Sunday, September 20, 2009

Being Undigital

When cartoonist/illustrator/comedienne Lynda Barry is not drawing her loopy characters or teaching her celebrated "Writing the Unthinkable" classes to unblock expression-challenged children or adults somewhere, she is talking about the creative process—how it changes us and how new digital tools are challenging it. Creative self-expression, she says, is as critical and natural to humans as breathing. "Everybody does it—it's like salivating," she told Cause Global during this past week's CUSP conference in Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

CG: In your latest book, What It Is, you write:
"... I loved to copy comics at night in front of the TV; I liked ballpoint pens on notebook paper and having a show on I didn't care about; sometimes, I drew with the radio on. It was a form of transportation. I did it because it helped me to stay by giving me somewhere else to go. And maybe this is why we draw shapes in the margins during meetings or on the backs of envelopes while we're waiting on the phone. Drawing can help us stand to be there. That, alone, is something. Give a kid a crayon and some paper when they're stuck waiting somewhere and somehow, it changes things ..."

If creativity is transportation, how is the digital world changing the ride?
Things like folk dancing and making crafts or playing music survived from one generation to the next because it used to be something that everybody did; these things were sustained by the fact that as a society we did them together. And that’s what’s going away. I trust kids and I trust adolescents and when they get obsessed with something digital, I know it’s giving them something creatively—even if I can’t see what it is, so I know something’s going on with computers but I think involving our bodies, movement, a physical experience in the creation of something is also important. Handwriting is drawing the alphabet. And I think there’s all the difference in the world in drawing a letter and hitting a key to type it. I would guess that if we able to chart the brain, that we’d see that drawing with our hands and bodies is completely different than just pushing a key. It’s like the intonation of a voice. It’s not something you are consciously aware of much of the time but spatial relationships and fine motor skills transfer to everything. There’s this guy who has a huge brush that looks like a mop and every day, as part of his practice, he draws with water on concrete and his calligraphy is just beautiful and he does it with his whole body. And then it evaporates and you realize it’s not so much about leaving something behind as it is about practicing the movement.

Is movement in jeopardy? I feel movement is being lost as we trend to a digital orientation. Another thing that’s lost is the happy accident. There’s no delete button on a piece of paper and pen. Even in scratching something out, what’s beautiful is when you look back over it, you still know what the words were. It It creates evidence. But once you hit delete on a computer, it’s gone. And the thing looks finished before it’s finished. The thing also just exists in a little window. I have lots of friends who are writers and I’m interested in people who just write on their computer, because to me it would be like drawing through a diver’s mask. You can only see a certain part of it. I also like books, physical books, the knowledge that when you think, Oh, where’s the part where he shoots his wife? With a physical book, you can see it, and almost remember that it’s on the left side of the page maybe a quarter of an inch earlier. Maybe people who grew up with computers can do this on a computer but my feeling is that it’s harder. And the other thing about a computer is you can start editing before the thing is done.

Isn't email and Twitter encouraging spontaneity, for better or worse? Maybe so, but for adults—regardless—the main problem is that most won’t do anything until they know what it is for or unless they think they’re good at it, when mostly the best reason to draw or to write or to dance is for no reason. I mean, sit down with a kid and say, 'Let’s make a drawing.' Is that kid going to ask, 'What’s our budget?' or want to discuss the narrative arc? That kind of stuff stops people dead in their tracks. I’m sitting next to this kid on an airplane recently, and I start drawing and he looks over and I establish I’m a cartoonist and then I ask him to scribble something on a piece of paper. Scribble with a kid and soon, they’ll want to tell you a story. So this kid, Jack, had a story and he already knew the title, 'Chicken Attack by Jack.' And this is the story, verbatim:

"One morning, a chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach felt funny. He went to the Portalet and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the Portalet to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge and from then on, the chicken was boss.”

Is there any part of you that wants to say, 'You know, we could tighten the narrative?' No. You’re satisfied, right? And it was completely spontaneous.

What is your next project? 'The Near-Sighted Monkey,' another book. It’s a book about drawing–not about teaching people to draw, but about encouraging people to be in a state of play. I got really curious about why is it that people are so terrified of drawing; if we had a four-year-old here and paper and crayons and saw that this girl was too terrified to draw, we’d be worried for her a bit, right? It wouldn’t be normal, right? But if she’s 40 and scared to draw, we go, okay—but there’s something not right about that.

You're also working on a graphic novel, about the problems with windfarms? Yeah, it’s probably going to be in the form of a strip, a graphic novel, and non-fiction. It sounds crazy, but if you live downwind from one of these windfarms, it can sound sometimes like a train coming through your house. Other times, it can be quiet. These wind turbines—they call them 'turbans' in Wisconsin—are huge. Frequently, when that blade passes the tower, you can get a low-frequency thump that you can feel in your body—exactly what happens when a car goes by that is playing loud music but all you hear is the bass because the walls of the car stops the high frequency sounds. Another problem is shadow flicker. These things are 40 stories tall, and the blades are 13 stories each, so when the sun is behind it, it throws a shadow a half-mile long and it can cover your entire home in every window of your house if you’re living next to one of these turbines. The flashing shadows can be so violent, it’s like a strobe light, and for some people it makes them very sick. There’s one woman I interviewed who is a cardiac nurse and she says when shadow flicker starts, she either has to leave her house or she goes into the bathroom, the only room in her house to escape without windows. I’ve interviewed people from 20 households now, and I’m following what scientists studying the problem are finding out about the affects of sleep deprivation. It’s becoming a problem all over the country and there is incredible pressure being put on people not to talk about it. I’ve been called everything from a wind-hater to a 'wind jihadist.' Wind power definitely has a place if it is sited correctly but people need to understand it’s kind of the SUV of renewable energy. It’s big industrial, and it impacts wildlife and alters mountaintop terrains and requires back-up energy, such as coal power, to operate. All sorts of progress is being made in solar and biomass and I think we should have a mix.

—by Marcia Stepanek

(Illustrations, top and self-portrait, by Lynda Barry)

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