Halfway through writing her new novel, The Twelve Bullets of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti wanted to get a better handle on its architecture, which she admits is complicated. A loose interpretation of the twelve labors of Hercules, the book zigzags through time and across twenty-four chapters to tell the story of twelve bullets and the wounds they inflict on the novel’s moody, eponymous antihero. The story is told from two perspectives: Hawley’s and that of his teenage daughter, Loo, as she slowly pieces together the mystery of her father’s past. So Tinti drew it all out. Then she cut it up. Then she added string.
“I work visually,” she says. “I’m always doodling or drawing.” Though she doesn’t consider herself an artist—and was never formally trained—working visually helped Tinti bring order to her imagination.
Drawing, it turns out, reinvigorated Tinti’s writing. In 2013, she was in a creative funk—“feeling really stuck and disappointed in my writing, feeling trapped.” At a conference, she attended a lecture by illustrator Lynda Barry, who argues that drawing is an essential neural exercise, one that we abandon as we mature through childhood—particularly when we begin to realize that others are better at it, when self-awareness is corrupted by self-consciousness.
Tinti recognized herself in Barry’s portrait of the lapsed artist. “I took her lecture to heart,” she says, and decided to commit herself to doodling, sketching, drawing—any visual exercise that “kept my mind in that creative place, even when I was stuck on the page.” One of the most satisfying things about doodling during Bullets was its secrecy. “It was immensely gratifying to do something creative that nobody was ever going to see. Without that pressure, a part of me opened up that was really useful.”
She began with a drawing exercise from Barry’s book One Hundred Demons, based on the Japanese brush-and-ink tradition. “Every night, I painted a demon,” she says, “and ended up covering my entire apartment with these crazy drawings. Friends came over, and it was like they’d entered the lair of a serial killer. But there was something about it that made me fulfilled. This feeling of, Okay, I can’t finish this book, and I might not finish anything or write anything again, but I can create one of these monsters and feel good about it. Just to put something on a page.”
What’s more, she says that drawing has kept her from burning out in a life of letters. “My day job has always been working as an editor in one form or another. Using the mathematical part of my brain to help writers clarify their thoughts. When I turn to my own creative work, I can get so stuck in that mode that I lose the joy in writing. Drawing helps me back off from the more analytical part of my mind, so that I can embrace some of the weirder places it can go.”