Come Sniff Books with Lynda Barry

reposted from my work with UntitledTown

I have a confession. In 2009, I didn’t know who Lynda Barry was – I had yet to be introduced to her work. But I was back in Green Bay, a year out of grad school, and desperate to once again be surrounded by writers and artists. So when it was brought to my attention that the nationally renowned cartoonist was giving a creativity workshop at UWGB, and I discovered that I was able to nab a spot as a UWGB alumna, I jumped at the opportunity. And I’m forever grateful (if for no other reason than finding another book-sniffing kindred spirit).

Though she was born in Richland Center, WI, Barry spent most of her life in Seattle. Known as the class cartoonist, Barry met the same challenge many of us likely have – a parent who didn’t understand our love of books or writing or creating – and insisted that we instead get a “good steady job.” Also like many of us, she didn’t listen. 

If you learn nothing else from Lynda Barry, learn that. 

While attending school at Evergreen State College, the editor of her school newspaper put out a call stating that he would “print anything that anyone submitted” – and Barry rose to the challenge, attempting to push the envelope as far as she could, trying to come up with things that she was certain they wouldn’t publish. Barry even submitted the cartoons by sliding them under the office door at night and with the pseudonym Ernie Pook (the comic series that would later also feature Arna, Arnold, Freddie, and Marlys). True to his word, though, the editor printed them.

The editor of that college paper? Matt Groening. (Yep, that Groening, of Simpsons fame.)

At the age of twenty-three, Barry’s career took off thanks again to one Matt Groening. When writing about West Coast artists, Groening included his former classmate and friend. This gained the attention of the Chicago Reader, the first to pick up her comic – which would go on to appear in over fifty alternative weeklies, running for almost thirty years. 

Along with publishing collections of her comics, Barry has written two illustrated novels, Cruddy and The Good Times are Killing Me (which she also adapted into an off-Broadway play)as well as three books about the creative process, including Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor.

As though an extensive publishing career isn’t impressive enough, Barry has also been teaching since she was twenty five – her students over the years ranging from children to adults. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity at UW-Madison and travels the country conducting workshops, such as the one I attended at UWGB in 2009.

As a teacher, Lynda Barry isn’t interested in theory or critique – she’s interested in where ideas come from and in helping people find their own creativity. She makes it clear that her workshops work especially well for non-writers. “‘Kids don’t plan to play…They don’t go: Barbie, Ken, you ready to play? It’s gonna be a three-act.’ Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct” (NY Times).

Her best piece of advice? She won’t let her students “reread their writing until the entire course has concluded. ‘While you’re writing, you’re having this experience,’ Barry explained. ‘But when you read it, all you can think about is, Is my baby defective?’ Sometimes, she said, babies just need time to open their eyes” (NY Times). I saw this in practice when during her workshop, she asked for volunteers to read pieces of their drafts out loud. She called on folks one at a time – each time coming to their side, dropping to her knees so that she could listen closely, and then always giving small words of encouragement when they were done reading. The pieces, which were works in progress, were not being critiqued – praise was given simply for the act of creating.

Be sure to follow Lynda Barry on Instagram and Twitter, and check out her INKtalk.

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