Lynda Barry! Yes! On EW! A Blog!
Playing with the Image
Lynda Barry on Dr. Bronnerâ€™s, eyeballs and folk dancing
by Suzi Steffen
I canâ€™t remember when I started reading Lynda Barryâ€™s â€œErnie Pookâ€™s Comeekâ€ (also here), but I have always loved the great cast of characters, the dead-on kidsâ€™ voices and the glories of Fred! Milton! Number! One! Beat! Poodle! And Iâ€™ve enjoyed her books, from Cruddy to the marvelous One! Hundred! Demons to the memoir/graphic novel/workbook from Drawn and Quarterly Press, What It Is, which recently won an Eisner Award â€” a sort of Oscar for graphic novels.
Barry grew up in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and now lives in Wisconsin. Sheâ€™ll read from What It Is at the Eugene Public Library at 6 pm Friday, Aug. 7, during the First Friday Art Walk, and sheâ€™s running a first-come, first-served free creativity workshop on Saturday, Aug. 8 (sign up in person at the library starting at 10 that morning!). Barry, a gracious, generous and quite speedy interviewee, wrote answers to these questions by email.
Congrats on your Eisner! That's so great. Do you think it will change your writing life?
Well, I am totally thrilled about the Eisner. Giddy even. It's really wonderful. But the thing that has really changed my writing life the most is working with Drawn and Quarterly. They actually printed What It Is, which is a hard book to describe, and it's hard to say where it goes in a bookstore right away. I'm lucky they took a chance on me and were willing to publish such a strange book. Just knowing I can make unusual books certainly changes my writing life.
I think you've made exclamation points acceptable again. That's one of those childhood punctuation tools you're just not supposed to use much as an adult.
A friend of mine pointed out that one of my main literary influences must be the labels on Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, and it's true. I love the jerky writing and all the exclamation marks on those soap labels. In my comic strip, Marlys is especially fond of exclamation marks.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting What It Is together? Itâ€™s so delicately balanced.
It's based on a writing workshop I teach called "Writing the Unthinkable." I use a way of working I learned from my teacher, Marilyn Frasca, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This was in the late â€˜70s. I've been using it ever since, and I love to teach it to people.
I wanted to make a book about writing that wasn't writing about how to write. I kind of wanted to make something that would make people itch to make something themselves. Collage does that. It's something I've always turned to since I was a kid and took my mothers cuticle scissors and cut out the comic strip characters in the newspaper and then pasted them onto magazine photos from Good Housekeeping, mostly pictures of food. I have a vivid memory of cutting out a tiny Andy Capp and his wife Flo and then pasting them onto a plate of spaghetti in a way that made them look like they were sinking. For some reason this made me laugh so hard. I was probably about 7.
Even now when I'm lost and not sure which way to go with my work, I'll do collage. I like making spooky and creepy collages. Lots of eyeballs pasted on anything will always look good. You can't go wrong with pasting eyeballs on things.
Lynda Barry says this is a self-portrait as the Near-Sighted Monkey.
I took my car in to be repaired, and I had your book with me.The car repair estimate guy was like, â€œWait, LYNDA BARRY IS COMING TO THE LIBRARY?â€ And my journalism students also love looking at the book. I wondered if you had an audience in mind when you were creating this book, and if so, what kind of an audience. If not, how do you keep an audience at bay in your mind or use the audience somehow to feed your creativity?
Man, am I honored that the car repair estimate guy said that. One of the tricks I learned early on for figuring out what I thought about a painting that was in a gallery was to imagine it hanging in the garage at a gas station with guys working on cars in the same room. I can give paintings in that atmosphere a chance.
When I'm in a gallery I always feel kind of tired and uncomfortable. But I love the chance art I get to see in work areas. Also cafÃ©s. I think cafÃ©s and coffee shops are great places to show and look at art. You get to sit down by the pictures. You get to read something in the newspaper and then look up at the picture again. If you get to hang around the art, you can see how fluid it is, how a picture changes depending on what's on your mind, or how awake or tired you are. There are so many things going on in a picture that are hard to see when you're standing in a museum or in a gallery.
