Anne Strainchamps: Lynda, You've got this creative writing process that you've been teaching around the country that sold out crowds, writing the unthinkable. What is the unthinkable?
Lynda Barry: Well the unthinkable, you know when we sit down to write a story, a lot of times people will think, Ok well I need, you know, you try to think of what the story is, but if you think about how often this happens. You're walking down the street and some guy passes who for some reason is wearing cologne that guys wore in the eighth grade, like Brute, that was thing when I was...And just suddenly, just as he passes this entire time of your life comes back and our experience of it, or you'll smell this smell and you're in your Aunt Carol's living room. When it comes back, in a weird way that's when we talk about a flood of memories. It's a flood, and it comes back and if you really pay attention to it when it happens, one you'll notice it happens all day long. The other thing you'll notice is that the thing that comes back isn't a photo of Aunt Carol's living room, it's actually three dimensional. If I asked you if you were in Aunt Carol's living room and I say well, what are you looking at right now, and then what is to your left and what is to your right and what is behind you? It's an image you can actually turn around in.
Strainchamps: So, there's something cinematic about it?
Barry: Well, it's even bigger than cinema. Cinema is, the camera can turn around, but you can't necessarily turn around in the movie. In an image you can actually turn around. So, my writing class is based on this idea that we have these associative memories and that we have, I don't want to say natural story telling ability. I do think we have natural story telling ability, but we know how to tell a story if we have only a short amount of time to do it. So the trick in the example I give is, say that you and a co-worker both hate this other co-worker, you know? We'll call her Twinkie. You call each other and say, 'You won't believe what Twinkie did today'. Then, you think you have five minutes to go on about Twinkie, and the other person hates Twinkie too, so it's delicious. Then you realize no, you have a meeting and you only have two minutes. You'll condense that. Almost everybody knows how to do that. We know how to do that from probably around adolescence, when we really started to have that skill.
Strainchamps: So, is that truncating a piece of storytelling? You're saying we automatically know how to? If we've got two minutes, we know how to give it a beginning, middle and end to get to the good stuff?
Barry: Absolutely. As long as we're not writing it and think it's literature. If we're just talking about a friend, yeah we know how to do that. We also know where the story begins. One of the things I often tell my students is, it's like if you go to some records stores, you go to the records store or the art supply store where it's all those snooty art students who are there and looking at you like this sad, menopausal woman buying art supplies.
Strainchamps: You've been eavesdropping on my life [laughs].
Barry: You know how they give you this look? Then, they'll give you this look and kind of say something that makes you feel bad. Then, you go back to your car and you suddenly realize what you could have said that would have made them like, 'Ugh, I'm melting'. And so, what do you do? When you're driving home, you don't go “oh, I wish I had said that. No, in your head you start again where the story starts. I'm walking into this art supply store. I pick up these Chinese paints and inks and I go to the front and he gives me this look.
Strainchamps: Says, ‘do you know what these are?’
Barry: One of them was, what I said to somebody I said, do you know how to use this? He goes, 'No, because I'm not into ripping off other people's cultures'. You know, and it was like you come up with what you could have said to have gotten them back. When you're driving home, you start the whole scenario again. You walk in, you get the stuff, he says this, you say that and he feels terrible and you feel better. Then, what do you do? You imagine it again, don't you? I mean, don't you like go through it like eight times? You're editing. You're editing it until finally it's this little gem that makes you feel better. Then, when you call your friend and tell them that's what you did say, it's not really lying. That's what I call autobifictionography. It's what you should have said, what I could have said. But I think if you look how the storytelling, or stories come up in our days all day long, it only takes you starting to be aware of it. You know like that smell thing, when you smell something it happens so fast, it's such an astonishing event that while you're talking to somebody, suddenly this whole thing comes and then it goes away again.
Strainchamps: So, why turn this into a writing workshop or a workshop for a method at all if we all do it all day long anyway?
Barry: Because we do it all day long anyway, most people don't really understand that. They think that when you're writing a story, it's something that's very different from what we do all day long. Anyway, if it was that different then I don't think we could use it. I mean, we're able to use stories because they're already part of our lives. So, what I like to do is show people how in seven and a half minutes, particularly if you have an unexpected word, so say…this is the structure of my class. I've taught it to you know, from grad students to a medium security prison in Philadelphia. It works. The only difference is the prisoner's stories always have cops in them.
