Writer’s Talk interview with Lynda Barry

Posted on Mar 16, 2010

Writer’s Talk interviews Lynda Barry

Writer’s Talk: Writing through Reading is an online course offered by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer through The New York Times Knowledge Network and the University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies. The premise of the course is to study craft through fiction. The premise is enhanced by online visits by the authors themselves. This term Lynda Barry visited and charmed us completely with her unique approach to writing and her generosity. The Q&A is student led and is particular in its direction. The students were focused on the child’s perspective and illustration as they read Lynda Barry’s intense adolescent vision, Cruddy.

© Lynda Barry (self portrait)



© Lynda Barry (self portrait)

Writer’s Talk: What a captivating piece you have written.  Thank you.

In one of the Youtube clips I viewed you talked about memory and reality (Leslie and endlessly).  I understand that perspective makes the story richer than the facts and what actually occurred.  I am wondering how censor plays a role here. Were there parts of Cruddy that you created but edited out because they were too wild, sadistic, imitate-able to impressionable youth?  Hard to imagine, but I am imagining, nonetheless!

Lynda Barry: The story you’re referring to here is one of my misunderstanding they lyrics to a song called “Groovin” by the Young Rascals.

Here’s the song, it’s very good!

It came out in 1967– I was 11 years old.

It has the most wonderful beginning– birds singing, sweet melody– it sounds like where ever the Young Rascals were when they were singing it was a wonderful place to be.  Very different than where I was in 1967 with fights breaking out between my black friends and my white friends and my parents hating each other and getting ready to split. When this song would come on and I always felt transported.

I think that’s a good word for it because images are a form of transportation. That song took me out of where I was. Made me certain there was somewhere else where things were better.

There is a lyric I understood as “That would be ecstasy, you and me and Leslie, just groovin'”

I loved this idea of me and one of the Young Rascals and someone named Leslie groovin’ together in that bird singing place. I didn’t know who Leslie was, I didn’t know who the Young Rascals were, I just knew where ever they were was where I wanted to be.

When was in my mid 20’s  I heard the song again, and the lyrics were actually

“Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly groovin'”

And it was such a disappointment. Because Leslie was gone. And ‘endlessly’ groovin’ didn’t sound like anything. It sounded like an idea of something maybe, but nothing specific. Nothing as personal. And nothing that felt like a place.

It may make more sense– but it wasn’t alive in the way ‘Leslie’ made it alive.

‘Leslie’ didn’t make any sense, it’s nowhere else in the song, but it anchored it for me because it was specific rather than general.

That’s what I was trying to say. That it’s a specific image vs. a general image that tends to be more alive. And useful. And able to take you somewhere. That line kept me feeling good in a bad situation. It wasn’t something I had to try to do, I’d hear the first notes of that song the image itself of me walking out with a Young Rascal and Leslie— who ever Leslie was– that was the thing that made things better for me.

When I was working on Cruddy, I didn’t really edit anything out based on the content– because I was writing it with a paintbrush rather than a computer I couldn’t delete anything as I wrote it so it stayed and had a chance to present itself in my mind for a much longer time than sentences typed on a keyboard. It didn’t allow me to delete the things in the story I didn’t yet understand.

I believe a different kind of writing comes from writing by hand slowly. Cruddy really taught me that.

When I teach, I usually have my students start with memory and move toward fiction. The reason I do this is because once you get the feeling of what an unexpected but vivid memory feels like in your body— for example when a certain smell instantly brings back your cousin’s basement —  once you know what a vivid image feels like and how it works on you in a way that is different than just thinking about it, then it’s easier to make images that feel the same way even if you’re writing fiction. Images that feel true because they feel true in your body, not just in one part of your mind that is mostly concerned with ‘is this good or is this bad?’

I never think of the reader when I’m writing a story– or making a comic strip. I may fret about it later on, but if I’m thinking about the reader, what they will like or not like, then I’m not actually working with images– I may be thinking about them, but it’s like thinking about the smell of an orange. It’s not the same as smelling an orange.

It’s hard because I can’t force myself into it. I have to actually move my brush or pen across a page for it to happen.

