Make Way for Doodling: A Conversation Between Laura Shovan and Jarrett Lerner

A year or so ago, I noticed something curious: my friend, Laura Shovan — author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the forthcoming A Place at the Table, with Saadia Faruqi — all of a sudden began posting pictures of doodles. And not just any doodles. These were robot doodles.

As an avid doodler, as someone who believes that everyone — yes, even you — both CAN and SHOULD draw, and as a lover of all things robot, I was interested and excited. There were stretches where Laura posted a new bot doodle every single day, often with nothing more than a caption that read: “Your daily robot.” And I loved that. Because it was ours. Laura was sharing with us. Not just her doodles, but this other side of her creative self — a side that, reading her books, you might not have ever suspected was there.

I’ve long been an admirer of Laura’s writing, but over the past year, I’ve become an admirer or her enthusiasm for exploring her creativity in its many forms, and an admirer of her bravery in so openly sharing that exploration with us. I thought it would be fun to sit down with Laura and chat about all this. What follows is our conversation.

~ Jarrett

. . .

Jarrett: Before we get to the bots, let’s just talk doodles. Have you always drawn? Were the margins of your childhood notebooks doodle-filled? Or is this something you started doing later on in life? If so, what brought that first doodle about? Why did you keep on doing it?

Laura: Thanks for the kind words, Jarrett! I’ve been looking forward to talking robots and doodles with you!

My mom is an artist. Oils and watercolors are her favorite media. I have clear childhood memories of her doodling whenever she talked on the phone. These were classic doodles — swirls and geometric shapes. That was fascinating to me! My mom could draw anything, but when her mind was busy with a conversation, she made abstract designs.

One of Laura’s mother’s handmade birthday cards.

Jarrett: I love that! I’ve gotten in trouble before, when on the phone, for scratching away at a pad. People assume I’m not listening to them, when in fact, doodling often helps me listen better.

Laura: Same here! At writing conferences — especially during the keynote speeches —  I’m either doodling or knitting, which helps me pay attention.

Until recently, most of my doodles were abstract too, with the occasional attempt at a person or a bug. (I do not have my mom’s artistic training.) But then I met one of my favorite children’s poets, Calef Brown, author/illustrator of Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks. We did a presentation on school visits together at my local SCBWI conference. Calef drew a funky, man-faced snail to show us that anyone can draw a snail. Well, I went home and tried, but my snails were all awkward hipsters with goatees. It wasn’t until I started drawing robots that doodling became a daily practice.

Laura calls this one “Albert Einsnail.”

Jarrett: I’m a big fan of Calef’s work! It’s fun and silly in all the right ways, and very engaging and inviting. Also, he did several covers for Daniel Pinkwater’s novels, and he’s one of my all-time favorite novelists.

But back to your doodling. When deciding to do this daily doodling, how and why did you pick robots?

Laura: Someone asked me this a few months ago and I think I’ve figured it out. You can draw a 2-dimensional robot, and it still looks like a robot. I don’t have to do shading, perspective, or any of the other art skills that aren’t in my toolbox. But robots also leave a ton of room for creativity. I have a robotic roller derby team, a catbot, and the Bride of C-3PO.

The doodles figure themselves out as I draw them – there’s almost never a plan. I start with a shape, which leads to another shape, and an idea for the robot forms from there. That’s how catbot got its power source. I drew a screen on its chest, then thought a fish tank would be funny in that spot, and finally had an aha moment: A catbot would be powered by electric eels.

Jarrett: That’s one of my favorite things about loose, unplanned doodling — the way it can help you embrace “mistakes,” the way you let an “accident” dictate and see where a stray line goes just for the sake of seeing. It’s a good reminder that sometimes, when creating, you’ve got to shut your brain off (or at least turn its volume down) and get out of your own way.

Laura: You’re reminding me of Barney Salzberg’s wonderful book, Beautiful Oops. I love Barney’s way of seeing the world. He can take a photograph of a wall, find a shape in it, and it becomes a creature or person peeking into our world. (Check out Barney’s Instagram page, where he posts these photo/doodles.)

Jarrett: Yes! I’m a big fan of Barney, too. And mentioning him reminds me of Debbie Ridpath Ohi and her doodling. She is just a relentlessly creative human being. Her social media feeds are full of her finding/making art in the most unexpected places — using coffee stains, corn husks, or a workbench full of tools.

