alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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3 Things I Learned From Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry, June 2012

I’ve been a reader my entire life. I love books and I love stories, but I have always been jealous of my older brother because he can draw. When I was in junior high, I was so excited that we were given the option to take art classes. I thought that taking the class meant I would BE an artist. I wanted to get myself all paint-smeared and arty and make strange and beautiful things. But as some of you other daydreamers may also have learned by now, the pictures in my head didn’t much resemble the real world. Or the pictures on the page. When I drew a horse, it looked like a pig. When I drew a still life, it looked like a plate of spaghetti. My brother? His horses, people, skiers, hot rods and spaceships not only LOOKED like what they were, they had energy and style–you know, personal artistic interpretation. I kept hoping that these skills would suddenly erupt in me like a superpower, and that the next time I put pen to paper, I would blow my own socks off. We had the same genes, right?

Guess what? I’m still waiting for that art volcano.

Volcano erupting

Photograph by B. Chouet in December 1969. Courtesy USGS.

So, what was I doing signing up for a class with Lynda Barry, a cartoonist*? Well, for starters, it said right there on the application that she was teaching as part of the Indiana University Writers Conference. Not Cartoonist’s conference. Not Artist’s conference. Not People Who Can Draw a Horse That Doesn’t Look Like a Pig conference.

Lynda was teaching her ‘Writing the Unthinkable‘ class — which was incredible, and I urge you to sign up if she brings it anywhere in your vicinity. You might learn to write, you might learn to draw, and if you’re not interested in those things, Lynda will tell you stories about her Filipino granny, teach you a poem by Rumi, and sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ without opening her mouth.

Marlys gets inspired. Drawing by Lynda Barry.

So here are the best things I learned from her class:

1. Play with your food. Lynda told a story about watching a kid eat. The boy is moving his breakfast around the plate, and each time he brings a piece of bacon to his mouth, he holds it up and says, “I’m going to eat you” in a scary monster voice. Eventually, his mom notices what he’s doing, and he gets in trouble.

That’s the creative experience in a nutshell. As children, play and creativity are everyday things–you can’t separate them out from life. Playing and story-telling make stuff like eating a warmed-over hotel breakfast waaay more interesting by introducing power, fear, danger, and fun voices. You know, that conflict stuff writing teachers are always going on about. And this kid? He’s doing it naturally. But what’s his reward–a book contract? A movie deal? The praise and admiration of his peers? Nope. A nasty look and a sharp word if he’s lucky, and quick smack if he’s not.

What’s the message his mom is giving him? “Cut out that nonsense and get down to the important business of living your life without making it any more fun than it has to be.” Most of us internalize that message sooner or later (some of us a lot, lot later) and that’s what makes it hard to write. Or draw. Or make movies. Or whatever creative play that some stunted part of us is longing for.

2. Use the phone. Lynda has a great method for getting into a remembered scene and extracting the good stuff. She asks a whole set of questions like ‘What is behind you, What is under you feet, Where is the light coming from, etc.” (The exercise appears in her book ‘What It Is’ –sort of a companion to the class, but with autobiography and drawings. Or you can pretend you’re in the class and follow along with her instructions in this video on her Tumblr.**)

The questions are designed to prompt recollection of important events or “images” from your own life. But, you can use it for a story, too. You just call your characters on the phone, and ask them the questions. I mean, everybody has a mobile phone these days–it’s not like you’re not going to be able to get in touch. So, you’ve got your depressed suburban mom, your post-traumatic Afghan war vet, your streetcart vendor, your cheerleader, etc. all stuck and scared in the middle of the page, because you don’t know where they are, or where they’re going. So you call them up and say, “Where are you? What’s the temperature like?”

And my absolute favorite:

3. Pretend that you’re writing the story. “Wha?” you say, “Of course I’m writing the story. Otherwise, somebody else would be yelling at the dog for the unforgivable crime of breathing, and throwing their notebook at the wall.”

Are you sure? When we write, we listen to all kinds of voices. Ones that want to win the National Book Award, and ones that want to be published in Clarkesworld, and ones that want to write a best-selling trilogy, get a movie deal, and move to Key West. Those voices are loud, and they can lead you pretty far astray.