However, typing on a keyboard is very good for somethings. I think this is one of them.

WT: Lynda, what is the bridge between text and graphic for you? I’ve been a big fan of your cartoons ever since I can remember. I seem to recall a character way back who was so hideous she wore a paper bag over her head (I hope I am not mis-remembering this!). You have always been doing something interesting with adolescence. Taking a brave stance on it somehow. I wonder if it is the words or the drawings that come first, and if you have thought of why this might be.

LB:  It’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about when words and pictures separate for people. A kid learning to write the alphabet is actually learning to draw the alphabet.

When I remind people that writing by hand is actually drawing, they look surprised and then try to figure out how it is not drawing, how it is different, but there is no way to argue it.

A person knows the physical moves required to make any letter of the alphabet or numeral. The same person can make these marks very small or very large. With a pencil, or a wet mop on a wall. It’s just a specific movement with a mark maker.

When I’m making a comic strip these two things are not separated at all. I don’t pencil my work in before I start. I just work very slowly with a brush and as I draw the frame of the panel I’ll often ‘hear’ a sentence in my head. It’s not mystical at all or deep or anything different than when a song gets caught in your head. You didn’t consciously put it there, but it’s playing, you can ‘hear’ it– it’s not the same as hearing it coming from a radio but I would bet most people would describe it as ‘hearing the song’ in their head rather than ‘thinking the song’

So I ‘hear’ a sentence and I can tell who is saying it– which character– in the same way you can tell who is singing that song in your head. I’ll write out that sentence and if another one follows I’ll write that out too. But if one doesn’t follow I usually start drawing the character who said the sentence or the person she is saying it to. And in that way the comic strip begins. Each line leads to the next one.

In between there are times I have to just wait. So you’ll see a lot of freckles on my characters or patterns on their clothes or little lines built up in the back ground. That’s me waiting for the next line. It won’t come if I’m not in motion. If I just sit there like “The Thinker” nothing comes at all.

My characters don’t tend to be attractive at all. For drawings of girls in a comic strip, this isn’t common. I always thought it might be the reason people say I can’t draw well. If I could draw well, why would my characters be so homely?

I don’t remember the comic you’re speaking of here but I do know I’ve written characters who have a lot about feeling very ugly, especially ones who have very beautiful mothers.

That part is from my life. My mother was very beautiful. She let me know this all the time. And she also let me know I looked like a female Alfred E Newman from Mad Magazine. She hated the way I looked. I always felt like a gargoyle around her. That relationship is certainly reflected in my work. I never had to put it in intentionally and I don’t think I could intentionally keep it out.

WT: Thank you for opening up my reading to a whole new world.  Your novel gave me a lot to think about as I traveled in great darkness not only with Roberta, but I took a personal journey as well.  I’m curious to know where the inspiration for this novel came from.  How much of a journey did you take to create such a compelling character as Roberta?  I can’t imagine it was easy.  I’m also curious to know the impact your novel has had on young readers, did you have them (teenagers) in mind as a target audience, or did you write for anyone to read?

LB: Writing Cruddy was one of the most exhilarating experiences once I finally gave up on trying to write it on a computer and trying to make it meaningful to others.

Once I decided to write it in the slowest possible way– which is with a paintbrush— the novel came so fast it was like watching a movie. I felt like the next word was always waiting for me after I finished the one before it.

The trick seemed to be the very slowness of the process. I found that if I just concentrated on the sentence I was writing and didn’t try to think of what the next one would be, it seemed to be there anyway, like the way the ground is there for you when you take a walk.

Roberta was in my head vividly during this process and I forced myself to not wonder about her or think about her much unless I had a paintbrush in my hand. And this worked. But what I did not expect was that the moment I finished the book she would be gone.

I mean really really gone.

People often ask me what happened to her– how did things really end up— and I have to say I have no idea.

When I started working on the next book I’d keep hoping she’d show up again but she hasn’t. And I even tried to fake like she was there— try to write a sequel because I wanted to see that crew again, but no luck.

