Week two: brain/play

20170114_132433.jpgIf you’re following along at home, week two of my experimental creativity course is underway. I’m titling this week’s theme “Brain/Play,” because we will be learning about the brain and doing exercises that call on us to be playful and let go of expectations.

A paradox I’ve noticed, as I design this course, is that I am attempting to teach two different art forms at the same time. The first is Lynda Barry’s speciality: cartooning. The second reflects my own developing interest: drawing from life, or realistic drawing.


(None of these cats were drawn from real life.)

Cartooning relies on symbolic representations: what is the essential form (there will be variations, of course) that says CAT or CAR or CASTLE? What says TREE? It always surprised me how easily my children, from a very young age, could identify a representation of a tree—any representation of any tree—in their picture books. Tree, sun, boy, girl. They could point out any of these forms, and it amazed me, because every tree in real life is a unique tree, every boy a unique boy, every girl a unique girl; and all real things are constantly changing. Not to mention that the real sun in the real sky looks nothing like its symbolic representation.

I finally understand: these symbols, and our ability to recognize them from infancy, are evidence of our brain at work, busily categorizing and simplifying, so as to make the world and all of its unique things comprehensible to us.
20170113_142755.jpgSo that is cartooning. Learning to cartoon is learning how to make use of the symbols that represent things, in ways that are creative and yet easily grasped by the observer/reader.

Drawing from real life is a totally different undertaking: here, we are representing a figure that looks real and three-dimensional despite being nothing more than scratches on a flat page. In order to draw realistically, you have to see the uniqueness of the form you are attempting to recreate. Instead of drawing an eye, you draw the unique lines and shadows that will make an eye seem to appear on the page. In fact, in order to make an eye appear on the page, you can’t think about it being an eye that you are drawing at all. Instead, you have to look past the symbol of EYE and let yourself see purely in shapes and lines. Further, the eye you reproduce will be a very particular eye, a recognizably individual eye. It is a mind-boggling and mind-blowing experience to discover one’s capacity to see (and reproduce) shapes and lines rather than symbols. (If you already know how to draw from real life, this will come as no big revelation at all; but to those of us who believed we couldn’t draw, it is a positively exhilarating discovery.)

Now, the question is: will learning two paradoxically different art forms at the same time help or hinder our exploration of creativity? (An irrelevant question at present, as the experiment is in motion.)

Ultimately, the coursework is aimed toward creating a short book that combines text and illustration, and my sense is that some of us will choose cartooning for our final project, while others may choose more realistic drawing: our individual styles will emerge. That’s the hope.

xo, Carrie

How do you get into the flow?
Greed might rule but it will never satisfy


  1. Lisa

    Hi Carrie. Thanks for sharing your work on this creativity course here — I’m finding it really interesting to see what you’ve been trying, thinking about, and learning throughout the process. I was inspired by your recent posts to look up Lynda Barry’s work, and I’ve started keeping a daily diary using her guidelines. I knew the writing-things-down aspect of it would be appealing to me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I actually enjoy the drawing part, too (even if it doesn’t look like much more than chicken scratch at this point, ha ha!) I had forgotten that I liked doodling and cartooning as a child.

    Is there any one of Professor Barry’s books in particular that you would recommend as a good starting point for someone who would like to try out some of her other writing/creativity exercises?

    I hope you’re making good healing progress following your concussion. My youngest son had one several years ago after getting hit in the head by a ball in gym class, and we were all surprised by just how long it took for him to fully recover. Slow and steady, right? It looks like you’ve been finding some lovely ways to enjoy this quieter healing period. 🙂

    • Carrie Snyder

      Hi Lisa,
      I love hearing that you’re rediscovering the joy of drawing, a gift all the way from childhood. Lynda Barry would be thrilled too, I think. I’ve used her books Syllabus and What It Is to get ideas for this course. Syllabus is quite difficult to follow in some ways, a bit of a riddle to puzzle through, but What It Is has more of her stories/comics, as well as instructions on how to do an x-page (we did something similar in my workshop last winter). So I would recommend either of those books, perhaps leaning more toward What It Is as a starting point. LB also has a Tumblr page called the Nearsighted Monkey, if you want to look that up. She posts some exercises there too.

      • Lisa

        Thank you, Carrie. I do remember the x-page exercise from your workshop. (That was a very enjoyable experience over several Saturday mornings last winter, and I hope, if it interests you, you’ll offer more writing workshops in the future.) I appreciate your book and Tumblr page recommendations and look forward to exploring them.

        “A gift all the way from childhood”… I like that.

  2. Leah

    I am very much enjoying reading your series on creativity and hoping it helps me in my own (technical) writing and creations.
    I laughed out loud when I read your third last paragraph… for those of you who already know how to draw… Drawing was my obsession in childhood. I remember many conversations with friends who didn’t believe that they could draw, where I would encourage them – “anyone can draw! It’s just a matter of looking at your subject very carefully…” These years later I still believe this, but acknowledge that it also takes work to learn how to look at your subject if it isn’t something that has happened unconsciously.

    Now if only I could get to the stage of – anyone can write… hoping for some more inspiration in upcoming blogs.


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