The Walrus Blog

Picturing the Unthinkable

An interview with cartoonist, novelist, teacher, and renaissance woman Lynda Barry

An interview with cartoonist, novelist, teacher, and renaissance woman Lynda Barry

What It Is and Picture This by Lynda BarryAll images by Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry — cartoonist, novelist, playwright, teacher, environmental activist, and all-around renaissance woman — is revitalising the genre of the instructional manual. “Do you wish you could write?” Barry asked readers with 2008’s What It Is, and then proceeded to elucidate and exemplify the creative process with a torrent of comic strips, prose, and collage that burst the boundaries of the conventional “how-to” book.

In both What It Is and her ever-popular workshops on “Writing the Unthinkable,” Barry promotes a fertile territory of ideas and memories that she calls “the image world.” Her books, whether fictional or instructional, brim with evidence of this realm. They overflow with Proustian “unexpected memories” called forth at the mention of an old telephone number, with perfectly sensible nonsense recited by five-year-old children, with eldritch creatures lurking in the folds of a tissue or a stain in the ceiling, and with the exploits and musings of her comic strip characters.

These denizens of Barry’s imagination populate her most recent book, Picture This, a follow-up and complement to What It Is. Here, the leads of her Ernie Pook comic strip, irrepressible Marlys and introspective Arna, join forces with the Near-Sighted Monkey and the Meditating Monkey, new Barry creations who share the Pook girls’ temperaments. With this menagerie in tow, the author acts as tour guide through the image world. “Why do we stop drawing?” she asks. “Why do we start?” Picture This stands as a generous, colourful, freewheeling response to those questions.

Two years ago, I interviewed Barry for this blog. During this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors, we sat down again for more conversation about the power of words and pictures.

Sean Rogers You place a high value on the connection between the hands and the brain. Reading your stuff has convinced me to start writing everything in longhand — and it works!

Lynda Barry [Longhand] is like the original digital device. It does work, and it also does something to memory. Since we spoke, I’ve gotten even more fascinated with the relationship between the hands and the brain. It takes us out of this idea of art as being, “Do I like it, do I don’t,” and turns it into, “Do I like having white blood cells or not?” I do. I look at it as a health issue. I start to look at the research they’re doing about neurogenesis, about what gives us more neurons — who doesn’t want more of those?

By Linda BarryBy Linda BarryBy Linda BarryPages from Picture This

When What It Is came out, Amazon didn’t know how to categorize it, so they categorized it as science fiction, which was so boss. If I was going to write a science fiction story, this is such a good one — a culture that shames people out of doing the very thing that will give them new neurons. If you draw a chicken on a piece of paper, there’s going to be some interesting neural activity — but people are too scared to draw a chicken, even if they’re just gonna throw it away. What the hell is that? When did that happen?

That’s one of the most striking parts of What It Is, where you write, “Sometimes in life when we are very sad, it is good to make a chicken in winter.” It reminds me of a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing,” in which a baker becomes upset at a mother and father who haven’t picked up the birthday cake they ordered from him. When he learns it’s because their kid has died, he’s devastated. He gives them some rolls and says, “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” It’s human activity — eating, making something — that can help us through.

It actually does. With functional MRIs now they can start to keep track of what’s going on in the brain during certain activities. For instance, they put blues musicians in a functional MRI and gave them keyboards and had a jam. The part of their brains that was getting the most blood flow and activity was the part that gets the most flow when people talk about themselves. I have a musician friend who [heard that and] said, “Maybe that’s why jamming’s so boring.”

The great thing about really good jazz musicians is that they can step back and let somebody else solo for a while: “OK, you get to talk about yourself now.”

It’s a conversation — there’s a reciprocity to it. It’s this unexpected, exciting thing, and I’ve found that I can show people how to do it, in any situation. Like on Tuesday, I’m teaching in a Philadelphia prison — back by popular request. I’ve been with my little jailbirds before. The same thing that put those guys in prison makes them very good writers, which is no impulse control. Nothing seems like a bad idea. “Is this a bad sentence? Should I rob this liquor store?” It’s just balls out.

