A Genius Cartoonist Believes Child’s Play Is Anything But Frivolous

Here is a brief excerpt from ‘s interview of Lynda Barry for The New York Times. To read the complete interview, check out other resources, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.


* * *

For nearly 30 years, the cartoonist Lynda Barry published her adored comic strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” which told the whimsical, hardscrabble story of the young sisters Marlys and Maybonne, in alternative papers across the country. (An anthology, “It’s So Magic,” was published earlier this month.) She has since written acclaimed plays and novels and even a beloved book on making comics. (That would be the straightforwardly titled “Making Comics,” from 2019.) For the last two decades, she has often led drawing, writing and creativity workshops in prisons, at schools, online — wherever will have her. And since 2012, Barry, a 66-year-old who in 2019 received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship — the so-called genius grant — has been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she has held various positions and now does cross-disciplinary teaching on creativity. So when it comes to self-expression, to making art, it’s fair to say that she’s an expert. But in many ways, not nearly as much of an expert as your average little kid, which is something Barry has been thinking about a lot lately. “Adults think that kids playing is some nothing thing,” she says. “But play is a different state of mind, and it can help us do so many things if we just allow ourselves to get back to it.”

For a lot of people, being creative and making things can be a helpful way to deal with uncertainty, and college students today have to deal with so much uncertainty. Not just about where their lives might go after they finish school but also about things like the future of our politics and our planet. How do you see your students responding? 

I know what you’re talking about. These kids are also feeling that every choice should have some utility, and everybody’s freaked out about how they’re going to make a living. Plus, they have $60,000 in debt. How does someone get out from under that? But here’s the big difference I’ve seen over the last few years in the people I work with: They don’t have a big relationship to their hands. I’ve had to show them How to cut a circle out of paper.

You keep the scissors there and you move the paper like this, and they’re like, “What?!” There’s so much dexterity that they, by and large, do not have.

Is that because of phones? Yeah, and kids start keyboarding in kindergarten. Handwriting, that thing that we think is no big deal, there’s so much dexterity in it. Not just in the hand you’re writing with, but the nondominant hand is always in action, moving the paper, paying attention. I mean, there’s a reason people gesture while they talk. If somebody is trying to explain something complicated, and they have to sit on their hands, it’s much harder for them to explain it.

But is something important being lost if students lack a certain kind of manual dexterity, or is that just a change in how they move through the world? Maybe it’s not bad, just different. No! It’s really sad. The main thing about the phone is that you’re no longer where you are. You’re no longer in the room. You’re no longer anywhere. The opportunities to have an interaction with the things around you are taken away. I just see the world as richer without the phone. I have a friend who’s a writer. No matter what we’re doing or whom he’s around, he’s on his phone. We were sitting out in a parking lot, and there was a guy who came out who was in this full orc costume with a shield. I thought, I’m not going to say anything. Let’s see if my friend looks up. The guy passed right by him and — it was outside a hotel — tried to get through a revolving door. There’s all this bump ba bump ba bump, and if my friend would have looked up, he would have seen an orc go by! But he never looked up! Then later I told him, and he’s like, “That didn’t happen!” It totally did happen! So something that closes you off to the world that you’re in — I mean, I could be on TikTok all night long. I keep deleting that app because I love it so much. But something that takes you out of your environment, you pay a high price. You miss the orc.

I know that you’ve done work on pairing Ph.D. students with kindergartners so that the children can help the graduate students with problem-solving. What does that look like in practice? 

They’re Ph.D. students from almost any discipline and 4-year-olds or 3-year-olds. It started because I noticed that whenever I was in some big creative jam, it was an interaction with a kid that got me out of it. They can really help you when you get stuck. When I started teaching at the university, I couldn’t understand why all the grad students were so miserable. I could pick out the grad students just by the way they walked in the room, you know? These are people that are at the top of their game. They’ve already shown that they want to work. They’re interested in something. Why is it acceptable that they’re all miserable? I was trying to figure out what the misery was. Then I thought, it is this laser focus on getting one particular thing done. This feeling that unless you’re working on it at all times, things are going to be bad. That kind of focus doesn’t set the conditions for insight or discovery. It’s like somebody yelling: “Relax! Relax!” It’s never going to work. But the kids could shift the students’ perspectives in really helpful ways. I had my students copy what the kids were doing, or I got the kids to draw the answer to questions like, “What are microbes?” And my students had to be on the floor with them working together. They had to try to get into their mind-set. It’s hard to explain, but it changes you. After you spend about 90 minutes with them, you just find that something has loosened up. You get away from that laser-focused, worrisome way of being.

I’ll bet there’s a not insignificant number of people in the world — in my head, I picture some no-nonsense businessman — who thinks that playing around on the floor is all well and good for kids, but it’s not really something for adults to be doing. Is there any way to persuade those people of the value of trying to access that childlike mind-set? Why try?

Because those people run the world. I know! The reason they run the world is because of the way they were built. But it’s not going to help that person. If you don’t have a need to do it, you don’t get anywhere. Those guys, they don’t have a need. I mean, I think they need it. You think they need it. They don’t think they need it. So there’s not a lot we can do, and that’s the hardest thing to accept. When I first started teaching, maybe I’d have 32 students in two classes. There would always be three or four who were dragging their tailpipes. I spent so much time on those students. I don’t anymore. I don’t crawl toward them with a glass of water like, Please, take this! It took me a long time to say I’m not going to be able to change somebody who doesn’t want to try or doesn’t need this. I’ve had fantasies of kidnapping one of these people. But what if I heard them saying that about me? That’d be the worst. “I want to kidnap that creativity chick and show her what being a Lutheran is all about.”

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Marchese is a columnist for The New York Times and its Magazine. His work has also appeared in Medium, O Globo, The New York Times en Español, El País, Estadão, HuffPost, ABC News</em> (Australia), La Vanguardia, and Yahoo among others.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.