by Andy Wolverton
I’m always intrigued by the creative process, and having been a former teacher, I never tire of learning how creators go about instructing others. Since most of us will probably never be lucky enough to take a class with Lynda Barry — author of such works as What It Is and One Hundred Demons — Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is as close as we’re likely to get.
If Syllabus looks like one of those 100-sheet marble composition books you used in school, that’s exactly what Barry’s new book is. But it’s so much more: drawings, notes, doodles, exercises, poetry, encouragement, accountability, and more than likely, revelation. Pick up Syllabus, read it, work through it, and (fair warning!) you’re likely to come away a more creative person. Even if you don’t attempt any of Barry’s exercises and assignments, you’ll understand and appreciate the creative process on a deeper level.
Early in the book, Barry states that “There is something common to everything we call the arts. What is it?” Barry also says that most children old enough to hold a crayon are capable of using and understanding the languages of music, dancing, and pictures. If those abilities are innate before we ever learn how to speak, how is it that we lose them? Or do we lose them? If so, can we get them back? Or did they really ever leave us in the first place?
Before you decide that Syllabus is just another theoretical book that’s not worth your time, Barry shows her University of Wisconsin-Madison class (called “The Unthinkable Mind”) and us that we all can start drawing from a common starting place: modified stick figures. Anyone can do them. The trouble starts when we begin criticizing our drawings and ourselves. But, says Barry, “Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.”
One of the first exercises Barry suggests to show us exactly “what’s there” is the basic quick diary, which includes listing from each day (1) several things you did (takes 2.5 minutes to complete), (2) several things you saw (2.5 minutes), (3) something you heard someone say (30 seconds), and (4) drawing a picture of something you saw (30 seconds). Completed, you have a concrete example of “what’s there.” And Barry shows you how to move forward from that point, expanding your creativity.
Another exercise — borrowed from Ivan Brunetti’s book, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice — involves drawing a castle for two minutes. Then you draw it again, taking only one minute. Do it again for 30 seconds, then once more for 15 seconds. It may sound impossible, but you’ll likely be amazed with the results. Barry shows us once again that we know more than we think we do, especially about creativity.
If Syllabus sounds like a freewheeling romp of fun and crazy exercises coupled with words of motivation and encouragement, understand that it is a syllabus, complete with expectations for results and consequences for not doing the work, all of which Barry includes here. I found myself working through several of the exercises and discovering some amazing things along the way. This is a book I enjoyed immensely, but also one I plan on returning to, thoroughly working my way through its exercises. Maybe you will, too. Syllabus is the type of book that shows you that what you once thought was impossible is very likely possible, that there’s creativity in each one of us and tapping into it is nothing to be afraid of. Again, even if you decide not to attempt any of the exercises, you’ll better appreciate the creators behind the works you enjoy. But if you decide to pick up Syllabus, don’t be surprised if you find yourself stocking up on those composition books.
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