Creation stories Author and illustrator Lynda Barry speaks on “Biology and Creativity” at the Lensic
AS STRONGLY AS SHE EMBRACES THE INSTINCTS OF A YOUTHFUL MIND-SET, BARRY DOESN’T SEEM TO HAVE MUCH ROOM IN HER OWN CREATIVE OUTPUT FOR GLOSSING OVER PAINFUL MEMORIES OR GILDING THE EDGES OF DARKNESS. IF ANYTHING, SHE WANTS TO DIVE HEADFIRST INTO HER RAWEST
Author, cartoonist, and illustrator Lynda Barry has a distinctive drawing style. Once you see her stuff, you can recognize it forever thereafter. Her lines are heavy and her details simple, she doesn’t try to make anyone pretty, and most of her characters are downright awkward and goofy. But it is her voice — honest, probing, world-weary yet open-minded — that unifies her body of work, steadfast through her long-running weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, her illustrated novels, The Good Times Are Killing
Me (1988) and Cruddy (1999), and her books on art, writing, and creativity, including Syllabus: Notes
From an Accidental Professor (2014) and What It Is (2008). When Barry writes from the point of view of a child, which is often, she delivers readers to an archetypal kid-hood, where friends are more important than parents as long as parents stay out of the picture; and where adults have ultimate power but teenagers rule their younger siblings, because they decide who and what is cool.
As an assistant professor at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barry uses the same distinctive voice to deliver her lesson plans with complete authority, making clear that her classes require an unusual type of dedication. Students must keep a daily journal in a composition notebook, in which she also wants them to record notes for other classes, as well as their grocery lists and anything else they might need to doodle or write down during the semester. They are not allowed to give feedback on one another’s work when it is presented in class; nor are they allowed to discuss their classmates’ work outside of class or talk about it with their friends — rules that remove competition and ensure students’ dignity and privacy as they learn to use their memories and random thoughts to fuel their imagination. Barry also teaches workshops around the country for students who want to write but are not sure how, or believe they have forgotten. On Tuesday, May 31, Barry speaks about her ideas on art, writing, and the connection between biology and creativity at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in a free community lecture presented by the Santa Fe Institute.
Barry was born in Wisconsin and went to The Evergreen State College in Washington, where she studied with painter Marilyn Frasca and became consumed with answering the question of what an image is — a query she passes along in many forms to her students, and which continues to fuel her own work. She lived in Seattle for a while and then in Chicago for many years during the late-1980s heyday of Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which followed the trials and tribulations of nerdy preteen Marlys and her friends and family, and ran in alternative papers for almost 30 years, beginning in 1979. She also wrote The Good Times Are Killing Me (1988), a brutally direct, illustrated short novel about an interracial friendship between two girls in the 1960s, which was later adapted into a stage play that ran in Chicago and New York. She moved to a farm near Footville, Wisconsin, in 2002.
In Syllabus — a collection of syllabi from her courses at Madison, fully illustrated in her signature style and arranged in a reproduction of a composition notebook — she poses question after question. For instance, how are hands, images, and insight connected? “There is something common to everything we call the arts,” she writes. “What is it? It’s not aesthetics. … By image I don’t mean a visual representation, I mean something that is more like a ghost than a picture; something which feels somehow alive, has no fixed meaning and is contained and transported by something that is not alive — a book, a song, a painting — anything we call an ‘art form.’ ” This passage also contains an anecdote about a man at a Renaissance Faire acting out Romeo and Juliet
with a cigarette butt and a bottle cap, and a musing about how some children get so attached to their baby blankets that they interact with them as if they were alive. “How did this ‘it’ come to be located in the blanket? How was it put there? Why do we have an innate ability to have a sustained relationship with an object/image well before we are able to speak? What kind of interaction is taking place?”
As strongly as she embraces the instincts of a youthful mind-set, Barry doesn’t seem to have much room in her own creative output for glossing over painful memories or gilding the edges of darkness. If anything, she wants to dive headfirst into her rawest ideas. Her 1999 novel, Cruddy — often referred to by critics as her debut novel despite the existence of
Good Times — takes readers on a harrowing crosscountry crime spree with eleven-year-old Roberta and a man she calls “the father,” and who calls her “Clyde.” In Cruddy, which contains several angry, muddy, and evocative illustrations, Barry fuses the more basic prose of her earlier work with a gripping and gritty narrative that surprised critics, who found themselves seduced by her skill with violence and naturalism, and her deft hand with character, plot, and pacing. Cruddy reads like any good adventure fiction and is difficult to put down.
What It Is, a book ostensibly about writing, is part illustrated memoir and part incidental self-help manual, that will most likely stimulate those who have stories to tell. The goal isn’t mastery of literary craft but how to turn feelings and not-quite-graspable ideas into words. Barry isn’t trying to get anyone published or into an MFA writing program. If people want to connect with a deep, innately interesting part of themselves, she can provide a road map. What It Is could be used by therapists with their clients as well as by aspiring writers; it could also provide conversation-starters if one wanted to host an old-fashioned salon in the tradition of Mabel Dodge Luhan or Gertrude Stein. Each page is a collage of words and images that feature questions, tangentially related observations, and turns of phrases that further the reader in their thoughts. “Where (why) do we keep bad memories?” “Did you ever have a toy that scared you?” “Did anything ever happen to you that makes you think of a story?” “What are we doing when we are looking?” “What is gazing?”
Barry doesn’t ask readers to consider these questions without offering something of herself. She talks about the things that scared her as a child and the fears she has as an adult. She recalls the books she read growing up, in a house where books were scarce. She writes about teaching herself to draw, and how in the fifth grade, she’d already convinced herself that she had no talent. She writes about being laughed at and being afraid to be laughed at. She gets the reader to relate and move past the walls life has built, to try to recapture the little artsy spark still flickering deep inside. And she does all this without making creativity seem particularly remarkable. Barry believes everyone can access this part of themselves. All we have to do is pick up a pen and try.
details Author and illustrator Lynda Barry speaks on “Biology and Creativity: Why Must We Write, Draw, Sing, and Dance,” a Santa Fe Institute Community Lecture 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 31 Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St. No charge, reservations required; 505-988-1234, www.ticketssantafe.org