NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Like most of her work, Lynda Barry's course at the University of Wisconsin is unorthodox. No artistic talent required, the description states. Students should be interested in the biological function of that thing we call the arts.
At the beginning of her seminar last spring, she conducted an experiment. She didn't learn students' names but instead gave out a deck of cards, referring to students with titles like three of hearts. The goal was to get to know her students by their work instead of their personalities. Once their work was created, they never talked about it. The class focuses on the arts, the brain and the biology of drawing but also teaching creativity.
In all her courses and her own work, the cartoonist and teacher aims to strip away the stiffness of adulthood and plug people into their innate creativity. Well, we want to hear from the formerly pedestrian in our audience. Was there a moment when you rediscovered creativity? Was there a moment you remember when you gave it up? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, what we think about the record number of female breadwinners. But first we continue our series and look ahead with Lynda Barry, cartoonist, author and assistant professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Her latest book is "The Freddie Stories," and she joins us now from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Good to have you back on the program.
LYNDA BARRY: Oh, I'm so happy to talk to you again.
CONAN: Well, that's nice. Professor Barry, good to have you with us.
BARRY: I know I love it. I make my husband call me - I tried to get my dogs to call me Professor Barry, but they have trouble with P's.
CONAN: I suspect - five years ago this might have looked logical, this progression. Thirty years ago, I'm not so sure.
BARRY: No, no, but, you know, it was 30 years ago that the question that led to all this, the first time when I was at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, my teacher when I was 19 asked me this question: What is an image? And it is that one question that I've been trying to answer all these years is exactly how I ended up at the University of Wisconsin, working with scientists and working with artists and trying to figure out what role the arts - again what's the biological function of this thing that we call the arts.
CONAN: And you figured out the way to get that answer is to have other people do it for no pay whatsoever.
BARRY: Well, one of the things I was really interested in is - and that's why I ended up coming to teaching was in my own practice, in my own work, I could only get so far with that question. And I sort of - I started teaching and got more and more interested in first of all how talented people are when you give them the right conditions and why people, even though people who have stopped drawing, or they've given up on any hope of doing any of those things, but why do they still long to do it.
And I think that's an interesting question, and that's, you know, so that's another thing that I've been trying to figure out is why do we do this.
CONAN: Is that everybody? I mean, aren't there some people who just can't learn to create?
BARRY: Well, it's sort of like saying you can't learn to use your kidneys.
BARRY: I mean, some people can't, and...
CONAN: There was that Thursday, anyway...
BARRY: You know, or you don't want to use your kidneys because they're ugly. I mean, that's another reason. But I think that it's in all of us. It has to have been there. It's there from the very beginning. And one of the things I've been thinking a lot about is how when - people who have given up on the arts totally. But if they're with a baby or with a toddler, most of them will sing, dance, make sculptures that you knock down, draw, tell stories, all these things that we call the arts. They'll do that with a kid.
And which is sort of interesting. And then I like to ask people why do you think that is, and one of the things they often say is because babies aren't judgmental. Well yeah they are.
BARRY: You can wear the wrong shirt, and they'll lose their minds. I think it's because it's the language that language is based on. It's a language that works. And it is a language. It's a language we all sort of speak. So something seems to happen at about adolescence or right at the beginning, where the thing that we call the arts, so let's talk about a drawing, it's a place for an experience for a kid. You know, when they're drawing, they have a thing that they do when they approach a piece of paper that's very different than when an adult approaches a piece of paper to make a picture.
And I think the thing I've been able to narrow it down to is that there's this point when that piece of paper, which was a place where an experience turns into a thing, that's either a good or a bad picture. And so many people tell me the stories of - they can remember exactly when that happened.
One of the - I work at the - the other place I work is the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. I work with a lot of interesting scientists. And I met a mathematician there named Phillip Kuhn(ph) who told me, he told that exact story, that he had drawn a picture of a horse for his teacher and when he was in grade school, and the teacher gave him a 68, like 68 percent out of 100.
