The Lynda Barry Interview

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 7:04 AM

As you were working through your approach to this book and the relationship between words and images, did you think at all about William Blake’s illuminated texts? Was Blake an influence, or does What It Is share a kinship with those illuminated texts?

I love William Blake. And I know his illuminated texts and they were emboldening influences for me starting about 10 years ago. His work does that thing I’m talking about: It can give you that state of mind that is other than thinking. But actually, the biggest influence on me while I was working on What It Is was Emily Dickinson. I’d struggled with her poetry for years, it was just absolutely opaque to me, or it seemed simple and kind of cute: “Bee! I was expecting you —” But then I decided to try memorizing some of her poems and also the poems of A.E. Houseman and I noticed that something completely unexpected happened. They seemed to build themselves into something else entirely — something I’d never experienced with poetry before. They certainly then became a container that contained an image. Not the thought of an image, but the living thing that seems to change as I change. Not fixed at all, but fluid. And they qualified as an image too, because they certainly did give me the feeling that life was worth living. It’s different than happiness. I’m not sure it has anything to do with happiness, in the same way deep play for kids has nothing to do with fun. It’s something else. What It Is is an attempt to house that something else.

From What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

You emphasize the importance of the physical aspects of writing, and that would seem to be borne out by the change in your own work as a result of the physical transition from pen to brush. When you worked with a pen, your earlier comics involved more direct adult commentary; when you switched to a brush, you began to do strips that expressed your ideas through a child’s point of view. Do you think the shift to a brush brought about the change in point of view or did your wish to work with that point of view cause you to look for a different artistic tool? Can you talk about how the brush encourages you to work more through the eyes of a child?

I’d never thought of that, of a brush bringing about different content than a pen might, but I think it’s right. Writing with a brush is slower than writing with a pen, at least the way I do it, and in my work, slowing down changes a story in the same way walking through a neighborhood is a different experience than riding through a neighborhood.

But I think it was not the pen so much as it was a period in my life when I thought I had love and relationships figured out — this was when I was all of 23 or 24, and I wrote about things from that perspective. Then something happened and kids became the focus of the strip. Marlys, Arna, Arnold and Freddie all showed up at once in one comic strip one day and I had no idea they would stay with me for the rest of my comic-strip life. I never know how to answer the question of why I write so much about kids and adolescents. It’s sort of like asking my niece why when I take her to the store for her birthday she buys yet another My Little Pony. She has so many of them because she likes them so much. But I’m not sure she could tell me why she likes them that much, beyond saying she thinks they are very pretty. However, when I watch her playing with them it’s clear that she is able to get into some deep state of mind when she moves them around. So maybe it’s the same kind of answer. I don’t know why I write from a kid’s perspective except that when I do, I find myself in the state of mind I value so much. I feel better afterward.

How does the mixed-media collage approach of What It Is affect the voice that you’re writing from?

Collage is something I’ve always done since I was a kid. I’ve always gotten a reliable satisfaction from cutting things out and gluing them down. Who knows why this is, but to this day whenever I feel lost or rudderless I can sit down with Elmer’s school glue and a stack of paper headed for the recycling bin and a nice small sharp pair of scissors and cut and paste my way out of one mood into another. I like to make very disturbing collages. There are a few hints of this in What It Is, some sort of scary-looking images, but not as many as there are in the collages that no one sees. Sometimes my husband sees them, but I avoid showing them to people, because they are upsetting. Of course, I love them.

Is there more work in the collage style that you would like to do for publication?

Well, I’m not sure if I’d want people to see all of it, but there are sure a lot of collages that I’ve been building over the years. I can’t think of a venue for them that would make sense, and really, they’re just done for no reason at all, except to move me from one mood to another. It always works, though. I always feel better after I work on a collage.

