Category: Lynda Barry
For the X Page workshop, I’ve been doing the writing exercises we assign and practice each week; I’ve always written along when leading workshops or teaching, mostly because writing something new is always an adventure and I don’t want to miss out on the experience. On Friday (May 14, 2021), I’ll be leading a writing workshop for the Canadian Nonfiction Collective’s conference, in which we’ll be doing some of these same writing exercises. (Check here, if you’re interested in attending!)
The exercises are based on Lynda Barry’s method of writing and drawing by hand: allowing the hand to be the eye that leads us into the story, and shows us the images that we’ve kept and may not even know are alive within us. I’ve seen this teaching method work over and over again to unearth stories, scenes, details, emotions and insights that would otherwise lie dormant. The process can also unearth material that’s painful or unexpectedly emotional, but what I’ve noticed is that the writing itself also seems to be a tool for healing — telling a story, letting it be shaped by our present self, can be healing.
Though we won’t be doing this is in either workshop, my personal temptation is to veer off into fictional territory, and expand the scene or story out into what could have been or could yet be, or swing into the viewpoint of another person. It’s a very malleable writing method.
(And of course I call on other methods and practices during different stages of the writing process; but even revision and editing can feel free-wheeling and surprising when I’m deep inside the process, which is always an adventure. Using Lynda Barry’s generous, expansive methods have helped me learn how to turn down the voice in my head that is telling me “this is good” or “this sucks.” That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this practice: that little voice is my ego, and my ego is terrified of making a mistake, and wants so badly to impress others that it is really not trustworthy.)
These days of lockdown and aimless waiting affect us all differently … but what I often feel is disconnected, lonely, a bit apathetic or lacking in energy or drive.
When I open my notebook and begin to write, something changes. It might only change for those minutes when I’m writing, but while engaged with the pen and the page, I go somewhere else in my mind. I travel. The monotony shifts, the day is different — it opens into a different place or time or perspective. And that’s a little gift to myself, which I hope to give to others, too.
Our morning routine is sturdy and pleasant. Exercise, shower, breakfast. We’ve worked out a shower schedule, since there are six of us vying for a spot. I’ve been eating chia seeds and oats soaked in yogurt, or scrambled eggs on homemade bread for breakfast. Everyone is at their desk (or couch, or bed) by 9AM. Peaceful. And motivating, too. I’m wasting less time in the mornings getting to my own work.
Today, I wrote for so long that two of my pens ran out of ink! Something that brings me pleasure each day is to check in on my plants. I’ve got two new ones that I repotted from cuttings, and it gives me such a kick to see the progress their little shoots are making, day by day, slowly, slowly, rising and unfurling into shiny new leaves.
If I’m getting “better” at drawing, as a few people have commented recently, does it change my approach to this project? I’d like to keep this fun, unselfconscious, an adventure into the unknown, into the hidden parts of myself that only my hand and pen can discover; like what’s shown today, above, in my awkward hesitant shape, revealing the vulnerability I felt (but didn’t want to admit) during this conversation with a friend.
Many lovely grace notes on this quiet Sunday—baking bread, playing hymns and singing harmony with Annabella, church on YouTube and Zoom followed by watching the Liverpool game while everyone sat around in the living-room—but it all revolved around breath. Controlled. In, out, long, smooth.
Talked to my Grandma this afternoon, asking questions about specific times and experiences in her life. We will keep talking. I want to ask her about big things, like, how do you feel about death? How did you survive the upsets and shocks in your life? (Talk about self-conscious: I do not like the drawing of myself in the corner of the Zoom screen, and nearly scribbled over it before posting here; but decided to let it stand.)
Sometimes I can’t keep my eyes open and I unroll my yoga mat and lie down in a very particularly way on my studio floor (which is heated), and I nap—for no more than 24 minutes. More stories via Zoom from my Grandma this morning. I’m listening. I have time to listen.
I paused my day to watch Kamala Harris take her oath of office, and was later transfixed by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” We aren’t broken, we are unfinished, she proclaimed. I write these words on my heart. (I’ll admit, I held my breath till Joe Biden was sworn in, and then—relief.)
