It isn’t my intention to have very frequent book reviews in this Friday space. I think, however, that this book review feeds directly into my search for continuing creative inspiration. There are a lot of words in this review, but you will get more out of the book review, if you go buy the book (or find it at your local library). Definitely read and comment on my review, but go and get more out of it by looking at the illustrations and other materials in the book, too.
I heard about this book when I listened to the Creative Mom podcast. This is not normally my kind of book, but I really enjoyed it. I was also very taken with the profound insights into the creative process and the thoughtfulness in nurturing creativity. The book is the product of a curriculum from one of Lynda Barry‘s classes and the content still has those qualities. I liked Barry’s idea of a curriculum: clear standards for the class that had more to do with production than perfect drawing. My favorite thing about this book is that it conveys the message that I was trying to convey with the Creative Prompt Project:
Just draw (or paint or sculpt or dance) and don’t worry if it looks imperfect or childish. Experience the act of making something with your hands/body.
The book looks like a composition notebook, one of those black and white marbled notebooks seen in massive stacks at stores during the back-to-school season. Barry uses very humble materials. They are not low quality, but humble — crayons (pg.87), Flair felt pen, etc. The title page and verso are not very obvious at all, which caught me, as a librarian, off guard. There is no table of contents and no index. The text just starts with the question “Is Creative Concentration Contagious?” There is a method to the seeming madness, however, and the book includes the story about the class Lynda Barry taught.
As I wrote the review, I wanted to go back and read all the pages over again. There is so much to see on the pages, I think it is possible to get something new no matter how many times you look at the pages. One part I cannot get out of my head is something I knew, but could never put into words. I was very glad when Lynda Barry wrote it down for me. “We know that athletes, musicians, and actors all have to practice, rehearse, repeat things until it gets into the body, the ‘muscle memory’, but for some reason, writers and visual artists think they have to be inspired before they make something not suspecting the PHYSICAL ACT of writing or drawing is what brings that inspiration about. Worrying about its worth and value before it exists can keep us immobilized forever. Any story we write or picture we made cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way” (pg.163). I love the quote and think I will write it down and put it up where I can see it. It is so important to remember that inspiration is a must, but it is not everything. Practice. Practice. Practice.
There are a lot of slightly scary (I am not a horror person) and disturbing images in this book. A lot of the images are dark. This book is probably not appropriate for 5 year olds, but is perfectly fine for the tween to adult set. Also, it is a good reminder that not all drawings (or quilts or other artworks) are pretty in a conventional sense. This does not diminish other aspects of the piece (pg.29). The encouragement to just be creative regularly is the point.
The book discusses drawing a lot – not theoretical aspects, but the sheer magnitude of work the students are expected to create. Yes, you get better the more you practice, but you also have to have an “experience by hand” (pg.31), which has value. Barry writes “…what if the way kids draw — that kind of line that we call ‘childish’ — what if that is what a lines looks like when someone is having an experience by hand?” (pg.31). When I work, there is definitely something I gain by having fabric in my hands. It may be because my paid work is just stuff appearing on a screen while my quiltmaking is more of a whole body experience.
There is so much that translates directly to quiltmaking. I almost couldn’t take it all in. “I told them to color had in order to do it right. And go straight to use force — thinking I was showing them a short-cut — this took away the way of coloring they would have found on their own. By telling them just how to do it, I took the playing-around away, the gradual figuring out that bring something alive to the activity, makes it worthwhile, and is transferrable [sic] to other activities.” (pg.89) I love this passage. It makes me wonder if there is joy in using quilt patterns? Sure you have a quilt when you finish, but did the making of a design that someone else has already made bring joy to the quiltmaker? Perhaps this is the product vs. process question.
There are random and very interesting facts scattered throughout the book. “Every baby old enough to hold a crayon can already use and understand these 3 languages. Sometimes all at once.” (pg.14). She is talking about the relationship between pictures, music and dancing. This struck me as really amazing. She also talks about the relationship between hands, images and insights referring to using what is at hand to make art. One example is a child in bed interacting with his/her blanket as if it were alive. Another example is a of a homeless man acting out Romeo and Juliet with a cigarette butt and bottle cap as the main characters. (pg.15). This section is too insightful to include quotes. I would have had to type the entire section, which is why you should read this book. 😉
One good reminder (pg.19) is that even though we don’t like a piece of our artwork, it survives. This reminds me of finishing a quilt and being very glad to be done with it. Still, six months later, the quilt is one of my best. It is a good thing to remember that our work survives even if we don’t like it. Barry also states “Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.” (pg.23). I make no secret of not liking brown and having a hard time appreciating Civil War reproduction fabrics. Some years ago, I forced myself to look more carefully at some of these types of quilts in order to appreciate something else about the quilt, such as the piecing and the design. While I have a hard time imagining such quilts in brights and dots, I can appreciate intricate and exact piecing.
