What I’m Digging Right Now

1. paintingsStrathmore Watercolor Postcards.

It could be a little intimidating to break out the paints after a decade of dormancy and start in on a full-size canvas or even a regular sheet of paper. But these 4×6 postcards provide the perfect scaled down frame for the novice painter who  wants to squirt some vermillion and canary yellow onto a makeshift palette and just play for a few minutes.  Theoretically, you can pop these cards into the mailbox  sans envelope, but I live in Seattle and it hasn’t stopped raining since 1973 so I haven’t tested that out yet. strathmore

2. Documentaries about creative types

vogue-the-editors-eye-1024x1024My post-election self-care involves upping my exposure to love and creativity, the two things that give me hope in a world that’s testing the limits of our optimism daily. When I watch artists engaged in any creative activity, the feeling  that Life Is Worth Living rushes back into my limbs. Some of the documentaries I’ve devoured these last few weeks: Blondie’s New York, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, Hip Hop Evolution, Serena (she renders tennis an art form), and the PBS SoundBreaking series about the history of recorded music (fascinating!).

3. Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day

boundariesI’m sure it’s not a coincidence that my renewed interest in personal boundaries arrived in the dawn of an administration led by a man who views the most obvious of human boundaries as a speed bump rather than a road block. But whatever the reason, I found myself wanting a spruce up my personal boundaries and have found Ann Katherine’s Where to Draw the Line to be an incisive and insightful primer. Check it out and learn the difference between a “boundary error” and a “boundary violation.” Bracing!

4. The Serialized Story “Here Be Monsters” by “Karen.”

I want to give you the full name of this writer, but she seems to want to publish this serialized story, “Here Be Monsters,” under just the first name Karen. If I get permission to share her full name, I’ll be sure to come back and edit this post. I am LOVING this story, and it is so fun to receive it in short installments via email. If you follow this link, you’ll see a Subscribe button so you can sign up yourself or just click back through the archive and get up-to-date in one delicious binge.  Here’s an excerpt from one installment to give you a taste:

Tieu Ly’s in the city for a few weeks and she meets you one day after work.

The pair of you walk to the nearest Marks & Spencer so you can return your latest example of buyer’s remorse: a cream trench coat that had whispered ‘Olivia Pope’ whilst on its hanger, but had shouted ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ whenever you tried to wear it outside of your house.

“Am I doing it wrong?” you ask her.  “Is clothes shopping meant to feel like I’m committing a hate crime against myself?”

Tieu Ly just nods and looks out at the sweaty crowd milling around the bus stop across the road.  It’s another tube strike so tempers are fraying, one banker type guy banging a fist  in despair against the side of a packed bus as it rolls away.

“Boy,” she says with a shake of a head.  “This stiff upper lip we’re famed for sure does disappear in the face of mild inconvenience.  One little travel strike and people are out here acting like it’s a scramble for the last chopper out of Saigon.  Ari,” she continues, stopping to look at you, and touching your arm lightly so that you stop too.  “I’m going to tell you something, but you have to promise not to freak out.”

5. The Placards of Dissent






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What I’m Digging Right Now

  1. moonlightMoonlight and all the conversations surrounding this film. I’m touched by the autobiographical impulse behind Moonlight; the vulnerability of the writer and the director, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins, and the complexity of the protagonist, Chiron; and the simple elegance of the film’s three-part structure. Listen to the Fresh Air interview here and read the New York Times profile of McCraney and Jenkins here.

  2. Rebecca Solnit’s Facebook posts on the incoming administration.

  3. Astropoets Twitter feed. Just funny and so spot on–could make a believer out of an astrology apostate. (Thanks, Claire Dederer, for turning me onto this distraction!)

  4. Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is A Book of Rules. Form as Content is alive and well and living in the pages of this brilliant book. We just read this book together in my UW Memobodyir class, and I so appreciate the dozen containers for discourse Washuta uses to embody the book’s central theme described by the author as “my failed attempts at mastery over my own body.” The thing I dig the most: Washuta’s use of Law & Order: SVU scripts. So clever, so poignant.

