Meowy Christmas and Happy Holidays, Everypawdy!!
Wherever you are in the world, and for whichever celebrations you enjoy with your loved ones, I hope your holiday season was one for the books! I am a Christmas kitty, and in my first Christmas special as Writer Kitty, I am over the peppermint-flavored moon to present to you my intermew with prolific cartoonist, author, professor, and honorary awesome cat Lynda Barry!! She’s also the Hooman who taught me purrtooning!
I just finished pawing the furst issue of my holiday comic, “Flaky the Snow Cat!” Lynda just published her 21st book (wow!!) “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor,” where she talks about her experience as Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can follow her blog,“The Near-Sighted Monkey,” and buy her book on Amazon.
I read and napped with “Syllabus,” and I absolutely, thoroughly loved it. Her ideas on creativity are peerless, backed up by a legitimate, academic science that deeply activates the creative in all of us. I conducted this intermew with her book in mind, finding places to expand the conversation. I also asked more fun, holiday questions towards the end, like which kind of cookies she would like if she could spend a day as Santa Paws. She also has some great stories later on in the intermew about her own kitties and how they came into her life.
I can’t tell you how excited I am for the opportunity to chat with one of my role models, a creative icon, and an exciting furriend who can hook me up with some fresh catnip from her farm.
Hazel: Meowy Christmas and Happy Holidays, Professor!! Thanks so much for being here! Furst, I read your book, I loved it. When my Pops was reading it to me, I couldn’t stop smacking him the face with my tail.
Lynda: I wish I could use that as a quote on the back of my book!
Hazel: Next book you have, let me know and I’ll tail-smack again for you! Furst question, you have a new book!
Hazel: You are also a rockstar professor at a world-class university and a highly sought-after innovator in the fields of teaching, creativity, and excellence. How does it feel to be you?
Lynda: Well, if I read all that, I wouldn’t match it up with the person I live with in my body every day. But I’ve had a lot of really cool opportunities. All that is a side effect of being really interested in images and how they move. It’s like if I dangle a string in front of your face, how you have to swipe at it. Yeah, you have to! So I’m curious about that kind of thing.
Hazel: How do you feel about this book?
Lynda: I feel happy about it. The stuff I love the most is that I get to look at my students’ work. I tried to cram as much of my students’ work as I could into it, so I have a lot of really good memories of the classes that I wrote the book about, about trying to figure out how in the world to teach this thing, and then I fell in love with my students. That, I didn’t expect. That’s a hazard of the job, but I really really love them so at least when I open “Syllabus,” I can still see their pictures.
Hazel: What made you decide to teach?
Lynda: Well, teachers are always important to me. I was one of those kids that loved school. I didn’t have such a happy home, but school was fantastic in comparison. And then I had such a good experience in college. I met my teacher, Marilyn Frasca, who got me thinking about the nature of images, and that one question she asked me when I was 19—what is an image?—and now I’m about to turn 59, and I’m still hunting it down. I was able to do workshops with people, but I realized that I wasn’t going to understand how this stuff works in the long term unless I had students I could work with for a while. So I applied to be Artist-in-Residence here a while ago for one semester, and that was it, I was hooked. Luckily, just through weird little channels, I was able to get a job here even though I only have a BA from a hippy college from 1978. So for the university to take me on, that was kind of a big deal. I didn’t think they would. You know, because I don’t have the credentials.
Hazel: How has your experience been in terms of working in academia as a professional in a specific field now going into the teaching profession?
Lynda: It’s been great because I get to have the tools I need, and by tools I mean my students and the time. So to me, in a funny way, it’s just like writing a book, or it’s just like doing a series of paintings. It’s the same kind of thing where you have to show up every day, and think about it every day. This is the way I think of teaching: teaching isn’t leading people necessarily, it’s keeping an eye on them, figuring out where it is they want to go, and then moving the rocks and sticks that are in their way.
Hazel: I like that!
Lynda: Everybody does have a path that they are kinda on, and with cartooning in particular, that person’s style shows up pretty quick if they can stand it. So my job is to get my students to stand what’s coming out of their hands long enough so that they’ll let it live, and then I get to see it.
Hazel: You talk about being present, what does that mean?
Lynda: Being present is seeing what’s there. That’s what Marilyn used to say over and over again, when we’d look at a painting, she’d say “I don’t care if you like it or don’t like it, what’s there? What do you see?” I showed my class a way to keep a diary: write 7 things you did throughout the day, 7 things that you see, something you overheard, and then make a picture. There’s something about that that starts to train you to be present.
