Lynda Barry on drawing ideas

I just found this interview (via Austin Kleon of course) with Lynda Barry, way back in 2008 on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, with Neal Conan. She is promoting her – then, new – book, What It Is, and talks eloquently on art, play and thinking with your hands. I took some notes…

Process over product

It’s equal parts fascinating and depressing to consider the different ways kids and adults value art:

The experience of actually drawing or making a picture is one thing. Then what happens with the picture afterwards is a whole other thing. And I remember my brother Michael, he used to love to draw war pictures. He used to love to do that thing where he’d take a piece of notebook paper and draw a line down one side and all these stick men on the other side and then a bunch of stick men on the other. … So he’d do that, and then afterwards, he’d start the war with, like, a red crayon, and he’d blow stuff up, and he’d do all the sound effects. And when he was done, that piece of paper covered with his drawings didn’t mean anything to him. The experience had already happened. But something happens to us as we get a little older. We would never adults would never consider doing all of those things on a piece of paper and then just throwing it away afterwards. In fact, unless it’s valuable afterwards, most adults don’t think the experience was worth it. 

Perhaps it all starts to go wrong when we send our kids home from kindergarten with art for proud parents to stick on the fridge. Maybe the kids should tear it up when they’re done, and focus wholly on the process of making.  

What playing looks like

This one got me, because I’ve often conflated play and fun. But now I have a toddler, and I see the look of concentration on his face sometime when he’s playing. It’s a pretty serious activity.

That’s one of the things I feel like as adults, we get confused about, where we confuse the word play and fun. And if you look at a kid when they’re really engaged in play. They don’t look like they’re having fun. They don’t look like they’re having a bad time, but they don’t look like they’re having fun. But one of the things there have been these you know, how they can hook all kinds of stuff onto our brains, and they can chart blood flow in the brain. Although they say that the part of the brain lights up, which is, I really wish it did. It’d be really cool if it did light up. But it doesn’t. But anyway, they’ve I’ve read some studies where they have that kids who are involved in deep play and adults involved in creative concentration that the blood flow in the brain is really similar. 

(Incidentally, this was the bit where I fell in love with Lynda, when she was giggling about the brain lighting up!)

Legitimising fun

I don’t know why the adult world instrumentalises all activity towards some kind of productive end, or professionalises all the good stuff in life. It would be an interesting line of enquiry. Regardless, it’s a thing, and keenly felt in the areas of human activity where we tend to have the most fun, such as creative expression and sport:

I feel like as adults, that’s kind of where we are, where we all wish we could sing or we wish we could draw or we wish we could do this stuff. But mainly we feel like it’s something that’s best left to professionals like Jessica Simpson or something that we’ll just watch. And that the only singing that’s left to us is Happy Birthday … And dancing, there’s hardly any dancing left. And the only movement that’s allowed for adults is exercise, which is the saddest movement of all time. And you have to wear an outfit so people can tell what you’re doing because if you just start doing movements in the street, people will think you’re nuts. But if you have on some cool Nike outfit then they’ll say, “Is that the new Pilates?” So I started to get interested in why is it that we all wish we could do these things, and why don’t we? Because there’s nobody stopping us. 


At this point, the show switches over to a phone-in format, which would normally have me turning the dial, but here, is a delight. One caller talks about their self-censorship when recording music, and Barry’s response is just great:

Caller: I’m a songwriter, and it occurred to me a while back that the biggest enemy that I have is censoring myself. I write something and I go, “jeez, I don’t want somebody to hear that”. The idea of getting over that is really very hard. You want to please people.

Barry: That’s true. But I’d sure love to hear an album of just songs that you think no one should ever hear. I think that would be a really good album.

Hand writing

Barry teaches a writing workshop. And I thought it worth noting that she asks her students to write by hand. Typing, word-processing, dictation, hand-writing are all different acts, and we’re engaging with ideas and language with different parts of our minds and bodies:

I think that there’s more and more emphasis on not actually using our hands and fingers. And when I teach writing, I always try to get people to do it by hand because I think that just in terms of evolution, our hands and our brains and our minds all developed at the same time. And so I feel like there’s something about making something or putting something together that just makes us feel better. And at the same time there’s this big push to do away with moving our hands or making things by hand or doing stuff by hand. But I feel like just doing something by hand – that alone can make you feel better.

And much later in this segment, talking about the way that thought is deeply embodied:

There’s all the difference in the world between drawing the letter A and tapping your finger to make an A. And for most people, they don’t realise that they still have the ability to draw. Whenever you’re writing by hand, that’s drawing. And I feel like there are these little vestigial places where the arts stay. For example, if you watch somebody trying to remember something, they don’t sit very still. They’ll move their hands, and they’ll often make a noise like this. They’ll go “um, er um”, and I know that when they study the brain, they show that singing is a whole different part of the brain. And there’s something about movement and making a noise that isn’t speech, that allows you to remember stuff. And so it seems like these things still are there, and also you can certainly feel them. 

It’s all good stuff, check it out.

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