  5. My brand new New York Times Sunday paper subscription. There couldn’t be a better time to subscribe to the Times, and the arrival of the paper on my front step Sunday at dawn brings me an absurdly disproportionate experience of living the high life. (Jordan Peele embodies this feeling with inimitable panache here). The cost of the Sunday subscription includes full digital access (which you can share with two friends!).

  6. year-of-yes-9781476777122_hrShonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes. I’ve been rereading passages from this book routinely as if it carries the secret of life, or maybe just the secret of being disarmingly casual on the page.

  7. These questions from Audre Lorde:audre-lorde

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4 New Year’s Resolutions for Memoirists

Want to finish  your memoir this year? Here are four resolutions to help you create an enduring memoir that transforms your individual experience into a universal one that speaks to a wide readership.

1. This year I will make myself vulnerable on the page.

What’s the one quality that keeps me reading a memoir? The narrator’s willingness to make himself vulnerable. Most often in memoir the narrator’s vulnerability originates from sharing stuff most of us want to hide — our fears, our mistakes, our smallness, our regrets. Yet, big confession doesn’t always translate to instant vulnerability. We don’t really need more tales of simple carnality and depravity. It isn’t necessary to have broken nine of the Ten Commandments to earn the reader’s attention. I think most readers of memoir are compelled by the nuances of intimacy over the lap dance; we’d rather read a slow rendering of envy or avarice than yet another bald confession of adultery. We’re looking for insight, for subtlety, but mostly we desire the writer’s complicity in the problem. Before writing, ask yourself, “What was my part?” and then dare yourself to show that part.

2. This year I will share wisdom in my writing.

In Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington describes “musing” as the memoirist’s skill of making an insightful observation about a specific situation or a more general human condition. In fiction writing classes, writers are admonished to “show not tell,” but in memoir, it’s perfectly okay — and in my opinion, advisable — to show and tell. And musing is the tell. Musing is the place in the story where you get to share your wisdom about grief or alienation or the price of success. For most of us, doling out wisdom can feel scary and unnatural. Writing about the nature of betrayal or love, we can be met with a rush of “Who am I to say?” But it is this type of wisdom — and the underlying boldness that generates this expression of wisdom — that readers of memoir hunger for. We want the author to own her authority (yes, the roots of the words are the same). We long for it. Dare to offer not just your story but the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

Here are a couple of examples of musing that demonstrate the type of conviction I believe readers of memoir crave:

From Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge:

I could not separate the Bird Refuge from my family. Devastation respects no boundaries. The landscape of my childhood and the landscape of my family, the two things I had always regarded as bedrock, were now subject to change. Quicksand.

From Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies:

[Grace] is unearned love — the love that goes before — that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

3. This year I will not shun drama.

In real life, none of us want to be known as a drama queen, but in memoir, you need to embrace the drama of your own story and not be shy about playing it up here and there, especially in the opening and closing lines of chapters. While we might feel self-indulgent underscoring the drama of our own narratives, I think that it actually takes courage and humility to own the dramatic in your story. Why courage? Because being dramatic means fighting the conditioning that tells many of us to stay small, to not make a big deal of things, to not make ourselves “the center of the universe.” But in our memoirs, we are the center of the universe. As writers of memoir, being the center of the universe is our job.

I find tremendous courage in the way Cheryl Strayed uses dramatic repetition and foreshadowing at the end of sections and chapters in Wild. I think it is brave to write the words “I would suffer,” as she does in the book’s first chapter. This seems like a wildly courageous and fierce way to end a first chapter:

It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

4. This year I will seek to illuminate the universal aspects of my story.

I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is not to believe that our own stories are inherently interesting just because the events are sensational. My favorite quote about this comes from V.S. Pritchett: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”

As Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, has said, “In memoir, the transformation of the self is the story.” It’s not enough to tell an exciting story; you need to tease out the story of transformation within your narrative. And the story of transformation is, in essence, the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the cross cultural, universal story of a hero who is called to leave the ordinary world to journey into a special one. The hero — in a memoir, that’s you — heeds the call and makes his way through the special world over obstacles and through tests until, at last, he returns to the ordinary world. But he is no longer the same person who left pages ago for the special world; he is transformed.

