Lynda Barry Speaks on Creativity and Silencing Your Inner Critic

Lynda Barry signs books after delivering the Stanley P. Stone Distinguished Lecture
Lynda Barry signs books after delivering the Stanley P. Stone Distinguished Lecture

Any lecture that opens with an autobiographical song is sure to be a different kind of talk. On November 9, legendary artist Lynda Barry delivered a lecture that was funny, profound and touching by turns—filled with songs, art from Barry and her students, dog and baby videos, and closed out with a party trick.

Lynda Barry was this year’s invited speaker for the Stanley P. Stone Distinguished Lecture Series, an annual series that brings notable, inspiring speakers to the College of General Studies to speak on the humanities, social science, natural science, or rhetoric. Barry is the creator of Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a comic strip that ran in alternative newspapers for thirty years. The New York Times has described her as “among this country’s greatest conjoiners of words and images.”

On Thursday, Barry reflected on “Creativity: What It Is,” asking her audience to think about what an image is and why we find certain drawings and stories so satisfying, even when they don’t rise to the idea of artistic perfection that people have in their heads.

The question, “What is an image?” is a question a teacher asked Barry and one that has guided Barry through everything she’s done in life. Recalling an image is spontaneous and comes from the back of our minds, like remembering your first phone number or first crush, Barry said. Images travel with us through the years—”the soul’s immune system and transit system” and are satisfying even when they don’t make sense to our thinking side.

When we draw we tend to see the flaws, Barry said, instead of seeing evidence of our hand in motion and the ideas behind it. Barry, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses teaching methods that help people shush their inner critic and access their creative side. People stop drawing at age eight or nine, Barry said, when they realize they can’t draw noses or hands. Barry helps her students get past this by asking them to draw a cartoon character with their eyes closed or to draw a character in 30 seconds. She also pairs graduate students (whom she noticed were “miserable”) with four year old “co-researchers” who help the adults get back into a kids’ creative state of mind.

CGS Associate Professor of Rhetoric Davida Pines suggested Barry for the lecture series. Pines includes quotes from Barry in her class syllabus and uses Barry’s exercises with her students. Pines told BU Today she appreciates Barry’s approach to writing and drawing: “I am someone who stops myself incessantly and edits avidly, and it’s very difficult to get stuff on the page before I’ve already decided that it’s not going to be good enough. As a composition teacher, I try to help my students not become me.”

Attendee Susan Coyne told the Daily Free Press, “From [Barry’s] books, you get a sense that she’s a really playful and imaginative person and I feel like she was just as interesting on stage as I could have gotten from her books, even more interesting.”

The lecture was free and open to the public thanks to the generous support of Stanley P. Stone (CGS’64, Questrom’66).