Because I Could Not Draw, I Became an Artist with Words

By Marilyn L. Davis


I Can’t Draw But I Can Picture Words


“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.”
― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient


Growing up in a family of artists, I was always jealous of their talents when they captured emotions, exotic scenes, or reproduced life-like drawings. 

Then there were the props – the smell of paint, easels with a canvas fully covered, brushes nestled in mason jars, and bolts of cloth arranged by color. 

My mother was a cloth artist. She could buy a piece of fabric and two weeks later be in another store without a swatch and perfectly match the hue, family, or exact color.

I, on the other hand, confused red and orange.

My sister won her first art contest at age seven while competing with adults. Since she is younger than I am, you can imagine how inadequate and unimportant I felt.


Are We Artists with Words? 


Drawing, painting, and winning art shows comes naturally to some children; writing, on the other hand, takes time to develop. Click To Tweet


I think many of us who write are artists with words. We have a picture in our mind when creating a story, article, or even correspondence. We want our readers to understand the information and create a visual representation in their “mind’s eye” that accurately conveys our thoughts and emotions.

Finding the style and voice to articulate our ideas and concepts usually takes much more time than drawing a realistic still life.


An Early Love of Words



Connecting the squiggly lines and learning that C-A-T spelled cat began my appreciation of words and the magic they can convey. While others around me created art, I found comfort in books that took me away to a different place.

I also found words to be a salvation. Learning to read at three sounds impressive, but it was about practicality. As a baby, my sister had colic, and my mother could only take a nap when she was quiet. I was not too fond of naps, so my mother gave me books to look at while she napped beside me.

Even at that age, I liked big books. I’d gotten the Child Craft Encyclopedia set at Christmas and loved those books. I looked at all of those black squiggly lines and knew that those lines told a story or described the pictures when my mother read to me.


Find the Words and Learn Them


One day, after an exceptionally trying night with my sister, my mother found a picture of a cat and asked me to find all the other references to that word. 

She gave me a pencil and asked me to circle the word each time I found C-A-T in the books. Trust me, there are many types of cats in the world, and Child Craft had them all – big ones, domestic ones, fierce ones, and playful ones. 

I looked very hard for the word that matched and probably spent enough time that my mother got a nap, and I found the word.

I still have one volume of that set, with a huge, shaky circle drawn around multiple words, but “cat” is somewhere in all of those circles. Starting with that one word, I began my life-long love of words.


The Problem with Knowing Words


However, in 1953, my school did not know what to do with a 6-year old that read Nancy Drew. Without a gifted program, the school decided that I learned at a fourth-grade level, and I would have my reading class with fourth graders.

You all remember elementary school, I’m sure; staggered lunches and then the playground. My first-grade class went to lunch while I was reading with the fourth graders. Since I missed lunch with my first-grade class, I had to endure lunch and playground with children two or three years older than I was. I was bullied at the lunch table and on the playground.

The interesting thing was that the bullies in fourth grade did not pick on me; it was the ones who were bullied that pushed, shoved, and tripped me on the playground.


The Pen is Mightier than the Sword – Kinda


I could not physically fight back, but I could harm them with obscure words. Dictionaries became my favorite book. Then I added a Thesaurus – a treasure trove for a six-year-old.

I come from a long line of educators – great aunts that taught 1st and 2nd grade combined in a consolidated school. My uncle was a professor at Rutgers University, and another aunt taught at Purdue University, so the written word has always had value.

Now, I could call the mean kids more critical sounding names and, on some level, impress my relatives with my nose in a dictionary or Thesaurus.


A Rose by Any Other Name


I next discovered etymology or the study of word origins, which opened up an even more exciting world of words, calling the bullies a persecutor, oppressor, or tyrant. Now I could tell those kids that they were drek and know its origin. Derived from Yiddish, it means filth, and in Old English, threax is probably related to the Greek word, skatos, meaning dung. 

Unfortunately, it was not well received even if they didn’t know the meaning.


Reflective Writing and Improving


I also wrote in a diary. Writing as a child helped me process how I felt. Psychologists today understand the cathartic value of expressing our feelings; however, at the time, I was only trying to make sense of how isolated and different I felt. I also cut words from magazines that attracted me – the sound, the combination, or the color.

I had no idea at the time that this early writing and fascination with words was the beginning of my writing world, as I was learning that stringing words together told a story or conveyed how I was feeling and what I was thinking. Those early writings and clipped images were the beginning of finding my reflective writing voice.