It’s funny– there was a study done about imaginary friends– about asking kids about having them. One of the researchers realized that once a kid is old enough to understand what the word ‘imaginary’ means they often said no to this. But if you asked them “Do you have a friend no one else can see” they often answered yes.

Those friends are not imaginary.

That’s how I felt about Roberta. I couldn’t force her to come back or do anything. And she’s ‘my’ character, you’d think I could do it.

I don’t mean this in any mystical or supernatural way. I just mean that characters that do not come from thinking can’t be controlled by thinking.

I’ve been lucky enough to speak to younger readers who’ve read Cruddy and really liked it, mostly because it was so crazy and dark. That crazy and dark time can hit very early for some of us. It did for me. I think I would have liked Cruddy a lot when I was younger but I would have thought it was much too violent.

That’s the most interesting thing about writing Cruddy. I had no clue that I had such a deep interest in violence until I wrote it. I don’t think I could have ever known about it if I kept trying to write it on a computer. It was the painting out the manuscript with a brush that caused all kinds of things to happen in the story that surprised me.

I didn’t write for anyone when I was writing Cruddy. Just me and the paintbrush and ink, a pad of legal paper and a hair dryer to dry the page before I turned it.

WT: Lynda, are you saying you actually painted the words, too? If so, it must have been an enormous manuscript at one point! And also, wow! I just suddenly got this image of William Blake. What was that process like? How did you know to do this?

LB: I painted the whole manuscript for Cruddy —  you can see a page of it here:

Manuscript page from Lynda Barry's painted novel Cruddy

Manuscript page from Lynda Barry’s painted novel Cruddy

I used legal paper and brown paint. Now I use hand ground Chinese ink for everything, but when I worked on Cruddy I didn’t know about it yet.

I did know that the brush itself and the act of writing with a brush changed the content of the work immediately– suddenly I was writing an entirely different story from the one I planned to write and one I’d been trying to write for ten years on a computer.

I finished the manuscript in 9 months writing it with a paintbrush. This made me start to think of the sentence, “The slowest way is the fastest way.”

The manuscript was seven hundred pages– and after it was done I gave a lot of pages away or cut them up and gave pieces of it to my students or sold some of the pages on E-bay to finance the next project which was “100 Demons” —  also painted with a brush.

And What It Is is all done by hand, no computer work at all except for the copyright page has some type I did on the computer and then printed it and cut it out and glued it down.

The hands are the original wifi devices. They are astonishing things, and there are some theories that our hands have quite a lot to do with the development of our human brains  in terms of evolution.

Watch people when they talk. They move their hands. When we write by hand there is a kind of movement in it, that, at least for me, makes all the difference in terms of content.

A keyboard is more efficient but it’s not the same in my experience— even in terms of the spatial relationships between letters and how a sentence fits on a page. When we write by hand we deal with spatial relationships. An ‘A’ written next to a ‘T’ is different than an ‘A’ written beside a ‘W’ because of this. I believe that even such things as dealing with spatial relationships contributes to the content of a story.

WT: I believe you completely.  I used to write my essays in university with a pencil and pen combo.  That made the editing process extreme, and I would cross out paragraphs and sentences, and insert arrows that went to other pages or margins.  Impossible to decode.  Then, over 10 years ago, I had a horrifying job in factory loading pallets, and wrecked my right wrist.  I have never been able to write by hand since, without after about 1/2 an hour feeling intense nerve pain.  I’ve had to re-learn how to conceive of writing on a keyboard, and I’ve never felt the same with writing.  I’m still too distant (and it’s too quick; it’s too easy to make myself sound like a jerk).

LB: I wonder if using a paintbrush might be the answer here.

The thing about the Chinese brush and ink is that it uses not just fingers and wrist, but mostly the shoulder/elbow/ forearm. Part of learning to use it is to write with no part of your hand touching the paper. there is no resting point of the hand on the page.

It’s kind of the same idea as writing with chalk. You don’t rest the side of your hand on a chalk board when you write, and you write much larger than you would on a lined sheet of paper.

That was the trick with the brush. To write with much larger letters than I used when writing with a pen. The brush sort of forces you to do that and you use different muscles when you use a brush.

