Lynda Barry is many things: a cartoonist, best known for her long-running strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek; the author of two illustrated novels, Cruddy and The Good Times Are Killing Me; and the sought-after instructor of the workshop “Writing the Unthinkable.” In her two memoir-cum-workbooks—2008’s What It Is and Picture This, published last month by Drawn & Quarterly—Barry puts her many talents into play. The books’ dense collages, lively cartoons, and hand-drawn text use autobiographical tidbits and philosophical flights of fancy to explore the creative impulse, asking such questions as What is an image? and Why do we stop drawing? Barry, a friend of Matt Groening’s since their days at the Evergreen State College in the seventies, agreed to meet me for breakfast, where we talked art, writing, and cigarettes.
One of the themes of Picture This is forgetting in order to remember, which seems pretty counterintuitive. When you combine it with Don’t—the name of the cigarettes, which are a running gag throughout—the meaning of the lines becomes very contradictory.
Forget to remember to forget to remember, or remember to forget to remember to forget. Yeah, it just makes your brain go uuuuuuuhhh. That’s exactly what I wanted: to get to the point where you realize you don’t know what you’re looking at. Plus, it’s fun coming up with slogans. “What would you do for a don’t?” “Don’t consider it.”
I stumbled on these magazines called Grade Teacher, which were sent to grade-school teachers every month, and I have a pile of them from the late twenties to the sixties. They have stuff like “Fun Things to Draw” or “Let’s Do Our Bulletin Board.” But the big ad sponsorship is from coal companies and asbestos companies: “Free giant charts for your class about how wonderful coal is!” The weirdest things are the art projects with asbestos powder, like “Lets make beads and make necklaces and wear them.” I am not joking.
I wanted to piggyback on that idea. We all know that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health, and I wanted to put something in there that people would unconsciously associate with “not.” “Don’t,” like “not drawing is bad for your health,” like “not doing this stuff is bad for you.” But also, it’s fun; any picture’s improved if you draw a cigarette in it. There’s nothing that doesn’t look better. Seriously, get a Sharpie and an old Vogue magazine. Every page you have to add a cigarette. You’ll laugh your ass off. It’ll be sad because you’ll be alone.
Picture This opens with Arna and Marlys at a branch library, but when they return, later in the book, the library is closed. It’s a very moving scene. Without much external encouragement, they’re reliant on books for creative inspiration and confidence, which they realize once that outlet becomes unavailable to them.
The libraries in public schools saved my life, completely. I didn’t want to make it really explicit in the book, but that’s the library where Arna first sees the book Picture This, but she doesn’t check it out because Marlys wants to go home, and then she never finds it again. For me that branch library being closed is about drawing: It’s about this thing we had open to us and that we all did, and one day, it closes for people; one day, we stop. I’m really curious about that. What makes us start drawing and what makes us stop? And what happens to drawing when we think we don’t draw anymore—because most people say, Oh my drawing’s so terrible, I really can’t draw. But then if you’re sitting in a meeting and you have a paper in front of you, you probably have something that you draw, this doodling thing that everybody does. I like to ask people, Why do you think you do that? Why do we draw in that situation?
What that thing does is help you endure time. It’s almost microscopic, but without it, time feels like a cheese grater, and in doodling, it’s a little more bearable. If you start to think about the arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience, then it gets interesting, instead of being “this is a nice picture” or “this is a picture that sucks.”
Even very early on, children ascribe meaning to their scribblings; they’re never just abstract pictures. That’s partly what’s so fascinating about looking at abstract art: The forms become utterly subjective, and the colors themselves take on meaning.
That means you’re making the picture. That’s my kind of drawing. That’s what I tell people, if there’s a coffee stain, and you see something in it, that’s a drawing. You didn’t necessarily draw it with your hand, but you made that. And that’s an old, old thing. In terms of evolution, it’s the immune system that allows the body to fight off a bacterial infection. I believe that the arts are like an external immune system. I believe that they have a biological function.
