I went to hear Lynda Barry at Herron School of Art last night, part of IUPUI's Reiberg Visiting Writers Series. She was absolute and total genius talking about image. It’s where all art comes from, she said—what gives it power. She asked us to remember our first crush—then for everyone to say the name aloud. She big-grinned, put her open hands beside her face as we did it. “This is what everybody looks like when they remember their first crush,” she said.
“Now remember your fourth,” she said, and laughed.
No image, no physical response.
She talked about kids and their sacred objects—blankets, stuffed animals—in one case, the battered leg of a doll, which was all that was left of it. Kids know these things aren’t alive. But if you ask them if they’re dead, they look at you like you’re crazy. They’re something else: a physical metaphor of comfort and security. The image is the object, which is why, if lost, the object cannot be replaced.
And invisible friends, alive as very specific images in children's minds. A friend’s Mr. Sprinkle could only be talked to through a blowing fan, she said. (I thought of my daughter Jenny’s Christine, Doodle-Duck, and the Turtle, who came every morning to play—until, one day, they refused to "cooperate" and she flushed them all down the toilet. Kate’s Linda, who lived in the closet. They played checkers together.)
Images are satisfying even when they don’t make sense to the “top of the brain,” Barry said—and sang a few bars of the old Sixties song, “Groovin’,” by the Young Rascals. “Life would be ecstasy, you and me and Leslie.” A song she loved until she found out the lyric was actually, “Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly.” Without the image of Leslie—whatever h/she looked like and what being with him/her might mean—the song became stupid and boring.
(Until last night, I thought the lyric was “…you and me and the sea.” Yep. Without the sea, the song just doesn’t have the mojo.
I love this stuff. I love how the brain works. We’re so much weirder than any of us imagine; there’s so little we can ever really know about…anything, least of all ourselves.
Like, how weird is this! Barry described a guy who had his hand amputated and experienced the phantom limb thing—but, in his case, the lost hand was clenched in a tight fist. It hurt and it was driving him nuts. Nobody could do anything for him, until a brain researcher tried this experiment. He made an open box with holes on either side and a mirror that reflected the real hand. He told the phantom hand guy to put his forearm with the real hand in one hole and his forearm without the hand in the other hole. “Make a tight fist in your real hand,” he brain guy said. He did. “Now slowly release it, looking in the mirror.” Yikes! The phantom hand unclenched simultaneously—and stayed unclenched.
Who knows what the brain did to make that happen, but it for sure had something do with image.
I believe that writing can be taught, that grown-up things like discipline and devotion to craft are absolutely crucial to good writing. But what I love is that magical, completely unpredictable part of writing--and all art--that Lynda Barry talked about last night. The child-place you have to go to get the images to write about, the playfulness and what-iffing, the state not-being-in-the-real-world required to keep those images alive and powerful until you can get them to the page.