Last week author and cartoonist Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons, What It Is) stormed the town of White River Junction with her honesty and quirky charm during her two-day writing workshop for CCS students and alumni. “I’m excited to be here, and I was thinking of you all last night while drinking a tiny bottle of whiskey. I felt like a giant. And then I drank another.” She sang songs, acted out South Park episodes, shared stories, and spread out thousands of idea notecards for us to peruse at breaks.
For the next two days we wrote one 8 minute story after another, responding to prompt after prompt as Barry encouraged us to listen to the stories from the Image World already waiting for us in the back of our mind. Her writing method, explained in both of her books, follows these general guidelines:
1) You must write out all of your stories by hand.
2) You may not read over what you are writing while you are writing it.
3) If you get stuck, keep your pen moving by drawing your spiral. Continue writing when ready.
4) You may not read over what you have written when finished, except for while reading out loud to the entire class, during which
5) No one may look at the person reading.
6) No one may comment on what has been read except for Lynda, who always says “good! good! good!” after each story.
7) You may not talk about the writing until the very end of the workshop.
To read out loud without being able to first look back over your writing is pretty terrifying indeed, but the stories that people had written were breathtaking and complete, wonderful little first draft shorts done from start to finish in less than 15 minutes. Incredible! Who knew writing could be easy?
One of my favorite insights that Barry shared was on the song “Groovin'” by the Rascals. Like her, I had always heard the lyrics as “Life would be ecstasy, you and me and LESLIE,” and wondered ‘who is this Leslie person? A man? A woman? Is this a threesome he’s singing about? Maybe Leslie is their child.’ Barry pointed out that from an editorial point of view, ‘Leslie’ isn’t properly introduced and should thus be cut from the song. But the lyrics ACTUALLY say “Life would be ecstasy, you and me ENDLESSLY.” Which makes more sense, right? But is also completely general and boring! The Image of Leslie is lost, killed off, edited out, and replaced with a non-image concept word.
The more specific an Image is in a story–the more of a handle it provides into the world of a character–the more universal and relatable an Image becomes to a reader. How cool is that?
A huge thanks to Lynda Barry for her fabulous class! I’m already writing more, and I plan to keep it up.