Lynda Barry visited Toronto recently to speak at a book festival, and to teach her class on creative writing, “Writing the Unthinkable.” In her lively festival talks — which felt more like happenings than your typical button-down, staid author’s reading — she presented excerpts from her latest book, What It Is, asked the audience to shout their first phone numbers out loud, and sang “You Are My Sunshine” with her mouth closed. She also bemoaned her sometime status as a publishing industry “gateway chick” — she says she’s like the last girl guys go out with before they realise they’re gay, only in her case it’s publishers realising they want to “date” something completely different than Lynda Barry books.
That’s changing now that she’s settled with Drawn and Quarterly, who plan to collect all of Barry’s longrunning, seminal alternative comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, and who recently published What It Is to tremendous acclaim. A memoir-cum-workbook, What It Is incorporates collage, cartooning, and longhand writing in an effort to explain and disseminate the author’s creative process—which, loosely, focuses on one word, image, or memory to begin with, then spirals out from there. Lynda Barry was gracious enough to browse through a copy of What It Is with me, all the while speaking about her craft, about the creative state of mind, and about the collage material she used from her neighbour’s mother, Doris Mitchell—as well as a little bit about Family Circus. This is the first part of that conversation.
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What It Is goes back to all the different modes you’ve worked in, in terms of the different techniques like pen and ink and watercolour and so on, but to me it feels connected to One Hundred Demons.
Oh, it absolutely is. It’s the sister book.
There’s that autobiographical aspect, and in the prologue to that book you actually talk about the process of putting those demons to paper.
The method that I used to write One Hundred Demons was to put a bunch of nouns and -ing words, gerunds, in a paper bag and pull them out. It was all based on that method I learned from my teacher, Marilyn Frasca. Right after One Hundred Demons came out my next plan was to do this book, but the publisher came out and admitted he was gay and he didn’t want to do another book with me [laughs]. But my plan all along was to do this, to try to do an instruction book, because it really is like following a donut recipe, and it was really fun. In What It Is I have a word list that I encourage people to just xerox and cut up. So that’s how I did One Hundred Demons. It wasn’t anything that I sat around and went, “I should think about smell, and come up with a story about smell.” No, I happened to pull that word out. Sometimes you pull a word out and you’ll just go, Nooooo! but I really stuck to my vow that I would do it no matter what.
The one that sticks in my mind from One Hundred Demons is “Resilience.”
It’s a heavy strip. And you know what’s interesting about that strip is, I went to speak at a high school in Washington DC, this inner city school, and these students had done their own One Hundred Demons, they had done their own books, so when I walked in I saw their books, and saw them, and started crying, and they hadn’t ever had an author before so the last thing they expected was that she’d walk in and go wauuuuugh! So they were frightened [laughs]. But it turned out that they had all this stuff prepared, and they asked if I would read a strip and I said, “Which one would you like me to read?” and that was the one they picked. Blew my mind, because it’s a weird thing for comics—not so much anymore, for comics to be sad or have so much trouble in them.
When you were publishing that, it was a webcomic at that point. Webcomics, or the ones that I know of anyway, don’t really move into that territory very often.
Yeah, or the ones that do we probably don’t even know about. It’s so funny to me because it’s like saying, we know music has the capacity to be incredibly sad and moving, and happy and all kinds of stuff, but it’d be like having music, something as big as that, stuck with only happy songs for a long time. I mean, happy songs are cool, but it’s the sad ones we use and play over and over and over again while we’re crying over somebody who broke our heart.
I found that What It Is kind of connects back to your very early work, also. You seem to be working with strict ideas, or what you’re thinking about, rather than any kind of extended narrative. It makes me think of, say, Big Ideas. Do you think that you’re returning to that, or is that something that’s always been present in what you do?
You know, it’s funny, because those early books of mine, I was a real know-it-all and I was in my twenties and I didn’t know anything. But that’s the beauty of being in your twenties and being a teenager, where you’re just like, “Well, I have this shit figured out and I know why people don’t get along.” But actually, in What It Is, I tried for the longest time to find any way other than using myself as a narrator and making the memoir part of it. I tried to think of any way I could, but that one’s my whole relationship with making things and writing. I tried really hard not to have to use myself as a narrator because One Hundred Demons really is the only close to real autobiography—and I say close to real, not quite real—but I couldn’t find any other way to tell this story. I haven’t thought on that at all, but I think you’re absolutely right on. It’s an instruction book and that’s what I was way into. Matt Groening, the Simpsons guy, he and I have been friends since we were 19, and our comics strips kind of evolved together, and we would call each other up on the phone and give each other shit all the time while we were working. But we started calling each other, because he did a lot of instructive—do you know the early Life in Hell stuff?
