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I just took the best writing workshop with Lynda Barry. She’s a huge hero for me, so if she had sat up there and read the phone book for three hours I would have been totally happy – but she of course did and said amazing things instead, and the workshop sparked a ton of new ideas for me.
Lynda writes comics, and she thinks about images. Her approach to writing uses images as her vehicle, both in a kind of romantic sense – you know, using strong images and memories to spark off a good writing exercise – but she also explores whether images might have a biological function. Why have we carried the arts along with us over thousands of years? Why do we sing and dance and draw? Why do our brains release dopamines when we do these things, and why does doing these things help our brains recover from trauma? And perhaps most importantly for me: why is using our hands to make things (instead of typing) important? How does using our hands change our thinking?
It might seem strange to you that someone who relies on being connected all the time would be curious about this last question so let me say this: I haven’t met anyone who thinks and works online for a living who doesn’t sketch. Not all of them make images (the talented Rob Cottingham excepted) but ALL of them are the grab-a-napkin-and-sketch-out- the-flowchart type. We all know there’s a part to good thinking that requires us to use our hands but why is that? Why does having a whiteboard or post-its or playdoh around result in better ideas?
These are the kind of questions Lynda asks, when she’s not asking real stumpers (what WAS photographic memory called before the invention of photography?) or singing to you about Underpants Gnomes. Did I mention she’s a huge hero for me?
One of the most interesting things about the workshop was her technique for overriding the logical part of your brain to get at what she calls the back of your mind, or your creative right brain. She does it through timed writing exercises which you can see here. But the videos leave out the magical part. Before she started the exercise, she had everyone draw a spiral on their page, concentrating on not letting the lines touch, and she read this poem at the same time, telling us not to think too hard about it. Somehow doing these two things simultaneously totally overrode my brain and I wrote without hesitation. Reading it over, I realize I was so hypnotized I never ever registered that last verse (eep).
The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty
You are sitting here with us,
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.
You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.
You are in your body
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind.
You are the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach.
You are the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those,
those veins that are lute strings
that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf
but the sound of no shore.
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
If you’ve never encountered her stuff before, check out her thoughts here on her Tumblr, where she includes some of her writing exercises – and here on YouTube, where you can listen to one of her workshops in five parts. Even if you do a lot of technical writing like me (especially if!), her ideas will give your work new energy.
Also, you’ll half memorize a Sufi poem and get the Underpants Gnomes song stuck in your head. She’s no end of fun, is Lynda.
Feeling lucky that Lauren Bacon wrote this blog post after she told me about this technique for mastering your to-do list, because now I can share it with you. You’ll need 25 cents and this blog post, and a gag for your (somehow totally British upper crust sounding, it’s so true) inner critic. Pip pip.