The fastest way I can explain it is that there is this brilliant neuroscientist named V. S. Ramachandran, who wrote a book called Phantoms in the Brain. He was very interested in people with phantom-limb pain, and he had one patient who had lost his hand from the wrist down, but the guy’s sensation was not only that the hand was still there, but that it was in a painful fist that kept clenching. Ramachandran built a box, with a mirror and two holes in one side. When the guy put his arms in, he saw the one hand reflected. When he opened the hand, he saw it open and it was like the missing hand was unclenching. It fixed his phantom-limb sensation. That’s what I think images do; that’s what the arts do. In the course of human life we have a million phantom-limb pains—losing a parent when you’re little, being in a war, even something as dumb as having a mean teacher—and seeing it somehow reflected, whether it’s in our own work or listening to a song, is a way to deal with it.
The Greeks knew about it. They called it catharsis, right? And without it we’re fucked. I think this is the thing that keeps our mental health or emotional health in balance, and we’re born with an impulse toward it.
Do you prefer teaching drawing or prose?
It’s much easier to teach writing, because people are less shy about writing. If they’re in a group, nobody can see what they’re writing. When you’re drawing, people get a little more nervous. In my writing class, we never ever talk about the writing—ever. We never address a story that’s been read. I also won’t let anyone look at the person who’s reading. No eye contact; everybody has to draw a spiral. And I would like to do a drawing class where we could talk about anything except for the drawing. No one could even mention it. I’d encourage people to copy each other and do whatever they want, but no one can talk about the drawing. When I was watching my students play around, they weren’t talking about the drawing, they were talking to each other, and getting into that dreamy state.
Did you paint all of the words in Picture This? Your handwriting is incredible.
It is all hand painted. When I was working on Freddie, I had been trying to write it on a computer for many, many years, but that delete button just won’t let anything go forward. In Picture This, I talk about babysitting that kid who told me a story one word at a time, and I thought, If that joker can do it … And I came back to my studio and tried to think of the slowest possible way to write a novel, and the slowest way is with frosting. I was really at the end of my rope. There was a baker near our house, and you could look through the window and see the guy decorating cakes. This was in the sixties, when people smoked all the time, and he would smoke while he was decorating cakes. He was this gnarly old guy with a red nose, cigarette, but he did HAPPY BIRTHDAY FRANCISCO! like a pro. And then I thought I had discovered the brush and that I was going to blow everyone’s mind with this news, that you could write a novel with a paintbrush. I mean really, like I had revolutionized three thousand years of Chinese culture. Turns out they know.
What about longer works, like Cruddy?
I just needed to get the story down, so I wrote it by hand. And I wrote it on really big legal paper, so there’d be maybe three words per line. I mean, the manuscript was this big old crinkly thing, and Matt [Groening]—we were giving each other shit and being competitive—he’d ask, “How’s your book going?” The last thing another writer wants to hear is “Great!” They want to hear “Oh I’m having trouble!” while they’re thinking, Really? Is it bad? Yes! So I tell him, “Ahh! It’s goin’ great, you know I’m on page like 570!” But I didn’t tell him that the handwriting was this big.
After writing it, I took it and copied part of it again, and then I worked on a manual typewriter, because that delete button—I really wanted to keep away from it. It was like getting to know a neighborhood: I just walked through the book, I copied it like three times, till the fourth time, when I put it on the computer, and it sort of edited itself, which was a way better way to work than when you don’t know how to be patient so you go back and pick at the top, and then you pick away the thing that you actually needed in order to get that other thing. Yeah, delete button.
Is your new novel, Mr. Birdis, being written the same way?
I handwrite it without any spaces. When I was traveling, because I couldn’t only use my brush, I wrote it without any spaces so it looks like one long word. Cause I didn’t want to be able to read it over very easily. I wanted to write it without me reading it back, and then if I really wanted to read it later on, I could. It looks really boss. You can write anything you want and the people next to you can’t read it. They try to sneak a look and think, “It’s a really long word, man.”
On December 2, Lynda Barry and Maira Kalman will be in conversation at the 92nd Street Y.