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Writing the Unthinkable: What I Learned in Seven Hours with Lynda Barry

Since this is Back-to-School week here at Walkner Condon and perhaps in your household as well, I thought I’d talk a bit about the unique learning opportunity I had last Saturday. You may be familiar with UW Professor and beloved cartoonist, Lynda Barry, from her weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek, her many novels, or her sold-out discussions with her friend and contemporary, Matt Groenig. (He made a little show called The Simpsons a while back.) 

In her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshops, she teaches drawing without the aim of creating anything that could be judged on its artistic merit (luckily for me). Instead, she teaches people of all professions and backgrounds how to harness the visual part of their brains to get out of creative ruts, solve problems, and circumvent that pesky internal editor we all have in order to write and think freely and solve problems we might not immediately think of as “creative” problems. 

In an effort to steal Keith’s title as “Biggest Office Nerd” (Editor’s note: impossible) I spent seven hours last Saturday at an old courthouse in Evansville with 49 other students, drawing and writing based on Barry’s prompts. I may have developed carpal tunnel as a result, but I do have a composition notebook full of writing ideas to show for my efforts, plus a couple of Lynda Barry-isms to share with y’all.

On Getting Unstuck and Seeing A Problem From a New Perspective

One exercise we did involve creating a four-frame comic from a monster drawn collaboratively by several other classmates. In the first frame, you drew the monster. For the second frame, you had three minutes to imagine and draw its parents. The results were hilarious and involved many wonky little legs, but I loved Barry’s insight on how that thought process can help with all kinds of problem solving. Everything comes from something, and every problem has parents. If you’re stuck on the problem itself, try thinking about what its parents might be. What parts is your problem the sum of?  

On First Drafts and Editing

If you’re struggling with a first draft of something, take a tip from Lynda Barry and try writing it the old fashioned way: with pen and paper. (Advice just from me and not at all from Lynda Barry: If you really want to get those creative juices flowing, maybe throw in an old fashioned old fashioned, as well! Brandy. Sweet. Editor’s note from Keith: sour)

Pen and paper can really help you generate more material: The delete button on your keyboard is just too much of a temptation. Can you imagine if you had a delete button in your life? You’d only have 35 minutes of life lived! Editing is such a natural human activity. Think about how many times you’ve relived moments you wish you could go back to, the satisfaction of making edits on what happened and what you might have said instead. Think about walking down the street, and thinking, “Yikes! I wouldn’t have worn that.” You can’t turn off the editor within, but you can take steps to mitigate it. Try writing your next first draft by hand and with a set time limit in mind.  Moreover, by writing by hand you will have more remnants of phrases, sentences, and ideas that you can rework and rewrite going forward. The outfit ultimately wasn’t that terrible, it just needed different accessories.

-Hannah Baker