And this universal story of transformation — even if it is transformation so externally imperceptible that no one but you might know it exists–this is the story of the most powerful memoirs. Read Strayed’s Wild with one eye to the hero’s journey and you’ll see what I mean. A woman is called into a special world; when she returns to the ordinary world, she is transformed. It’s the story of transformation your readers long for. Find it within yourself and give it to your readers.

You can read more on my thoughts on writing memoir in Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too)


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Two Good Reasons to Read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

Image result for the creative habit pdfI first learned of Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit from Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, when she quoted Tharp during a guest lecture for my memoir class. The quote? “You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.” This line quickly became one of my beacon quotes* as it’s very much keeping with how I think. I enjoy exploring overlap. I’ve never met a Venn Diagram I didn’t like.

During bleak times (the U.S. Electoral College voted this week–argh), I return to the books that have brought me solace, and this week I picked up Tharp’s The Creative Habit once again. I just put it down long enough to tell you all about it because, dang, this book is helping me. In The Creative Habit, Tharp breaks down the creative process and offers insightful and unexpected approaches to the expected challenges. The book is a gold mine, but todayI just want to talk about two of the elements of the book I’m loving the most:

Reason #1: The Creative Autobiography

In this section, Tharp asks numerous searching questions about one’s creative history and then provides her own (really fascinating) answers. If you’d like to read Twyla Tharp’s  answers to the questions, you can see them here. I’m sharing her questions below, and I urge you to set aside 45 to 60 minutes to write out your answers. Normally, I love to skip exercises no matter how helpful the book, but I did the creative autobiography activity, and it was time well spent. The answers I produced reminded me of what matters to me as a writer and how to wring more work out of myself (spoiler alert: deadlines!).

Tharp’s questions:

  1. What is the first creative moment you remember? Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
  2. What is the best idea you’ve ever had? What made it great in your mind?
  3. What is the dumbest idea?
  4. What made it stupid? Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?
  5. What is your creative ambition?
  6. What are the obstacles to this ambition?
  7. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
  8. How do you begin your day?
  9. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?
  10. Describe your first successful creative act.
  11. Compare them.
  12. What are your attitudes toward:
    Money? Power?Praise?Rivals?Work?Play?
  13.   Which artists do you admire most?
  14. Why are they your role models?
  15. What do you and your role models have in common?
  16. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?
  17. Who is your muse?
  18. Define muse.
  19. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
  20. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?
  21.   When faced with impending success or threat of failure, how do you respond?
    When you work, do you love the process or the result?
  22. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
  23. What is your ideal creative activity?
  24. What is your greatest fear? What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?
  25. Which of your answers would you most like to change? What is your idea of mastery?
  26. What is your greatest dream?

Reason #2: The Chapter Called “Scratching”

One of the creative topics few teachers ever address is how we go from zero to sixty, from having no idea whatsoever to a tender shoot to a full-blown something. The truth is most of us aren’t sure how we go from nothing to something—even if we’ve done it a few times. In this chapter “Scratching,” Tharp starts by describing the feeling of nothing and then gives concrete ideas for how to scratch at the dirt and get something going. Most of us will relate vividly to the opening paragraph of the chapter that acutely renders the wasteland of pre-idea:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’”

I’m sure this sounds familiar to you. But what comes next? “Scratching,” a territory familiar to Tharp as years of as a creative professional. During this period of scratching for an idea she takes walks, searches through books, looks to the work of heroes and mentors, scans everyday conversations, and noodles around.In the “Scratching” chapter, she uses her experience as a choreographer to build an argument about how ideas coming into being. Her three central points:

  1. Big ideas for big projects are rare.
  2. The way into big ideas for big projects is often through small ideas.
  3. We often discover these small ideas through improvising.