And he said he couldn't figure out how the teacher could figure out that that was 68 percent of a good horse.
BARRY: And it made him furious, and he became a mathematician. So maybe now he can understand it. But lots of people have that, and they also have a lot of sadness about it. That's the other part that I find so interesting is there's that longing to make things stays with us our whole lives, and there is a lot of sadness about it, and a lot of, a lot of terror about drawing. I mean, that's the - that's the part, when I'm working with the people at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, I'm around geneticists and mathematicians and physicists, all these people who are also - and they do their big formulas on the board, you know, delta epsilon minus two and whatever they're doing. But if they have to draw like even a stick figure, they freak out. So that's interesting to me.
CONAN: The - before we get a lot of emails, Lynda Barry does know at the higher levels mathematics is incredibly creative. Arithmetic, maybe not so much, at least grade school arithmetic. In the meantime, we want to - I wanted to ask you: Are - among those people that you work with, are there evolutionary anthropologists who say, you know, here's the reason why we evolved this capability?
BARRY: I haven't found them yet. I'm sure there are. But I haven't run into them yet. I just, I don't know how else we learn to do anything. I mean, if you think about being a baby and learning how to talk and all this stuff, it's all the thing that later we call the arts, all of it. And by the way, I think arithmetic is very creative. It's all about relationships, and algebra is especially creative.
And so yeah, I kind of see it everywhere, and I'm very - the class that I taught this semester, it's called The Unthinkable Mind, and this semester all of the students went by parts of the brain. So there was - I mean, it got to the point where we so used to it that I'd hear students say yeah, I saw Hippocampus at a party with Limbic System.
BARRY: And it was - because I was really interested in how is it that we memorize we don't mean to memorize. So I thought, well, what if we just use parts of the brain, and without trying to memorize parts of the brain, will we have at least the names of them by the end of the semester. And yes, that happened. The other thing is I looked for students who were - I wanted this class to be half hard sciences and half humanities.
So I had students - and a range from juniors to people who were getting their Ph.D.s So I had chemists and psych majors, econ majors, history majors, geneticists, and then, you know, creative writing majors. And we put them all together, and I was especially interested in people who didn't draw or who didn't feel they could draw.
And over the course of the semester, my poor students, they ended up writing about 50,000 words by hand and doing hundreds and hundreds of drawings. And none of us kind of knew how many words we had written until Brain Stem, who is studying epigenetics, did the word count, and then we all sort of went what, how did we do that.
And the way we did it was because when we were writing, it wasn't in the kind of time - that kind of when you're struggling to write something how ticks in this really weird way, like it doesn't move, and at the same time it's going too fast if you're on a deadline. This other kind of writing that we were doing, which is sort of based on spontaneous memory, doesn't feel like it doesn't - it's not arduous. It doesn't feel like it's happening or it's very hard. So we ended up making an enormous amount of work.
And I was blown away by the - especially by the people who had quite drawing around adolescence, what happened with their work when they started to draw again. I mean, I was just knocked out because you know how when you look at kids' drawings how they have this incredible charm that seems to go away at about adolescence? Well, one of the things about a kids' drawing is that when they draw, their relationship to the edges of the paper is - I mean, they draw - they don't just an object in isolation.
It's in absolute relation to the edges of the paper. There's something about composition going on there. And in adolescence, they get more interested in just drawing an object, and they don't care where they draw it on the paper or if it's tiny in the corner. It turns out that people who quit drawing before that and who never had any formal training go right back to that natural composition, and there's this incredible originality and charm in their drawings.
The trick is they have - an adult has to be able to tolerate the pictures that they're making long enough for a series to sort of appear, and that seems to be the main difficulty is that they're - people are so mortified by what comes out of their pen. Like one of the things that I love to do, and anybody can do this, and anybody can do this who's listening, it's an exercise from a cartoonist named Ivan Brunetti's book "Cartoon Philosophy and Practice."
