Bearandsquirrel400 October 13


Doodling My Way to a Story by Deb Pilutti

A couple of years ago I attended an intimate writing retreat with a few friends. Gilchrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, Michigan, is a wonderful place to spend a weekend writing, talking about writing and hanging out with writers. We each had our own little house called a hermitage, with a fireplace, a writing desk and meditation space. As lovely as our tiny houses were, we opted to spend most of our time in the common house. Writing is a solitary enough experience, and the idea of this retreat was to add companionship to our sometimes-lonely process, if only for a few days.  It’s a good idea to go into a retreat with a goal. Mine was to revise the rough draft of a picture book manuscript that I was really excited about. It was a story about a ninja, and I was looking forward to having an entire weekend to work on it. At least that was the plan.


The afternoon we arrived, I staked out a good spot to work: a long oak table in the library of the common house with plenty of natural light. I laid out my pencils, favorite Micron 02 fine liner, a Moleskine notebook and my manuscript.


My friends were busy scribbling in their notebooks or tapping away on the keyboard. They typed. I stared. They looked like they were having eureka moments. I stared. Staring is a big part of my process. But still, it’s not very impressive. So I pulled out my sketchbook and started doodling. Doodling is also part of my process. It loosens up my hands for sketching and acts as a conduit from brain to paper. I like to doodle without an agenda. Sometimes what I scribble is unremarkable. Other times, an idea or character emerges.


That day, I doodled a bear and a squirrel on the same page. I don’t know why I drew them. Perhaps I looked out the window and saw squirrels frolicking nearby. Bears did not frequent the area, but it wasn’t an impossibility. After my warm-up of staring and doodling, I pulled out my unfinished manuscript, read it over and tried to think about what I needed to do to make it better. Only I could not stop thinking about the bear and squirrel in my notebook. I imagined what their personalities were like and wondered if they could really, truly be friends. What would challenge that friendship? I started doodling them along the edges of my ninja manuscript. I even dreamed about them. On the second morning of the retreat, I surrendered to the bear and squirrel’s insistent nudging and put down my ninja manuscript to see where their story would lead.


That story eventually became Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! It’s a story of an unlikely friendship between two very different animals.  When I look back at my notes from that weekend, the kernel of the story changed very little.  It’s a good reminder for me to be open to listening to the inspiration at hand and be willing to change course. I came away from the retreat with a story, just not the story I had intended to write.


Merriam Webster defines doodling as: to draw something without thinking about what you are doing. Not thinking about it is the important part. It’s a lot like free writing, which is also a great way to warm up the brain and generate ideas.


In school visits, I always mention doodling as a method to come up with story ideas and characters. Teachers can incorporate it into their writing workshops. It’s a much more fun way to start the writing process than staring at a blank page!


Bearandsquirrel400Deb Pilutti is the author and illustrator of several books for children and has worked as a design partner at, where she designs toys and products for kids. Her design and illustration work has earned her many awards and has been published in several magazines including Step Inside Design, HOW Magazine’s Best Digital Designs issue, and Print magazine. She enjoys spending time in the woods near her home in Michigan. Visit her at