In the Venn diagram that is my life, doodling occupies a circle labeled “Not Work” devoted to the set of activities that don’t sustain life. “Work” is activity with a return (like eating and seeking shelter from weather or any employment intended to defray their expense) essential to continued existence and involving a perceived cost in effort.
The short version: I don’t have to doodle.
Doodling is also play. I’ll spare you the definition of play—I’m not sure I’m up to the effort right now—but “Play” is not purely “Not Work,” because it usually has an end in mind, just as watching television—or any purely passive activity—isn’t work, and it isn’t play because it has no real end in mind. I’ll explain, but, to me, the sets of “Work,” “Not Work,” and “Play,” fit in the cloverleaf configuration of a classic three-set Venn diagram (figure 1). In that diagram, doodling is in the sliver of an intersection between “Not Work” and “Play,” a fun activity that isn’t necessary to survival.
Typically, I doodle as colleagues speak in faculty meetings or when I’m listening to a radio program or half-watching television. Every doodle exercises pattern and variation. I decide to make a certain kind of line then might put the same shape at one end of each and then outline the lines and the shapes then develop the spaces defined by what I’ve done before. I do something for a while and then do something else. Describing it so simply demonstrates how mechanical it can be, especially when I use familiar lines, shapes, and forms. Someone watching might think my mind concentrates on the page, but I attend better—at least in an auditory sense—when the distractible part of me busies itself with lines and shapes and dividing space into zones. I don’t think about doodles much. They are not work.
I could easily teach you to doodle as I do. The only true creativity in the process resides in decisions along the way: where to go next, what might balance what’s gone before, or noting what’s missing. Some people say artists have distinctive marks, and their personality emerges in the weight of the pen or brush and the characteristic way it clings to curves and carves a page. I suppose that’s so, but everyone has marks and there’s no effort in making them as you do.
Recently, I’ve been doodling a lot. We are having a faculty-student-staff exhibit at school honoring the planet, and I created a book of doodles inspired by shapes in nature. All the doodles in this post come from that book, titled “After Earth.” What made these doodles “Play,” was their variation, an effort to make each one unique and not just mindless revisitations. To someone else, they might look the same—one mind made them, after all—but, for me their attempt at novelty is their play. I wanted to challenge myself, to put myself in a place where I’d have to be resourceful or fail, and I hoped for surprise because surprising yourself is the greatest pleasure of play. Discovery may be central to play’s definition.
If I could sell my doodles, maybe I’d move into that elusive curved triangle at the center of the cloverleaf—the place where you are supporting survival with seemingly no effort and having fun. But I’m not sure… because even doodling might become work if more were at stake, if my family relied on my doodling desirably.
I’m tempted to take a hard right here and assert, “Life is like that.” We search for that space where we’re unconscious of effort, enjoying ourselves, yet aiding our livelihood. Getting there can be a dream come true or a nightmare that transforms pleasure into drudgery.
Not being a pro doodler, I meander. Pure play has an end in mind—a win, a performance, a product. Doodling passes time, the way some living does, without anxiety. It explores without destination.
People ask me when I know I’m finished with a doodle, and I never answer well. Sometimes I’m too anxious and don’t even really seriously start, sometimes another task takes my attention away before the end, and sometimes I don’t know at all and keep going until I realize I’ve gone too far. The only true way is seeing the doodle finished.
There the art is—unexpected, unnecessary, and effortless—sort of the way I wish all efforts in life were.