Edith Zimmerman: Drawing as Therapy

Edith Zimmerman, the talented and creative person responsible for Drawing Links: A Newsletter with Comics and Links, has agreed to discuss her work and her story with us and show us how she uses drawing as therapy.

I always love to see people using their gifts and talents in outside-the-box ways and sharing their stories so they can inspire today’s struggling readers.

Don: Edith, thanks so much for joining me today! When you were growing up and picturing your life as an adult, did you imagine that you would be drawing comics and writing a newsletter for a living? If not, how did it come about? And what challenges have you faced?

Square cartoon titled Tempest by Edith Zimmerman where she uses drawing as therapy by depicting a record needle in a track. The text reads "I had been dwelling on something that made me unhappy and it felt like lifting my brain out of one track and putting it on another."
Image Copyright Edith Zimmerman

Edith: Ha! My first instinct is to say “No way!” but now that I think of it, I did love to write and draw as a kid, so I think I’d be happy to know that I’d found a way to do both as an adult. (“The internet” might be harder to explain…)

The quick story of how the newsletter came about is that I wrote and drew a lot in college, and then pursued a career as a writer, mostly for the internet, for the following 15 years. A few years ago, after I stopped drinking, I started cartooning about my life, just for fun, as an extension of my morning journal habit. Eventually I posted the stories to a private Instagram account, and about a year ago, I quit my day job and started a comics newsletter to share the cartoons publicly and try to make a living doing it. (Whether it will work out is still TBD!)

As for challenges, the hardest parts seem to be the flip sides of the best parts. I’ve never had a firm long-term career goal, so it’s usually hard to predict where I’ll be in a few years. And I’ve rarely made a consistent amount of money from one year to the next, so preparing for the future can be challenging. And although I mostly love the freedom of what I’m doing, I also have pangs of feeling foolish, which leads to fear about what I’m going to do next and how I’m going to make enough money to feel safe and good in the long run. These pangs are mostly fleeting…

Square cartoon titled Country Running by Edith Zimmerman where she depicts herself running on a road in the country in color.
Country Running
Image Copyright Edith Zimmerman

Don: In your comic Country Running, written during this pandemic, your running became a metaphor for how you were feeling about life that day. You wrote: “Everything feels so different sometimes. Like none of this I could have planned or anticipated. And the path keeps changing. I keep trying to put into words this feeling of being carried along by something.” Your feelings are so relatable! What is helping you to stay grounded during these unprecedented times? Does using drawing as therapy help?

Edith: Thank you. I’m glad that resonated with you. My morning routine (coffee and drawing, every day) has been invaluable. It is an anchor in my life. Also, I don’t have kids or a mortgage, so it’s easier for me to feel more open-ended about the future, which right now feels helpful. Knitting, running, and TV have also been helpful. It feels good to have portable hobbies right now. And, I guess, a portable career!

Don: My wife and I have both remarked on the sense of wonder you are able to convey about everyday objects and encounters. Getting curious about the berries in your backyard (Yard Berries), an encounter with your mom about her gift of cloth napkins (Napkins), or a spark of interest in Shakespeare after hearing a friend quote from The Tempest (Tempest). What suggestions do you have for families about staying in the moment, about making everyday encounters a learning/bonding opportunity?

Square cartoon titled Yardberries by Edith Zimmerman where she uses drawing as therapy. Here she depicts a colored drawing of red berries found in the yard. The text says, "They're like big sturdy tic-tacs."
Image Copyright Edith Zimmerman

Edith: This is so nice to hear. Thank you. “Is there anything weird here?” is always a good question to ask myself. “Is there anything GROSS here?” Also a good one. The things that stand out to me are often gross or funny. “Did anything funny happen today?” seems like a good prompt.

My friend has a family tradition of everyone going around the table at dinner and sharing a moment they really liked from that day. Everyone participates, from the five-year-old to the grandparents. It was really cool to be part of that, and it made me think it was something I’d like to adopt if I ever have kids.

Don: In your comic, My First Year Sober, you share that “your first and main replacement” of the time previously spent with alcohol was reading books again. Why did books appeal to you at that time in your life, and what does reading again bring to your life?

Edith: Books were a way to get out of my own head. I’d come to rely on alcohol for that, and after I stopped drinking, I felt trapped in myself. Initially, I wanted only thrillers and page-turners: my first night sober, I read The Girl on the Train (murder!) and later I read Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (cannibalism!). A number of resources for the newly sober encourage people to revisit the activities they enjoyed as a kid, and that turned out to be really valuable for me. (Turns out I still love drawing, reading, and making clothes!)