That Was Then; This Is Now


After retiring in 2011, I started writing a 400,000-word recovery curriculum, compiled from all my writings for residents at the recovery home I opened in 1990. From the Personal Discovery Guides, I was encouraged to write for several sites on addiction. When I got comments like, “You know what you’re talking about,” or “I can tell you’ve walked in my shoes,” I knew that memoir, redemption, and change were my topics.

Even though I knew my issues, some of my first attempts weren’t stellar. 

But I wanted to continue and improve. Some of us find others who write and ask them to critique our works. We may only have two or three sentences that make sense, have an original thought, or our grammar is so bad that even our best friend must remind us that each sentence needs a verb.


The Dreaded Comment – “It’s Boring.” 


Then one day, we find our passion. We know what we want to write about and how. It is our chosen topic, genuine voice, and style. We even manage to keep our tenses correct, our grammar is proper, and it is over 1500 words. These words are magic; they perfectly convey what we are trying to say to our readers. Unfortunately, someone tells us it’s too wordy.

Nevertheless, we keep on writing because now we are honing our craft. And then we get published. Not a New York Times article, but one in a lesser publication – we don’t care.

Henry David Thoreau knew much about solitude, writing, and art. “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself, and it may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”


I’m a Writer and an Artist with Words


Some talents take time. Finding our voice, our audience, and what we are passionate about does not happen overnight. Click To Tweet

In many ways, I have found an adult voice that mimics my early diary writings; how I think and feel and my observations on life. I make an effort to stay true to that voice and style in my reflective writing.

I’m no longer jealous of my sister’s artistic talents. My words have been translated into several languages enabling people to know me and my ideas in a way that no art on the wall can do. 

It may just be time to ask her if she kept that still life, and who knows? Maybe I can breathe new life into my description of it now.



Bio: Marilyn L. Davis


Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at Two Drops of Ink and From Addict 2 Advocate.

She is also the author of her memoir, Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available at Amazon, Books A Million, Indie Books, and Barnes and Noble. 



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  1. Hello Marilyn,
    I really enjoyed reading about your writing history. So interesting! Thank you for sharing this.
    Unfortunately, I got hold of the wrong end of the stick at Twitter and had attributed this post to Scott Bidulph, as I had not read this post at the time. Forgive me for the error! 🙁

    • Hi, Eline. I somehow missed your comment. Thank you for the kind words and encouragement. I appreciate both!

  2. I loved this. 🙂

    Part of why I started writing was because I have always been awful with comebacks. My sister (who is younger than I am) was always really quick-witted. She had the sharpest comebacks, while I’d be left stammering there and saying something lame like, “No, YOU (whatever she just said)!” LOL

    My writing, therefore, was partly born out of a necessity to “one-up” her, but my inability to do so in a timely manner. So instead, I wrote an angry poem about it. LOL

    Another part of what started me writing was my desire to put into words the sadness and pain I felt as my grandmother was dying. I wanted to convey how heartbreaking it was for me, so I wrote it into a note (which I hid in my mom’s shoe, hoping she would find it).

    I love art as well… but I’m also not very talented at it. My niece is ridiculously amazing at it – in fact, there are a LOT of people in my family who are good at it. I consider myself just OK. I need a picture for reference or my drawings are worthless. haha.

    • Hi, blessdout. I can certainly relate to the one-upping. I see that you use words effectively in painting the picture. I imagined that little girl placing the note. I think in many respects, those of us who wrote early in life have both advantages and disadvantages. For me, it was a release and it sounds that way for you, too. However, there’s a part of my brain that says, “You already wrote that”, and then I forget that the idea came at 5, 15, 35 or even 55, and maybe today, I could do better at the writing of the idea. Hmm. Just letting you know where your comments took me.

      And those well-placed barb poems? There might be a spot for them here at Two Drops of Ink. Or a memoir piece about your early writing. Check out our submissions if you’re interested in a guest post. You could take others on a journey if we publish. She smiles.

  3. Thank you, Marilyn for this beautiful post. I definitely relate to this. Both of my parents were visually artistic, as a hobby. I, on the other hand, loved writing. I was almost on the A-B honor roll in middle school, except for art class, which I almost failed. My dad seemed kinda baffled that I didn’t “get” art, but both of my parents also loved reading. They were wonderful in supporting my interest in reading and writing. Again, thanks for this encouraging post!

    • Hi, Maya. Thank you for sharing your lack of artistic talents with me. I know how you feel. Both my sister and mother couldn’t understand why I was all thumb when it came to art. As I said on your FB comment, we sometimes wonder if there are others who share a similar situation when we write a memoir post. Yours sounds quite familiar. My parents also encouraged the love and words.

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

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