When you’re slogging through a story and it’s not going well, when it’s like marching neck-deep through the Cold Molasses Sea of Doubt & Obstinance, that’s the time to ask yourself, “If *I* were writing this story, what would I do?”

Lynda hanging out & drawing with us after class, May 2011. That’s my piece of brilliance in the lower left.

I had the good fortune to attend Lynda’s class twice, once in 2011, and again in 2012 (I know!). In 2011, Lynda only had a 50-minute teaching slot each day, and she generously spent the afternoons in an empty classroom, hanging out and drawing with anyone who wanted to stop by. This was about a month before I was about to head off to Seattle for Clarion West where I was going to meet 17 other aspiring spec fic writers and have to prove that I deserved to be there among them. This time spent doodling with Lynda was the best mental preparation I could have asked for.

My horse may still not look like a horse, but I had a good time drawing it.

*Besides having a complete fangirl meltdown. Ernie Pook! Fred Milton, Beat Poodle. Marlys the Greatest!
**Also don’t forget to watch the amaz-tastic time-lapse fungus videos. Fungus love–yes!!


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What I’ve Been Up To

I’ve been busy making myself really tired.

First was the IUWC, which involved early morning classes, afternoon workshops, evening readings, lots and lots and lots of manuscript reading, and regular mortgage-paying, catfood-buying work somewhere in between. My story was discussed on the only day when there were 3 people on the schedule (other days were just 2) which made me a bit cranky, but my workshop leader Manuel Munoz was kind enough to discuss my piece one-on-one afterwards, and that’s where I got the good idea for revision. It’s a big idea and it’s going to involve ripping out huge, essential chunks of the narrative but I’m so sure it’s right that I’m almost excited to do it.

The best part about the conference is geeking out with other writers, and this year was no different. I got to know some local writers better, and met some cool new ones. I’m always canvassing for new members for my regular writing group, so at times I feel like I’m doing a PBS fund drive without the free coffee mugs and Michael Flatley DVD. Julia Glass was completely hysterical at the final night’s readings — not what she read, but the stories she told beforehand. British writers are mean to American writers, apparently.

After that it was jet-setting away to NYC for green-tea margaritas (sounds appalling, actually delicious), riverside walks in the pouring rain, and chole bhatura on Oak Tree Road (drool). I even saw the crazy clouds in Manhattan on Friday night. They looked like low-hanging cotton balls, round and individual, textured and full of weight. Everybody was stopping in the street and taking pictures up between the buildings with their phones.

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock on flickr

'Mammatus clouds over Manhattan' by bears rock/flickr

Now that I’ve had enough adventure in two weeks for the whole year, I’m going to go to sleep.


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Bad Blogger

What can I say? I took one little holiday excursion to Kentucky and got all relaxed. When I came back, real life was waiting for me in some of its more irritating costumes. It’s been hard to get back here.

I meant to do a Short Story post on Monday; I actually did read a book of short stories over the weekend, Danit Brown’s Ask For a Convertible. I was reading it because Brown is going to be teaching at the IUWC this summer. I was just sort of going to browse it, and do my duty, and take it back to the library. But I ended up reading the whole thing. Mostly because it was funny right away. I like funny. I kept reading because the grandmother was crazy, because Osnat was whiny and liked to make out with Sanjay in the C corridor, because she had to get advice on how to tuck her jeans into her slouchy socks just so. (I remember this; I used to wear two pairs of socks just so I could have the maximum coordination with my two-color eyeshadow and humongous dangling earrings.) I did get tired of Osnat’s whining and indecisiveness by the time she was grown up and I was 3/4 of the way through the book, but by then I wasn’t allowed to quit (tyranny of personal reading rules.)

They’ve put up some performances from last year’s IUWC on the main page. I’m including here a clip of Ross Gay reading. I had maybe the teensiet little writer-crush on him. He’s all young and charming and doing his good-looking best to completely rehabilitate the modern poet’s loathsome image. Watch him read ‘Bringing the Shovel Down’ (at about 9:50) and tell me your heart’s not in your throat.

Follow that with a chaser of Donald Antrim, reading from his (unpublished) novel, and you will snort milk out your nose laughing. Even if you’re not drinking milk. I swear.