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WLA 2009: Lynda Barry "Writing the Unthinkable"

Posted by on Thursday, October 22, 2009 in WLA Blog Archive

[How exciting to even be in the same room as Lynda Barry! I've got celebrity awe...]

Writing the Unthinkable
Lynda Barry, multi-talented artist

  • Recent book "What It Is" won WLA award
  • Born in Wisconsin, again living in Wisconsin
  • nervous
  • sweat will Roschach you into a past life
  • first breakup figured might as well get my wisdom teeth out - it already hurts
  • singing to tune of Coalminers daughter - daughter of meat cutter and janitor from Phillipines
  • German Shepherd look "she doesn't look Filipino" - quarter Norwegian, and that'll suck the color right out of you
  • All she ever wanted to do was move back to the Midwest
  • Lives in "Greater Footville"
  • Yahtzee - 2009 - award from Wisconsin libraries and now speaking to them - coma inducing excitement


  • emily dickinson poems can be sung to many tunes - gershwin - loneliness as a good thing - library can sustain that kind of loneliness, good kind, of wanting something
  • Smelling books is all the antidepressant I need
  • Librarians good at people watching - always look busy like not paying attention, but you know who's in library - which kids are trouble - handing kid a book or laying on a table


  • Went to Evergreen State College 1974 - how I got into college is cuz they needed hippies really bad, and not enough in area - all had to do was glue lentils into shape of a peace sign to get full scholarship
  • "Images" class - marilyn frasca[sp?] - asked a q: what is an image?
  • Anything we call the arts is a container for what she called an image
  • Remember your first phone number? - we all remember it - how about 3 numbers ago? - different areas of brain
  • image is spontaneous, not trying - it just comes up, and it feels alive - emotions attached
  • biological function - kids with blankie - always something in their hands - like librarian with pen or pencil - kid in airport all he had left was the leg of his incredible hunk doll - first artwork - personality into it - is it alive? no, but don't say it's dead - something in between
  • book somebody gave you - they say they thought about you the whole time - favorite part? main character and conflict, then resolution... - finally read it - tickling feeling 20 pages in "this could be a good book" - like falling in love - don't mess this up, man! - can't put it down - that world - slow down when reading the last 40 pages - you lay in bed and hold that book - you want to kiss it - the object is forever changed
  • image is specific - I wanted to know how to get an imaginary friend - realized I could lie - i had an imaginary imaginary friend - I had a friend with a real imaginary friend - name Sprinkles - only talk through moving fan - you can't make that up - friend tried to keep a journal every day - he found it from high school - started reading, all feelings, no details - he was so upset it was lik original footage of battle of waterloo shot by monkey - just bananas, bananas, bananas
  • image is satisfying even if it doesn't make total sense - The Rascals - groovin on a sunday afternoon - that would be ecstasy - you and me and leslie groovin - really you and me endlessly groovin - not as good, can't picture it

Writing & creativity

  • reliable structure - thought you needed a symbol of death to fit story arc - didn't realize that it already existed - don't have a ribcage because it was drawn by doctors
  • if I start drawing, kids will always talk to me - i tell them I'm a cartoonist, they say draw a chicken, and they say you are! in Footville they say you hold on to that dream - when they ask what kind of books I write, i say horror cuz that's the look on their face
  • scribble game with kids - ooh ooh I have a story and you can draw it! - chicken attack by jack - chicken eaten by man, went to portolet, out came chicken, make chicken boss of construction site
  • first book wrote in 10 days in really big handwriting - next one took 10 years - i already knew what story was ging to be, knew story arc, and wrote on a computer
  • "if i was doing this, how would i do it?" - if I was a kid, how would i do it? first make the book with construction paper and staples
  • babysat kid who dictated story to me word by word, wouldn't give me the next word until i'd written it down
  • everybody smoked while doing everything - mom smoked while watching bambi at movie theater - cake decorator perfect writing in frosting - i thought after painting book i could do this - finished story in 9 months
  • when people say i wish i could draw, wish i could dance... - we give up so early - radio: if you want to be a ballerina, have to begin by age 3 - you hear at age 9 and give up - art - we give it to professionals - can only sing happy birthday, only movement left is exercise and you need an outfit so people know what you're doing - drawing = doodling while on hold - i ask people who say they can't draw, sculpture = peeling label off beer bottle while someone tells you their crazy dream from last night - if you want someone to care, say "that you were in" "at the end"
  • brain looks in deep concentration like kid in deep play - not "fun" - it's some other thing - not playing with truck, but truck is playing with you
  • all around world, people know if you have a kid who wasn't ever allowed to play will become a psychokiller - we know first hand - you can't play, but let's watch a kid playing really well with legos (picture, video, live) - does that help? no - same with adults
  • adults don't think they can make something for no reason, just for experience
  • brother would fold paper and draw line, draw 2 stick men with grenades and stare at it in cereal trance - ingredients have never looked so beautiful - after, he'd draw the war in red crayon, and yell out the words "incoming! save yourself!" - the paper didn't mean anything, he didn't keep it
  • element of anxiety in play
  • moms are on cell phones while with kids - playing with food, not sure he knew he was playing until mom said "what are you doing?" - we have internal voice
  • if I was in a bar having a beer - which you can say in wisconsin to anyone! - no one would come up to you and say why are you doing that? you could be cleaning.