Here is what it that looks like for some people:

And here is what that looks like for other people:



But the main thing about all of it is the addition of movement of the hands and body that is more than keyboad tapping.

I found the brush because my hand was blown out from over use with a pen. The brush has never given me sore hands or wrists or elbows. Pens have and so has the computer keyboard.

WT: I wanted to comment on your previous words.  I love what you said to one of the earlier question about just writing what came to your mind and how the words flew from your mind.  You didn’t plan then.  It was all spontaneous!  Did the editors change much from your original work?  Or was it kept pretty much to its original.  Your whole process of writing is inspirational.

Painting the words of the story made it alive for you then.  You are very much a visual person in that you have to see in order to feel what you write, again very inspirational.

LB: I wish words did fly from my mind. Sometimes they do, but usually they walk and often they crawl very slowly from my mind.

You’re right about me not planning them, but I can’t hurry them at all and there are times when I have to just stay put and wait– but the thing I learned is I have to wait by staying in motion.

So when I’m writing and the story stops– and it always stops– I just write the alphabet until it starts up again. I’m convinced there is a part of my mind that can’t tell the difference between me just writing the alphabet and me writing the story. I wait by  staying in motion and move my hand in the writing way until the story starts up again.

It’s kind of like when you are dancing and you fall out of the groove— and everyone falls out of the groove at some point when they are dancing— so you fake dance during that part, you just keep moving until you get back into the groove or until the song finally ends. But you don’t just quit the dance floor when you fall out of the groove. We all know how to fake the groove until it starts up again. It’s a handy skill in writing.

If you want to see people really fake dancing, like the entire room fake dancing, watch people try to dance through a drum solo. It’s that way with writing. You’re writing, it’s going great and then suddenly it’s the drum solo part and nothing is happening, you know you’re fake writing, but the worst thing you can do is to stop writing at that point. If you’re writing by hand you can muscle through that part. On a computer that’s when people start hitting the delete key or worse, picking on an earlier part of the writing that needs no picking on at all.

We can do a lot of damage if we don’t know how to get through the weird drum solo parts of writing. The trick is to keep moving your hand, and also to have an end point. A point when you know you’re going to be able to stop. That’s one of the reasons I use a timer. It lets me know when I get to or have to stop.

For me the painting part of a manuscript is more about physical motion and actual interaction with ink, brush and paper than it is about the visual aspect. I don’t really care about the way the manuscript looks.  It’s the story that comes of complicated act of drawing/writing one letter after the next.

Today when I was working with second and third graders I was struck by how they’ve memorized the motions for each letter, but there has been a big change since I was a kid. When I learned to draw letters there was a thing called ‘stroke order’.  The motions that we made for each letter had a specific order and direction. We didn’t just learn the shape and the marks needed to make a capitol ‘w’ of ‘k’, we learned them in a certain order, and each mark had a specific direction it followed, from top to bottom, from left to right.

I’m not sure when that changed but I’ve noticed that now kids seem to be left on their own to figure out how to make the marks that make the letters that make the words. It’s as if this very old and hard-earned skill that once was taught to everyone no longer matters because we have the keyboard. But as far as the brain is concerned, writing the word ‘acorn’ by hand is a completely different act than tapping out the word ‘acorn’ on a keyboard. I think content is affected by this.

My experience has been that writing by hand affects the content of the story. For me, a hand-written story has a better chance of seeing the light of day than one tapped out on the computer. Handwriting has the automatic advantage of existing immediately in the 3-D world as it is. It also has an instant spatial presence on a piece of paper. I think these things make a difference in story writing. They do for me.

But I’m 54 and I grew up writing by hand. There is a good chance that I’m wrong about this, and that people who grew up with keyboard and computers may know something about the advantages these bring to the story writing process that I can’t even imagine.

WT: I was very intrigued by your process of writing Cruddy.  I was wondering if you every use organizers or plot outlines for your stories.  Do you have a general sense of how the story will unfold when you begin?

LB: I do use an organizer but the organizer I use is time.  I write for set amounts of time and I use a timer to do it.

