I've been a fan of cartoonist, novelist and memoirist Lynda Barry for decades, long before she was declared a certified genius; Barry's latest book, Making Comics is an intensely practical, incredibly inspiring curriculum for finding, honing and realizing your creativity through drawing and writing.
I once taught week 6 at the Clarion Writers' Workshop the same year that Lynda taught week 4, so I got to inherit her students and see the results of her pedagogical methods firsthand, and they were nothing short of spectacular. Though our students were there to learn to write -- and though some of them had not tried to express themselves with art in their entire adult lives -- Barry's method drew something out of these writers that I'd never seen.
For many years, Barry has served as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison art department and at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, using her method to teach both adults and children to get in touch with a creative impulse that is simultaneously deep, mysterious and irrational and trainable, biddable and reliable (with practice).
In 2014, Barry published her first instructional volume, Syllabus, and in many ways, Making Comics is a sequel to that book, but what it really represents is a half-decade of intense experimentation with a wide variety of students, perfecting a series of instructional exercises that have a little of the aspect of a game, a little bit of the aspect of a daily discipline, and a little bit of the aspect of a working meditation.
The contradictory nature of Barry's exercises are emblematic of her gift for being simple and complex at the same time: do a simple thing, make a complicated thing. For example, when Barry doesn't feel like drawing, she just scribbles, moving her hand until it just starts making art.
In a similar way, these exercises -- some solo, some group -- are ways to find depth and purpose in the aimless and instinctive, inviting your lurking imagination to find surprising connections, then aiming your analytical mind at these connections to flesh them out, alternating between these modes as a way to bring your whole self to bear on your creative practice.
I have no aptitude for drawing, nor have I ever really wished I could draw, but Barry's method excited me and prompted me to try several of these as I read. What's more, many of the team exercises have the makings of a tremendous party game, or parent-kid activity. Much of this work is timed by putting on a favorite song and working to its precise duration -- no longer, no shorter -- and much of it involves a kind of kinetics, passing physical pages around your group. It's a full-contact sport version of creative training.
My own creative work is very disciplined and linear: when I'm working on a novel, I have a daily word target, and I write until I hit exactly that target, sequentially, and stop midsentence. I write when it feels like I'm doing brilliant work and when I feel like I'm doing terrible work, and I figure out which was which when it's all done. This ability to just do the work was a hard-won habit, and I have a superstitious dread of tinkering with it. But Barry's compassionate and thoughtful blend of the intuitive and analytical lured me out of my safe place.
This is a wonderful book that would make a wonderful gift -- to yourself, and to the people in your life.