May 15, 2019KR BlogBlog

Lynda Barry & Matt Groening on the Power of Creativity

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Lynda Barry and Matt Groening in conversation at Cuyahoga County Public Library’s William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage Series. Among other things, Barry and Groening discussed art, imagination, their formative years, early teachers, and the nature of creativity. Here are some lessons I gleaned from their discussion that I consider useful for artists, writers, or anyone with an active imagination:

Gravitate toward the people who value what you do, and then stick with them. Groening and Barry both attended Evergreen State College in Washington State. It was there that they met one another, found teachers who inspired them, and began developing their artistic skills and visions. The rest is history.

If you write to your hero, you just might get a response—and a new friend. When she was seventeen, Barry sent a letter to Joseph Heller. She wrote: “Dear Joseph Heller, I think Catch-22 was as good as anything I ever read. Will you marry me?” Heller responded by saying, “I’d love to marry you, but I don’t want to live in the dorms.” Aside from being delightful, this exchange may also be responsible for Groening and Barry’s friendship. When Groening heard someone on campus had written to Heller and received a response, he just had to meet her.

Drawing is for the young—but it doesn’t need to be. Barry and Groening pointed out that most children stop drawing around the age of eight or nine, often when they can’t master sketching something specific, like a nose. By age twelve, Barry suggested, children often determine they’re washed up in the art department if they can’t be perfectly proficient at it. But drawing can be for everyone, regardless of ability.

Artists should be sure to take advantage of any available on-the-job perks. Matt Groening lived this advice back in his younger days. “I had a job in a Xerox place,” he said, “and all I did was Xerox my own comics.”

The power of imagination is innate, not taught. Picture a little girl with an emotional attachment to her stuffed toy, Mr. Banana. Mr. Banana is nothing more than cloth and polyester, but his sudden absence can mean a sleepless night for the girl because she loves him so much and considers him real. “No one taught her that,” Barry said. “That’s the thing about creativity.”

Don’t be discouraged by a critic who can’t see the full spectrum of your creation. Barry relayed the story of a little boy who created a fantastic, imaginative story that happened to involve a portalet (portapotty). Barry was impressed, but when they boy’s mother heard the story, she declared: “Enough with the portalets!” “This happens,” Barry explained. “You could be creating something amazing, but someone can only see the portalets.”

Don’t confuse vision with the reality of art-marking. Barry says some people never draw because they fear their attempts won’t live up to what they envision. “People say, ‘I wish I could draw. I see it in my head, but I can’t draw it,’” she said. “But you’re not seeing a drawing—for it to be a drawing, it has to come out.”