Most writers probably don’t equate what they do to robbing liquor stores, but I guess that’s it — you can’t hold yourself back, you have to get the words on paper.

In the image world, you can rob a liquor store whenever you want. That’s why I have people smoking like crazy in Picture This. I wanted to take advantage of the bad health thing that we all have in our head, about how bad smoking is. I really wanted to get at that idea — “Don’t” — like not doing something is bad for you.

You’ve structured the book like a self-help magazine; then these ads for Don’t cigarettes show up at the end. Are you questioning the way that advertising tells us to do things we really shouldn’t?

A lot of that came from this stack of magazines I ran into called The Grade Teacher. They used to make it for elementary school teachers. I had issues from the ’40s until the ’60s; the big advertisers were coal and asbestos companies. You could get free posters on the wonder of bituminous coal — all coal, coal, coal. But the asbestos stuff was especially interesting, especially once it was the ’60s and people knew. It used to come in a powder, and there are these ads about how kids can make jewellery — asbestos jewellery, asbestos pins for mom, asbestos playthings!

So I thought, I want to do a book that’s sponsored by something that’s so the opposite of its subject. Also, the fact of the matter is, almost any picture is improved by drawing a cigarette in it. I used to love to smoke when I was in my twenties, but I can’t smoke anymore because it was making me sick. But I love drawing [cigarettes]. I also like the idea that Don’t has controllable smoke that doesn’t exist — it always goes where you want it to go.

What’s satisfying about that smoke, too, is the way it spirals off. In Picture This, you write about following lines, about how there’s something satisfying in watching them.

Or in making them, in drawing the smoke. It’s really just moving in a continuous line. I’m very curious about the fact that because of computers, at least in elementary schools in the US, they’re not teaching handwriting anymore. They’re teaching printing, but not spending much time on it — longhand and cursive are gone. That’s like a nightmare…. The science fiction thing again: electricity’s gone, and all anybody knows is how to type!

There’s a strip in Picture This about a five-year-old boy who tells you a story word by word, slowly, and it all comes out in the end —

That was an epiphany for me. That and using a paintbrush [to write with], which is where another door opened. “Chicken Attack, by Jack” is a verbatim story from this kid I was sitting next to on an airplane. His mom did what moms do everywhere — got on her little thumb device, or put her buds in and went to sleep. Anyhow, she zoned out and I was drawing, because I’ve learned that if you’re drawing kids will talk to you. He goes, “You’re drawing!” and I say, “Yeah, I’m a cartoonist.” And he says, “Draw something.” So I draw a little chicken and he goes, “You are!” and I go, “I know!” So I play this game with him, which any kid knows how to play, where you make a scribble and pass it to a friend, and they turn it into something and then make a scribble and pass it back. If you do this with a kid you’ll get a story quick. So we do it one, two, three times, and he goes, “Ooh, I have a story and you can make it into a comic strip.” And I did. His name was Jack, and before the story was written, he said, “The title is, ‘Chicken Attack, by Jack.’” [Then he told the story:] “One morning, the chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach started to feel funny. He went to the port-a-let, and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the port-a-let to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge, and from then on, the chicken was boss.”

By Lynda Barry

It makes so much sense!

When I talk about the biological function — don’t you feel better after hearing that story? What is that? It’s so satisfying, without even having to parse it out. There’s foreshadowing, because it says, “One morning, a chicken was eaten by a man.” And who goes through the transformation? The chicken — he gets eaten, shit out, and made boss. It has the arc, it has it all. Everything is in that story.

The last time you were in Toronto, with What It Is, you talked about unexpected memory. You had the audience recite their first phone numbers to show how we can attach ourselves to that memory. Now you’re talking more about pictures. Is that kind of unexpected memory, remembering your first phone number, the same as seeing a picture in the stain on your ceiling when you’re lying there staring at it?

It’s exactly the same. Watch a kid with a piece of paper. There is no doubt that piece of paper is a place where things happen. Then there’s this point where [that place] turns into a thing, which mostly lets other people know if you’re good or bad. That’s where the trouble begins. Or rather, that’s where the nutrients are taken away.