I know a few of the chapbooks that were published.
That stuff’s just amazing, like Work Is Hell and Love Is Hell. But there was some reggae guy called the Explainer, and that’s what we called ourselves, The Explainers—but I couldn’t write such things now. Well, no, take it back, I just did! “With my hand on my heart, I wouldn’t do it, except for when I do.”
But you think it’s coming from a different place than it was in your twenties.
Well, yeah, I do, because I think what I’m really trying to do here is get people itchy to make something. That’s my goal. And it’s not so much about relationships or, I don’t know—I mean, first of all, I never read my work. Like, people talk to me about the novel Cruddy, and I can’t break it to them that—
You can’t remember what happens.
No, I’ve never read it. I read it while I was writing it, but I’ve never read it. But Drawn and Quarterly’s going to reissue everything, and as I’m gathering comics I’ll see some of the stuff and I’ll know how old I was when I wrote it and [laughs] it works just fine, but it’s not my experience now. I’m definitely not the same kind of person that I was then.
I wanted to ask about the collage technique that you’re using here. It kind of goes from these strips—
Yeah, so these are all on legal paper.
How did that come to be? I know you did the prologue to One Hundred Demons on yellow legal paper.
Well, part of it is that I have this real fear—I still have art paper that I bought when I was in my twenties and I still don’t feel good enough to use yet. But I found that whenever I was around paper that was very inexpensive or already in the garbage I felt completely uninhibited to use it. I keep a journal like these back pages right here, so the way that I set up my desktop is, I’ll have a comic strip on my left side, and I’ll be working on it, and when the comic strip dries up—because it always does; everything you do, the wheels fall off a little bit—instead of sitting there and going, “Oh, what comes next,” I would just move my pen over and start scribbling stuff. And while I was drawing sometimes I would hear a sentence in my head, like, “Take a ouija board attitude toward your brush.” So there’s January 11th, and most of these were done while I was doing What It Is. There was something about the legal paper—I felt freed by it. I also thought, if other people see it on legal paper, then they’ll be like, “Legal paper is good enough! You don’t have to go to the art supply store and buy some special paper!” So I liked it and I’ve been keeping a journal this way for years and years and years. I have thousands of those pages. In fact I sent a whole slew of them in to Drawn and Quarterly and just let [D&Q publisher] Chris Oliveros pick which ones he wanted.
To use them in the reprint series, or—
No, for this. There were so many, there were hundreds and hundreds, and I was too close to them. I couldn’t pick, so he’s the one that picked—and did a good job, I thought, editing those back pages. And there’s my Little Women, [ which was turned down by Penguin because they thought it] wasn’t Lynda Barry enough. These are really cute little dolls, though.
Well, you know what, Penguin didn’t turn down Frank Miller when he turned in his Gravity’s Rainbow cover [laughter].
I know—it’s really a bummer. But you know, I think part of it is, the guy who was the art director hadn’t seen One Hundred Demons and wasn’t familiar with the newer collage stuff, so to him it really looked like a violent departure and he didn’t want to be the petri dish for whatever I was trying to cook up [laughter].
But for these other collage pages, you move from this kind of narrative strip to these collages which are very singular and do connect to each other, but they’re very much their own page and composed as a page.
Actually, the collages came first.
OK, that’s what I was wondering.
And they came before I found Drawn and Quarterly. But until I found Drawn and Quarterly I just knew that nobody wanted to publish my work—it was over. And I just thought, “I still want to make this book that I’ve been wanting to make since Sasquatch dropped me,” so I thought, “Just make it. Just start.” And again I had that idea about doing this book about writing, but the idea of writing about writing, doing a book that was about writing with writing in it, was something that was so different than my class. I wanted to give some kind of visual equivalent to the class that I teach, so I just started messing around and making collages—and actually there are many, many more than are in this book. And while I would work I would just hear these little things, like, “What would be different if there were no monster stories? Anything?” And that’s all I’d have to have and then I could start messing around. So once I had the collages and I knew I wanted to do a workbook, then I was thinking, “The collages and the workbook aren’t quite enough. I need to map out the story of how we have this ability to have images, then all of us lose it—very few people don’t, but almost all of us lose it—then the trick is to get it back again.” Which is also the basic story of every fairy tale: the kingdom was once in good shape, and then it went to hell, then we have to figure out a way to get it back. So I think that’s a pretty classic human experience.