I try to write for about an hour at a stretch, three different times a day, doing five to ten minutes of getting ready by grinding my ink and then moving my brush across the page in different ways– then I write the alphabet and begin.

I begin by copying out the last few sentences from the last piece I’ve written. This seems like it takes so much time but really, by the time I get to the actual new writing, I’m already in the groove.

I don’t know if you jumped rope when you were a kid, but when I was little we liked jumping rope at school a lot. Two kids held either end of the rope and the rest of us jumped in.

There was a motion we did with our hands before we jumped in that followed the beat of the rope– no one taught it to us, but we all did it, and it made jumping in easier, because we put the beat in our bodies this way first.

Timed writing is like a beat. I like to use an hour glass so I can see how much time I have left in terms of sand falling, rather than numbers on a clock. I also like kitchen timers because they have a nice ticking to them that makes me feel there is a beat.

The time itself structures the piece, sort of like when you are talking to a friend on the phone, telling her an important story and you suddenly realize you only have three minutes to do it instead of 10. You naturally edit the story to fit those three minutes. Almost all of us can do this in the same way we can clap along with a beat.

It’s most important that I do not know what I’m going to write about and that I do not try to imagine where the story is going unless I have a brush in my hand. That’s something I really had to train myself to do. I had to learn to resist the urge to think out the story first and write it second. My stories are always kind of dull when I do it this way.

I like the unexpected, and I like to create the best possible circumstances for that unexpected thing to arrive. To me that is writing by hand for several short bursts and not reading the work over at all until the next day with the exception of the last few sentences for the purposes of copying.

It’s key not to read over what you’ve written right away because you’re in no position to judge any of it immediately after you’ve made it. It’s like freaking out about a baby you just had and trying to decide if it’s any good,  and also making crazy judgments like “My baby has no eyes and no fingers!” when really the baby has just not had the time to open its eyes or hands. It will if you can stand to wait at least 24 hours you are less likely to try to fix something that isn’t broken.  The computer makes this ‘fixing’ much too easy and rapid and irreversible.
WT: You seem to write with a lot of freedom and do what you want, and wind up doing very unique things.  There are a cast of charming characters here.  It seems that you built them (or drew them) for us in depth of detail but without boring us with description.  They just came out and showed themselves as the story developed – through dialogue, situations, experiences, their reactions to things.  How do you make such characters, and also, how do you avoid (my temptation of) describing or telling us about such incredible characters in minute (or annoying) detail?

LB: The paintbrush itself is the best editor I ever had. I know I am going to have to paint each letter of each word and that alone acts to cut down words. Even if I’m in a groove and getting fast with the brush, it’s still too slow to go on about things for long.

It’s like how people talked on long distance phone calls when I was a kid. My relatives always stood up when they spoke long distance on the telephone, always shouted, and always gave information in the most economical way because of the cost. Every minute cost money and for most people the calls were really expensive. So the conversations would go like this:

Uncle Ding dead! DEAD! HEART ATTACK! Alicia have baby! BABY! GIRL BABY FROM ALICIA!!! Deeta has house! NEW HOUSE! GARAGE IS TWO CAR!

My trick is to go slow by using a brush and but I also give myself less time to write than I think I’ll need so I do feel a need to move forward. I also try to never know any more than the sentence I’m writing, but try to come to some sort of concluding sentence at the end of the writing period.

I learned how to do this from kids. I met a kid named Benny Greiling when I was trying to write a book on the computer, and he was four, and I was babysitting him and I asked him if he wanted to tell me a story and I’d write it down and we could draw pictures to go with it.

He says yes but he will only tell me the story one word at a time. I have to write that word down completely before he’ll tell me the next one. And the story turns out solid! It has a beginning, middle, end, character development, transformation, fore-shadowing, no change in evil character, symbols of death, every lit/crit thing you can think of. And this four year old did it one word at a time in eight minutes.

And I remember going back to my studio and thinking if he can do it, what the hell, I’ll give it a try. And between slowing down the story intentionally in my head and using a paintbrush so it slowed physically on the page, something happened to how I physically felt while I was writing. And that changed the content of the writing into something I was following rather than pushing along.