Barry: Actually, what got those guys in prison makes them good writers, which is they don't have a lot of second thoughts. They say, 'I think this is a really good sentence'. They tore it up actually. They're quite good writers, but what happens is, so what I'll do is I'll say ok, number a page one to ten and I want you to think back to early days. Just think back to early days in your life if you can kind of picture something from the earliest days of your life and I say ok, if you're going to tell the story of your life just using the word kitchen tables, just write down the first ten kitchen table memories that come to you. I give people a short amount of time. You have two minutes. Then, at the one minute mark I say you've got another minute.
Strainchamps: All they're doing is listing kitchen tables?
Barry: Yeah, and also feeling like, five will arrive and then just nothing. Blank, like the desert. Then, one will arrive and then nothing. Then, one will arrive and you go, 'That was stupid'. You know, but you need ten, so you put that stupid one down. That stupid one often, although it won't be the first one that you'll pick when you're first starting out, that stupid one often will have such a story attached to it. Anyway, so what I have people do is make that list. Then, I have them go down the list and pick one that seems vivid to them. You know, so let's go with my Aunt Carol's kitchen table, her dinette set, her dinette. So, I'd have people circle that and then I ask them some questions. I have them draw a big X on a piece of paper and the only reason to draw the giant X is to X out the entire page, so you draw a line from one corner to the other so that we already know that this page is not the real thing. It's already crossed out, so now...
Strainchamps: It doesn't count.
Barry: We cross it out first, then write on it, because I think we had it backwards. We would write on it and then cross it out. No, let's get that part over with. We already know it's going to be terrible. So, we cross it out and then I start to ask people simple questions. So, if you're thinking about a kitchen table, you might as well have one in your head right now, any table, it doesn't matter. I ask questions like, where are you? Where is this table in Aunt Carol's kitchen? What time of day or night is it? People are surprised they know. Then, I'll say well what season is it? Then people sometimes say, 'Well, what if I'm not sure'? I say, write down 'Not sure'. Then, with this question, a simple question, where's the light coming from right now? So, it makes you see the source of the light. Is it coming from the windows? Is it coming from this particular lamp? It also lets you see where the light is falling. You'll find that the back of your mind has answers to these questions. It makes you excited because you haven't thought of this stuff in a really long time. So, we go through all of that and I ask them everything, like what's in front of you, what's to your right, what's behind you, this whole thing of just looking all around you. Then, I have them during the first workshop, I have them write for seven and a half minutes beginning with the words 'I am', and writing as if it is happening right now. I am sitting on the ripped rawhide chair of my Aunt Carol's dinette set and I remember like putting my finger, you know how they would tear? You put your finger in there and she'd scream at you, or peeling the duck tape off.
Strainchamps: So full disclosure, I've taken a couple of your workshops and it's astonishing the way it works. I think everybody in the room usually has the same feeling of astonishment like, 'Whoa, where did this come from'? I didn't know I even remembered that table, or that year, or that car or whatever.
Barry: There's often an emotion. The interesting thing about these stories is there will be little short stories. It won't even fill up a page necessarily, and they'll have something in them. So, what happens is people will think I'm a genie, which I think is fantastic. Go ahead and think that, but anybody can do this. I always tell people that if you really, there is a monetary reward for knowing how to teach somebody this, because you'll get free beer for life if you just go in a bar and start writing and somebody comes up to you and says, 'What are you doing'? I'll say, ‘I'm a writer.’ They'll say, ‘I always wished I could write'. I'll say, ‘well I think you can.’ 'No, I can't'. I say, think of car when you were little. So, they'll think of a car. I'll say, are you inside the car or outside? They go, 'Inside'. I say, ‘what seat?’ 'Back seat'. They're looking at me like this and I say alright, what time of day is it? I'll ask them all these questions and then, right when they're getting excited I'll order a beer and they say, 'No, I'll get that beer for you'.
Barry: So, see? [laughs] So, it pays off.
Strainchamps: You brought in a couple of stories that people have written in your workshops. Can you read one just to give us an example of what sort of thing comes out?
