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How To Write The Unthinkable With Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry is exactly 1 year 364 days older than me (b. January 2, 1956) and her quirky cartoons were becoming popular in newspapers like the Chicago Reader when I was starting out my art career. Her drawings are funky and a bit rough just like mine so for these reasons I've always felt an affinity for her work.

Here, see for yourself:

She's had a a great career and these days, in addition to her comics, she has been teaching a wildly popular drawing class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This class has lead her to create some visually dense books on how to be creative as a writer and a drawer. She's got some excellent exercises she's developed that help her students (that she invented for her own use) get to their creativity.

One such session is called "Writing The Unthinkable". This appears in a recent work called "Syllabus: Notes From An Accidental Professor". Here's how it goes, and then below you'll find a video of Ms. Barry herself teaching this very lesson!


1. Think back to the early days of your life

picture something from that time

Then move forward in time using the first 10 memories associated with the word I’m about to say: CAR

2 minutes

2. Read over your list and pick ONE that seems vivid to you

Write it at the top of a page - your sketch book or a single sheet of paper

3. Draw an X across the page

Picture yourself in the image

Get ready to write your answers to these questions:

  • where are you

  • what time of day or night does it seem to be

  • what season does it seem to be

  • where is the light coming from

  • what kind of light is it

  • what’s the temperature like

  • what does the air smell like

  • what are you doing

  • is there anyone else in the image with you

  • what are they doing

  • why are you there

  • what are some sounds you can hear

  • what are some of the things you can see

  • what’s directly in front of you

  • if you turn your head to the right, what’s there

  • if you turn your head to the left what do you see

  • what’s behind you

  • what’s below and around your feet

  • what’s above your head

  • is there anything else you’re noticing - it can be very small or even INTERNAL

4. When you are ready turn to a clean sheet of paper and write this image up: stay in first person, present tense, write for at least 7 minutes without stopping

5. NOW - Read it out loud

Lynda doesn't say, but I'm guessing you can now use the elements you've created to get to work on a written story, poem, painting,comic, illustration or some combo! So that's what I did.

Below are the rough things I came up with.

Here's Lynda herself teaching this lesson.

Here's the poem she recited.

The Diver’s Clothes


You are sitting here with us,

but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.

You are yourself the animal we hunt

when you come with us on the hunt

You are in your body

like a plant is solid in the ground,

yet you are wind.

You are the diver's clothes

lying empty on the beach.

You are the fish.

In the ocean are many bright strands

and many dark strands like veins that are seen

when a wing is lifted up.

Your hidden self is blood in those,

those veins that are lute strings

that make ocean music,

not the sad edge of surf,

but the sound of no shore.


She is SUCH a cool person! I used to feel so in awe of her, which I still am, but not in the comparison-detrimental-unhealthy way I used to. It's SO COOL I can share a piece of her genius with you (and me) right now!

Here's where you can find her:

Book on Creativity

And peruse ALL her books. She's one smart cookie!

Her website is a tumblr blog and features her life and teaching

She’s @thenearsitedmonkey on Insta and Twitter

Further exploration

How to Silence Your Inner Critic


Here is my version from the exercise above.....


I'm a "Ride Operator" at the brand spankin' new Great America theme park that just opened in Gurnee, Illinois the summer of 1976. I am part of the team of minimum wage ($2.36 minus taxes withdrawn) paid teens charged with hopping up onto the driver's side the edge of Model T style go-carts at the end of the track. We shove the 'guest's' foot off the gas pedal and guide the little car into the station with no crashing. Guests loved crashing these things. I can't blame them.

This is a ride in the New Orleans section of the park, so my outfit is inspired by some sicko's idea of a micro-mini skirted can-can girl. Ah, the '70's. So my frilly pantied ass is right at eye level. The sailors from nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Base love this ride. Gee, I wonder why.

I'm there on a typical July night and a thunderstorm has blown up gathering strength off the endless flat midwestern corn fields to the west. The skies open up and I need to get to the employee parking lot! I've left my trusty car, Edna - a 1963 bronze-gold drop-top Olds Cutlass defenseless from the buckets pouring from the sky. See, Edna was purchased for the mighty sum of one hundred bucks from the California transplanted neighbors we shared a driveway with at home. She's from California which explains why she hasn't rusted out, but she's aged. This is why it's a pain in the patooty to get her roof up. The motor for it is mostly burned out - so half the time I take my chances and leave it down. Like today for example.

I ask Rob, from Racine, the ride manager, for a pass to gallop out and do what I can to alleviate disaster. The rain finishes just as I arrive at her side and when I open the door, water destined for the Des Plaines River watershed flows out.

She was finally dry by mid August. When I let it happen again.



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