The book is filled with tips, many of which dovetail with what I am trying to do with my blog. One states “I know if I can just keep them drawing without thinking about it too much, something quite original will appear…” (pg.21). I think it is very important to keep working, even if you make a lot of terrible work, because at some point, something great will happen that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t done so much mediocre or okay work. One tip is to use smaller spaces. Lynda has her students fold 8.5″x11″ sheets of paper into 16 squares and use those for their drawings. Friend Julie is making small square quilts as a weekly exercise. Is this something that would jolt my creativity? Your creativity?
Words in the book described as tips become profound when I think about them. One such group of words is something that I tried to espouse in the Creative Prompt Project. “Daily practice with images both written and drawn is rare once we have lost our baby teeth and begin to think of ourselves as good at some things and bad at other things. It’s not that this isn’t TRUE but the side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it. A certain state of mind (what McGilchrist might call ‘attention’) is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered and for most people, it stays that way for life” (pg.115). This quote, idea hits close to home. I know I do it. It is easier to do things I am good at and avoid things I think I am bad at. I don’t do needle-turn applique’ because it is hard and I have to work at it. I want the time I spend to mean something more than ravelly edges on a piece of applique’. Still, what am I losing with this attitude?
One aspect of the ideas in the text that really struck me was about images. Lynda Barry writes “I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there was a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more about how images work. (pg.49) This idea has been rumbling around in my head, including the relationship to quiltmaking. We know that newspapers used to print patterns. We know that ladies would trade patterns. Now we have digital cameras and record quilt images that way. Still, we see images and they rumble around in our heads, morph and change before they become a quilt. Even when they become a quilt, changes are still possible.
The other thing about this book is the author encourages us to notice things. The composition book acts as a life note book. She encourages a small box to record things students did, saw, heard and then there is a space for a daily drawing. “what goes into your diary are things that you noticed when you became present — that is to say when the hamster wheel of thoughts and plans and worries stopped long enough for you to notice where you were and what was going on around you — little things…” (pg.61). This happens to me when I walk and am not listening to a book. This book makes me think I should just allow my mind to wander more often. What am I losing by not giving my mind that space?
Partway through the text, Barry writes “sometimes right before class I’ll see students rushing to finish the homework I gave them and I always feel sad. They’ll get nothing from the work without the state of mind that comes with it. It’s a thing Dan Chaon calls ‘Dreaming Awake’ – we can use writing and drawing to get to that state, but not by rushing” (pg.128). I think I get to this state when I am piecing a lot of the same types of pieces. It allows me to accomplish something in the quiltmaking world while my mind wanders off to other places to solve other problems. I don’t think we have enough of this type of time. While I like to have a basic plan in place when I start a quilt, often I just want to try something and that ends up as a quilt, like the Swoon did. I think there was an element of this type of working in the IRR as well. Lynda talks about this when she says “It’s a kind of picturing that is formed by our own activity, one line suggesting the next. We have a general direction but can’t see where we are until we let ourselves take a step, and then another, and then we move on to the third”(pg.136). There is an element of uncertainty when working this way, but also an element of excitement, because the maker does not know exactly where s/he is going.
Fixed places are a concept I cannot completely wrap my head around, but if what I think the author is talking about is true. I can identify at least one group of fixed places relevant to my life. Lynda B writes “Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years” (pg.181). I wonder how fixed places affect our lives. The point about failure and success is well taken. You can’t go back and we do look back on the past with rose colored glasses and forget the difficult parts.
Finally, Ms. Barry talks about journals. Journals, as you know, are near and dear to my heart. I have kept one for years and she gives voice to my thoughts on journals and writing in a journal when she says ‘the nature of notetaking by hand. Thinking of one’s compbook as a place. The practice of developing a place not a thing” (pg.194). For me, a journal is a place to think. It can be a mess. If I force yourself to make it beautiful I know it is less useful. I need a place to dump and my daily journal is that place.
Towards the end of this 200 page book, Barry tells a story “He said that during those years, as a child, he used to imagine that he was the son of the emperor of China, and the old, wise advisors of his father set a spell on him: he would have to experience all these terrible events so when he grew up and became the emperor himself, he would not make war. Since, I stopped thinking that art is decoration in life; for me, it is proof that art is essential to our surviving.” (pg.173). Using creativity to survive a terrible situation is so clever that I cannot think how this author thought of it except that he practiced and it was second nature.
I guess the thing about this book that I liked best was that it made me think in a different way. Barry’s book gives me a lot to think about. It made me wonder if I can to do more to develop my creativity? Practice more? Draw more? Dance more? More walking without headphones and an audiobook? Allow my mind to wander? There is a lot in what I have written in this review, but there is so much more. Go buy this book (shameless plug!!) and read it. Then read it again and again.