You know what present is? Presence is when you’re falling in love with someone and they’re not around you, but you’re walking down the street in this state of love, and everything starts to look like it’s talking to you. The name of the street will be Charter, and you’ll think “I have a Charter to be in love with this person.”
Everything starts to somehow seem like its alive, and when that’s not happening for me, that’s when I start to feel like I’m losing everything. I try to get my students to just pay attention to the world around them. One of the best ways to do that is to write down what people are saying, and realize how hilarious they are, and sad too.
Hazel: How do you think, if people were to do that more, that would change the way things work? If more people walked around with a state of being in love with the present?
Lynda: Yeah, I don’t think you can make yourself be in love with the present. The way you draw that out is by participating in something that brings the back of the mind forward. That would be drawing, reading, good films, like when you go to a matinee and leave when it’s still light out. It’s like you’ve been through this world where all this stuff happened, and the world has this presence. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s not your presence, but the world seems present. That might be it.
I would like people to see drawing and creative writing as important as their kidneys in terms of dealing with all the slings and arrows of everyday life. I just think it does something, something people can’t imagine until they do it because they have this idea of what drawing is based on when they quit. And that’s not what drawing is. People tend to quit when they move towards trying to do representational work and they can’t do it, and maybe there are 2 or 3 peers that can do it, and so you actually see someone able to run and you feel like you should never walk again. It’s usually around adolescence, a little bit before when people stop. I’m more interested in walking people back into drawing in writing, not as a career, but as a way of thinking and being in the world. There’s something to it that’s really being disregarded. If you look at what’s happening in public schools, or education, it’s the arts that are getting cut out. There was this thing on the radio yesterday where somebody was saying to someone in charge of education, “if you had 3 wishes for the public school system, what would they be?” And I was like “music, drawing and writing, and everything else is secondary.” Those would be my 3 wishes. I think science benefits tremendously from this other part of the mind.
Hazel: And if these arts are our organs, it’s almost like you need to be healthy before you do anything else.
Hazel: Writing and drawing can be done independently, but there is also space for collaboration in your classroom. What do you think is the social function of creativity?
Lynda: Well, it makes us like each other. That helps a lot. It’s also a way of communicating with each other rapidly, and full-bodied. When somebody is funny and makes you laugh that’s actually a full-body experience. It also is a way to talk about things, if we were to talk directly about things like the circulatory system, we could only get so far, but if we were making drawings of it, or even allowed to gesture to explain how the circulatory system works, that’s a whole other thing. So I think there’s something about images and the way people use images and metaphors, which is so fast. I always think it is like when you’re trying to explain things logically, it’s like a pigeon walking on two feet. But the pigeon can fly! You use a metaphor and the pigeon flies.
People long for it, they want to do it. In the same breath they say “I know I never can.” What’s that? I have even posed the question this way: I’m a genie and I could give you the power to do whatever creative ability you wished. You could sing or draw or write great stories, but you can never make a living from it or profit from it in any way. Would you still take it? And almost everyone says yeah, because they think they’d find a way to make a living off it!
Yeah, I’ll agree to this part, then try to stop me. But I think people understand that it gives life the feeling that it’s worth living, which is step one in the survival of a species that is able to kill itself or others.
Hazel: Ooh, that’s interesting. You said that creativity can be a way for people to feel good about themselves. Why are people afraid then that it will make them feel bad?
Lynda: You know, one of the things that’s interesting is that people get very disturbed when showing their work. Let’s say we’re in my class, and I’ll give someone a photo and a word. They’ll write a story that turns kinda dark, and they’re very upset by it. People are disturbed to find out things about themselves, like they can imagine a murder scene so perfectly when they think of themselves as such a sweet hippy chick. That was me when I wrote “Cruddy.” I think it’s partly getting to know parts of yourself you didn’t know were there, and also, other people being able to know what you think about. I’m always surprised when people are worried they have written something dark or sad. Do you have any idea, Hazel, why people would be worried about that?
Hazel: I think it’s one of those things where you ask yourself, “would someone think differently of me if I wrote this?” Then you have to ask yourself, “would I think differently of someone if they wrote this?” And the answer is no, then why can’t you apply that to yourself?
