A useful process from Lynda Barry

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Writing the Unthinkable, Omega Institute, 2016

Since attending WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE with Lynda Barry at Omega Institute in July, I’ve used a process Lynda (aka Professor Andretti) described for writing her amazing novel, Cruddy. I adapted the steps a bit to write a short story. My process was:

DRAFT 1: Write the first draft by hand—not with ink and brush (as she when drafting Cruddy), but with a black Flair. Using lined paper, I double-spaced lines. (This is important: skip a line in the composition book, as if your hand is double-spacing).

(I started this story from a very messy prompt/embryo I did last spring about taking stuff to the curb for junk day. We have this junk week thing in our town every year, where you can take just about anything to the curb and either another resident will harvest it or the trash collectors will take it. The essay was what I started with, literally writing the words I had typed up onto the paper, longhand, but veered from the essay totally so it ended up as fiction. Really, I’m dealing with some of my (internal) baggage in this essay-turned-story and so using this ‘junk’ was both cathartic and creative.)

DRAFT 2: Re-copy draft 1 by hand without taking anything out (!) but slowing down and adding things where needed. (This is really important: you must copy everything you wrote in the first draft. You can add as much as you like, but you are not removing anything. When I tried it, it began to feel like I was not cutting myself to shards, but instead just acknowledging that some of the junk—every word!—had a reason to be there, at this stage. Doing this worked against the constant self-critique I usually feel when writing. I wasn’t finding flaws and rooting them out, I was just re-copying words in slow, deliberate shapes with a pen. In fact, as Professor Andretti recommended, when my brain started to go faster than my hand, I deliberately

s l   o   w   e   d                        d   o   w   n

and focussed on making the shapes with my pen on the paper.)

DRAFT 3: Type up. On a typewriter. Professor Andretti used an actual typewriter for Cruddy, because you can only go forward (pretty much) on a typewriter whereas on a keyboard and screen you can go both ways (this ‘just keep moving forward’ idea is an extension of steps 1 and 2 above, i.e. not cutting down but building up, keeping momentum going.) I did this step on word processor because my typewriter needs a new ribbon—but before I used the word processor, I turned off the (judgmental!) automatic spell/grammar check as you type feature. If you try nothing else from my post, try this. It’s totally liberating! I knew I’d eventually do a manual spell check, so I just didn’t worry about it at this point. And I am maybe never turning that sucker back on. Like double-spacing my handwriting, excusing The Judge allows more oxygen in the room of my writing, lets me breathe. Ah! Doesn’t that feel better? Yes.)

DRAFT 4: Here is where Professor Andretti would finally type it up on a computer. Once I had the draft on the computer (see step 3), I did a spell check, and then printed it. It still needed work and I took things out and added things, etc., but a lot of what came through in the process was evocative and strong writing. What came through most of all was the character’s voice. I believe that using this technique allowed her enough oxygen to tell her story.

It was a great and illuminating process. It felt good instead of pressured. (It was actually much more fun than usual writing.)

I’m happy to have spent those several weeks using some of the techniques I learned from Professor Andretti…and living in the not knowing/not fiction/not non-fiction/what the hell is an image/”search for underpants, eee*” zone…and I got a story out of it!

* This is a reference to a song Lynda Barry would sing in the morning at our workshop. I much prefer her/our version to the South Park version—we all sang along with her—but if you want to hear the song, go here.

To learn more about Lynda Barry, go to her Tumblr page.

Fragment of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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(Found at Omega, on the ground, or in the water.)

At the Omega Institute in July, I read the fabulous Maggie Nelson’s book, Bluets. I marked a passage on p. 81. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that something resonated. Today as I typed it before returning the book to my friend Melissa, I see its connection to the work of WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE, and oddly, to a short story I’m working on. But when I marked this passage, I wasn’t even working on the story yet.

This is how it works sometimes.

“202. For the fact is that neuroscientists who study memory remain unclear on the question of whether each time we remember something we are accessing a stable ‘memory fragment’—often called a ‘trace’ or an ‘engram’—or whether each time we remember something we are literally creating a new ‘trace’ to house the thought. And since no one has yet been able to discern the material of these traces, nor to locate them in the brain, how one thinks of them remains mostly a matter of metaphor: they could be ‘scribbles,’ ‘holograms,’ or ‘imprints’; they could live in ‘spirals,’ ‘rooms,’ or ‘storage units.’ Personally, when I imagine my mind in the act of remembering, I see Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, roving about in a milky, navy-blue galaxy shot through with twinkling cartoon stars.” —Maggie Nelson, Bluets, p. 81

transportation via image

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(Dollhouse dollhouse, kitten, Tiger.)