He has people draw a car for three minutes, then draw a car for two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds. And they - what happens when you're in a room full of people doing that who don't draw, it starts to sound like you're in a spookhouse ride, like people start laughing and feeling scared and crazy.
BARRY: And it's so amazing and fun. And I've had - and then I ask people to get up and take a look at the cars, and I've actually people just run out of the room, like run out of the room because they don't want anyone to see the car that they just drew in three minutes. What's that?
CONAN: That's weird.
BARRY: It is weird, but it happened - and it's so - and also I think that in that time that they're laughing and having this, I would bet - and this is a thing I'd love to study - I would bet that there's an immune system boost. I would bet that there's something going on physiologically that's the same thing that goes on when somebody tells you a joke. Like that's another question I have is what drives us to tell each other jokes or what drives us to read a book that we know is going to be really sad.
And I think it must have something to do, along with other things, but something to do with our bodies and the immune system and also our mental health.
CONAN: Wow, next semester not only crayons, but you have to read "Old Yeller."
BARRY: Oh yeah, yeah, you've got to - and we have to act out certain parts.
CONAN: We're talking...
BARRY: But I always get to be Old Yeller.
BARRY: In fact you know what? I think that might be my name next semester.
CONAN: Name yourself after a fictional dog. Lynda Barry is with us. Her most recently book is "The Freddie Stories." We want to hear your stories of the moment when you stopped creating for one reason or another - we want to know that reason - and the moment maybe when you restarted. 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today, cartoonist, art professor and author Lynda Barry in our latest Looking Ahead conversation. And Lynda, last time you talked to us, you were doodling as we spoke, and I can hear you doing it again.
BARRY: Well, you know what? There's some really interesting research about doodling and listening. It's one of the studies that I read, where there were two groups of people, and one had to listen - but they both had to listen to a woman leave a long answering machine message, and she was a very boring woman. And while she was leaving the message, she was telling all the people who were going to come to a party.
So the first people, the first group just listened, and then they were asked to recall how many people they could remember coming to the party. The second group actually drew or doodled while they listened. Their recall was much higher. And there's a theory about it - well, the theory about it was that something about moving your hand or doodling, doing something, allows just enough focus to keep your mind from wandering.
And one of the things about a wandering mind is we don't notice when it happens. I mean, we've all had the experience of reading a paragraph, and when we get to the end of the paragraph, we knew eyes were moving, and we were acting like we were reading, but something happened, and we were gone, and we had to start that paragraph again.
And sometimes we'll have to do it like seven times or something in the paragraph that just makes our mind go away. But we don't notice when that happens. So that - so one of the things that I really pushed in my class was that people are - whenever they're listening to people read the stories that we write in class, they have to draw. They had to draw while they're listening, and I try to really get that drawing habit into their hands.
And it's amazing. So that's one of the reasons why I do - well, I was really happy that there's science behind it, but it always helps me.
BARRY: And, you know, our beautiful Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has knit - you know, she knits through every big decision. I mean, think about that. And I always dream she's knitting a big cozy for Scalia, like a full-body cozy.
CONAN: I was just thinking about, you know, there - some hearings are longer than others. The Obamacare scarf must be 15 feet long.
BARRY: Everybody has a full, hand-knit superhero outfit by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
CONAN: We're talking with Lynda Barry. At the end of the show, we're going to ask her to send us whatever it is she was doodling during the program, and we're going to post it on our website so everybody can see it. In the meantime, we want to talk with people about creativity - when they're stopped, and when it started again, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian's(ph) with us from Knoxville.
BRIAN: Yes, my instance where I almost lost my creativity was about 10 years ago when I was in college. I was out with a friend, and we were driving around and talking about ideas, and I was coming up with some pretty just bizarre, off-the-wall ideas. And she looked at me, and she said you're weird. And I laughed, and I said, thanks. And she said, no, that's not a compliment.