It can get very busy in the kitchen at breakfast time: for accuracy, this drawing should have at least two more people squeezed into it. I spent the morning talking to Grandma again, and she told me about celebrating the inauguration last night, even watching the entire TV special, sitting through all the musical acts, even when she didn’t love the songs. Someone chose them for a reason, she told me. We talked about change today, and next time we are going to talk about death.
I’ve scarcely left my desk all day; but after supper last night, our whole family walked uptown. It was the first time we’d all been out together since lockdown. I get very panicked and queasy seeing new businesses opening now, and trying to survive. Like, the worst feeling! I wonder why?
I should have taken photos of my drawings in full natural daylight, but I forgot till it was too late (too late being just after 5PM). I notice a lingering and annoying dissatisfaction with the imperfection caused by the poor lighting. The colours are faded and distorted, for one thing! But I’m too tired and it’s too much end-of-the-week to start all over again (plus, I’d have to wait till tomorrow to re-take all the photos!). Hey, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve got take-out on the table, from Sari-Sari Filipino Cuisine. Look them up, if you live in Kitchener. They post their menus daily on Facebook, and the food is delicious and inexpensive, and served in the most generous portions.
Happy weekend, everyone.
Note: About a week after originally posting this, I photographed all the drawings again, in natural daylight, and uploaded them to replace the ones that had annoyed me so much. Is the post measurably better because of this? I don’t know, but I feel better!
Everyone looked after me all day. My favourite part was going around the table and hearing what everyone considered to be the thing they were most proud of in 2020. (Mine was painting my door yellow, and transforming my office into my studio.)
I’m glued to Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show on Netflix that thankfully has about a thousand episodes (give or take). When I learned there were many seasons yet to watch, I ran out of my studio hollering: “Winter is saved!”
Kevin’s new year’s eve bonfire kept burning out last night. “I smell like smoke,” I told Heather on our starting-the-new-year-off-right walk. We came upon a statue that was like a horror movie, a man’s face replaced with an owl and maybe a possum (?); squirrel and duck for hands. We laughed so much.
We drove to Claire’s farm to pick up eggs and meat, and Claire showed us the pigs in the barn. Back home, we started a new 30-day yoga cycle with Adriene, called “Breath.”
Strange what my pen and hand tell me—not always what I want to hear. Mostly, I walked with my family this morning, on a spontaneous walk through fresh snow. But this was how I felt, trying to reach across the barriers of self/other.
Welcome to my studio. I enter this small warm room, close the yellow door, and feel—welcomed in. Happy to be here, at this desk, to look out these windows, to feel excited, wondering what I’ll find today?
I’m trying to read a book before falling asleep, rather than scrolling the news on my phone. My theory is that my dreams will be better, more interesting. But last night, the children in this book found a dead dog and my sleep was restless; tired today. (Soundtrack on repeat: “Exile” T. Swift and B. Iver)
It’s a lot to ask, that stories drop into my hands from their perfect mutability in my mind. I ask for grace and energy, I ask for a stronger work ethic, I ask for magic; but it’s desire I need, to answer longing with scratches on the page.
Yesterday, as Trump’s followers over-ran Congress, I was doing that terrible thing where I was watching a livestream on my laptop, scrolling my phone, and texting people, as if by consuming too much information, I’d find an answer to the question—what is going to happen?
I promised myself I’d sit down and draw even if I felt completely empty. That would capture the day too—an empty page, some pen scratches and scribbles.
My drawings this week all kind of look the same, I told Kevin on our after-dinner walk with Rose. Not much is changing. We are in liminal space—waiting. Not transition, but waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Today I made a list of things I want to do every day: go for a walk, the longer the better; burn and create energy with intense cardio; yoga; cartoon; play piano; afternoon tea break. I’d also like to meditate and read; and of course write. And cook. (But not clean.)
