Keys to creativity: Acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry talks about the creative spark inside each of us
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How important is life experience to the creative process? Is it harder for a person who’s had very little personal drama to be as creative? Does creativity depend on a certain amount of tumult?
I do think creative response is always shaped by some kind of trouble or anxiety in the same way a joke is shaped by some kind of trouble or anxiety. It can be very small, almost invisible, but it’s there. Creativity and depression are often linked, and in my own life they are tied tightly. I don’t think people have to come from horrible circumstances in order to be creative. I’ve seen horrible circumstances steal every opportunity from so many people I grew up with. These were talented, smart kids who could have had very creative lives had there been more stability for them at critical times in their lives. I’m speaking about childhood and adolescence specifically. This stability used to be provided by public school. For people like me it was the only reliably safe place we had. That’s where I learned to read and write and draw and sing songs. That’s where this creative ability that has made all the difference in my life had a chance to develop. I owe my life to public school teachers and librarians.
Do you find that setting makes a difference to creativity? Is it important to have a quiet, lively, or any other kind of environment? You currently live in a small town in Wisconsin. Has that affected your creativity in any way?
What seems to make the most difference is not the place but a reliable period of uninterrupted time. It doesn’t have to be a lot. My ideal work period is a three-hour uninterrupted stretch with a 15-minute break at about the 90-minute mark. As long as I’m reasonably sure no one will talk to me, I can work pretty much anywhere. The state of mind I need for working is difficult to get to and easy to disrupt. The most disruptive thing I can do is check for messages on my computer or phone. It seems so innocuous, so everyday, but if I do it while I’m working, the creative experience I try to return to seems flattened somehow. It took me a while to realize that checking my messages was more disruptive to my state of mind than having a real conversation with a real person. I wonder if it’s true for others as well. This would also be a fun thing to research some day.
Finally, is it remotely possible to be creative without caffeine?
Well, no. It is not possible to be creative without caffeine. It’s also not possible to be creative without cigarettes or whiskey or rock and roll or a freaky portrait of ourselves in a closet that gets older and older while we ourselves do not age and then there’s that one ring to rule them all. Without these things and ten thousand others, we cannot create. Luckily, others have left imaginary versions of such everywhere, and if you have the time and space to conjure them back into being, they will work very well.
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