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Keys to creativity: Acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry talks about the creative spark inside each of us

Building on its reputation as a deep thinker’s paradise, Promega and the BTC Institute’s annual International Bioethics Forum, scheduled for April 25-26 in Madison, will focus again this year on human consciousness, zeroing in on human creativity and its role in forging new ideas, products, processes, and artistic expressions.

Among the speakers at this year’s conference will be Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Director David Krakauer; Steve Paulson, executive producer of WPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge; Promega Corp. CEO William Linton; author, Buddhist monk (and French interpreter for the Dalai Lama) Matthieu Ricard; and cartoonist and creativity maven Lynda Barry.

Best known for her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, which had a nearly 30-year run in alternative weeklies across the country, Barry has recently focused much of her creative élan on her writing workshop, “Writing the Unthinkable,” which is designed to help people uncover their core creative energies.

We caught up with Barry, a Wisconsin native, current Rock County resident, and recent UW artist in residence, for a discussion on creativity and its role in the arts, in business, and in our lives.

For starters, what will your presentation at the Bioethics Forum focus on?
I’ll be talking about what the biological function of this thing we call the arts might be. For example, what compels us to tell and listen to jokes? What compels us to read a book that we know is going to be very sad? Why do people wish they could sing, draw, and write long after they’ve given up on these things?

You’ve transitioned from publishing a comic strip that was widely acclaimed for its creativity and for breaking new ground into hosting creative writing workshops. Is it difficult to “teach” creativity? People tend to think of creativity as something you have or don’t have. Would you say maybe it’s something that all people have access to, and that you’re helping them bring it forward?
I do believe this ability to make and use images is in pretty much everybody in the same way kidneys are in pretty much everybody. You can’t see them but if they weren’t there you’d know pretty quickly. And you wouldn’t last long.

People who don’t consider themselves to be creative will sing and draw and make up stories if they are interacting with a baby or a toddler they care about. When I point this out, they tell me it’s because babies are not judgmental. But is that really it? Or is it because it’s a language that works? I’ve come to think of this thing that results in something we call the arts is the language that language is based on.

What do people learn/encounter in your creativity workshops?
It depends on how much time we have together, but I always begin with setting the conditions for a spontaneous memory. This kind of memory is so common that we rarely take note of how extraordinary it is. I’m talking about the kind can be triggered by a smell. You smell something and suddenly here is your Aunt Marie’s kitchen. It’s not just a snapshot of the kitchen, it’s a place you can turn around in. You could tell me what was to your right, to your left, behind you. You’d have a sense of the time of day and the season it seemed to be. It’s not a memory of a specific event. It’s a memory of a specific place that is so complete that we compare this sort of memory to a flood. Stories form spontaneously if we can keep ourselves in this sort of “place” long enough for them to do so.

What advice would you give to people who may feel creatively stuck? Is there a trick to becoming more creative?
One thing to know is that everyone feels creatively stuck. Everyone. Even those who are identified as highly creative spend a lot of time in the stuck position. If I’ve found a trick at all it’s this: Limiting the amount of time and space I have to “create” something seems to activate some spontaneous ordering force.

Do the same principles that apply to becoming a more creative artist apply equally to becoming a more creative businessperson?
It seems to me that businesspeople often encounter the conditions that result in creative concentration: They are often dealing with an unexpected element that has to be dealt with in a limited amount of time. However, if the unexpected element always presents itself as a stressful problem that has to be solved to the satisfaction of others, that open state of mind that I call creative concentration may not be able to come about. My guess is that practicing something like writing or drawing or singing will help one know more about how to bring this state of mind about in a business situation. It would be a fun thing to research.


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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Apr 2, 2013 02:38 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Great interview! Thanks!

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