Again, I don’t mean any kind big feeling, it’s just the difference between being interested in your surroundings and not being interested

Writing this way gave me a feeling I remember having when I was a kid and cutting things out of construction paper for a shoebox diorama or coloring in a coloring book when it was going really well, or making tiny channels and rivers between dammed up mud puddles in the alley, it gave me that same feeling, that sensation of being absorbed in the physical act of what I’m doing in such a way that the back of the mind had a chance to come forward and move things around.

I need to add this is really hard to sustain. It is really hard like figure skating is really hard. It takes practice and concentration and even then it can go nowhere and I can end up wanting to pull my hair out because the story is going nowhere, nothing is happening, I must have been out of my mind to think any of it would work.

That’s a very convincing part of this whole thing as well.

WT: It was quite an experience reading your book. I enjoyed the narrative very much, and I think it was largely because your characters are unique and fascinating. I was wondering how you create/build your characters. Do you know them beyond the story, or are they created/built simply to forward the plot?

LB: Building a character is much like building a relationship with anyone which just means spending time together. The difference is you can know about your characters but your characters don’t know about you.

It’s a lot like dreaming. You can wake up in the morning and remember yourself in a dream, you know about your dream self. But your dream self doesn’t seem to know about you. I don’t remember ever having a dream where I was saying “I had the weirdest reality yesterday” but I say, “I had the weirdest dream last night,” quite often.

I don’t have to plan a dream to have one, and that is true for characters and stories. We make up characters all the time, even before we can speak we have made up characters. A kid that is attached to a blanket has made up a character. That blanket is inhabited by a character so important and real that without it the kid might not be able to sleep or rest at all. And no other blanket will do because only one blanket contains the character.

If you know a kid who can talk about such things, say, a six or seven year old who is still attached to his blanket, and if you ask him if the blanket is alive, he knows it’s not alive in the way you and I are alive. But if you ask him if the blanket is dead, he’ll tell you no, it’s not dead. It’s something in-between.

The blanket contains something that is much like a character. By the time the parents notice the attachment, the character is already very much there. There was no planning involved in its creation, it came from a reliable physical interaction with an object that was always around and began to take on meaning.

When kids play with toys what you’re seeing is characters interacting. Sometimes the kid is in the story with the toys and sometimes he is not in the story at all, but is observing it and creating it at the same time. If you watch kids creating a story with toys you’d have a hard time saying what is making the story happen. Is it what’s in the kid’s mind? Is it the motion of his hands on the toys? What is building the story?

This morning I was working with second and third graders who are writing short books on subjects they have chosen. One of the kids I worked with was writing a book about the brain. It was about the inside of the brain, the left and right hemispheres.

In order to write about the inside of the brain, he created a character —

The story starts with the kid walking down the street wondering what his mother is thinking about.

He sees a pile of junk on the street and decides he’ll build a shrinking machine out of it.

Then he gets into the machine which shrinks him down to the size of a germ.

Then he gets out of the machine to go and study his mother’s face. He actually wrote that, that he wanted to go and study his mother’s face to see if he could find out what she was thinking.

And while he is studying his mother’s face, she inhales him without knowing it. Once inside, he meets a “tourist” who is going to take him on a tour of his mother’s brain.

That was as far as we were able to get during the class period, but I was struck again by how effortless this creation of characters was for him, and how serious he was about every word of it. I sat with him while he wrote out the words by hand, one after the other, large and slow letters with very big spaces between the finished words.

The story read perfectly, and I was very interested in this ‘tourist’ who was going to guide the germ-sized kid around his mother’s brain. That was a character that wasn’t planned but happened as the kid moved his pencil. There he was at the instant he was needed.

I think this ability to create characters is as natural to human beings as is the ability to create saliva. It’s not something you really even notice, not something that is that big of a deal until you can’t do it naturally anymore. Then it becomes a very big deal.

My belief is that nearly everyone has this ability. Anyone who can relate to a character they find in a book or a movie or a comic strip is someone who can create a character.