That’s what I was wondering about the collages, whether it was you going back and revisiting everything and making this article for meditation or something like that, or whether it was actually you thinking through your process.
My whole philosophy is just, make a mess and do it every day and then eventually you’ll be able to figure out something from it. So the collages just sort of started. And also this lady in the back, Doris Mitchell, this is all her. This is from one of her students. You’ve probably seen all the little pieces—I was working on the collages and then, she passed.
I was wondering how you approached using these kids’ artwork, because it seems like you’re really sharing them.
All of them were in little pieces. There was hardly any whole sheet of paper, because all the paper that she had saved was just piled on top of each other, and had been wet and dried and had mice running through it, and so really sometimes there was only this much left. And then I would also just find like this. This kind of stuff where there’s somebody who’s doing math, doing math, and then all of a sudden it’s, I love you I love I love you, Patsy Patsy Patsy. That stuff would just blow my mind because, to me, it illustrated what thinking’s like. Here I’m trying to work on this problem and there’s, Patsy Patsy Patsy.
The really shaky handwriting, is that—
That’s amazing. Just the marks on the paper.
She also was somebody who kept every little thing and she liked to package certain things. For instance, I found this plastic bag that was full of twist-ties and around it, it had a twist-tie that had a tag on it that said, “twist-ties” [laughter]. I have that hanging on my wall. She was obsessive that way. And this is her shirt, she made this. I have not only her scraps, but I have all her clothes. I always say, it’s the curse of one hoarder put on another hoarder. I can’t throw away anything. She also kept all her school pictures, but they’re all ones that had water on them. So sometimes you’ll only be able to see somebody’s eye, but on the back there’ll be their names. So I’ve gotten to know all these people—it’s really cool.
And the photos that you’ve covered over, are they from her collection as well?
No, a lot of them would have been from really old National Geographics, and then I just used gel pencil. I used every source that I could think of. Any piece of paper is fair game. Weirdly, I stopped sweeping my floor while I was doing this because as soon as I saw a scrap on the floor, I don’t know why, that was much more likely to be used. So I realised, every time I swept the floor I was sweeping away possibilities. So I had the dirtiest floor for nine months, but I wouldn’t sweep it.
It’s like the ultimate hoarder mentality.
It is! They’ve done MRI stuff on hoarders—on people who have that thing where they can’t throw away anything. They do these MRIs to see what part of the brain is getting blood flow, and they had this woman who had a really big hoarding problem. She had coupons that had expired ten years earlier and what they wanted to do was measure her blood flow as they put the coupon that had expired ten years earlier through a shredder. And it was the blood flow exactly as if she herself had been attacked. My husband is also a hoarder—we love garbage—and this wish to transform garbage into something valuable, it’s sort of a feeling about yourself as well. The hoarding thing is really interesting. I do think it’s a defence. Also, my mom was very neat, so I know as long as there’s stuff on the floor she’s nowhere around [laughs]. If things are a mess, that woman is not ever around. So I made my ring of trash to keep her away. And then I used a lot of glitter—it’s hard to…
It does show up. At the beginning I was noticing it a bit more than when I actually got into the book.
The most ridiculous thing I did is, there’s a whole bunch of glow-in-the-dark paint—not that anyone in this world could ever see it, but there was something really fun for me about doing it. And then turning off the lights to go back up to the house, and then the thing would go, Woooooooo!
I had one last thing that I wanted to ask you about the collages. It seems to me like it’s a different kind of using your hands than the kind that you talk about in the rest of the book, than the doodling and the alphabet-writing. I’m just wondering if that’s accessing the same thought process that goes into the image-making that you’re talking about.