   “Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one…

When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks…

It’s the same for me. A dance doesn’t hit me whole and complete. Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds. A quick combination of three steps is an idea. A turn of the foot coupled with an arm gesture is an idea. A new way of collapsing to the floor is an idea. …”

To get these “small ideas,” Tharp improvises. “To generate ideas, I had to move,” she writes. She then describes her process trying out various steps in the studio before a mirror with no expectations about the outcome of these improvisational sessions.

But how do we let go of outcomes and expectations when we are working on long writing projects, I asked myself? What would equivalent activities be for a writer stuck midway through a book? (Asking for a friend!)

One activity**I recently did with a class encourages just this type of on-topic improvising:

  1. Write for at least 10 minutes on whatever you’ve been thinking about lately, especially worries/burdens/obsessions. What’s been keeping you up at night?
  2. Create a Venn diagram. In one circle, give a title to your current concerns and in the other, write the general topic of your current project.
  3. Now ask yourself: What’s in the overlap? How are these two connected? Is there a word that describes this connection? (You might need to dig a bit for the answer).
  4. Write that connecting word or a phrase that describes that connection at the top of a new page.
  5. Write for 15 minutes inspired by that connective word/phrase.

I’ve found this activity to be productive, but it’s also simply a low-stakes way to improvise with your bigger idea. If nothing useful comes of it, some vital warming up has occurred. You’ve spent some active time “scratching” and the practice of scratching inevitably leads to those small ideas.

* Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is the source of another of my “beacon quotes”: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot. The story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” **This activity was inspired by Seattle author Suzanne Morrison’s talk called “Asking the Right Questions.” If you happen to be in Seattle, she’s teaching this class in February at Hugo House. See details here.

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The Question that Haunts: How to BE now?

It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.

I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candle glowing. She’d lit a candle for me, a gesture that opened my thoughts to a large open field I’ve been hoeing this post-election week.

In this field grows a question: How do we BE now?

How do we be with ourselves? And how do we get together with each other and refrain from either howling with fear or simply dismissing the peril with empty aphorisms?

A week ago my new writing buddy and I wrote at my house. It was an age of innocence. We talked about the photos of pantsuited revelers we’d seen posted as we lunched on curried chicken salad. We worked on our books that would perhaps be published and read during a historic presidency, a presidency that promised to represent people like us (women) and protect our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Even if we hadn’t fully imagined the future the polls promised, it radiated a bit in the upcoming calendar pages. January was just around the corner.

But that future never came and instead we awoke into a world where the meanest kid on the playground becomes the hall monitor from hell. Since then those of us who’d imagined an imperfect but reasonably sane future struggle to catch up and to absorb, alternating between fight and flight, strategy and despair. Many have already articulated the enormity of this challenge, including John Oliver who does so with such vigor and needed humor here.

Crucial conversation, protests, and campaigns lie ahead, to be sure. But today and tomorrow:  how do we just be? How can we be there for one another and continue to do the work that compels us? One tweet I scrolled by seemed to capture the essence of this worry: My boyfriend says he doesn’t know how he can deal with four years of me not being able to deal.

I felt for her and for him. I felt for myself, for my family, and my friends. I felt for all the people I know and those I don’t who never wanted this outcome. We are all just so scared! So reasonably and rightfully afraid. And yet, we cannot collapse into fear. We cannot let fear take more from us than has already been taken.

Last Wednesday–the night after the election–I had to teach my usual Wednesday night class at Hugo House here in Seattle. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk, to open my mouth and articulate ideas. In short, I did not want to give. It is my job to give, but I felt I had nothing.

I asked myself, How do I teach when I have nothing?

You pretend that you have something, I told myself.