Laura: I love Debbie’s broken crayon doodles!

Jarrett: Yes! Some of my favorite!

I wonder, does doodling have any effect on the rest of your creative life? Does it do anything for you — as a person, as a writer, etc.?

Laura: Yes! It turns out, I need a creative outlet other than writing, something that is intentionally a hobby, rather than a job with deadlines and sales numbers. I also bake bread and knit – making things with my hands uses a different part of my brain than writing. They all help feed the creative well.

There are so many benefits to a daily creative practice. For the past several years, I’ve run a month-long community poetry project. Each February, we have a theme. The members come up with a daily writing prompt on that theme. We write a poem a day and share it to a group page that same day. Everyone knows these are first drafts, that we’re all going to have hits and misses during the course of the month, so all comments are positive and encouraging.

The daily poems are like the robot doodles. Posting them whether they are good, bad, silly, or awkward is important to me because it quiets the inner critic that so many professional creatives struggle with. The robot doodles constantly remind me that play is an important part of making art.

Posting [my doodles] whether they are good, bad, silly, or awkward is important to me because it quiets the inner critic that so many professional creatives struggle with.”

Laura Shovan

Jarrett: Play is EVERYTHING for me. When I fail to approach my work with a playful spirit, I not only find less joy and fulfillment in creating it, but also the quality plummets. It took about a decade, but I finally discovered that that is the space I do my best creating from.

Laura: Now, some questions for you, Jarrett! What is your artistic training?

Jarrett: None, essentially! I took art classes in school growing up, first because everyone took art in elementary school (which I think should still be happening in every school!), and then because I chose it as an elective in middle school and high school. I picked some things up from those classes, but mostly, it was just a time in my busy, often-stressful academic day to play and create and quiet my brain and whatever thoughts and worries and anxieties were zipping through it. The art room was always a sanctuary to me. My breathing slowed and blood pressure dropped the instant I stepped into the room.

Besides that, it’s just been practicing, both drawing and — importantly — looking my whole life. I used to, and still do, copy like crazy. If I see an illustration I like, I stare at it, and stare at it. I try to soak up all the details. I think about how, exactly, it was made. Then I’ll try and recreate it myself. Some of the best learning of my life has happened through that simple process.

Laura: That habit of looking overlaps with the practice of poetry. Poets observe the world and reflect it back through language and imagery. 

What’s your creative process like when you’re developing a doodle-character?

Jarrett: I like to make a mess, and I like to mess up. After years and years and years of definitely not understanding this, I finally get that I need to do something wrong, creatively, before I can even begin to figure out how to do it “right.” So I set out to make “bad” art, because I know it’s the first step in a longer process.

I also like to work BIG, and use BIG tools. I love grease pencils (often sold as “China markers”) and thick crayons and markers. I also love using the same sorts of products I used as a kid — it helps me get into that playful frame of mind that I need to be in. So I’ve got lots of “cheap” (I call them “affordable”) Crayola sets, and the even more affordable off-brand art sets.

Laura: I’m laughing because I went through a period when I was doodling and drawing with crayons for exactly that reason. Something about crayons says “play.” 

What do you do when you’re disappointed in your doodle – when the outcome doesn’t match the idea (or ideal) in your mind?

Jarrett: This is an interesting question. I’m fascinated by disappointment, especially when it comes to disappointment around one’s creativity. I think about this a lot — and think about how to address and limit it — when it comes to working with kids.

I think about and approach “doodling” and “illustrating” differently. When doodling, there is usually no real goal in mind. Because of that, it’s hard to be disappointed. It just is. When it comes to illustrating, I definitely approach a piece of paper (or blank screen) with more of a vision, a goal. I never reach it on the first try, and there can be a little bit of frustration and disappointment tied to that. But typically, it’s only a little bit, and I think that’s because I genuinely enjoy the process, and I believe in and trust that process. So even if it takes me a thousand tries to get a drawing right, even if it takes me two weeks to figure out exactly how to accomplish what I want to accomplish in a single image, I know I’m learning throughout all that effort, I know I’m getting better and better as I make more mistakes and fall short, again and again.

Laura: You just made a case for illustrating as a metaphor for life, Jarrett.

Jarrett: Ha! I guess I did!

Thank you so much for chatting with my, Laura. This was really great. I hope we’ve inspired some non-doodlers to consider going out there and making some marks!

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