Lynda Barry sounds like one of those Americans I love to be around: a progressive hippie (I assume …) with a big heart and a boisterous laugh and depths of feeling in her work. I first encountered her name when I was UK editor for the fantastic books of Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s Life In Hell – they became friends when he ran the student paper at Evergreen State College, where her first work appeared, and her name appeared in increasingly teasing dedications, e.g., ‘Lynda Barry is still funk queen of the galaxy’. She is well known in North America for her cartoons, which have appeared in indie newspapers since the 1970s.
More recently Lynda Barry has also created empowering workshops on creativity. Subtitled Notes From An Accidental Professor, her book Syllabus presents course materials she uses in an innovative class called The Unthinkable Mind that she teaches at the Image Lab of the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, this writing and picture-making class is focused on learning about the basic physical structure of the brain and the particular kind of creative concentration that comes about when we are writing, drawing, or constructing something by hand.
A Lynda Barry syllabus differs from the usual document rattling over class aims and objectives in dreary Academicese in 12pt Times New Roman. They are full of questions and prompts and cheeky asides, and what’s more they are handwritten and illuminated in colour with her own sketches and doodles, which are works of art in themselves. As a Guardian profile says, her ‘collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines’. This graphic quality creates an enlivening and liberating experience from the moment you look at the cover then open the book. There’s a strong a sense of play, which is something Lynda Barry is all about.
‘What is an image?’ asks a scary stick figure from the back cover. ‘How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?’ The image, for Barry, refers to any thing, experience, or idea that is given form in the arts: ‘the formless thing which gives things form’, she says in one of her other books, What It Is. For any artist, the challenge lies in finding the form that expresses that thing, experience, or idea authentically. Drawing on research in cognitive science, Lynda Barry explains:
I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there is a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more how images work.
The creative tasks pursuing that aim in Syllabus feel commonsensical, rather than complex, tasking members of the class on ways to explore, free of inhibition, the sources of our images – our childhoods, our pasts, our everyday lives – and then to make the creation of art and writing in ways that are ‘unthinkable’: instinctive, spontaneous, and true. The priority here is not about produced finished pieces of art, but about stimulating creativity – though I’d venture to say (if we are allowed to think that way) that such liberating approaches usually arrive at the most successful works of art anyway, however we define success.
The class includes tons of activities and assignments to foster ease and spontaneity in our artistic process. Keeping a Daily Diary with lists of things done, seen, and heard every day as well as a quick sketch of something you’ve seen. Timed drawing exercises based on the deceptively simple cartooning style of Ivan Brunetti. Memorising Emily Dickinson poems. Listening to Grimms fairytales while you draw. Spontaneous writing exercises using in-class prompts. Writing exercises based on memories. Collaborative drawing jams where your peers pass around a 4 x 4 grid and fill it with the names of occupations or types of people, and then you have a minute to draw each character.
All writing for this class is handwritten: students are tasked on filling lined composition notebooks (Syllabus amounts to a facsimile of one). Students also trace and copy pictures. And there is colouring, lots of colouring, especially while you are, e.g., listening to music or socialising. Barry was well ahead of the current fashion on colouring, and she expects students’ Crayolas to get worn down to the stub.
Another important lesson comes in doodling spirals, as students do not give feedback round the table in the style of a conventional writing workshop, but simply draw spirals while their peers read out their writing. It’s a good contemplative practice, with the focus shifting from judgement to expression, listening, and understanding. (I think there is a time for judgement and engaging the critical faculties, but that comes later.)
All the students in her classes are assigned nicknames, e.g., parts of the brain such as Cerebral Cortex or Amygdala. I also like this classroom guideline: ‘Friendly Reminder: No electronic devices are allowed in our classroom between 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please do not check your devices during our break.’ (I was only saying to someone the other day that it would be great if, maybe, we only used Twitter and Facebook between, say, the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. every day, and then for the rest of the time we could get on with our lives, rather than have it mediated.)
And how about these for Classroom Rules?
Barry offers many sassy insights and savvy aphorisms. E.g., on the ways that taste and judgement get in the way of creative production: ‘Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.’ Much of what she proposes is about restoring the unself-conscious approaches to art and play that we enjoyed in childhood, and about establishing an easy and regular practice:
The only way to understand this is by making things. Thinking about it, theorizing about it, chatting about it will not get you there.
She passionately believes the arts are a matter of life and death, as she describes in a talk for Lynda.com (around 9:45) where she discusses the books or songs that change your life; the arts are ‘the corollary to our immune system’, or ‘our external organs’. One of my favourite Lynda quips comes later in that talk:
I hate art. I hate art galleries. They remind me of intensive care units. Doesn’t it seem like you don’t know what’s going on? Everything’s really expensive and clean.
That sums up her approach for me. Art is a living thing, and, at its best, like life art is messy.
And, importantly: art should be should be accessible to all.
One of my main aims in teaching and editorial coaching is helping writers to find ways to make good writing come instinctively. Syllabus is a real inspiration, and a book every writer and artist should read. Its lessons are deep, its method is fun, it is ground-breaking, mind-expanding, barrier-breaking. I could rave on and on, but it’s a book that is best experienced rather than described.
Lynda Barry is FOREVER the funk queen of the galaxy.
And don’t forget to read her other books too – I can HIGHLY recommend her graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! as well as What It Is (extract here) and Picture This. All are gorgeously produced by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
More on Lynda Barry in these clips:
Creativity and Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry – video from Lynda.com (ESSENTIAL VIEWING!)
Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself – New York Times Magazine profile
Lynda Barry: What Is An Image? – Guardian profile
Join Lynda Barry For A University-Level Course On Doodling And Neuroscience – review of Syllabus from OpenCulture, with lots of sample pages
Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus and Homework Assignments From Her UW-Madison Course ‘The Unthinkable Mind’ – another OpenCulture review, with plenty more sample pages