable.
Faces are not composed of the shapes I thought before I started looking to draw them—there are straight lines where you might expect curves, and curves where you might expect straight lines. Lots of triangles. Working out how to make brows and noses and things come forward is doing my head in.
The rule is that I have to get the sketch as close as I can to the actual face. It’s strange to have the pen strokes be dictated by reality, rather than balance or compulsion. A person’s face looks how it looks, whatever I think about it. So my drawing must look how it looks, whatever I think about it.
These sketches are full of single lines which I can’t connect to anything. When I started I thought I would have to develop a technique for joining everything up, but I haven’t. It bothers me less than I thought it would.
A completely different set of rules.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.