From What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

Assistant Editor Kristy Valenti just reminded me of a quote from Jean Cocteau’s introduction to Pablo Picasso’s Drawings collection (which gives you an idea of the air of elevated sophistication that lingers around the Journal offices): “Poets don’t draw. They untie handwriting and then knot it up again in a different way.” Do you think the shrinking role of handwriting in our everyday lives (as it’s displaced by text-messaging, e-mails, computerized lettering fonts, etc.) could have a detrimental effect on our ability to express ourselves creatively in writing?

Writing by hand is something I believe in with all my heart. The physical act of drawing a series of letters on a page involves so much more of the brain than typing. Even just positioning letters spatially involves a part of the brain that using a computer does not. It may not seem like a big deal to people but my feeling is that we are giving up quite a bit when we don’t use our hands to shape lines directly on a physical object. Handwriting is drawing. And it contains an image too — the image is the thing we recognize when we recognize someone’s handwriting, which in itself is pretty interesting. What is it that we’re seeing that lets us know who wrote those lines? It’s as recognizable as a voice or a face. We don’t even have to think about it. Why is this?

Handwriting was very hard to come by for all of us, as hard as learning to play an instrument or speak another language. So it’s odd to think it is being given up without a thought about what else may be getting tossed out with it. And one of the things I believe is tossed out is the state of mind that the physical activity of handwriting can give you. For one thing, it’s slow; handwriting is slower than typing. And it’s slower to get rid of than typing on a computer is. I can make all I’ve just written here vanish in an instant. Images aren’t always recognized in an instant. Sometimes it’s because they are hard to destroy that you let them hang around long enough to even see what they are. The computer lets you delete whatever you feel unsure about. This is a disaster if you want to work with images. They always appear as something I’m unsure about. That’s one of my first clues that something new is here. “What the hell is this?” With a computer I can delete it before I even have a chance to ask myself if perhaps it should stay around a little bit longer.

At one point in What It Is, you make the observations that sometimes the best way to remember something you’re having trouble remembering is to forget about it for a while and let it come back to you on its own and that sometimes the best way to forget something that is troubling you is to fully remember it. Although I don’t think you directly mention Freud or his theories anywhere in the book, I can picture him nodding approvingly at this, which sounds very like the strategy of traditional psychoanalysis. How do you feel about psychoanalysis and Freud, who is not so much in favor these days?

Actually, when people say this way of working with images is like psychoanalysis, I always say, no, psychoanalysis is like this way of working with images. And this way of working with images is very, very old. It existed long before the word subconscious existed, and even when it was unnamed it was fully functional.

Telling stories and remembering and forgetting and associative aspects of memory are things which have been with humans all along. Playing has always been with us. All of the things that we call art or psychology or even the skeletal system were there before they were named. They come with the package of being human. So Freud noticed something, but he didn’t invent it. Noticing and naming it is not what brings mental health in a troubled person. It’s like thinking our immune system works only if we know there is an immune system. The human act of using images to work with what is troubling, what is older than that? The Greeks knew about it. They noticed it and named it, calling it ‘catharsis’. It seems to me this is something that has been noticed and named in one way throughout history, but noticed or not, it still is there and it still works.

From What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

In Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, he says that dreams are like a rebus. A rebus, if you remember, is when a visual image represents a word, so that for example, the images of an eye, a flying bee, a leaf from a tree, the letter N and a ewe from a sheep farm can be read as “I believe in you.” In Freud’s theory, the images we remember from a dream stand in for a disguised latent content that is based on words and literal puns. If true, this would suggest that even at the deepest most repressed level of our unconscious, our grasp of things is shaped by words. Which do you think come first: words or visual images? Does language precede thought? Can you talk a little about how you feel words and images interact in your work?

I’ve always wondered if dreams were autobiography or fiction. To be sure, a dream is a living experience, and the meaning of an experience is a hard thing to pin down. It’s like the meaning of a poem or a song. It’s not fixed. There is a haiku I like that is an image of a singing cricket on a log floating down a swift river. Sometimes I find myself thinking of that image in the happiest way, and sometimes I find myself crying when I think of it. Is it a sad image or a happy image? Or is it something like a living experience that changes constantly? I don’t know.