A week ago, I returned from the Omega Institute where I attended Lynda Barry‘s 5-day workshop called WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE. (I know that I will be writing about the experience for a long time, so I’m not even trying to encapsulate it all here. I do know that the time I spent in that workshop will affect my work and life in ways I can’t yet imagine, and probably for the rest of my life.)

Barry’s work had us considering what is an image but here “considering” is the wrong word: instead of an intellectual brain-ing activity, we considered via specific remembered images…with the moving hand and what she calls the back of the mind, and our friendly Professor Andretti (her workshop code name) guiding, prompting, timing us. We worked like dogs! (It’s a cliche, but also an image, and a puzzling one: aside from working dogs, do dogs work?) On the drive home, almost every song I heard had a mystery in it.

Images are everywhere, and I’m almost 50 years old, and I feel like I am just now noticing this!

Doing this work was the kind of experience that opens the senses. I’m noticing so much, so much more fully, in a more embodied way. I have not yet opened my composition book where the work from the workshop is contained. I’m following Professor Andretti’s advice and waiting, so the images have time to coalesce. It’s a magic process, and I don’t want to disturb it.

But I did open a small box of stuff that’s been sitting in my office for almost a year. The box is full of items from my (long-gone) childhood dollhouse. I still have most of the contents and inhabitants (Steiff and Schuco mohair bears, mostly, and some other species). A couple years ago, I moved the things out of boxes onto a bookshelf in my office, and having it out in the open makes me so happy. But today’s box was undiscovered until my mother found it at her house last year. (When she gave it to me, I opened it and looked through quickly, but didn’t have time to really peruse it, so I put it away. Now I am wondering if I put it off not only because of busyness and inertia, but maybe also something like the composition book from the workshop: maybe in that box there was still something magic happening that needed to be undisturbed.)

Tonight when I looked through the tiny items with my daughter, among the treasures (some pictured below) I found a tiny sample bottle of Estee Lauder Youth Dew. (Lynda Barry writes and talks about how sometimes an image, a song, will transport us back to a forgotten corner of our lives. If you are a child of the 1960s and 70s and you don’t believe me, try smelling some Youth Dew!)

This is one of those times I’m glad I’m a packrat.

Here are some things I found.

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“Dear Flipper, I went to Mexico with my family last summer. I saw a burro that…:”
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“…looked like this: …Isn’t this a cute burro? Love Kristy”

 

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Tiger and Deer were already in my office dollhouse, but in the new box…
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Tiger and Deer found their letters!
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“Dear, Deer I love you. Please write soon. Love Tiger Baby p.s. I coming over.”
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“Dear Tig, You can come over. Sat + Sun”
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more tiny letters and cards (and pencils)
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Handmade dollhouse TV. (Antenna=tootpicks)

Lynda Barry, Omega Institute workshop (scratching the surface)

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(words by someone else, drawing by me)

I can’t yet write deeply/fully about my experience at Lynda Barry’s WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE Omega Institute workshop last week, because it’s all still coalescing, and it’s summertime, and I just don’t have the mind space word space right now.  But I wrote a message to my former students and couple colleagues, because the message does scratch the surface (cliche, I know) in telling about how it was to be in the room with LB. More, more deeply, when I can.

***

Hi, all,

I’m just back from an amazing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, where I spent the week along with 70 others working with Lynda Barry.  Some of you know her work, maybe some of you don’t…but I wanted to pass these links along in case they are of interest to you.
If you like her vibe and work, I recommend the workshop very highly. It got me moving in the creative flow, writing and drawing and working really hard, and also unlocked a lot of stuck ideas I had about making art and what it’s all about.

(Or, in shorthand: Lynda Barry rocks! And so can you!)

She’s very generous about her teaching.  She considers her work open-sourced, and wants anyone and everyone to have access to it.  Her book that contains the most teaching stuff in it is Syllabus, but it has as much for the maker of art as the teacher.  (Okay, by now you know how I feel about Lynda Barry’s work.)
Here’s her TED talk, a good, longish introduction to her work:
And here’s a link about her work as it pertains to ACADEMIC WRITING as well…

***

Love, Rebecca

What I might have said at George’s wake

George Romansic, Seattle, August 2011
George Romansic, Seattle, August 2011

Last weekend, I was in a roomful of people remembering George Romansic. (If you don’t know who George was, you can read something about his work here and elsewhere on the internet.) Some of his people spoke that night, some played music, some just smiled, hugged, and wept. If I had spoken, here’s what I might have said.