Square cartoon titled Love, Pain, and the Mind-Body Connection by Edith Zimmerman where she uses drawing as therapy. Here she depicts herself knitting in bed while watching a show on her laptop. The text reads, "I started watchign the 1993 Bill Moyers series "Healing and the Mind" last night."
Love, Pain, and the Mind-Body Connection
Image Copyright Edith Zimmerman

Don: In your newsletter “Love, Pain, and the Mind-Body Connection,” you make several thought-provoking observations. You mention a point from the book Healing Back Pain, the Mind-Body Connection by John Sarno, MD, that really spoke to you. You wrote: “It’s often easier to talk with people about physical pain than it is to talk about emotional pain.” Then you drew a comic depicting that it is easier for you to say, “My body is in pain,” than it is for you to say, “My heart and mind are in pain.” As you delved deeper, you associated thought, emotion, and the mind with your own approach to love, partnership, to handling yourself, and especially managing expectations.

Based on your observations, how might parents who see that their child is struggling with a difficult emotion reach out and offer comfort?

Edith: This is a hard question. Sometimes when a loved one just sits with me, and lets me feel a range of feelings, from grouchy to bitchy to sad, without walking away or pressing me to explain myself or identify the feelings—that’s been helpful. It’s nice to know that even if I’m not sure exactly what I’m feeling, it’s okay, and the person will keep sitting with me. (As long as I’m not saying horrible things to them!) An older relative once told me, when we were sitting together in silence at a difficult time, that “it is a comfort just to have you here,” and I think about that often.

(And I’m not sure if this is useful, but I recently came across a book called How Are You Peeling? Foods With Moods, featuring photos of fruits and vegetables that have been carved to have different facial expressions. Although it’s aimed at kids, it was fun to flip through and look for foods/moods I identified with.)

Cartoon titled My First Year Sober by Edith Zimmerman where she uses drawing as therapy. It shows a drawing of herself at the kitchen table, drawing in a notebook and drinking coffee. The text reads, "I think I want to try to make a comic book, or book-like thing, about stopping drinking. It feels alternately like a good idea and like a stupid one, but it also feels like the main thing I have to say. Books, comics, and columns were a big part of how I was able to stop."
My First Year Sober
Image Copyright Edith Zimmerman

Don: In that same newsletter, you ended with a quote from Ovid: “When the mind is ill at ease, the body is affected.” My readers are particularly interested in recognizing and supporting their children through the mental, physical, and emotional effects of dyslexia and its sibling conditions. To say that dyslexia causes a “mind ill at ease” is an understatement. Do you have any special memories of a time or times in your childhood when you went from feeling ill at ease to feeling safe and loved because of the actions of a caring adult?

Edith: Hm. Nothing is coming to mind, although I definitely knew a lot of caring adults! Gentleness, patience, and humor are always appreciated.

Don: What suggestions would you offer to parents who want to foster creativity and artistic expression in their children, and especially to encourage them to use art to give a voice to their feelings, to use drawing as a kind of therapy?

I’d also encourage adults not to denigrate their own artistic ability, even in a joking way. (Like: “Oh, I can’t draw/sing/dance.”) It can give the impression that there’s a right and a wrong way to do those things.

Edith Zimmerman

Edith: Having crayons, pencils, and paper available is always good. I’d also encourage adults not to denigrate their own artistic ability, even in a joking way. (Like: “Oh, I can’t draw/sing/dance.”) It can give the impression that there’s a right and a wrong way to do those things.

A drawing (or song or dance) doesn’t have to be “good” to be funny or joyful, and the “worse” it is, the better it often is. (My friend Logan once struggled to draw a dolphin from memory, and in frustration she filled a page up with her attempts. When she showed it to me, I laughed, and it felt like something cracked open for me, because they all looked the same, and I loved it. The message I got was: Oh, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be “you.”)

Don: Is there anything you would like to add? And where can readers find your work?

Edith: Thank you so much for your interest, and for these thoughtful questions.

Black and white photo of artist and editor Edith Zimmerman. She wears glasses and has a big smile.

My work these days appears mostly in my newsletter, Drawing Links, where I publish slice-of-life comics three times a week. It’s mostly free (although if people have been enjoying it, there’s also an option to pay!). I’m also on Instagram, and I’ve linked my favorite past stories on my website.

About Edith Zimmerman:

Edith is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn. She runs the newsletter Drawing Links and was the founding editor of The Hairpin. She’s written for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and The Cut. She illustrates The Small Bow and edited the comics section of Spiralbound.

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