BY NICOLE HOLLANDER
[Nicole Hollander, age 6]
Perhaps you woke up this morning with the word “memoir” written in black crayon on a piece of orange origami paper stuck to your forehead. Or maybe, like me, you write and draw and you are out of work and you notice that people are deep into memoir writing and that every other book is a graphic novel, so you think, “I will make up a syllabus and I will teach something popular for a change.” Then, after teaching for a while, you think: “What the hell, I had a stressful childhood. I will write a graphic memoir” and then you remember that you really don’t like the form. Oh, my, an impure thought. I hope no one heard me. Upon rereading this I realize that my aim in writing it was to sound tough and like someone who makes rational choices based on taking advantage of the latest trends.
I left out the part where I was knocked back on my heels the first time I opened Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds and realized that the images and story in her work were more than the sum of their parts.
Here’s why I can’t get my mind around the graphic memoir– I went to art school in painting for a long time, maybe too long. My two favorite periods in art are Medieval anything and German Expressionism. I am in love with expressive line. I’m not so into perspective.
The drawing used in graphic novels is too reminiscent of comic books for me. The art is tightly drawn, using the devices used in movies: the long shot, the close up, and story boarding. Most graphic artists I talk to draw their images over and over, gaining accuracy and losing immediacy.
I love stories. I would rather write stories than draw. So, I have a problem with creating a graphic memoir.
Anyway, 2 years ago I’m waiting for an elevator in the corridor outside the offices of the MFA writing program and the hairs on the back of my neck rise and so I look behind me to see an extraordinary piece of art. It’s drawn in charcoal on beautiful paper, narrow sheets about 16 inches deep, but about seven feet long. It’s a city. I know that, even though the buildings are more like pyramids. The shapes suggest a city, but they are not real buildings. They are “outsider art!”
I immediately visit the art supply store downstairs and am directed (actually, commanded. The student waiting on me tells me I can’t use any other paper except the one he picked out) to the absolutely most beautiful paper to draw on in charcoal and it comes in rolls, so it can be cut in long narrow strips.
The second thing I do is apply to Ragdale in Lake Forest for an artist residency to work on my memoir. I get it! I haven’t been at a residency in 15 years. I arrive. I look around at the extraordinarily beautiful room (the Sylvia Studio, coincidentally), with just enough paint on the floors and furniture to make me comfortable, and there is an old boom box on the table with two stations marked on the dial with white out. They are my favorite stations… that bodes well. I staple my paper up on the walls in an unbelievably high-ceilinged room with a view of the prairie and start to draw.
I drew in a way I had never drawn before, very directly, without stopping. If I had second thoughts I drew a line through the first draft and kept on going.
It’s the story of my life from age 7 to 14, when I lived at 3914 W. Congress Street (in Chicago), before the building of the Congress Expressway changed our neighborhood beyond recognition. I used Google maps to locate my building. It looks exactly as it looked when I was a child.
I enlarged the map image and amazingly enough, on the street in front of the house, there was an empty parking space. I drew my father’s blue Hudson and placed it in that spot (he would have been pleased to find a spot right in front of the house) and I began to recreate my childhood.
Here’s a slideshow of the beginning of my memoir-in-progress:
Nicole Hollander created the cartoon character Sylvia in 1980. The strip was nationally syndicated for over 30 years. Sylvia, Nicole, and, in fact, all the characters in the strip are blatant feminists and love good food, prepared by others. In 2008 Nicole retired Sylvia and started a 6 day a week blog featuring drawings, opinions, politics and classic Sylvia strips. She welcomes contributions by friends and sometimes mere acquaintances. Nicole teaches the graphic memoir, fiction and non-fiction in Chicago and has an introverted cat named Toots.