BARRY: Oh yeah, yeah.
BRIAN: But I'm a pianist, and I'm also a mathematician, statistician, and to me creativity means a lot, and in that moment I almost felt as though there was something wrong with - I still believe to this day there's nothing wrong with being weird or a little offbeat or coming up with things other people wouldn't think of.
And I felt that social rejection, and because of maybe the psychology behind it, it almost turned off my creativity. I almost just felt that I should say such things. But nothing destructive, of course, I was saying, but things that were maybe unique or different.
CONAN: So what happened with the girlfriend?
BRIAN: Oh no, this wasn't a girlfriend.
BARRY: She's just a girl.
BRIAN: Oh, - it actually - I should amend the story slightly. It was someone who I was working with within the dorm hall. She was the president of the dorm hall; I was the vice president of Brood Hall(ph) at the University of Tennessee, which is no longer a residence hall. But I said friends to amend the story and make it much shorter. But we were just out, and she thought I was weird, and she thought that wasn't a good thing.
And, you know, there's nothing wrong with, I think, you know, coming up with things other people wouldn't think of. And I think that's sometimes viewed as weird.
CONAN: Well Brian, you clearly got over it.
BRIAN: Yes, oh yes, oh yes, and I still create to this day on the piano and in many other ways, and I will never let anyone shut off my creativity.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
BRIAN: Thank you.
BARRY: That's hard to hear. I mean, I'm a weird person, too, and there are a lot of us odd ducks out there. But I also think that that little scenario that Brian described is the scenario that people go through themselves when they're sitting down to make something, or they begin a creative act, where they'll start to do something, and then there's another part of themselves that looked and says this is weird, or this is bad.
And I was never quite able to get my mind around it until I started studying hemispheric differences of the brain, which was kind of a pop thing to study in the '60s and '70s and then kind of fell out of favor in the scientific community and kind has been revived again particularly by the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist, who wrote an astonishing book called "The Master and His Emissary" about hemispheric differences in the brain.
And it's as if - well, one of the things they figured out in the late '50s, early '60s, I think it was Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, did the first split brain research. And they figured out that we kind of have two brains that operate, have different value systems, have different ways of seeing the world, different relationships to actual physical space, and there are amazing videos on YouTube showing people who have had their corpus callosum split whose hands actually fight. Like, they will for instance, one woman...
CONAN: A corpus callosum is the thing that connects the two hemispheres.
BARRY: That's right, it's like this band of fibers that connect the two hemispheres. And for the longest time they thought that was the bridge, and it maybe where the thoughts kind of go back and forth or things go back and forth. But now there's an idea that it also might be stopping one side of the brain from - you know you give the microphone to one side of the brain, not both sides.
So some of the phenomenon for people who had that operation, they don't do it anymore, but they used to do it in cases of intractable epilepsy, is that before their brain kind of rewires, one woman talked about how she'd go to her closet to get dressed in the morning, and her right hand knew what she wanted to wear, what she was going to wear, but the left hand had a completely different idea about it.
BARRY: And it grabbed an outfit, too, and wouldn't give up. And she would have to call her daughter in to take that outfit out of her hand. Or when she was paying for something that other part of her brain didn't think was a good purchase, it would actually snatch the money out of the cashier's hand after she had handed it to her.
And you can go on YouTube, and you can see some of the most remarkable videos are of - there are certain puzzles that the right hemisphere are better at solving, these spatial relationship puzzles, that it can solve really quickly, like watching one of those super adolescents with the Rubik's cube. It can solve it really quickly. And then you'll see the other hand try to do it, and it can't, absolutely cannot solve it.
And then - this is the same guy, right, and you keep seeing the other hand, the left hand, trying to help. And so that the researcher actually has to make him sit on that hand. And then they have the two hands together, and they fight. They fight, they can't get anything done. And that was the biggest clue to me about what might be going on when people sit down to do something creative and stop themselves really fast.