Of course, I’ve done that type of pretending many times before—as we all have when a personal struggle has us in its grip and yet we still must show up for work. But this felt different because I knew my students were struggling too, that we were all in this together. Yes, that’s right, I remembered: We are in this together.

I stumbled into the classroom, feeling pale and awkward. “I know a lot of us feel badly today, but this work is our hope and it’s our freedom. Creativity can be offer us nothing else can right now,” I said and after I spoke those words, I realized I meant them. Creativity is the safest space I know. When I was younger, I was plagued by my external locus of control. I believed I could only be happy if someone made me happy. But writing has given me something no one else can: A place to lose myself.

Then, I led them through a writing exercise and they got to work. The little gesture—the candle I could light for them—was keeping their writing time free of distractions. That small gesture is also known as MY JOB, the thing I get paid to do.

Doing my job: An item to add to my list teaching me How To Be Now.

  1. Remember: We are in this together.
  2. Do my job.
  3. Light a candle.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and I knew I had to pull away from Facebook. In the empty hours since the election, I’d been reading status updates incessantly, scrolling and scrolling, looking for I knew not what. Solidarity, yes, and I found that. But I wanted something from Facebook it could not give me. I wanted Facebook to make me feel okay and reassured and connected.

I wanted it to teach me how to be now. Yet, it couldn’t.

In fact, it was making me feel less connected and more afraid. I resolved to log off, spend real time with family and friends, and connect with acquaintances through other channels. I bought a real newspaper, made lunch, hung out with my daughter and her boyfriend, laughing at silly memes.

  1. Avoid the places that fuel my fear and feelings of isolation.
  2. Show up in real life.
  3. Lose yourself in the writing.

That afternoon a naturalist from Discovery Park called: Did I still plan on participating in this afternoon’s Owl Prowl?

I’d signed up for a guided walk called Owl Prowl months ago when the meanest kid was NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO BECOME THE HALL MONITOR FROM HELL. Why would I still want to walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls now?

“Yes, I’ll be there,” I said, even though I wanted to stay home.

       7. Walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls.

When the father of two standing at the back of the group called out, “There’s an owl right now,” I swung around in disbelief. We’d only been standing in this grove of cedars and maples for a few minutes! What were the chances of spotting an owl so soon? We  clustered around him. He started to point, but a naturalist asked him to simply describe the position of the owl and asked others to resist from shining their flashlights at the owl. Even the owl was granted respect and autonomy in this world of twenty who’d agreed to clamber together through this park on this November afternoon that was fast dissolving into evening.

“Okay,” he said, “Look straight ahead of me at the tall tree bending in wind. Halfway up on a clean short branch, he’s there clinging near the trunk.”

We all stared into the dusk. The grey of sky and the black of branches were barely distinguishable. I’ll never see this owl, I thought. Never.

But then I did.


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How to Keep on Writing that Freaking Book!

Question: When is 9 months “a year”?

Answer: When the 9 months is spent in a manuscript class.

I teach a memoir manuscript class here in Seattle at Hugo House. The class runs 9 months from September to June, and yet the class is called the Yearlong Memoir Manuscript Class. And right about now, these writers are feeling the yearlong slog of it all. They have two more months to go and an hugo_house_picture_2anticipated 25,000 more words to write. How will they keep on keeping on?

Last class meeting the group members shared with each other the strategies that are keeping them motivated and writing. I’m sharing the list they generated here as I think there are a ton of great ideas here and probably at least one or two you can use. The key is, of course, using strategies. I myself like to read about helpful strategies and can be a wee bit lethargic about the actual implementation, but maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’re an implementer.