I think it’s the exact same neighbourhood. All you’re doing is practicing a physical activity with a state of mind—there was something about this way of working that allowed accidents to happen more than if I’m writing. That’s the part that was so valuable about it. Chip Kidd talked about it today—when something would just fall when you set it down, when you went to answer the phone, and the way it was sitting was just right. That helped me a lot. And while I’m moving stuff around, that’s when I hear in my head a sentence like this. None of this is written when I’m not actually working on it. For me that was a really important thing, because I feel like if something is occurring to you as you’re doing it, it sounds kind of flaky, but it might transfer a little. Also I like that you can look at this and go, “I could do this.” That’s like, “Yes, you can! Mission accomplished!”
That’s got to be your goal, teaching, too.
Oh, yeah. I really do think that the health of the world, the future of the world, depends on people connecting. The future of the world depends on people feeling mentally healthy and stable and having the will to live. This is one of the natural ways that human beings have always done it, is the arts. It’s such a new word, compared to what it’s describing, because people were making marks and singing and dancing and there were story arcs long before there was anybody to call it a story arc. I think it’s also the best thing that you can have, is a feeling that life is worth living. You don’t have to be happy—you just have to not want to kill yourself or others [laughter].
That’s good—that’s a bare minimum.
No, seriously! From there, you’ve got your vowels and you can throw in the consonants you want.
I wanted to talk a bit more about the doodling or the constant hand movement that you’re talking about. I think you’ve read Ivan Brunetti’s little book on cartooning…
That is the best book ever written, as far as I’m concerned. The Philosophy and Practice—that one? That is the best book I’ve ever read on cartooning, and it is so generous. It’s like, anybody can do this. That book is so good.
Yeah, I think part of that is his business on the doodle as the basic form of cartooning. He promotes it as the ideal form of cartooning because it’s simple and it’s not thought-through—it’s from your brain to the paper.
And the reason you do it is because it’s giving you something. It’s making you able to stand a bad meeting. It’s making you able to stand hanging on line until the electric company comes back. That’s what we do if we have a pen. I saw you do it a little bit on the back of that page, am I right?
Yeah, just circling.
I always spot them. I don’t take those things for granted anymore. When I see them I’m just like, “It’s alive!”
I wanted to ask if you think that the doodling, the constant hand movement, if that maybe makes cartooning closer to the unconscious than any other art form, just because that’s the one that has the most maker’s mark to it?
But if you think of movement—that’s your hand on the page, but then if you think of a dancer, that’s full-on movement. Or even a musician—the main thing for a musician to get to the end of the song is to stay in motion until the end of the song.
Right. So it’s not necessarily the hand on the paper.
No, it’s physical activity with a state of mind for a sustained, not necessarily too long, period of time. There was some guitarist who says that when things are going really well in his band he feels like he doesn’t even know what’s driving his fingers and there are times when he could just take his hand off and the guitar would keep playing itself. That’s absolutely how it feels when you have characters. Once you have characters and you kind of know them it does feel like the strips write themselves—although you have to haul the thousand tons of brick with your pen.
So do Marlys and Fred Milton act on their own?
Beyond the valley of on their own. Fred Milton has gotten me fired from so many papers. He doesn’t care. I’ve been fired from so many papers because of that dog. So, because I have characters and I’m used to having them now, I even do the bag thing with Marlys or Arna—Arna’s been the narrator of the strip for the last year or so. But I try my best not to have a single idea when I sit down to do my strip, and then I’ll pull that word out and do a list of ten things. If it’s Marlys doing it, I know what her memories will be, and Arna. But it’s not even like I’m thinking—it’s like when you’re a kid and you had a car. You didn’t have to go, “I think what I’ll do now is, I’ll do this and then it will swerve and go off the cliff and I will feel anxiety and then I’ll catch it and feel release—let’s go!” There’s some other thing that goes on that’s very quick. It’s like getting a joke: getting a joke is way past the thinking part of it. So what is that? How do we do that? I find it to be fascinating. Or why we can read a novel and not have to keep every little part in mind. After a certain point it just rolls. That means we have that power.
And we’re just not using it, maybe.
Or we’re shamed out of using it, for sure. I said that thing in my talk about finding out that What It Is made the science fiction list [on an online bookseller]. It does seem like there is some kind of science fiction plot to get everyone to stop doing all the stuff that would make us feel better and then instead start consuming. [Pause.] But that’s fucking bullshit [laughter]. Well, it is, you know. I mean, frankly, it is. That’s one thing about getting older: when you’re younger you can come up with a concept and it kind of fits and you think, “Heeeeey.” You don’t even care if it’s true or not—it just made somebody go, “Yeeeeeah!” Now, I know, I just made that up and it’s bullshit. It does fit, but it’s like drawing a key. Yeah, it looks like a key, but it’s not going to start your car [laughter].