Barry: Yeah, yeah. I think the word that I gave was, I think it was Thanksgiving dinner. This is by Carol Wickersham. This is the first draft and it was written in seven and a half minutes. 'I'm sitting at the grown up table for the first time. Kids at the card table are already eating the rolls. We're waiting for the prayer. We never pray. Our heads are bowed, but we're looking around. Aunt Eisle’s wig is drooping over her eyes. Next to her, the famous pink Jello mold salad, with olives that you can wear on your thumbs if you're at the kid's table. We're waiting for dad to pray. He never prays. What's he going to say? Um, TV football, first down, ten yards to go and now a word from our sponsor? What will I reach for first? Then, he reaches over with a beery breath. Slap! 'Get your damn hair out of your plate'. My braids are yanked back. Tears fall onto my empty plate. I'm wishing I was at the kid's table. My mom squeezes my knee under the table and whispers fiercely, 'Just pray damn it, so we can eat'. He belches and starts, 'Dear God, in the year ahead and in the year behind may we all perish, I mean flourish, I mean perish, amen. I reached for the rolls, but Aunt Eisle beats me and she plops some of her pink foamy Jello on my plate'.
Barry: I love that, 'Just pray damn it, so we can eat'.
Strainchamps: The thing I love about it is that in seven minutes it's such a complete story.
Barry: Yeah. It is, and they kind of have this quality. There are very different kinds of stories than one that's been labored over, where you know that every sentence is moving towards this one thing. This is a different kind of writing, but it's vivid to me and really satisfying. Part of the reason I'm so in love with teaching is because I love the stories that people write. I mean, the stories that people come up with, you know my great friend Kelly Hogan, a great singer, describes the class. 'Well, the way I would explain it is that you blow your mind with your own mind'.
Strainchamps: So, here's the thing. Having taken the class, I know that people define this whole process deeply pleasurable. There is something even hard to put into words how satisfying this is. Why is that, do you think?
Barry: Well, there is something, I think it's satisfying in the way good art is satisfying, that thing that we call art, which usually isn't satisfying. Usually, the thing that art has turned into is you go to a museum or a gallery and you stare at the art and you feel really stupid. It feels like you're in an intensive care unit. Everything is really expensive and you need to behave in a certain way and there are lots of people who are experts. That's not, people don't get to experience art that much, but when you have a really good conversation with a stranger, or when you read a fantastic book, or you hear a piece of music, or maybe you're lucky enough to see something visual where you actually can see it. The way that you can imagine a painting, I didn't ever see it, but if I saw it in a gallery I just imagine it hanging in a gas station and then I can look at it, you know? Then, I have no problem. So, I feel like it's that kind of satisfaction and it's a satisfaction of, I guess I'd call it an artistic experience, that there is a satisfaction about and that satisfaction is more important for me than what happens to the piece afterwards.
Strainchamps: So, there's all this neuroscience now about brain function and creativity. You started by saying, you called this process writing the unthinkable, which suggests it's writing with a different part of the brain, maybe. Do you actually think that?
Barry: Yes absolutely, I do. I've been really interested in the work of this brilliant guy named Ian McGilchrist, who has written a book that I actually cried the whole way reading, not from emotion, but because the type was really small and it was really dense.
Barry: It would take me, I read the book on a schedule. I tried to read 25 pages a day of it. It would take me three hours.
Strainchamps: Was it worth it?
Barry: Absolutely worth every minute. I'm starting my second reading of it. I plan to teach a class based on this book and it's called “The Master and His Emissary: The Making of the Western World and the Divided Brain.” One of the things he's done is that he's written brilliantly about how we kind of have two brains. To talk about the left side and right side of the brain, it can be too simplistic, you know? In a way, one can say some general things about it, and one can say that the left side of the brain, which is the part that I'm using right now to you to speak and use language, likes the parts of things. It likes technology, it likes logic, it likes purpose, it likes utility, it's the parent in you that when you say you want to be an artist and I'm not paying for school.
Barry: [laughs] Hell no. It's that side, no, you're going to do something where you can make a living. So, it's all about function and utility. It's quite an important part of the brain. The other side is where we respond to music, poetry, metaphors, things as a whole, our experience of actual depth and distance. So, I think that there's lots of studies that would support this. While both sides of the brain sort of always work in concert, kind of like your two hands, there's never just one side working. The studies that McGilchrist talks about, there are theories that in a weird way, part of the function of the side of the brain is to shut the other side up. You know what I mean?
Strainchamps: Which side?
