An Illustrated, Revised, and Sketchy Life by Penny Kittle

From inside the snow globe that is my small town in New Hampshire this morning, I sat at my window to write. I turned off the lights. The creep of dawn amidst a sweep of snow requires watching, an attention to light and shape. The only sound is the steady snore of my dog in the chair beside me.

I want to draw the branches holding onto small peaks of fluff outside my windows, but I hate to fail. Sketching is filled with the same risks and rough approximations as writing, of course. I fear both. I put my pen to page and begin anyway. This practice with words and images is not about discipline, but about gratitude. I slow myself down to notice what I merely glance at in a rush to begin too many of my days. When I sketch, my mind wanders.

I begin with lines and shapes—today the way the drapes hang to the side of windows that frame our backyard. I accept the shaky lines, the misjudged proportions, and the stiffness in my sketches as I push forward with a fine, black pen. I cannot erase, only revise. Mistakes are boldly captured and they teach me.

notebook 2013

Today’s work in my notebook is a response to my reading. This month I’ve been perusing four books: An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory, Drawn In by Julia Rothman and Vanessa Davis, Artist’s Journal Workshop by Cathy Johnson, and The Art of Urban Sketching by Gabriel Campanario. I’ve always loved art, but feel the distance between what I can do and what I see others do, so it is easier not to try. It is just like writing: so many wonderful stories and essays humble me, challenge me, and inspire me all at once, but then I must accept the sluggish work of practicing that lies beneath all art. I must start and revise and move forward, mastering my fear. As Melanie Ford Wilson wrote, “Try not to compare yourself and your skill level to other people; don’t judge. Which sounds so easy, but is much more difficult in practice, as most things are.” Practice has its own rewards, but it always involves overcoming fear.

I sketch beside the notebooks of artists because it is teaching me how to see. These books were purchased for the high school art teacher as part of my mission to create classroom libraries for all of the teachers at my high school. I hope my colleagues will begin book talks in their classes. A teacher’s interest fuels a student’s, of course, and the biology teacher who shares Cats are Not Peas: A Calico History of Genetics by Laura Gould with the genuine enthusiasm only a science major could understand just might entice a reluctant reader who loves biology to give books a chance. The more expansively we see reading, the more likely we are to capture and sustain readers.

The forecast is for snow all day today. I’ve amended it to include cinnamon toast, snowshoeing with my dog and husband, and sinking back into Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. May you take time today to read, write, sketch, and revise your life.

Penny Kittle is an English teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire. She is the author of Public Teaching: one kid at a timeThe Greatest Catch: a life in teachingInside Writing: how to teach the details of craft (co-authored with her mentor and friend, Donald H. Graves),Write Beside Them: risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing, and Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. She is currently co-editing (with Tom Newkirk) a collection of Don Graves’ work for a book to be published by Heinemann in May of 2013. Penny lives with her husband, two kids, and two dogs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When she isn’t teaching or reading, you’ll find her curled up by the window with her writing notebook, waiting for words. You can find her online at and on Twitter as @pennykittle.