The Hugo House Yearlong Memoir Manuscript Class’ Best Tips:

  1. Separating generative writing time from editing time (To guard against endless editing).
  2. Working with a small writing group that meets monthly in which members take turns sharing pages.
  3. Sending work to willing and supportive readers.
  4. Writing what captivates me.
  5. Keeping an “idea book” and jotting ideas in it when they arise.
  6. Setting backup production goals (word count/quarter) as well as aspirational ones.
  7. Printing out my work (some place new pages in a binder as they’re produced).
  8. Reading work I love (sometimes over and over again). Recognizing that some writers are truly your teachers (even if you’ve never met them). These particular writers have something to teach you as a writer so rereading their work is great use of your time.
  9. Creating regular times to talk with others about writing.
  10. Resisting the urge to focus on structure (instead of generating new pages).
  11. Writing without fear of reproach. Telling myself, “This is my story to tell.”
  12. Reading the The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir.
  13. Writing in the morning or late at night when household is quiet.
  14.  Not looking for the perfect thing to write next. Just jumping in anywhere.
  15. Using the Priscilla Long prompt that begins with listing five things you’re interested in writing about right now. Prompt can be found on  page 19 of Long’s book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.
  16. Doing planning activities (but not letting them replace generative writing time).
  17. Book proposal writing.
  18. Using Brooke Warner’s ebook How to Sell Your Memoir Proposal.
  19. Progoff journaling: Writing your book’s history as if it already exists in the world
  20. Getting out of the house and writing in a cafe or bookstore.
  21. Scheduling writing into your week.
  22. Doing Lynda Barry’s 4-Minute Diary.
  23. Listening to the voice that says, “This is what I need to write right now.” (even if the topic choice seems illogical).
  24. Capitalize on times I feel inspired and use those times to write.
  25. Telling myself “just get the stories down.” Don’t worry how they’ll form a whole during the generative period.
  26. Listening to podcasts that model good storytelling, especially during commutes.
  27. Not being stopped by the fear of self-reproach. Using the Cheryl Strayed “Fear is not an option” strategy.
  28. Reminding myself, “It seems to me if you lived through this, you have the right to write about it.”
  29. Letting go of worries about structure and generating more.
  30. Getting away from the computer when stuck and writing by hand.
  31. Taking breaks.
  32. Looking at what I wrote at the end of every day so I remember it the next day and don’t have to use my writing time rereading.
  33. Moving on to a new topic in the book when bored.
  34. Go straight to the writing each morning (after walking the dog).
  35. Delaying fact checking until generative work is done.
  36. Asking myself, “If I don’t write this, who will?”
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For the Love of Lynda Barry

To love the work of an artist or writer you believe has not received due recognition is its own special hell. You’re doomed to an infinite loop of recitation as you eternally rattle off X’s accomplishments and chant reminders of the existence of X. For me, X = Lynda Barry.

lynda-barry-webWhile many will register recognition of Barry’s name and some will even mutter a yeah, she’s great, few seem to fully grasp her genius and realize that before comics were cool and women could fancy themselves cartoonists, a young Lynda was spending her Sundays on Seattle’s Beacon Hill copying the images of Snoopy and Nancy from the funny pages. Even here in her home state, she’s not given the full heft of the credit she’s due. It seems to be forgotten that not only did Lynda grow up right here in Seattle, but she spent four mossy coming-into-herself-as-an-artist years at Evergreen.

In fact, it was at Evergreen State College that Barry’s drawing went from a pastime to a compulsion. After a rough breakup, she started drawing strips in which “the men were cactuses and the women were women, and the cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was at Evergreen where an editor of the school’s Cooper Point Journal named Matt Groening (Yep, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening) hounded Barry to give him a strip to print, and thus began a lifelong friendship and Barry’s first published strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek.

syllabusYet, Barry does not seem to share my interest in elevating her literary status. Her own focus over the last decade has been on investigating the nature of creative blocks and helping others to regain the creative habits of childhood. Barry has taught an intensive undergraduate class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the last few years and has been a perennial instructor at the Omega Institute for several summers running, teaching image-based writing classes that rest on the assumption that everyone can write. Barry’s 2010 book Syllabus documents Barry’s intensive and sometimes chaotic teaching style, one that appears to demand as much from the students as Barry seems to ask of herself. Reading the furiously packed pages of Syllabus, we learn that, among other requirements, her Madison students must fill several composition books in a semester with daily sketches and are strictly forbidden from phone checking during class or even during class breaks.