What It Is seems more like a how-to book, and this one — is it fair to say that Picture This is more of an activity book?

Absolutely. And kind of dreamy — I wanted it to be like a magazine. There’s no particular place to start. There is a through line, if you feel like finding it. I kept thinking about when you get your oil changed in your car: you’re in this waiting room, which is the world’s shittiest waiting room, and you’re grateful if there’s an old People magazine with Tom Selleck; “Thank God, there’s something to look at.” I kept imagining Picture This being there, and that it would make the time pass nicely. I didn’t want to have a drawing book where I tell people how to draw, exactly.

That’s what I think is so great about it. It tells people to draw — or like it says on the cover, “to art” — but it doesn’t close anything down for them. It has these open activities, like “collect blue.”

Collect blue! Didn’t it make you want to try it? Like, “Dang, I can do this! Let’s move onto pink!” I want to get people back to colouring, copying, and tracing.

I told [my publisher] Chris [Oliveros] at Drawn & Quarterly that we couldn’t use traditional copyright language because I want people to be able to copy it. I want people to be able to make 500 copies of that chicken if they want to, and I want them to be able to cut out the paper dolls. I did a lot of the paintings with my husband [Kevin Kawula]. I found out I can draw anything that’s five feet away, and he can draw forever into the distance, but he’s not good at super-close stuff. There’s one of the Near-Sighted Monkey making spaghetti sauce, and I’ve had a couple of people email me and say, “Lynda, your drawing’s gotten so good, I can’t believe it, I’m so happy for you!” And I [respond], “Man, I told you, that part’s Kevin’s. But how about those slippers on the monkey? Look at those slippers, those are good!” It was beautiful to work together, because — again, this idea of a place. I would draw the monkey and just leave it in the kitchen for him to work on. We’d hardly talk about it. I would look at those pictures and be, “God, it looks so familiar! It’s our house!”

By Lynda Barry

The last time we spoke, you told me about [Simpsons creator] Matt Groening’s Life in Hell strips, so I went and pulled his books from the library and read everything. It’s so great.

Because of the success of The Simpsons, this huge contribution to the history of “our” kinds of comics has just been pushed aside. When I [guest edited] The Best American Comics, I included him, and there were fights about it!

And that was his best work in so long — the stuff with his kids.

We see The Simpsons, and it has twenty-six writers and animators. But that strip is just Matt. There’s a couple other cartoonists who I feel never made it into the history of how comics were done. There was a group right before Matt and I started who were in the Village VoiceJules Feiffer, Mark Alan Stamaty, and Stan Mack, who did Real Life Funnies. And I finally met him and he doesn’t look anything like he draws himself, which I thought was hilarious. There’s all these people who were in the early National Lampoon — but now it’s as if they do not exist…. When people say, “You’re one of the first women cartoonists,” I say, “Nooo, there was Shary Flenniken and M.K. Brown and Trina Robbins.”

[Instead we hear about] the underground stuff, with all the guys with their dicks out — which, right on, I’m all about it. I was on a panel with Chris Ware and Kaz and Dan Clowes, and we got to ask each other questions, and one of the things I said was, it always blows my mind why [male] cartoonists always have to draw themselves jacking off with a giant dick and then looking really sad afterward. But then I went up to my room and drew myself with a giant dick jacking off and looking sad afterwards and I totally understood.

It’s like “The Chicken Attack, by Jack” — that structure is there for a reason.

It’s totally satisfying. I totally got it, once I did it. The imaginary dick.

I really do feel like they’re my family, other cartoonists. I liked finding out all this stuff about these people, like Chris Ware, who thinks his drawing is bad! And I thought, if he thinks his drawing is bad, then that might be the natural state of things.

Everybody has this “Is it good?/Does it suck?” thing happening all the time.

Except for those blessed, beautiful moments when it’s not happening.

When you’re still in the place before it becomes a thing?

When you’re still in the place before it becomes a thing. Exactly.

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