For someone who professes to hate talking on the phone, Lynda Barry is a hell of a raconteur. When the Straight connects with the celebrated cartoonist at her home in the farm country near Footville, Wisconsin, what could have been a routine 15-minute interview turns into a conversation nearly three times that length, covering subjects that range from the changing face of the suburbs to children’s cruelty toward bugs.
Barry’s ability to delve into just about any conceivable subject matter is part of what makes her a great writer. And she is indeed a great writer, as exemplified best by Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a strip that ran in many alt-weeklies (including the Straight) for just over three decades. Illustrated in Barry’s charmingly scratchy style, the stories of bespectacled little Marlys, her siblings Maybonne and Freddie, and their cousins Arna and Arnold were often poignant, sometimes hilarious, and always utterly true to life.
Marlys and Arna also feature prominently in Barry’s latest book, Picture This (Drawn & Quarterly, $30.95). Like 2008’s What It Is, the scrapbooklike Picture This finds the author expounding, in her own wonderfully nondidactic way, on the creative process.
That’s also what Barry does in her Writing the Unthinkable workshops, one of which she will present as part of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. What exactly does writing the unthinkable entail? According to Barry, it’s about tapping into the same unconscious associations that are triggered at random in our everyday lives. “You know when you’re walking down the street and somebody passes you, and they’re wearing some kind of perfume or cologne that you smelled when you were in the eighth grade, and suddenly the whole thing comes back to you?” she asks. “Or you’ll be in a car and you’ll hear the first three notes of some song by Foghat, like ”˜Slow Ride’? You’ll hear the first three notes and your life will come back. People will call it ”˜a flood of memory’.
“If one could just freeze that moment for a second—say what comes back is your Aunt Lois’s rec room down in the basement—I feel like at that point I could say to somebody, ”˜Where are you? What’s directly in front of you, and if you turn to the left what’s over there, and if you turn to the right what’s over there? And what’s behind you?’ And I can ask a lot of questions like ”˜What season does it seem to be? What time of day does it seem to be?’ And people, for the most part, can answer those questions. And it sort of surprises them. This kind of thing happens to us all day long, and we don’t even notice it that much.”
Barry, who has been leading her workshops for 15 years, says she learned her techniques from the artist and writer Marilyn Frasca while studying at Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College in the late 1970s. Barry asks participants to write down the numbers 1 through 10 and make a list based on a given topic—teachers, for instance—and then scan that list for the entry that stands out the most vividly. And that’s where the writing begins.
“I ask them to write in the first-person present tense, like it’s happening to them right then,” Barry says, using an example drawn from her own youth: “ ”˜I am walking down the hall of Building A at Asa Mercer junior high school, walking toward science class, and Mrs. Levins is standing there.’ She had these huge bosoms that she liked to stick out, and she had a green dress. So there she is with her huge bosoms in a green dress. Whether we do it with teachers or cars or back yards or drunk relatives, it doesn’t really matter. Any noun, or -ing words or gerunds, will usually allow people to have these stories to come up.”
Creativity, Barry insists, is not the domain of a blessed few. She feels it is an essential part of human nature, which is why she especially encourages those who would describe themselves as nonwriters to come to her workshops.
“Teaching this class has really led me to believe that this thing that we call the arts, or what Marilyn called images, have an absolute biological function—that they’re not decoration, they’re not an elective,” she says. “I think they’re a corollary to our nervous system, or the autonomic immune system that regulates body temperature and glucose processing. I think there’s something about the image world that is just like that, and that developed along with our little opposable thumbs and everything else.”
Art as an evolutionary necessity? That’s not unthinkable at all.
As part of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, Lynda Barry will lead a sold-out writing workshop on Sunday (October 24) at PTC Studio. She’ll also give a talk called Comic Book Confidential on Friday (October 22), alongside Vancouver graphic novelist Sarah Leavitt, and will participate in a panel discussion on Saturday (October 23).