Before I started teaching, I never really had an idea about my audience, and I owe that to Marilyn Frasca. When I was 19, she got me started on answering one question, "What is an Image?" It's a question that has guided everything I do ever since. That question doesn't include an audience at all, so I was liberated from that pressure. So liberated, in fact, that when I worked with editors or art directors, I was always shocked when they would tell me to change things to make what I was doing more accessible to whatever audience they were picturing. When someone is paying you, you do have to come through for them, but it was always so surprising to me how casual they were about saying things like, "Use less blue. There is too much blue.â€
Marilyn didn't teach that way at all. She never gave any direct comments or suggestions. I'm the same way when I teach. My students know that all Iâ€™ll ever say about anything they do is just one word, and I got it from Marilyn. The word is, "Good.â€ Iâ€™ve been teaching my workshop for a little over 10 years, and because I wanted to translate it into book form, my students were my audience for What It Is. There is something about teaching that is very much like making a collage, and there is something about getting people to work and make things without interfering with the results that makes for some mind-blowing stories. I believe anyone can do it; my students have taught me that. They helped me make that book, and I love them for it.
Are there activities you did as a kid, feeling some sort of freedom, that you couldnâ€™t do now or wouldnâ€™t do now?
I put myself in a lot of dangerous situations when I was a kid and also a teenager. I felt very free in dangerous situations. I hitchhiked alone a lot, even across the state. This was when I was about 12. Before that, I took the bus all over the city of Seattle by myself and took the ferry to different islands by myself. A lot of my earliest memories are of going places alone, going far away from my house and just showing up.
One of my favorite places to go when I was in the third and fourth grade was the dog pound. I loved being able to just walk in and look at all the dogs. People always assume a kid is with someone. I wasn't, but I knew how to look like I was. And I could tell when I was in a dangerous place and I would make myself keep going anyway.
I still very much like to go places alone, but I don't like the feeling of being in danger anymore. Not at all. That doesn't feel free to me anymore. Itâ€™s funny because I spot kids doing what I did. I spot those kids who are wandering around alone, trying to look like they are with someone. I donâ€™t know if that thing even has a name, but I'll bet there are a lot of people who did this sort of thing early on. Is it exploring? Maybe it's exploring.
I loved it when you said on â€œTalk of the Nationâ€ that â€œthe only movement left for adults is exercise, which is the saddest movement of all time.â€ What do you think the world would be like if adults were a little more free with movement?
Well, I was lucky enough to start taking hula dancing classes when I was in the second grade and I kept it up twice a week through seventh grade. To me, folk dancing is probably the happiest movement of all time. I just lucked into a lot of it. When I got to high school I had a gym teacher who seemed about 300 years old to me, her name was Miss Frisbee. And she was way into Mesopotamian folk dancing. She had these freaky little leather shoes with curled toes and all of these little drums and bells, and the records she played had such a crazy sound to them. This was in 1974 at a mostly black high school in Seattle. Miss Frisbee's class wasn't popular, but it beat regular gym classes. It was an option, and I took it, and I'm so glad I did.
We also did Israeli folk dancing. I think these old folk dances have something very big in them. The kind of movement they contain is transformative and restorative. You know, when country line dancing was starting to be a big thing, I'd hear people put it down. Cool people hated country line dancing. But I was so excited by it. It meant that anyone in the room could get up there and move around to the Boot Scootin' Boogie. They could be all different shapes and sizes. Even that crazy chicken dance makes me happy. The Electric Slide makes me happy. Cool people are wrong about so many things.
Can you say a bit about the monsters and how the little ones that say "Is it good?" and "Does it suck?" come to be?
I learned pretty early on that trying to figure out if the work was good or bad was the one thing that would keep the work from happening faster than anything else. Itâ€™s interesting being around little kids who don't have that worry yet, and then being around them when that worry comes. And it always comes. The trick is to know that worry is optional. The work will happen without it; actually it will happen much better with out it. But at some point that question is going to be there. Is what I've made good or is it bad?
Sometimes I imagine the part of me that worries â€” that says "This is going nowhere. This is stupid. This is a waste of time. You should be cleaning the house," sometimes I imagine the person saying that to me is a really awful drunk guy in a bar. Then I clearly know he's a jackass. But when he's in my head, he's the voice of reason. So when did that happen? When did the drunk jackass become the voice of reason?
I know that guy is going to show up at some point. The trick is to hold him off as long as I can. To hold him off until the work presents itself. Thatâ€™s the hard part. There is a state of mind that I have to maintain, and itâ€™s like a muscle. If I don't work for a stretch of time, it gets very weak and canâ€™t hold off the good or bad question for very long. But if I'm working every day, I get very strong about it, and that's when it's the most like being a kid and making something. Absorbed is the word, I think.
What ways would you suggest school systems change to make the processor creativity still feel possible, joyful and real as kids turn into young adults and young adults turn into adults?