If you think about the character Scrooge, for example — where is he? Where is Scrooge? Dickens is long dead, and even if we found every single copy of his work and burned them all, would we be able to kill Scrooge, or stop Scrooge, or make him vanish from the world?

That’s the other thing about characters. They can be created but they can’t be destroyed. Like Bambi’s mother. She’s dead, she dies in the very beginning of the movie. But when I say Bambi’s mother, you know who I mean. So even as a dead character she is still alive in the mind somehow.

One thing I do know about characters is that they hardly ever come from planning and thinking. The ones that do tend to be horrible. I don’t know if you are old enough to remember “Joe Camel” – he was a character invented to help sell Camel cigarettes.

He was most likely the product of a whole lot of meetings and a whole lot of thinking and a whole lot of focus groups. All kinds of input went into creating him, including making the shape of his face like a penis and testicles. It was supposed to work but as a character he never caught on.

His fame came entirely from parents who were sure that this character would get kids to start smoking. I don’t think parents had anything to worry about. Joe Camel might have made some kids never start smoking, but I don’t think he was a character that would have lasted. He wasn’t useful to people in the same way Scrooge is useful, or even Mr. Clean or Mrs. Butterworth or the Energizer bunny are useful.

There was a similar type of character created by McDonalds– Mac Tonight—- again, this character also never caught on and I think it’s because there was just too much thinking involved. You could see all the thinking that went into it. He’s kind of singing “Mac the Knife” and kind of not, he’s kind of a moon, and kind of a lounge singer in a suit sitting at a piano. He probably made perfect sense to the ad guys, and the execs, and all involved. But as a character there was nothing about him we could use except for those who had nightmares about him.

You can see “Mac Tonight” here–

This is a very long way of saying I don’t consciously build characters. I’ve tried to and when I do I end up with Joe Camel and Mac Tonight. But if I just keep myself in motion, keep my brush moving, characters tend to come on their own, just like they’ve always done for us since we were very very little.

WT: Lynda, do you think there is an difference in your emotional access, or a deepening of the palate in this way of writing? I have started drawing again, and was recently turned on to brush pens:

Pentel Brush Pens

Pentel Brush Pens

by an artist I am working with on my own graphic project (Well, he is turning my stories into graphic form and I am oohing and ahhing). They seem like the same concept as the calligraphy brushes you show in the youtube videos. Maybe smaller, though. At any rate, I never have considered writing with it, but I will try that. I do know that the drawing has an affect on my inner world, and I am happy to have come back to it.

LB: I think there really is something different when it comes to writing with a brush. It’s not a new concept. In China writing with a brush has been going on there for over 2,000 years.

The best thing is that little has changed in the last 2000 years. Brushes, ink sticks, and ink stones have changed very little since they first came about. It seems very ordinary to me now, and I know that the ordinariness is very natural to my niece and nephews who have been playing around with these things from when they were tiny and would come to visit.

What’s been very interesting to me is how frightened adults are of using these things, at least at first. I love to set up my brush, ink, stone and paper in a public place and invite people to draw some lines with me. Kids will do it in a minute, but adults can be so terrified by the thought of drawing an ink line with a brush that they flip out. I attended a design conference last year and during the cocktail hour I set up my kit on a table and started to paint. I was so surprised to see how many of the design people were terrified to use a brush. So many of them did everything on a computer and had given up hand work a long time ago. I didn’t realize how scared they would be to actually make a line on a page directly.


I still have a hard time answering that question. I do know that when people started to play around with the brush, especially after I gave them a couple of games to play with it, they didn’t want to put it down.

One game is to divide a piece of paper roughly in half with a single line. Then divide those two parts into halves, and continue on dividing spaces until the lines got closer and closer together. I told people to pretend that if the lines touched, they would be electrocuted. That was all it took to get people to pick up a brush. If it was a game, they could do it. If it was ‘art’, then forget it.

Brush pens are beautiful things! I’m so glad you know about them and can play around with them. My hope is that they will lead you to actual brushes, ink stones and ink sticks.  To me that’s where the action is. But I also think fried baloney sandwiches are where they action is in terms of food. Not everyone is going to feel the same way about it.

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