Doodling is often made easier by distractions. If I have something nearby to soften the sharp tones of my mind, starting a doodle is easier, and bridging those moments of suspension where I fall out of the flow becomes easier, those moments when I finish a segment or line and suddenly find myself staring into the blank space where any new line is possible but I don’t know how to choose which one is ‘right’.

Music distracts me from that fear of doing something wrong by creating a rhythm I can let myself fall into. I can follow the music and use it to quiet the thoughts that come up whenever I stop drawing. This, however, does not work with writing, where the distraction of music becomes a distraction from words. Music, in my head, tends to replace words; it becomes a case of either-or.

I was musically trained according to the French system, meaning the notes have names:


And those are the names I hear in my head when notes are being played. Those names push out the sounds of words, distract from these English words that come easily but are nevertheless never completely my own. I have to chase them sometimes, woo them. There is always the possibility they might abandon me.

In some way instrumental music is worse for writing than music with lyrics – if the lyrics are insipid enough I might manage to drown them out for a while. But the notes and their names are something else. They are the first language I learned. They were there when I was a baby, according to my mother even earlier, in the womb, they were there in my parents’ living room, in the kitchen, in music school. They call to me in a different way. They like it when I draw, they don’t when I write. They are jealous of the other language, the one I’ve chosen over them. But they are alright with lines, with colours, those complementary movements, just as they are okay with dance.


On that day I felt vulnerable, I guess, to the seriousness writing can represent. I wanted to hide, as I often do when doodling, in a nook of my mind where language is not king, where only shapes and movement and music reign. That nook is a silly place, and things in there don’t need to make sense. I’d watched O Brother, Where Art Thou a couple of days earlier, and what stayed with me the most was 1. the music (obviously) and 2. the bright yellow of the grass and trees, anything that should’ve been green, really. I found myself walking through the world for a while colour-correcting it in my mind: mustard yellow grass, orange leaves on silver tree trunks, a bright lavender sky.

In my head, personal jukebox, the lullaby from the film that plays as the Sirens walk out from the stream and seduce Ulysses, Pete and Delmar. The song sung and written by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Allison Kraus.

I walk around for a few days with that song in my head until I finally sit down, let it pour from my speakers, and start drawing line after line, winding lines, squiggles, until there are enough of them and I start filling them in with as many colours as I can find.

The second to last line from the song has always been the most striking to me, although I am not sure why. There’s something about the words ‘bones’ being laid down on ‘alabaster stones’ that embodies fully the closeness between the kind of sleep called forth by lullabies and the rest of death, both extreme forms of exhaustion that long to drift away in a cooling, safe embrace, the softness of an arm’s flesh, the smoothness of water-polished stone. In Madness, Rack, and Honey. Collected Lectures, Mary Ruefle says this:

And in the best of all possible lives, that beginning and that end are the same: in poem after poem I encountered words that mark the first something made out of language that we hear as children repeated night after night, like a refrain: I love you. I am here with you. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now. And I encountered words that mark the last something made out of language that we hope to hear on earth: I love you. You are not alone. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now.

[Mary Ruefle – On Beginnings]