Wow, that question makes me as happy as when I first saw that book called If I Ran the Circus. I'd get all kids started on folk dancing immediately. It's as important as learning how to write. It is kind of like writing, only your body is the pencil, and what's below your feet is the paper. Iâ€™d get music right in there at the same time, and art, art, art. Iâ€™d bookend any kind of thinking-related learning with body-related learning.
And I would keep one class for kids all the way up to the age of 16. I wouldnâ€™t send anyone to middle school ever. I think middle school is a terrible idea that comes at the worst possible time.
Kids teaching each other is also something I believe in. They can be really good at it in ways adults can't match. If I ran the school system, I would rain down bags and bags and bags of money on public schools and make them great, and make teachers want to work there.
Man, that is one of the best questions anyone has ever asked me.
One thing that might surprise people though is that I think wearing school uniforms is a really good idea. It may seem pretty square to say so, but it would have solved so many problems for me when I was growing up.
I break out into a cold sweat when I look at the art exercise portions of the workbook bit. The writing exercises are fine, similar to ones Iâ€™ve used teaching other people or for myself, but the idea of sketching something? Aaaaaaaah. Is there some creative endeavor like that for you? What do you do with that feeling?
Are there art exercises in What It Is? I love the idea that there are art exercises in it, but I can't remember where. I do know about the terror people have about making marks. It starts out as a worry around fifth or sixth grade and becomes full blown phobia for most people. It's interesting to me. If I met a 4-year-old who was terrified of drawing, I'd be so worried for her. But for some reason, when we're 40, itâ€™s acceptable to be terrified.
People still draw. They doodle. They make one or two shapes when they have to wait on the phone or listen in a meeting or class. This tiny little dance floor for their pen still exists for people. It would seem to me that it can be made bigger. Iâ€™ve never taught a visual art class, but I've always wondered if I could dot and how I could do it. I think I could do it. I'd like to try someday.
Teaching a writing workshop is easier because writing by hand is less terrifying than drawing. The only other thing I've seen that scares peoples badly as drawing is singing. People about die when they think they are going to have to sing in front of someone else.
In the narrative portion of the book, your instructor Marilyn doesnâ€™t actually give you much feedback about your work in college. Do you try to do something similar for your students? How do people deal with it if or when you wonâ€™t give them feedback?
I make it clear to my students from the first moment of class that I wonâ€™t say anything but "good," and I don't allow them to comment on any of the work in the class, not to each other, not to themselves even. We read aloud in the class but never comment.
Actually, no one in the class is allowed to even look at the person reading. Instead, they have to draw. I have them draw tight spirals to start out with, not because spirals are mystical, but because they allow the pen to move without being lifted. They require just enough concentration to not be thinking too hard while listening. And I ask my students not to read over anything they've written in the class until the whole workshop is over with. So the whole workshop happens without single word being said about the work.
The work happens anyway, and the best thing about this is that after a few exercises with no comment, people learn how to stop manufacturing it. They learn to stop trying to decide what they think of something before they've actually experienced it. That's the main muscle any artist needs. There have been one or two people who have been upset about the no comment rule, but generally, by the end of the workshop, it's the thing that people like best.
One thing about an image is that talking about it doesn't seem to get us any closer to experiencing it. It's kind of like talking about delicious cake. No matter how great you are at talking about delicious cake, talking about it and eating it are not the same activity.
I get the clear idea that you think the process of creating is different, and lesser, on the computer than it is on pen and paper. Why? How? What are some good things about computers?
Well, I love and adore my computer. Very much. I also love and adore reality shows, bratwurst, celebrity gossip and drinking straight whisky. I love YouTube fads like "Keyboard Cat". But I only love these things because I have something else. It would not be hard for me to give up my computer if had to chose between it and my hands.
There is something about making a thing with ones hands in the physical world, which is a world without a delete key or a "step backward" option, that allows for an image to be awkward or seemingly wrong. It allows the things we are unsure about to exist anyway because we have no choice. We canâ€™t push a button to make them disappear. And for me it's been the awkward, wrong, seemingly small things that always turn out to be the entry point into the image. On a computer those things don't have long to live. And they disappear completely. Where do they go?
Also, writing by hand is an exercise in spatial relationships as you write. You fit the letters together, an 'O' next to another "O" will be written differently than and 'O' next to an 'I' and all of it will fit on the line youâ€™re working on. We just know how to do this at a certain point, and I believe that these small physical things that we're doing at the same time weâ€™re making an image have some bearing on the image itself.
