Out of the can: Lynda Barry

Concerning creative heroes, I don't tend to keep a very long list.  Usually they include women drummers and comic artists.  Today I add another name to the latter category: Lynda Barry.  Back around the time of my birthday, Gwen gave me a copy of Barry's book What It Is which I can't begin to describe and would rather just recommend you pick it up.  I guess I pretty much assumed that she would quickly become one of my heroes, but today solidified it.  Because today Rachel and I went to see Lynda Barry speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival.  First, let me say that this woman is hilarious.  If you know me, you know I'm not an easy laugh, but Lynda had me in stitches.  And her ideas about images and play!  Well, just read the book.  Really.

Lynda started out by talking about the relationship between play and mental health, and how no one would deny that play is crucial in the healthy development of a child.  But how soon we convince ourselves that the time for play is over.  And as adults, even as kids, we look at things that others are doing and think, "Oh, well it's just too late for that."  An eight year old who is interested in ballet will be told that she needed to start when she was four.  A ten year old interested in playing violing will be told he needed to start at age five.  So we don't try.  We stop playing (writing, singing, drawing, dancing) because we think it is for kids, but then we lament that we have not been gifted with a creative outlet.  Lynda Barry is convinced that it does not have to be this way.

She talks about Image with a passion, about its cathartic capabilities and its specificity.  She told the story of a song that she enjoyed as a child, whose lyrics she understood as, "That would be ecstacy, you and me and Leslie, grooving."  She was intrigued by this character of Leslie - it could be a male or female, who was it? - until she realized that the words were actually, "That would be ecstacy, you and me endlessly, grooving."  Which was the better lyric, Lynda asked?  Well, Leslie, of course.  This mysterious Leslie, afterall, was an image.  Endlessly is just some abstract notion.

Lynda's younger brother demonstrated a creative difference between adults and children.  He would draw a picture, play with it, and then throw it away without thinking twice.  Adults aren't typically able to do this - if we create something we fret about what should be done with it.  But creativity isn't meant to be the cause of stress, it's meant to be cathartic.  She challenged us as adults to make a drawing expressing something we would like to say to someone else but never would, and then throw it away.  She described a man who had lost his right hand and was frustrated by "phantom limb pain."  Even though his hand was gone he had the never-ending sensation that it was in a tight, uncomfortable fist.  He could not fix this, as his hand was not actually there to unclench.  So someone (I forgot to write down which scientist) came up with the idea to use mirrors and make a device that, by unclenching his left fist, it would appear to the man as though he were finally unclenching his right, phantom fist.  He did, and it worked, the pain left him.  Barry says that art has the same power, to take away such phantom pain.

Lynda Barry, although my favorite, was one of four comic artists who spoke today.  Paul Buhle, Mike Konopacki, and Seth Tobocman were also present, and although I won't rehash everything that they shared, I did want to highlight a quote by Mike Konopacki, who said in defense of the literal and understandable medium of comics (as compared to "high art" which requires a three-page artist statement to decipher) that "Communication should not be ambiguous."  Of course!  This is exactly why I favor comics to fine art, why I will probably always consider myself a cartoonist more than a painter.  Why does something have to be cryptic to be considered intellectually valid?  Doesn't it take a special kind of intellect to communicate what you are trying to say as clearly and dynamically as possible?  Yes!

Okay, one last thing and I'll tie it off.  After the lecture I got in line to have Lynda sign my copy of What It Is and got to have a mini-conversation with her which I will probably treasure forever.  Ever gracious, she willingly signed my book as I stumbled through my small talk (as I tend to do around anyone new, not just my heroes).  But I was emboldened, and asked if I could tell her something about my own plight as a cartoonist.  You see, during her talk and also in her book, Lynda pointed out the importance of hand-writing in the creative process.  When we write with our hands it is the same as drawing - it is activating entirely different parts of our brains than the motion I am using right now to type these words.  But handwriting, however essential to the creative process, is dying off.  I shared with Lynda that I had spent time drawing comics in college, and that one of my professors would often criticise my lettering.  My hands are shaky and my penmanship has never been my strong suit (the only class I got Bs in all through grade school!) and since I could never make my handwriting as consistant as my professor wanted, I turned to digital fonts, which were certainly consistent, and consistently impersonal.  Lynda assured me that my handwriting is a unique part of me, and that the personal voice my penmanship offers is more important than the convenience of legible computer text (or maybe even text handwritten by someone else?  We didn't talk about that.)  Anyway, she also gave me a couple really practical tips for handwriting which I am excited to try out, and maybe want to keep to myself for a little while.  If your hero ever gives you a personalized tip I wouldn't expect you to share right away, but maybe keep it close to your heart.  Really, it's something special.