Barry: Well, either side can shut up. You know, you can't just have the left brain doing everything or the right brain doing everything. Here's an example that's from the book. One of the ways to attract epilepsy, it's a drastic way, but one of the ways is to sever the bridge between the two sides of the brain and it's called the corpus callosum. I always think of it looking like two little fists, or two little hands holding each other. So, they sever that. When they sever that, it turns out that even if the sides of the brain can't talk, or if one side is completely not functioning, we still can roll on. We can roll along fine, pretty much normally, but there's this period for some people where when that brain is divided, when that little bridge, the bridge that has the stop light on it, when that's gone then both sides are in play and they talk about these people who have the most peculiar experiences. In the book, one of the things he talks about is this woman who would want to get dressed in the morning to get to work, so her right hand would reach for the outfit she wanted to wear to work and the left hand had a whole different idea and would grab an entirely different dress. She could not get the left hand to put down that dress. She talked about having to call her daughter in to come and just, or when, this was a different woman actually trying to pay for something at the store that the right hand thought it needed, the right hand would hand the money over and the left hand would just take it right back.
Barry: If you think that this war, it's visible. It's visible here because of that stop sign wasn't there between the two sides of the brain.
Strainchamps: So, are you saying that the writing process that you have come up with is, this is the right brain doing the writing?
Barry: Yeah, absolutely.
Barry: I think the left, this is my little theory and maybe you know, it could be full of boloney, but I think, the thing I know about the left side of the brain is that the left side of the brain is a grasping, a grasp with a precision kind of grip, like the way we hold a pen. I believe that writing by hand actually takes up the left side of the brain. It's like writing by hand makes it to the left side of the brain and the left side of the brain is kind of satisfied, like I'm doing something, I'm holding this pen, because it's sort of engaged. I always feel like the right side of the brain can come forward. That's why I think we doodle in a funny kind of way. I think we doodle to shut the left side of the brain up, like during a meeting when it gets really, really boring but you know. I think it's sort of like having a kid with a crayon. It's like, I know you want to talk through all this, but just draw. So, I found that it's much easier to listen and concentrate if I'm actually drawing, like a little doodle. Usually, I make a spiral. With my students, when they're listening to the stories being told, I always have them drawing, coloring a picture, just coloring. You know that thing that's supposed to be so uncreative? Coloring in a coloring book? The ability to remember stuff, if you're doing something with your hand, and I always talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our Supreme Court Justice, who has knit her way through her entire career, can you imagine sitting across from Scalia and all those guys and they're arguing some crazy stuff and she's like, click, click, click.
Strainchamps: I know, I keep seeing Madame Defarge knitting at the foot of the guillotine, but do you think then that people who type their creative output on a keyboard are writing from a different place?
Barry: No, they're not necessarily writing from a different place, but the problem is the keyboard invites the critical side to hop right in. The keyboard says Oh, I wrote this sentence. Instead of just going to the next sentence and going to the next one, you're at the first sentence and left side of the brain is going, let's try that one again. I don't know if you need that word in there, and why an adverb? So, you'll keep just pestering that one sentence and you'll never get the gesture through. So, I think what a keyboard does is that it invites that delete button. I always say if I had a delete button on my life there would only be 27 minutes that I would keep.
Strainchamps: So, is this why one of reasons you think this process is so pleasurable for people because so much of our life is governed and controlled by the left side of the brain and the right side just wants to come out and play? We don't let it do that all that often and there aren't many opportunities for it to do so.
Barry: Yeah, you're only supposed to do it this one way. I think we understand the arts and all the stuff with that side of the brain, with the right side again, I'd say the top of the mind, that's what I use, because the right side and left side, it just gives you too much of a black and white picture. One of the things, I lost my train of thought, oh I know what it is, I think one of the reasons why this is so pleasurable, it's not just because the experience of writing and remembering is pleasurable, that's true. It carries out into the world. When you are finished doing it, the world looks more alive.
Strainchamps: Why is that?
Barry: Because we kind of come alive. The writing, the back of the mind has an entirely different relationship, actually to visual stuff, to depth, and to seeing stuff as whole, versus seeing things in little parts. I think that is part of the function, that's a much more alive, less worried way to be. I think we need both sides, but I think what this work does, along with the side effect, because you get some good stories, is that it does make you feel more whole and more alive. That's what I think the function of the arts is. I think it's like our external, I think of it as our external organs. You know, what happens is that people, if you can't make money or if it doesn't have utility, then get rid of it. You've seen that happen with cursive handwriting. It's no longer taught in the schools. It's sort of like to me, unless you can find a way to make some money off of your liver, it's gone. It's gone because you'd look thinner without that liver. You would look so much better. You know, and it's like, or it's something about this idea that you know, my friend Kelly Hogan who used to be a genius remembering phone numbers, everybody's phone number. She doesn't anymore because she has them in her little mobile device, right? So, what do you think about this idea, taking a piece of your brain and putting it in an object that you have to buy? Does that sound like a good idea? We're doing it. We're doing with the car too. We're putting our bodies in an object and it got me here today.