Helping people to write

  • story of your life - often sounds like an obituary - i was born in xxxx, my mom was xxx, my dad was xxx, i went to xxx college, and then she died.
  • picture car from childhood - are you inside or outside? - which seat? - which part facing? - day or night? - season? - how old are you? - directly in front of you? - to right? - to left? - behind you? - feet? - above head?
  • you can do that with any noun - haircuts, teeth, dogs, other peoples' mothers - gerunds - squatting
  • local historical society in Footville area - people who want to write their lives but don't knjow how - first person present tense for 8 minutes like happening right now - coming from image - always contain history
  • walk down street and smell something remind you to aunt and uncle's house - flooding - one moment you're there and then not - happens thousands times each day - just need to freeze in that and ask above questions
  • mental health - does life feel like it's something worth living?
  • you as librarians are the guardians of the images - platform of meaningful life, and not being bored
  • state of mind when listening to a joke - neighbors introduced themselves: Donovan and Joni Mitchell - really - joni loves jokes a little naughty like a lot of wisconsin women - oh come here i've got one for you -dog snored so bad she could never get sleep - vet didnt kow what to do - heard something if you tie a ribbon around dog's balls, will stop snoring - dog named chainsaw - did it and he quit snoring - husband out with boys and goes to bed - starts snoring - does same - quits snoring - good night's sleep - husband goes to take a pee - i can't remember what we did last night, but by god we took first and second place
  • to get that joke you had to hold your mind open, not trying to figure out joke - joke is image, image, image, image goes to that - wireless communication - now you're going to go out and tell it - doesn't belong to anyone, belongs to everyone

"What It Is"

  • Reading from "What It Is" - thank you for the award - done without a computer -
  • what is an image - the formless thing that gives things form* "something can only become an illusion..." when you experience disillusionment
  • "there are certain children who are told they are too sensitive..."
  • sculpture the thinker - doesn't he look like he's never going to get another idea ever? - i have the piece of paper i'm working on, and the one next to it to keep my hand working - most important thing someone could have told me growing up
  • doris mitchell school teacher in hillsborough wisconsin - her nephew donovan mitchell - she had kept all students papers in basement of farmhouse - sedimentary layers - i take her wherever i go because she didn't get to travel

Importance of books and the arts

  • phantom limb pain - ramachandran - was ruining guy's life - dr. r had idea - built box with mirror so he could see mirror image of other arm - made fist then opened and relaxed - his pain went away - that's what images are
  • book that saved life relieved phantom limb pain - nothing other than image can open up certain things
  • notion that arts are an option, expendable - where do you put it in bookstore? - let's just take it out of schools - we ignore it at our peril because they're about as hard to come by as opposable thumbs
  • party trick - wisconsin people are good at it - they have one trick - guy who can dance with beer on head - how'd you learn that
  • I can sing without moving my lips - puffs out cheeks and sings inside - you are my sunshine


  • Q: writing on a computer? A: at a certain point does work, but after the fact - took first draft and copy it - i do that with my students - i let it expand if it wanted to - copied again on manual typewriter - no delete button - i knew the story by then - next copied on computer - rule that i couldn't think about swtory unless had brush/pen in hand - our brains and hands shape have a lot to do with each other - difference in brain - writing is drawing - spatial relationships - lines are different - when are using brush, supposed to be exhaling - something about hands, and using fingers, not having delete button - computers are email source, distracting, deals you make with your computer
  • Q: your images are flooding experience for me - i need to go out and buy your book for 14 year old daughter on verge of voice of reason taking over - you and public school teachers are the last possible person who can keep people from becoming just observers - reading is participating. A: if past 11/12, probably will keep. if you met a 4 year old who was terrified to draw a line with a crayon, you'd worry - but not 40 year old? - kids go to a page to find something - adults think they have to make something - remember using your hand as template for drawing a turkey?

Parting words

  • Arts are not an elective, we ignore it at our peril
  • Award and invitation meant so much to me - I've never given a talk at 8:45 in the morning before
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