My own experience taught me that. I learned the hard way when I tried to write a novel on a computer. Lord, was that a bad idea. That was a 10-year-long bad idea. When I gave up and wrote it by hand, I had a draft in nine months. And I had a ball doing it. I actually wrote it with a paintbrush. That is the book that became Cruddy. I could have never written that book on a computer, but for 10 years, I didn't know that or even suspect it.
I heard you talk a little bit about prairie restoration in the NPR interview. How does being outside and doing some kind of physical movement outside relate to your art?
My husband does prairie restoration. We have a native plant nursery here on our little farm in Wisconsin. No big animals, just plants and four dogs, three cats and three birds. I used to spend much time outdoors and gardening, and I hope to again. But for the last two years, my life has been consumed by making people aware of the issue of the proper siting for industrial scale wind turbines. Theyâ€™re putting them up anywhere at the moment, especially in ancient migration flyways because that's where the wind is.
There are big problems when these machines aren't properly sited, but most people don't know this, and I don't blame them for not wanting to find out more. Of all the stupid and unpopular things to get hooked into, I picked this. But unless people understand that like anything else, there are big downsides with this industry for people, wildlife, and habitat, we risk ruining the very things we're trying to save. It's a hard thing to be interested in because no one wants to hear that the thing we are praying will solve the problem also has a downside. But if we don't understand the downside and pay close and careful attention to it when siting wind farms, we aren't doing any favors to the Earth. Weâ€™re doing favors for big corporations, but not the Earth.
If we are going to do this, we need to do it right. And we also need to consider all the other kick-ass renewable energy options we have. There are so many. Even bringing this up gets me labeled as NIMBY and anti-wind. I sure never meant to get this deep into it. I run a website if you want to know more. You can see it here.
What experiences have you had with Eugene?
I hitchhiked to Eugene when I was about 14. One of my solo dangerous adventures. I heard there were hippies there. I was always looking for hippies. I didn't find any and I ended up taking a Greyhound bus home the same day I got there. That's mostly what I know about Eugene.
Do you miss the Pacific Northwest weather at all?
What I miss most about the Pacific Northwest is the way it smells. I miss the way the ocean smells; even Puget Sound in Seattle has a smell. But I donâ€™t miss the weather even a little bit. Maybe because I was born in Wisconsin and spent the very first part of my life here. I love the seasons in Wisconsin. I love hard miserable winter and blizzards. I love the hot humid summers. I like humidity a lot. But I miss how fast spring comes to the Northwest. It's there as soon as it can possibly be. Here we wait until May for things to grow again. So that stretch from March through May can be hard. But it doesn't really matter where I am when I'm working. I'm somewhere else when I work. I'm absorbed into it.
What do you want people to know about the book?
That they can make one just like it. And it's ok to copy. It's great to copy. It's also great to trace. All of the things that are supposed to bead if you're an artist are actually very good if you just want to mess around. It's also good to make something and then throw it away.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book called The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, which is a picture book with lots of animals in it, and there will be some actual art exercises in this one. It's kind of the drawing equivalent of What It Is â€” kind of based on those huge coloring books I had as a kid, the kind that has everything in it, pictures to color, connect the dots, mazes, crafts. Want to make a big book like that. And I'm working on a novel called Birdis, but I can't say much about it just yet because I don't like talking too much about anything I'm writing while I'm writing it.
And I'm interviewing residents of recently built wind farms in Wisconsin. Iâ€™ve interviewed people from about 20 households, and also I've spent several nights in homes in the wind farms to understand the noise issues that for a lot of reasons aren't as bad during the day. I'm thinking about putting together a book of these stories and my experiences as an accidental activist and why it's not something I ever want to do again.
What can people in your creativity workshop expect? What should they bring with them?
The main thing they need to have is paper and pen or pencil. The best possible kind of paper for the workshop is the lined kind that goes in 3-ring binder. And I guess they should expect to be surprised.
And finally, how do you fill your creative well when you have so many people coming to you for answers and to get inspired?
Teaching actually gives me a lot. After I teach a workshop, I'm always inspired to work when I get home. I never feel worn out from this, mostly because the class is tightly structured to make it all about the images that make up the stories. So it's like reading a really great book. I feel very good afterward.
I also like to make collages for no reason or paint pictures for no reason at all. The no reason reason is best for my work. No reason and no aim and no intent always seems to lead to something interesting, alive and unexpected.