Strainchamps: So, I think I hear you saying that we're not only hard wired to tell stories, but we're hard wired to make something out of our stories and that is a crucial part of our mental health, I guess.
Barry: Well, not necessarily to make them, but to use them to understand life, to understand the deeper things in life. I think the other thing, the thing we are hard wired to do is use our hands. I think it's amazing to find that is one that is the one thing that is really being taken away, like using our hands. There are countless studies that produce these results over and over again, which is they take a group of people who had to solve a puzzle, two groups of people. So, one group had to solve this puzzle, it's a physical puzzle. They had to solve it. So that first group, they come in and they describe how they did it. They time how long it takes people to solve the puzzle. Then, they bring the second group in and they have the same task, only they have to sit on their hands while they're describing it. They have a much harder time saying what happened and they have a much harder time, it takes them much longer to explain stuff. That alone is sort of interesting. You know, if you watch people, why would you need your hands to talk, right?
Strainchamps: That's interesting.
Barry: Why do you need your hands to talk when you're wearing your little Blue Tooth thing attached to your ear? You're a businessman you know at O'Hare airport screaming at somebody using their hands. I love to watch people when they're on their phones, especially if they're mad at someone, and especially, usually it's business guys. People don't wear them anymore, but remember when that was the thing? I just wanted like seven of them wherever I went. I just had them all over my body like little leeches, but watching those people is fascinating because they are in full gesture. They're using both hands when they're talking, because they're not having to hold with the other one. So what's it doing, you know? What happens when we take it away?
Strainchamps: It gets back to the importance of sitting in that workshop and writing down a story with nothing but a pen or pencil. There's something that is really primal about that.
Barry: Yeah. It's important to do it for a short amount of time, so you don't have like all day to do it. It's important. The seven and a half minutes makes all the difference. It's that same thing we talked about when working with Twinkie. You know, I only have two minutes to tell you, but I can tell you how she drove me crazy today. So, I feel that stuff is there. I feel like it's really important to our sense of well being and our happiness and that it's being phased out so systematically. It's almost like, if I was a real paranoid person, I'd feel like there was you know, a monster somewhere who has figured this out, like 'Let's get rid of the music in the schools. Let's get rid of all this stuff, you know. Let's get rid of it. Let's make it so that we don't have any reliable and interrupted time.’
Strainchamps: Just turn into the pod people.
Barry: Yeah. Well, that's kind of McGilchrist’s idea in his book, the idea that the left hemisphere loves itself, and loves things of itself. So, it really doesn't have any use for the arts. It's not lying. It doesn't. That's not how it uses stuff. So, that's pretty interesting to me and I'm really interested in people who would think about using the arts not to become artists, not to fulfill themselves creatively, but that it makes a certain state of mind that hey, it actually makes the rest of what you do deeper and better and more meaningful. That's where I think the arts come in. I think to have them separated particularly happens in college especially, where you just, you make your decisions. To have them separated, again is a little bit like splitting that brain. You know, that after a while this great, great tool that can help you, that's always helped people understand things metamorphically, sort of atrophies, you know? What doesn't atrophy is the longing. You know, people who play musical instruments, they'll talk to me about how, 'Oh yes, I used to play the clarinet. I loved it, it's been years'. I say, do you still have your clarinet? They go, 'Yeah'. I say, when you pass it, do you feel guilty? They go, 'Yeah'. It's almost like they go by the instrument and apologize to it. Then, I have students who have taken my class and they'll say, 'Yeah, I wrote a lot, but I haven't written in a while'. Then, they'll talk about seeing their notebook and feeling bad. What's going on there? There's a living relationship there that's going on. I don't feel guilty when I pass my toaster.
Barry: Oh, I'll make toast, but with an instrument, there's a little heart breaking. It doesn't really ever end and then you feel, you go to bed with these fantasies like, 'I'm going to pick that up tomorrow for real', or 'I'm going to write these stories tomorrow'. You know that weird hope, and then you fall asleep and then you don't do it.
Strainchamps: Thanks for teaching us all to get back to it. Thanks.
Barry: My pleasure.