Hazel: In your experience, when people do show these dark stories, is there a fear to be accounted for or are they accepted?
Lynda: They’re accepted, and I think what you said is so smart. I like to think when my students are going around the room, they are not saying “eww,” but we do that with our own work.
Hazel: If we do it first, we don’t have to have someone else do it for us, but we don’t have to worry about it, because that’s not going to happen.
Lynda: I think it’s also hard for people to believe that there’s a part of them they don’t know or have control over.
Hazel: There’s so much, there’s so much. You might as well have it out because you’re not supposed to know all of it. Interesting stuff. So on pg. 170, you have a quote I am in love with from Iain McGilchrist, “Creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately—the precise function of the corpus callosum.” You also talk about on page 62 how unexpected juxtapositions can lead to stories. Why do you think creativity works this way?
Lynda: If we’re going to get to the structure of the brain, what’s interesting is that only one hemisphere of the brain has speech. The part that has speech comes to dominate everything. That’s just the way we work. What I love about McGlilchrist’s work so much is that he is a guy that was trained as a poet, and he taught English at Oxford. He’s really smart, and he decided he needed to understand this image stuff too so he trained to become a doctor and he became a doctor. And then he became obsessed with the brain, particularly the right hemisphere and the nature of the right hemisphere, even though he’ll say the brain is actually two brains, two functioning brains with completely different dispositions towards the world, different experiences of space, there are huge hemispheric differences. The creative part, that thing that he says about the union of things that are kept separate, there is this moment when the part of you that can’t talk is able to move the part of you that can. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve come to really rely on the fact that I’m at least two different people. Not people, because a person is a body with a limited membrane, but understanding that the hemispheric differences are pretty critical, and we move between them all day long.
It’s this: I remember first hearing about the unconscious, I remember thinking “Pfft, if I had one I’d know about it.”
You know about it, but you don’t! That’s what I love about my class, watching this other part of my students come forward and move the pencil around. I want to show people that there is this other part of you that is an option at all times.
Hazel: That’s especially interesting that speech is only on one side of the brain, which makes it hard to articulate what is going on, which might be why the unconscious is still there. One of those things where you think, am I beating my own heart? Who is? It’s in there.
Lynda: That’s exactly it, that part there, the top of the mind—someone compared it to a person on top of an elephant thinking they are really tall not knowing they are riding an elephant at all. It’s interesting, and reliable too. I want my students to know how reliable it is too, and they can lean on it their whole lives.
Hazel: What have been some of your favorite memories and discoveries as Professor Long-Title?
Lynda: My theory was that drawing is innate and it’s in everybody. That was my theory, and I feel like I’ve seen it proven over and over and over again. I am working with people who are willing to draw, although not necessarily comfortable doing it. From teaching here, now when I go teach workshops in other places, I don’t pay attention to whether people are comfortable or not comfortable drawing. I just make them draw. So one of the rewarding things is to see this theory I have about drawing and writing and what it can give people. The other thing is being the witness when people do amazing work. Maybe it’s what gardeners feel when the flowers start to bloom. You know you didn’t do it, but you were there watering it and pulling the weeds away. That’s what I love to see. I love to see people just bloom. It’s wild.
Hazel: So if drawing is in everypawdy, let’s say drawing as in using your hand or paw to make a line, how do you think that’s different or similar to other activities you do with your hand or paw?
Lynda: With planting for example, there’s not as much argument in your head as to what goes into it. Let’s say you’re planting a tomato plant, there’s some argument, but when a person is drawing, there can be enough argument that they’ll stop. So it leaves a track, and it’s just the drawing. When you’re planting a tomato, the soil is there, you know you’ll need a hole, and when it’s done, we can say “that’s what the dirt looks like, that’s what the tomato looks like…” When you do a drawing, you think you did it, and you did do it in a way, but there’s that argument of whether or not it is good. That can be different until you start to think of it as, “the paper looks a certain way, the pen looks a certain way, my hand did this on this day,” and then leave it alone. It’s hard though. I’ve started to think that people’s horror about their own drawing is like the horror of any bodily fluids suddenly appearing in a conversation with somebody else. The only bodily fluid that’s acceptable is one tear falling out of the corner of the eye listening to Bach. When people are scared of drawing, it is that kind of mortification, its embarrassment.
Hazel: It’s like your external organs leaking fluid, things that even as a kitty, I’m embarrassed to mention.
