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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