And that's the story I think Brian was telling, was if you imagine those people as two sides of the brain in that car, one says you're weird, and the other one doesn't want to talk anymore. You know, and that's - that seems to be the only big trick to get over to be able to make stuff. That seems to be it because that's been my experience with my students that once you can get people past that and for some reason make them keep working, something magnificent happens. But it doesn't happen until you master it - until you understand that you have two complete ways of seeing the world.
CONAN: Let's get Alisha(ph) on the line, Alisha's calling from St. Louis.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead.
ALISHA: I lost my - well, excuse me, let me rephrase. I took care of my mother for seven months until she died, and I wrote furiously after she died. That's when my creativity just shot out of the roof, wrote all kinds of poetry regarding my grief and regarding her. Four years later, my father was shot, and completely lost any urge to write. Every time I attempt to, it kind of looks like a Japanese form of Greek or something. It's horrible, so...
BARRY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, first of all your response for writing after your mom passed - and I'm sorry to hear that you lost your parents - that actually goes back to this thing of what the biological function of the arts may be. You know, and it - and they usually come in when we're having some kind of big emotional trouble. They also tend to sometimes leave.
And if you're - maybe I wonder if drawing might be something that you'd be able to do. You know, I mean sometimes the - it might be the creative urge might be associated with writing or too much with your mom or all that feeling, you know. I don't know - or collage. Collage I think is a fantastic thing to do because...
ALISHA: After my mom passed - I'm sorry, after my mom passed away, I found some writing that she had done and some writing that I had done that had the same themes of it, and I know I'd never seen her writing before, and I don't know if that was (unintelligible) - if that made me want to do the writing more. But I didn't have that type of relationship with my father, so...
BARRY: Where are you at right now with your writing?
ALISHA: I'm not.
ALISHA: But like I said, I've attempted - I even tried to do the NaNoWriMo thing, and I think I got about a thousand words down, and I decided I would just write every day, try to force myself to write on a random thought every day, and it just became a collage of viral mold to me, so...
BARRY: Mmm. Mmm. Well, sometimes, you know, limiting the amount of time that you work - like my students work for - they only get to write for seven-and-a-half minutes, and they usually have to write about - what I'll do, for example, I have a deck of cards with nouns on them. So I'll pull a noun out that'll - maybe it'll just say: kitchen table.
And they have to think of the first 10 kitchen tables that come to them in the first 90 seconds. Then they had to take one kitchen table, and I ask them questions about - you know, picturing it. Like if you're picturing a kitchen table right now, you're picturing it someplace. And if you're picturing it someplace, that means there's a time of day. There's a season. These things are there.
And then if you have seven-and-a-half minutes to write about it as if it's happening right now, first person present tense, beginning with the words I am, I am sitting at the kitchen table at my Auntie Irene's house, and then limiting it so that when that dinger goes off, that bing when you're done after seven-and-a-half minutes, you'll have a story.
And part of the reason is it's like if you're telling a story to a friend on the phone and you think you have 10 minutes to tell the story, but you find out you only have five or three, you know how to put that story into that time frame. So sometimes just doing that little bit and then not reading it over for a week, that can make a huge difference because it can allow that back of the mind to come forward and then just be safe and close the book for a little while.
ALISHA: I'll try it. I will.
CONAN: Good luck.
ALISHA: I promise. Thank you.
CONAN: Yeah. Do it. Thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email from Melissa, quick email from someone who used to be an illustrator: Seven years ago I had twins, and then another child two years later. I used to be a working illustrator, voracious doodler. Now, I try hard to make time to draw a family holiday card, and that's about all I have time for. But my twin daughters draw like they breathe, and we draw pictures together, and then I feel like a lost limb has returned. I sometimes feel a sense of longing as I watch them draw while I do housework.
A typical mom perspective, I bet.
