Creative Role Models: Lynda Barry

creative role models

This is a series where I write about the people that inspire me to be more creative every day: the people who live and breathe creativity and are using their passion to make the world a better place. I've also written about Ray Bradbury, Miranda JulyNick Bantock, Jim Hensen, Lisa CongdonAmanda Palmer, and Elizabeth Gilbert.Who is Lynda Barry?

A writer, cartoonist, and champion of drawing and creativity. She had a ground-breaking weekly comic strip (see some examples here) for 30 years and once print media started to dry up she turned to books, publishing graphic novels featuring characters from the comic strips, as well as a novel that was turned into an off-Broadway play. She has also published two books on how to write and draw called What It Is and Picture This (which I love!). She now teaches writing workshops and interdisciplinary university classes for everyone from undergrads to PhD students. You can follow along with her classes and see their homework on her blog, or read about them in her book Syllabus.

What’s so great about her?

What it is by Lynda Barry

A friend of mine introduced me to her comics and at first, I really didn't get it. Her drawing style is not pretty or tidy—it seems to flail across the page a bit—and her stories are heartbreaking. But after spending more time with her work, and especially after discovering her workbooks, I fell hard for her imagination and deep commitment to exploring the impact of images on people.

She uses the word 'image' to represent anything having to do with the arts and believes that images have a necessary biological function, acting as a sort of immune system for our minds. She believes that everyone can write and draw, to the point where she challenges people she meets in airport bars to do an exercise and they end up buying her a drink. Her sense of humor is batty and off-the-wall. In an interview, she jokes about how her husband says she's not just a ham, but a sequined ham, and then goes on about how much fun it would be to make a sequined ham. She got interested in teaching because she's obsessed with figuring out what an image is and how images affect us, and she realized that she couldn't do it on her own.

How has she inspired me?

When I opened up her workbook/graphic novel What It Is I was immediately enthralled by the cluttered pages filled with collage and hand-painted text and comics, all on yellow lined paper. They're endearingly casual and funny, and yet full of complex beauty. These books make me want to create.  After a few minutes with any one of her books, I have an itch to start telling stories or drawing random things or making collages.

She talks about how in the wake of 9/11 and other tragedies, including the deaths of several friends, she started drawing cute animals, in particular, this meditating monkey, and how she felt like doing that kept her going. The few minutes it took to draw the monkey were more bearable so she kept drawing it, over and over again. I got the idea of using drawing as an experience rather than a finished product from her, and her philosophy not letting liking or disliking get in the way of making something was a huge inspiration for my Drawing Project.

What does she do that’s different than others?

I love the story about how she got her start in comics: she drew a few strips about cacti trying to pick up women in bars and brought them to a newspaper. The woman in charge of comics was so angry when she saw them because she thought the cacti were Mexicans and these were the most racist comics she had ever seen. On her way out the door, Lynda ran into the guy who was in charge of the back page of the paper and he hated the woman who did the comics page. So he printed them, just to spite her.

She has a different perspective on drawing than most. In her book Syllabus, the instructions she gives her university students are not what you might expect: colouring pages with crayons, memorizing poems, copying and tracing comics. She says, "It's better to think of a drawing as a side effect, or a certain state of mind and a physical activity, than to think of it as the aim." She has spent years exploring research on how the brain works and how memory works and uses what she has learned to teach people who don't think they can draw or write to draw and write.  In her classes she always has people draw spirals while they listen to a classmate reading their work because she's learned that having your hand moving helps you to absorb information better—and having everyone's head down looking at their paper makes it easier on the person who is reading their work. She believes that the development of our hands is completely connected to the development of our brains, which is why she encourages movement above all else.


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.”Source

The one thing I can say about images and work with images, if I can put their function into one sentence: it’s the thing that gives you the feeling that life is worth living. Which is step one, I’m not saying it’s really worth living or it’s fantastic. I’m saying it’s also the thing that will keep you from killing yourself and others. So it’s a public service, I think [laughter], to engage in images. Source

They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable. ― Lynda Barry, What It Is

You have to be willing to spend time making things for no known reason. ― Lynda Barry, Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book

The worst thing I can do when I'm stuck is to start thinking and stop moving my hands. Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book

If you're waiting to not worry about what people are gonna think about you you're gonna be waitinga really long line. I think it's okay to proceed with worry, and terror and fear and doubt. Interview on (Viewable with a free trial)

I hate art galleries, they remind me of intensive care units. Interview on