Cre­ation sto­ries Au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor Lynda Barry speaks on “Bi­ol­ogy and Cre­ativ­ity” at the Len­sic


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - AU­THOR AND IL­LUS­TRA­TOR Lynda Barry

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.tick­

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