I last visited George, who was my favorite DJ, in early January 2015. He would live a few more weeks; by then he was badly affected by the glioblastoma that killed him, but when I got there on New Year’s Eve, his George-ness was still quite evident. We hung out. As usual, in his living room, the music playing was vast and diverse and wonderful. George wasn’t up to DJing, so his son John Lewis was doing the work. George smiled when he told me John Lewis had been taking requests, finding just what his dad needed to hear from the freakishly-extensive music library. The music was good, no, not just good but delicious, like the best cafe latte (not Italian, not Starbucks, but a real Seattle coffee, like you’d find at Caffe Fiore or Cafe Lladro, anytime, but if you’re really lucky, when you were hanging out with George). At some point during the visit, John Lewis played some of his own music from his laptop, delicious too; it sounded really really really good. The child is of his father, and of his mother, but also of himself. The light in George’s face when he said his son was DJing was one of the truest things I have ever seen, that love. I see, anyone nearby who’s looking can see how George lives on in his children, John Lewis and Maddie, can see how the glorious light in these beloved grown children keeps the source of their father alive. I am grateful for this.

Now, I recall the room at George’s wake, brimming with creative people who knew and loved George. I want Maddie and John Lewis to remember that room too, and to know how many people (in the room, and elsewhere, everywhere) have their backs. (Maddie and John Lewis, we’ve got your backs. Joanie, yours, too.)

The other thing I might have said then or want to say now is that a couple months before I visited George, when I heard how really serious things were turning with his health, I happened to be reading Lynda Barry’s incomparable One! Hundred! Demons! (which I wrote about here.) I got to the part where she writes:

The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away.
 I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all. —Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

And I realized that if I know one person who is a keeper of the groove, along with the babies and grandmas, it is George. Literally, in his many musical breathings in this life, in the boxes of CDs he knew so well, and in a more magical and ineffable way. George kept the groove in his pocket, in the way he would always pick us up at the airport, in the light behind his glasses, in the beat of his kind and gargantuan heart.

Feet don’t fail me now…

from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!
from Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

Imagine that!  Again I am thinking about self-doubt as fuel for writing. (I blogged about that idea here.)

In that way that interdisciplinary aesthetics happens inside a (my) human body, I was thinking of self-doubt as seemingly insurmountable…music came to me…as Funkadelic used to say, “so high, you can’t get over it…so low, you can’t get under it…” and here I go, dreaming up some funk to play for the dance breaks I’m planning for the advanced creative writing course I’ll teach next term at Antioch College…and thinking about Lynda Barry’s Two Questions (“Is this good?” “Does this suck?”) thinking about all the things we must surmount to be the “keepers of the groove”:

The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away.
I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all. —Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!

Nearsighted Monkey (or is that farsighted?)

In the continuing drama of when I will receive Lynda Barry’s book, The Nearsighted Monkey, I got this via email today:

We’re writing about the order you placed on October 22 2009. Unfortunately, the release date for the item(s) listed below has changed, and we need to provide you with a new delivery estimate based on the new release date:

Lynda Barry “Nearsighted Monkey”
Estimated arrival date: November 22 2010 – November 29 2010

Does this mean this is the year?  Can it be?

More Nearsighted Monkey madness!

What on earth does getting this email on December 15 mean?

“We now have delivery date(s) for the order you placed on October 22 2009 (Order# 103-4260598-6558627):

Lynda Barry “Nearsighted Monkey”
Estimated arrival date: November 08 2010 – November 15 2010″

They’re testing me!

Actually, it kind of reminds me of Jim Krusoe’s novel, Erased, of which I’ve read about 60 pages so far. But in Erased, the protagonist is receiving postcards from his mother, who he believes is dead. Jim Krusoe’s novel is engrossing. But I want my Lynda Barry book!

Where, oh where is The Nearsighted Monkey?

I’ve been waiting for months.

I keep trying to pre-order it, but it keeps being delayed. As a fan of Lynda Barry, and monkeys, and well, not cigarettes, but you get the idea: I am eager.

WHERE IS IT? And now I read THIS and get confused. I thought it was supposed to be out in fall 2009. If you have any scoop, post here!

I adore Lynda Barry. I will wait as long as I have to, but I just got another message from the online retailer where I ordered it, informing me of a delay. This is getting really tantalizing.

Okay, of course the delay is not all about me, and I’m sure others are affected. And I suppose it would behoove me to get used to the delayed gratification of publishing…but more on that angle in another post. STAY TUNED.