Lynda: Right, you have to bury it.
Hazel: Right, it’s not like my family loves me any less though. Cool, on that note we conclude the book part of the intermew. I am excited for your next book and the previous 20 that I have yet to read.
Hazel: So let’s talk about holidays! So what does this time of year mean for you?
Lynda: This time of year? I came from a troubled background so holidays were always fraught with depression. For the past 5 or so years I haven’t gotten depressed over the holidays, and it happens to tie in pretty closely with teaching, so maybe that could be part of it. So the holidays for me are when I’m finally home, and I get to spend time with my kitties, I have three of them, and my dogs, I only have 2 left now, and my husband, who is kind of a cross between a dog and a kitty. And I get to be home, and I get to sleep in, and I get to stay in my pajamas for days on end. I don’t leave the house, and I make pictures, and I cook stuff. It’s very nice, but it’s very solitary. My husband and I, our birthdays are very close to each other, and we have this thing called the Feast Days, that start on the 20th of December and goes until January 4th, where we don’t socialize with anyone. We pretend we’re on a trip even though were don’t go anywhere.
Hazel: Like a staycation?
Hazel: Especially between these two semesters. Is that something you’re looking forward to?
Lynda: Yes! I live on a farm, so I’m able to, and my husband knows that even though I’m a social person sometimes, I’m mainly a hermit, so he knows that one of my Christmas wishes is to not see another person besides him. So when a person comes up the driveway and I hide, he doesn’t say “come out and meet them.” He covers for me. I get to hide like a little feral cat.
Hazel: Would you say you’re a cross between a dog and a cat?
Lynda: I’d say I’m a cross. I wasn’t able to have cats until I was older. My first cat was 10 years ago, so now I’ve really gotten to know them. I’ve always loved cats, but I’ve always been with people who were allergic or don’t like them. That’s the part I don’t get, why do people think it’s okay to not like cats?
Hazel: Right, that’s like saying I don’t like Belgians.
Hazel: Right! Like that sounds weird.
Lynda: All of them are so different. Yes, you are! I think cats are astonishing. So I have three very distinct cats.
Hazel: What are they like?
Lynda: I have a black cat with golden eyes. Little. She’s a groundbreaking cat because my husband always believed he was allergic to cats and never liked them. The first cat I had, I brought home to my studio. It was very cold, about this time of year. I found him on the street in Footville, he was a stray. I went up to my house and said I found a monkey. And he goes “what?” I said “yeah, I found a monkey, and I’m keeping the monkey.” Because I thought if I don’t call it a cat, he’ll regard it in a different way.
Lynda: He was very upset, he said he was allergic, and if he was, he grew out of it. And so I kept the monkey in my studio, named the monkey Ivan Brunetti, and Ivan just passed recently. So Kevin got to know that monkey, and there was another monkey running around our grove. Kevin fell in love with that monkey, so now that monkey is the house cat. And that’s his cat. They’re so in love. Then I have a big ass cat named Butterscotch Wanda. She’s giant.
Lynda: She was a feral cat, huge, sheds like crazy, very friendly. She loves to hug. Then I have a little one named Carlita who was very terrified and feral. We caught her when it was very cold at the farm. Then she hid for 2 years. She was my ghost cat. And now we can finally pet her but it’s been 8 years. It took that long.
Hazel: Wow, and now she’s coming around.
Lynda: Yeah, she’ll sit on my lap.
Lynda: And my best friend, this guy named Scrounge, runs a no-kill cat shelter in Chicago. So I have access to hundreds of cats and cat stories.
Hazel: Kitties are wonderful, and I’m very lucky to be one.
Hazel: So this is a question I have: let’s say you get to be Santa Paws. What would you leave under the tree, and what cookies and beverage would you like to see on the table for you?
Lynda: I would leave art supplies under the tree, I just would, even though it might make people cry when they open them. And for cookies and beverage, I would like bratwurst cookies and beer.
Hazel: That’s a very Lynda Barry response.
Hazel: This has been fun, I really appurrciate you being my Christmas special intermew! It’s been pawmazing.
Lynda: When spring comes again, we grow tons of catnip. So I’ll bring some fresh catnip for you.
Hazel: Ooh, leave it under the tree and I’ll get you some fresh meat cookies.
Lynda: My pleasure, meow!
Thanks for reading, readers!
Hazel Fluffypants: Writer Kitty