BARRY: Yeah. But, you know, how fantastic, one, they have a mom that already has a relationship to drawing, so that when her kids are drawing, there's like a good feeling in the air. And the other is this is a temporary situation, that those kids are going to grow up, and your hands will stay with you, and you'll still be able to draw.
But right now, I just - like I think about them like crawling around and how, in a weird way, you are drawing, but it's their bodies that are crawling around on the floor who made them.
BARRY: But they're sort of there like big pencils or crayons...
CONAN: You know, there is that weird sense. I remember seeing my children crawl backwards off a couch and then...
CONAN: ...discovering I had that muscle memory. I could feel it.
BARRY: Yeah. Yes. Well, that actually - and that's - you also have that for drawing, for writing, for singing, for dancing. It's all there. It just is in such a small form right now for most adults. I mean, one of the things I love to talk to people about is that thing about doodling. It's like most people will doodle.
Everybody has something they draw, you know? They'll say, oh, I can't draw anything. I say, well, is there anything you draw when you doodle? It's like eyeballs, you know? Like everybody has something, or I'm really good at palm trees.
BARRY: Like everybody has one - and so what are they doing? What they're doing is they're repeating a series of motions that calm them and allow them to concentrate and bear something boring. It's usually during something that's kind of boring them.
So it's like when you start to think of the arts as not this thing that is going to get you somewhere in terms of becoming an artist or becoming famous or whatever it is that people do, but rather a way of making being in the world not just bearable, but fascinating, then it starts to get interesting again.
CONAN: Lynda Barry makes a lot of things interesting, including in her new book, "The Freddie Stories." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Goss(ph), Goss with us from Houston.
GOSS: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead.
CONAN: Yeah, you're on. Go ahead.
GOSS: Oh, OK. Yeah. I'm a songwriter, and, you know, up until my early 20s, I didn't really understand theory or the science behind music or anything like that, and I would pretty much just write off the top of my head. You know, whatever notes I was hearing in my head, that's what I'd write.
And, you know, in my mid-20s, thereabout, I started to get interested in learning theory. And, you know, one of the things that I found when I learned theory is that I grasped it well enough, but the more I came to understand theory, the less I wrote. And there was actually like a two- or three-year period where I didn't write a note of anything because...
BARRY: Oh, yeah.
GOSS: ...I was finding theory to be too limiting to apply as part of my writing process. And so I eventually reverted to writing the way I'd always written, you know, which basically just off the top of my head. But then after I had written a piece, I would use - I would apply theory to that piece and use theory to communicate what I was doing to other musicians.
Now, I know a lot of composers and songwriters who apply theory in their writing process, and they do great with that. But that doesn't really seem to be the way my creative process works. As a matter of fact, you know, just not long ago, I wrote a piece that - I did something that after I had written it, I realized it was, you know, theoretically just a real stretch musically, but it worked for reasons I don't even understand. Even though I do have a good grasp of theory, I don't understand...
GOSS: ...what it does and - but it's the chord I heard in my head when I was writing.
BARRY: Well, you know, the interesting thing about theory or in the corollary in creative writing, the story structure, all these things, is that it's - music had to exist first for there to be theory about it, right? I mean it's like people think that they need in order to write stories they need to know about story structure. Well, story structure only exists because stories exist. Music theory only exists because music exists. So it seems to me that you're doing it right and then take this thing and apply it.
CONAN: Goss, thanks very much for the phone call. I want to end with this email from Scott in Salt Lake City: Two of my prized possessions are a personalized autograph drawing from Freddy and a comic strip featuring him, his mom and some penguins. About seven years ago, for some unknown reason, I lost all ability to read anything of any length. A short article can sometimes be read on a good day. I plan on buying Freddy's new book. If that doesn't break the hex, nothing will. Thank you, Lynda. You're a treasure. That's a sentiment we echo. Thank you so much, Lynda Barry.
BARRY: Thank you. And, Neal, I love you, and I love this show.
CONAN: Oh, thank you.
BARRY: I love it with all my heart.
CONAN: This is NPR News.