You were talking earlier about dancers and musicians. The whole book is about finding images and getting access to images. Do you think that they are accessing images in different ways, or is it the same kind of image with them as it is with your writing students?
I think the thing that Marilyn, my teacher, called an image, is an arbitrary word. “Image,” for most people, in the beginning, makes them think of a visual image or a memory of something. But I feel like what she meant by it was that living part that’s in the container of the song. So maybe “an experience” is more accurate. So in the container of the song, in the container of the dance, in the container of the good reciprocal conversation with a stranger which we have every once in a while and it’s fucking miraculous—at a certain point in the conversation, that person’s going to get off the train, or you are. There’s something about that timeframe of, our train ride’s going to last for 27 minutes and that’s the container. I don’t know how else to describe it except as this living thing that’s activated either by reading it or watching it or making it, and it’s contained in the thing we call the arts, or what kids call play. I just keep trying to figure out the exact metaphor for this other space that human beings have made and that we all can talk about. We can all talk about Batman or how Superman, no matter how strong he is, his outfit is sooooooooo baaaaaaaaad. No matter what he does—I don’t care how he fixes his hair, I just can’t get past his outfit. But I can talk to you about that. So where is Superman?
He’s in a kind of space that we all share, yeah.
In computers they call it a virtual world. But this is an entirely other workspace or living space and even the word “imagination” doesn’t capture it. It really is the place where most stuff happens, but I know that I haven’t gotten my mind around it yet. I’m just missing about three feet of my mind to be able to get around the whole thing. I keep going back to one of the early Star Treks—when Whoopi Goldberg was on and they would play that three-dimensional chess. Do you remember that?
See, that’s another thing! That’s in the image world. What I’m talking about doesn’t really exist. There was no actual game, but for me—terrestrially, we’re here in the world, and then there’s this other place where we’re able to go. But I can tell I don’t quite have the way to describe it yet. But I’m interested in it. All literature, all art takes place in that spot. Even Ronald McDonald is there! It’s an equal opportunity spot.
Well, I guess anything that we see on TV is.
Advertisers really know how to take advantage of it. They really understand mixing images with words and music. I’m 52 and I love having stuff that I still chase after like I did when I was 22 trying to find the most obscure Ramones tune. That’s what I like about being a writer or being whatever it is I am. When I was a kid, the main thing I wanted to be was Dr. Seuss. I didn’t know what he was, but that’s what I wanted to be. I like that this stuff is stuff you can do right to the end—to your last little gnarly wrinkled gasp. And Doris’s little shaky handwriting.
Talking about these places that everybody goes to that aren’t necessarily real, I wanted to ask you about Bil Keane.
Because that’s what Family Circus is, to me, is being able to follow around that dotted line.
Now why is that so fascinating? I mean, it’s so engaging. You want to do it when you see it—you don’t just go, “Oh, pssh.”
And it makes that space so much more real, just to have that little line going through it.
One of the things about Family Circus that I did in the intro to Best American Comics—Bil was so kind, Bil and Jeff, to give me permission to print them without the captions. To see them without that, it’s powerful. And once you take the captions away, you realise: this is a world I’ve seen just through a porthole over and over. But I feel like I’ve moved through it. And then when Jeff’s mom died—mommy died this year, Thelma—and when I found out I was like, ah! wauuuugh! And I don’t know this woman—it’s just lines on paper. So we have a capacity to make another world, and it had to have come along with all the other things like our thumbs and our brains, and then at what point did that become an elective? That’s really interesting to me. I guess we just take it for granted. One of the writers I heard the other day said he didn’t think there was any such thing as artistic genius, which is exactly how I feel. And I do feel that art is as integral to human experience as our autonomic nervous system. I think I said, it’s like saying somebody has a talent for saliva production. You’re a genius at producing saliva! Or man, can you grow hair! “He’s brilliant!” But I do think the converse is true. I do think people can be talked out of it, or shocked out of it. It’s amazing to me how frightened people are of making their own art. Terrified.
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Part two of this interview can be read here.