It’s fitting that during the last week of classes, when all I want to do is finish grading final exams and papers and close the door of my office and walk out into the May weather, I should write about a book that made me want to think about teaching (and learning and writing and drawing and thinking. And.)
Syllabus, by Lynda Barry, is not at all what I expected. I was headed off to an appointment and I didn’t have anything to read, so I asked a colleague of mine in the English department for something, and he handed this to me. It looked like a graphic novel, and of course I know Barry’s name and her comics. I told him I’d give it back to him the next day. “Take your time,” he said.
It took me almost two weeks to finish reading this brief, wonderful book. It’s a series of hand-written, hand-drawn syllabi and the associated assignments for courses and workshops Lynda Barry has taught, with names like “The Unthinkable Mind” and “What it Is” and “Write What You See.” The classes ponder the connection between neurology and image and words, and ask questions like What is an image? How is an image transmitted from one person to another? What kind of drawing did we do before we “learned how to draw”? What if it turns out that the very thing you use to make visual art can also be used to make good writing? Where does imagination reside? If the thing we call “the arts” has a biological function, what is it?
The book looks like a composition book. Every page is colored, written over, pasted onto, cram-jammed with detailed writing and doodles and work from her students. She has pages of instructions for classwork or homework, pages of ideas she’s nibbling on and wants to present in class, pages of words for a “word bag” that will spark student notions for short stories or drawings, ways to be present and mindful, ways to get out of the flurry of self-judgment so you can tap into creativity. It’s full of quotations, poems and things to memorize. Every page feels personal, as if she’s talking to you, giving you tips from one artist to another — and believe me, I’ve never identified as an artist.
The other piece is that the entire book radiates with caring. Lynda Barry cares about her students. She is riveted by their drawings, including those we would call “bad art.” She thinks about them every day. She wants them to engage, to spend time on the work, to understand how important art is, to draw even if they think they can’t draw. It’s their selves she wants on the page, and she finds it all beautiful.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this. Even at the end of the semester, when I’m tired and a little jaded, I wanted to think about these questions I’ve never really considered. It made me want to try some of the exercises myself, and maybe try a few new things in classes of my own (which are not art or creative writing classes at all.) This is a marvelous, funny, interesting book about creation. Maybe you need it the way I did.