642 Ways to Start Creating

Once upon a time, a bunch of us here who work on art and creativity books were sitting around chatting. The conversation what’s known in the publishing biz as “Blue Sky”—part brainstorm, part spit-balling session, part anything-goes-goofy-idea-fest. A lot of coffee, a lot of laughing. We always joke that it’s not really a Blue Sky conversation at Chronicle until someone suggests we print a book on a shower curtain (and, hey, we know some guys who actually did that one time). So, in the course of this conversation, I made a wisecrack—

“Hey,” I said, “we should make 1001 Things to Draw Before You Die!”

“Oh yeah, totally,” someone else said “but the things should be totally weird.”

“And it should be some random number like 642!” said another.

“But it shouldn’t be a book, it should be a journal! A sketchbook with spaces to actually draw all the things right inside.”

Suddenly, we weren’t just shooting the breeze anymore. We’d started talking about something we really wanted to make. And little did we know, but that was the fateful moment when the germ of the idea that would go on to become a bestselling creativity brand was born.

But 642’s beginnings remained humble. Somehow we cooked up the notion that, rather than hiring a writer to write this guided sketchbook we wanted to publish, we should ask the ridiculously super-smart, funny, weird people here at the office to write it. We wanted the book to have a quirky voice and the folks around here—well, they are nothing if not quirky. And so we did what we invariably do at Chronicle whenever we feel that something major is about to happen (be it an amazing new publishing list, a milestone to celebrate, or a tragic departure): we threw a party. We stuck butcher paper up all over the walls of our big open meeting space, got a bunch of markers and a bunch of beer, and invited everyone in at the end of the day to come up with a whole bunch of things to draw. And did they ever! Simple things, brain-twisting things, hilarious things, strange things. My personal favorite was “A bag full of hammers.”

642 things to draw

So we transcribed all this stuff and now we had a manuscript. And the next thing you knew (which, ok, in publishing terms means about a year later) we had the finished product, 642 Things to Draw in all its bright yellow glory. People liked it. It started to sell. We started to make more. A number of additional drawing books followed, as well as one on photography and one on painting. The other really amazing thing that happened was that one of our editors had the brilliant idea to ask the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto (a workspace/community for local writers, that also happens to be our nearby neighbor) to collectively pen 642 Things to Write and its sequel. And then our Children’s department got in on the act and had 826 Valencia create the super cool 642 Things to Write: Young Writers Edition.

And that’s when things started to get crazy. People really loved these books! Retailers from the tiny to the huge embraced them in a major way. And even more gratifying, organic grassroots communities started cropping up. People were completing the prompts and sharing their work online. With most books or journals, if you search for a book’s title online, what you get is a whole bunch of images of the cover of the book. But want to know what you get if you search for “642 Things to Draw”? People’s drawings! And there is hardly anything more exciting than that—knowing that people are out there making amazing, creative, hilarious stuff because of a thing we decided to make one day? Now that is utterly fantastic.

642 things to draw

To celebrate the fantastic-ness of 642 we’re launching a series of monthly creativity challenges, both drawn or written, that will go on all year long. Pick your medium and flex your creative muscles! Let go of your fear of the blank page! (Or, hey, if the first thing you make isn’t awesome, no big deal, just make another. That’s part of beauty of 642.)

This month’s challenge is:

DRAW: An Abominable Snowman

WRITE: A scene that takes place in extreme cold.

Tag your submissions on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with #642things to enter, and we will share select submissions at the end of the month. We will also reward the boldest writers and draftspeople who enter with some special tools of their trade.

Now go forth and make things!

Bridget Watson Payne

Executive Editor, Art Publishing. You can follow her at @WatsonPayne and read about her latest projects at

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