Good news: started my day in my studio and wrote part of a story almost immediately! Not-bad news: I can’t draw cars. This one looks like a bus, sort of. Above: me and Nina going for a walk, early Monday morning tradition.
Panic attack reading news of a stay-at-home order starting Thursday in Ontario. Felt like I was drowning. But what changes, I asked? Put on headphones and draw—follow pen into memory, shape, imagination. You’ve got resources. Sources.
Sidewalks slick with ice, we walked, skated, slipped, slid on a short dog walk after supper. Waiting for us to pass was a fox in the little park across the street. It sat perfectly still, alert, focused on our presence, till we were gone.
And now we’re all caught up. What do you think of my new journaling method? I’m on month two, and I’ve noticed a growing interest in attempting to draw background and setting, as well as figures. I’ve noticed, too, that this exercise slows me down and changes the flow of my attention, no matter what I’m feeling.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
Listening to Joni Mitchell’s River.
I listen to this song even when it’s not the Christmas season. They’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Oh, Joni. I recently read a profile about her early songwriting in the New York Times and then drifted over to read another piece in The New Yorker from 2012 by Zadie Smith about becoming a Joni convert. I’d already read the Zadie Smith essay, maybe when it was originally published, but I read it again. The internet will give you so many windows and doors to open, chasing ideas that you might tell yourself are inspirational or aspirational, when really, you just want to be as original and seemingly free as Joni Mitchell. But it’s okay just being you. Isn’t it?
I’ve started a new project that I’m planning to do every day in December, and possibly beyond. It’s a way of crossing the threshold from the every day into the imagination, a daily portrait and caption, created in about 20 minutes or so, while listening to music. I draw a portrait on an index card in pen, then colour it with crayons (an important part of the playful process!), then write a few lines about whatever’s on my mind, giving myself no more than 3 minutes for the text so I don’t start sweating over it. Like this:
Here are a few other good things and random thoughts, on this Friday afternoon when I’ve run out of steam and am about to turn to fun videos on youtube while doing my stretching routine on the office floor, which isn’t a half-bad way to spend half an hour, truth be told — maybe I’ll count that as one of the random good things going on right now. I’m also attempting to do sets of 10 burpees whenever I think of it throughout the day. While waiting for lunch to heat in the microwave, for example. Before bed. The goal is to raise my heart rate in spurts throughout the day, maybe to compensate for not running right now (though I do ride the spin bike pretty frequently). Whatever. It lifts my spirits every time. I finish my burpee set and throw my hands in the air in victory! Yes! (I should draw that.)
Other daily goals: Go outside! Every day.
And: Flip my current pattern of writing in a frantic panic late in the afternoon, and write in the mornings instead (answer email only after I’m all written-out). The daily portrait and caption kickstarts this goal, and so far it’s worked wonders. Start with something fun and easy, something I look forward to doing, and suddenly I’m pitched into writing new material without even thinking twice.
Also: Work harder. (Weird, I originally wrote “Word harder.” That works too.) Work/word harder is my main life goal. But I mean that only insofar as I mean work harder to dig in, commit, finish projects, even if I don’t know what will happen to them. Hard things are hard. Curiosity is my fuel. Patience is a gift but also can be a weakness if it turns into numb acceptance. Grit is necessary. Add it to your breakfast. Relish and savour what you’re doing because you never know what you’re making. Or what will stick, what will matter, what others will appreciate.
For example: A student sent me a message this week, writing: “I also wanted to tell you that as a graduate, I still appreciate your class. I’ve read books a little differently since, with more compassion, and more interest in the beauty of the work.” How could I guess that a student would come away from a writing class with a new lens on reading? What a gift. I love thinking about the accident of connections, about the things we keep that perhaps someone else has given us, but they don’t know.
Okay, one more goal: Reach out with appreciation for the gifts received from others. I might also add, if there’s a teacher who’s helped you in some way, let her know. Especially now. Any teacher who can engage her students through the screen or the mask is working at a level of commitment and energy and preparation that is almost impossible to understate.
