“Baby Teeth”: Lynda Barry, Syllabus


Daily practice with images both written and drawn is rare once we have lost our baby teeth and begin to think of ourselves as good at some things and bad at other things. It’s not that this isn’t true . . . but the side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it. A certain state of mind . . . is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered and for most people, it stays that way for life.

The drawing class I’ve signed up for begins in about ten days. When I first mentioned on Twitter that I might do something like this, to be honest I wasn’t that committed to the idea: I was just floating it. But making a possibility public inevitably makes it more real, and the feedback I got was so encouraging that my motivation increased and I started looking around in earnest for plausible options. The one I settled on is called “Drawing for Adults.” Though the description explicitly promises that no experience is necessary, as it gets closer I get increasingly anxious about it, because as far as I’ve ever discovered I have absolutely no talent for drawing, not to mention no skill at it.

barry-making-comicsI am glad, therefore, that one of the tips I got on Twitter (initially from Dorian, then endorsed by others) was to look at Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus. I wasn’t really sure what kind of book it was, but I have great faith in Dorian’s recommendations, so I promptly put a hold on it at the library and I’ve had it on loan ever since. My first reaction to the book was bewilderment. I do not have a good working relationship with graphic novels, and while Syllabus is not a novel, it is definitely a graphic something. (Syllabus reproduces and lightly contextualizes Barry’s teaching notebooks for courses she offered at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she runs the Image Lab.) Worse (I thought), it doesn’t even tell a story, so there isn’t even a narrative thread for a text-bound person like me to cling to. Every page seemed chaotic! I had no idea where to look first, or next, or after that. Finally, Syllabus focuses (I thought) on drawing comics, which isn’t really the kind of drawing I’m interested in.

syllabus-imageStill, my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to stop trying to figure the book out (which is a hard habit for an academic and literary critic to break!) and just browse around in it for a while to see what it might have to say to me. It turns out it did speak to me: both to the part of me that wants to, but is afraid to, put pencil to paper and draw something, but also, and perhaps more significantly, to the part of me that writes stuff. This is because Syllabus isn’t just a book about drawing comics: it’s a book about creativity more generally, about the interaction between our conscious (and often inhibiting) thoughts and our unconscious mind, and about the way our fears of doing something badly hold us back from discovery and improvement–and also just from the potential fun and rewards of artistic self-expression.

Syllabus is loosely about these things, because it is not a textbook or a scholarly study (although Barry alludes to several of these, including especially Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, the introduction to which–following Barry’s instructions to her students–I have downloaded as further reading). This looseness, which frustrated me a lot at first, is actually what ended up making Syllabus accessible to me, because it let me just focus on comments or ideas or exercises that resonated with me and then sit with them for a bit. Then I carried them with me as I went through the book again from the beginning, and a lot more of it (including its seeming disorder) made more sense to me.


Syllabus includes a lot of different interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking elements, many of them not really suited for direct application to my own classroom or working / writing life–though it’s possible I underestimate the ways I could incorporate sketching, concentration exercises, or notebooks into my pedagogy. What I liked best about it was the way Barry directly addresses our (OK, my) fear of putting things out into the world that (other people might think) are not very good. This does not mean I don’t think we should strive to do the best work we can–but especially at the beginning of a process, or during a creative process, focusing on external judgment or validation, or even focusing on our own critical responses, might stop us from even beginning. “When we are in the groove,” Barry says, for example,

we are not thinking about liking or not liking what is taking shape, and it isn’t thinking about us either. . . . Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.

“Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists,” she remarks in a later section, “can keep us immobilized forever.  Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.” I don’t see this as insight or advice that commits us to the kind of “half-assed” model of creativity championed by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. At least as I see it, it’s one thing to find the courage to start, to take chances, to see what answer comes to us, as a project takes shape; it’s quite another to quit working on it when we know it’s only “good enough” instead of as good as we can make it. Where along that spectrum we’ll stop with any particular project will, of course, depend on its purpose in our lives.

barry-good-badOne particular bit from Syllabus that I know I will keep thinking about is the one I chose as my epigraph for this post, about abandoning activities we are bad at. I’ve often thought that one of the best things about advancing through life, and particularly through one’s education, is the freedom you gain to abandon things you dislike and/or aren’t good at. As I’ve often said to my own children, one of the best things about university is that you can finally choose your courses to play to your interests and strengths. It’s not that I don’t think we can get good (or at least better) at things: I wouldn’t be a teacher if I believed that! I believe in program requirements, too, because that’s how we discover what else we might be good at, or want to be good at, or just put a lot of effort into. (That’s how I became an English major, after all, with lasting consequences!) Still, I was very glad to leave some kinds of effort and attention behind me (I’m looking at you, calculus!). I hadn’t really thought about the way this process, while it enables you to flourish in your chosen domain, can also end up making you more risk-averse, or reinforce reductive narratives about what you are in fact “good” at.


It has occurred to me before that there is pedagogical value in being, once again, a beginner at something. (Appropriately, in this context, those reflections were prompted by my struggles to read graphic fiction well.) That is certainly what I’ll be at my drawing class. Syllabus gives me a bit more courage to face it, and some useful ways to talk to myself about it. I’ve also had a little fun already drawing some self-portraits “in the style of Ivan Brunetti,” which she proposes as “a quick and workable alternative to stick figures.” This alone could mean a significant improvement in the illustrative (?) sketches I sometimes make on my classroom whiteboards! I admit I really hope, though, that my teacher doesn’t start by asking us to draw Batman.

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Reading ‘The Warden’


3 thoughts on ““Baby Teeth”: Lynda Barry, Syllabus

  1. Jeanne April 15, 2018 / 12:39 pm

    I can see the appeal of this when you describe it, although I would not enjoy it in the same way. As adults we do have to make choices about how many things we can be experts at, in charge of, and followers or learners for, and learning to draw is not every going to be one of my choices in any of those categories.


  2. bbenzon April 17, 2018 / 11:17 am

    Have you seen Michael Bérubé’s second book about Jamie, Life as Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up? Jamie likes to drawn and has a few geometric themes that capture his interest. Michael discusses this in the book. But he’s also placed a collection of Jamie’s drawings on line – he’d wanted to include some in the book, but color reproduction was too expensive. While I discussed Jamie’s drawing in my review of the book at 3 Quarks Daily, I became so fascinated by them that I spent some time describing and analyzing them, looking for the logic behind them, which is to say, looking at a mind at work. I ended up with a working paper on them, Jamie’s Investigations: The Art of a Young Man with Down Syndrome.

    FWIW, I had fairly good drawing skills as a child and took private art lessons for years. I’ve also developed a very visual style in my intellectual work, which I make use of highly stylized diagrams, some of which are quasi-mathematical in kind. This doesn’t require any “artistic” skill but is nonetheless visual. I’ve published a number of papers which I drew the diagrams first and then wrote prose to explain them.


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