When I read the word “rebus” in your question for an instant I had the meaning of rebus mixed up with “möbius strip” and I thought, “That’s exactly right!” — and just as quickly the meaning of rebus asserted itself, but I was still left with this comparison of a dream and möbius strip — and that comparison is much more satisfying to me. It’s the kind of “mistake” the back of the mind makes that I find so helpful.

How is the comparison of dreams and möbius strips satisfying to you?

It’s the surface switching. The upside down becoming the right side up and then back to upside down and right side up again and again. The material the möbius strip is made of seems like the part of us that can be awake and asleep and then awake and asleep again and again. The awakeness in a dream that is very much like the awakeness in waking life, but flipped somehow. Flipped inward? I don’t know. I do think that just as there is the awakeness that happens in a dream while we are sleeping, there is something like sleeping going on while we’re awake. Doesn’t that sound like a möbius strip?

From What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

The first chapter in What It Is is called: “From the Three of Us” (amended to read “From the Three [Thousand] of Us”). You and your husband are characters in this chapter, but the number clearly refers to the multiple perspectives inside each of us. There is a threesome floating by in a boat at the bottom of the first page of this chapter — an owl, a monkey and a ghostlike figure with tree branches for arms — all of which continue to make appearances throughout the book. I’m tempted to ask what the three figures represent, but I have a feeling you prefer to avoid that kind of one-to-one correspondence between symbol and meaning. So instead, let me tell you some of the associations I see in the three figures and then you can tell me what associations you have for them. Any time you have a threesome, there are several tripartite templates that invite comparison, including; the holy trinity of the the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; the familial triangle of the father, the mother and the child; Freud’s superego (law, language), id (desire, base drives) and ego (self-image, dialectical negotiation of the other two); and so on. My associations with the owl would be things like wisdom, mind, intellect, maybe the “Who-oo?” that asks the self to be defined in language. With the monkey, I think of the base animal aspects of the self, learning through imitation, and evolution over time. With the third figure, I’ve already started making associations when I call it a ghost with tree branches for arms; beyond that my only associations would be of something ineffable, perhaps a phantom of memory. It seems to have a kinship with the deep-sea creatures that appear in the book as denizens of the unconscious. Now your turn.

OW! Wow! What a mind you have. What a good example of how flexible images can be. Nothing of what you’ve said here seems far-fetched to me, but I can tell you I never thought for a moment about what the boat of What It Is creatures might symbolize. It never occurred to me. I just loved to draw them whereever they would fit. The creature that is an owl to you is a catbird to me. A literal cross between a cat and a bird. The monkey is the meditating monkey I’ve been drawing constantly for a few years, like a toy I like to play with most, and the ghost creature is Stick-Arm Stan. Don’t know much about him except his name and that I like to draw him. He always looks good to me.

These characters, like all characters, show up when you move something around. Even fingers on a keyboard, I suppose. But for me it’s the brush. There is also the magic cephalopod and Sea-Ma the sea demon who is the big multi-eyed blowhard in the book, and brief appearances of Mr. Beak, Mr. Trunk, the ballerina whose dance is always interrupted by something and the Near-Sighted Monkey — these last characters are ones I’ve been drawing more of since What It Is ended. I’m working on a new book and they are in it. It’s called The Near-Sighted Monkey. I’m still putting it together so I don’t know what the book is going to be yet.

These animals and imaginary creatures were certainly not part of my drawing vocabulary before 9/11. Of all things, after 9/11, the only thing I could stand to draw were cute animals. Compulsively. And then when a friend died I found I couldn’t draw anything at all except the meditating monkey. Again, compulsively. What any of it means, I don’t know. — Well, I could make some guesses, but they would be like the kind of fake guesses I made in college when I was writing a paper about the meaning of a story or a poem. Guesses that might make sense but I don’t actually feel. I used to like to think about the meanings of things a lot. But I don’t think about meaning so much any more. I do something similar with these things, but it isn’t thinking. Maybe it’s feeling the meaning. Actually, though, the one thing I do think about a lot is thinking. What the hell is it? And where is it?

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