In conclusion, as this seems to be a post that has brought up boundless wells of inner gratitude, I’m grateful for a friend’s idea to create our own collectively brainstormed advent calendar of family activities. As a family of six, each of us contributed four ideas which were randomly sprinkled into the calendar’s pockets. Day 1: decorate Christmas cookies (made by F); Day 2: breakfast for dinner (waffles, made by me); Day 3: ice cream delivery to grandparents; Day 4: games night. (Days 1 and 2 shifted the responsibility to the baker and the cook, and both of us were slightly crusty about this; as a result, we’ve also created a bunch of back-up activities to be accessed should one idea not work out on a particular day).
I’m grateful for a little surprise to look forward to every day of advent.
And I’m grateful to you, my friends who read this blog. It gives me a little boost knowing you’re out there. Connections. They’re harder to come by right now, and I cherish them all the more for that.
- What felt good this month? This month has been a bit of a blur, and I’ve spent half of it thinking it’s already December, but there have been some genuine highlights. Unexpectedly warm weather early in the month made possible some spontaneous outdoor gatherings. I’m especially grateful that my siblings and I were able to gather with both my dad, and my mom. The last time we gathered together with either parent, all of us, was last Christmas, and we know this Christmas will be challenging. So that was a real gift. Another highlight was watching Kamala Harris speak after the election was declared — especially awesome because we watched outside in our backyard shack with friends. I’ve been looking after my physical body, with physio, chiro and massage, and daily stretching and exercise. While I wait to hear back from my editor, I’ve been writing new stories using cues learned from Lynda Barry. And I continue to connect with friends in person, outdoors, which keeps me going.
- What did you struggle with? This month was better than last, in terms of my mental state. I seem to be more settled into established routines, and accepting of this liminal state we’re all in. In some strange way, I’m thankful to be in a rather unambitious mindset at present, and therefore don’t have specific goals that are being thwarted by the circumstances. Nevertheless, I’m trying to use my time fruitfully even if I don’t know what will come of it. I’ve noticed that it cheers me to share what I’m doing with others; if I have any goal, it’s figuring out ways (perhaps new and creative) to share my writing, meditations, stories, photos, cartoons, musings with others. I’ve also loved getting opportunities to read and comment on and engage with other writers’ work. Reciprocity and community feels critical to a sustainable path as a writer/artist. I need to foster more of that, somehow.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Better. At the beginning of the month, the American election was weighing on me, plus I was feeling pretty bummed about trying to invent a Christmas experience in a pandemic. But my awesome little family has been brainstorming and getting creative, planning for different kinds of celebratory and brightening activities, throwing out expectations and starting fresh, which is a wonderful gift in and of itself. More on this in a future post. Basically, I’m feeling sturdier than I was at the beginning of November. Calmer. (Although my daughters have both informed me, separately, that I’m the most impatient person in the house.) As I reflect on this, I realize that I’m looking forward to things without wishing everything were different; let’s call this stage “acceptance.”
- How did you take care of yourself? Plugging into my Lynda Barry Spotify playlist, drawing, writing. Tara Brach meditations. Being kind to my body. Getting outside. Remembering to text friends. Checking into literary events on Zoom. Sibs nights. Popcorn and shows with Kevin (this month we watched Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, and we just started Steve McQueen’s Small Axe). Redecorating the living-room with Kevin (a work-in-progress).
- What would you most like to remember? That I am alive in my body and in my mind. That connecting with others is the necessary spark to feeling and being alive (especially thinking of this in the context of my writing life). That I love reading, responding, editing, digging into ideas and images. That food for the mind is as necessary as food for the body. That the jolt and challenge of the unexpected encounter is something I’m often missing right now, and craving.
- What do you need to let go of? Good intentions. That just popped up, and I’m going to let it stand. Maybe what I mean is, I need to let go of superficial attempts to be helpful, and respond and act from somewhere deeper, more grounded, more raw, more real instead. I’ve been saying yes every time it feels like it’s coming from a place of genuine yes-ness! (And saying no when I know the answer is no, no matter how painful or uncomfortable.)