Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lynda Barry speaks

Wisconsin artist Lynda Barry spoke at Brookline Booksmith on Oct. 2, 2008. Below are excerpts from her talk:
  • “One of the things I’ve finally learned is that you can’t just walk up to kids and ask them about that object that they’re playing with. I’ve tried, because I got really interested in it. So I’d just go up to them when I’d see one. And I saw this girl in an airport and she had this little dolly. She was 9. A little bit too old. Her mom was kind of embarrassed about it. It had a shut eye. And it had Bic pen on it. And it went up to her and I said, ‘That looks like a very good friend of yours.’ And she took it and put it behind her back and backed up. And I realized it would be like somebody coming up to me and saying, ‘That looks like a good bra you’re wearing.’ It’s a private thing.

    “I figured it out that what I could do though if I wanted to talk to kids was to just start drawing in front of them. If you start drawing in front of a kid or an adult or anybody they’ll come up and talk to you. So I was sitting on an airplane. You know everybody’s like ‘I hope you don’t mind that my kid’s in the middle.’ Not at all. There’s your kid. She puts on her headphones and goes to sleep. He’s looking at his ‘Jumanji’ book. He’s like 8. And I start drawing. So he gets interested and I tell him I’m a cartoonist. And then I play this game with him, which you all have played, which is you make a scribble and you pass it to the other person and they turn it into something. Then they make a scribble and they pass it to you and you turn it turn it into something. Well it turns out if you play this with a kid you’re going to get a story. I had read that from a really smart child psychologist. So I said I’ll give it a try. So then I did it. I passed it around two passes and all of a sudden this kid, he goes, ‘Oh, I have a story. I have a story and you can make it into a comic strip.’ And you could tell all he knew was he had was the feeling of having a story. And I said, ‘Okay, I got it, we’ll write it down.’ He said, ‘The story’s called’ – this kid was named Jack – ‘The story’s called “Chicken Attack” by Jack.’ And I said, ‘Alright, let’s go.’ Okay, so this is it verbatim from Jack: ‘One morning a chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach felt funny. He went to the Port-O-Let. And then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the Port-O-Let. To the construction site. They made the chicken boss. And from then on the chicken was in charge.’ Isn’t that an oddly satisfying story?”

  • “The one thing almost every human being knows, all around the world, is that if you have a little kid, you have this little baby, and you say, ‘I’m going to raise this baby, this baby is going to get everything that it wants but this child will not be allowed to play at all until that person is 21 years old.’ Everyone around the world can tell you what that kid’s going to be like by the time he’s 21. He’s going to crazy, right. That’s the kid that tells you, ‘I smell clams through the dirt. That’s why I’m a shoot you.’ And everybody knows that around the world. Which means that we have some tacit understanding of the connection between play and mental health. And in fact if you think about when you started to go crazy it’s about the time that play and art became an elective, about middle school. That’s when people started to loose their minds. It’s also interestingly a time when music becomes this huge, huge thing, the radio becomes this huge thing.”

  • “Then you might have this feeling – I remember hearing stuff like this and it would really bum me out – you start hearing it about the time you’re 10. The radio will be on and some guy will say, ‘You know if you want to be a ballerina, you have to begin when you’re 3. You must begin when you’re 3.’ And you’re like, dang, I guess I can’t be a ballerina, it’s too late. Then you hear somebody say, ‘If you want to play the violin, you should have started by age 5.’ And you’re like, dang, it’s too late for me now. And then you hear some novelist say, ‘I began writing novels when I was in the first grade.’ Dang. So by the time you’re 12, it’s all too late and you get this feeling that it’s best left to professionals – like Jessica Simpson. … And that is the situation that most of us are in right now as adults. We gave up at some point, thinking that the only way we could do this stuff is if we are professionals. And the only singing that’s left is the saddest, singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ … The only movement that’s left for us is exercise, the saddest movement of all time. In fact, you need an outfit or nobody knows what the hell you’re doing. … The only sculpture that’s left to most of us is peeling labels off beer bottles while somebody else is telling us about a dream.”

  • “A lot of times if you’re writing, you’re thinking ‘Oh where is this getting me? This is dumb.’ I still have that and what I do is I imagine I’m in a bar writing and it’s a guy coming up to me going, ‘That’s stupid. That’s dumb.’ You’d know he’s an ass, right. That guy’s an ass. But if it’s in your head, it’s the voice of reason.”

  • “You all know what phantom limb pain is? That’s that thing where you lose part of your limb but you still have the sensation that it’s still there. There was a guy who had a particularly intractable case of it. He had lost his hand from here down. But his sensation was that his hand not only there, but it was in a really painfully clenched fist. He was in misery, the pain was constant. His life was really deteriorating. They didn’t know what to do for him. And there’s this brilliant neurologist named V.S. Ramachandran who has done a lot of amazing work with imagery on the brain. And he had this idea, and his idea was, well, let’s make a box and we’re going to put a mirror in that’s slanted this way and there’s a hole on this side so that the guy can put his hand into the hole on this side, and then when he looks down it’s going to be the illusion of seeing two hands. You follow me on that? And so the guy did it. So he sees two hands. And Ramachandran says, ‘Open your hand.’ And he did. And he saw the other one open. And the pain went away. And I believe that’s what images do. That there’s something about – whether it’s in another book, or it’s something that we make – there’s something about seeing something – and I don’t mean literally, necessarily, although with art that’s true – there’s something about working with images that can unclench something that we have no other way to get to.”


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