The logic behind Barry’s immersive pedagogical style likely originates in her belief in the elixir of creativity. “I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living,” Barry said in a 2010 interview.

whatThis theme that creativity renders life livable is a strand that runs through her work as does her interest in wrangling with art’s deeper questions. Her popular 2008 book What It Is returns to the obsessive questioning of the nature and power of the image that haunted Barry in her student days as at Evergreen. In What It Is, Barry documents her deep desire to recapture “the floating feeling” drawing offered before the adult “two questions” of “Is this good?” and “Does it suck?” supplanted the joy of goalless creativity. Urging adults to return to the youthful pastime of drawing, Barry’s 2010 book, Picture This, is organized around her attempts to answer the question, “What makes us stop drawing?”

Barry’s nearly 40 years of publication include over a dozen books, a handful of greatest hits collections, and bylines in numerous mags and online sites, ranging from the slick and self-satisfied (Esquire) to the alt weekly to the early promising days of Salon when Salon was still the voice-driven precursor to The Rumpus. It was on Salon that Barry began a serialized coming-of-shame story, “One Hundred Demons,” which would later become the 2002 eponymously titled book of Crayola-bright drawings on yellow composition paper.

demonsOne! Hundred! Demons! opens with a self-portrait of the author at her drawing table facing her “demon,” a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and that horrific scenery-chewing creature from A Little Shop of Horrors. On the adjacent page—typical to the binary philosophical questions that underpin much of Barry’s seemingly simple stories—the author asks herself two questions she wisely never answers: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” The rest of the introduction shows Barry discovering a painting exercise done by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th Century Japan that gives Barry’s book its conceit. She will face her demons, and she promises to take us along for the ride. I’m in.

Her demons are a catalog of exquisite coming-of-age shame tales that take place mostly in Barry’s Seattle’s Beacon Hill childhood and adolescence. Despite Barry’s early announcement of a fictional strand in the stories, I’ve rarely read stories of growing up female in the 70s that capture that gritty reality so well. Barry is the master of the specific detail that convinces: The Jungle Gardenia perfume, the hitchhiking in halter tops, The Loving Spoonful, the frozen chicken pot pies, the beaded earring selling hippies, and the younger friend you ditched when you hit middle school.

From the first story, “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend,” Barry drops you into her very specific world without explanation, knowing you’re smart enough to figure out your way without a map. On the first page, we see Barry’s Filipina grandmother giving orders in a mix of Tagalog and English to a young redheaded Barry, who is on the next page discussing the mechanics of “cooties” with a mix of black and white kids on the school playground. Turn the page and we are in the Philippines, visiting relatives and listening to an argument among the local kids on whether head lice change color with the race of their victims. A few pages later Barry flashes us forward into a relationship with a pompous ponytailed boyfriend and reader of the Lonely Genius Gazette who calls her “little Ghetto Girl.” In the final frames, elementary school art teacher Lynda has passed lice onto her ponytailed boyfriend. In his irritation with her as they stand face to face with their heads covered with lice shampoo and shower caps, we feel this primal shame of bug infestations and spending our time with people who don’t love us and how truly alike those two experiences are.

demons strip

There is no brutal reality of female coming-of-age that Barry isn’t willing to wrestle in these pages: The random makeout sessions, the childhood molestation, and the adult expectation of resilience that really must translate into shame that goes underground and emerges in some random makeout session you’re not sure how you got yourself into (but maybe it has something to do with that wine stolen from the neighborhood synagogue). Yet, going through these 100 demons with Barry doesn’t feel brutal. It feels reassuring. It feels like being seen with all your broken parts and messiness.
It feels like genius.

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr blog: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/

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