Lynda Barry Can Cure Writer's Block With a Three-Ring Binder

Everyone's life is so rich with tales, some boring, others outrageous. But sometimes we feel like we don't have the tools tell them, and so our memories become jumbled. And our hands won't write. Frustration prevails.

Maybe you've given up all hope on writing your story, or maybe you have a little secret burning inside. Painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator, and teacher Lynda Barry is holding her four-day course Writing the Unthinkable at Miami Dade College's Writer's Institute next month.

With the April 28 registration deadline looming, we spoke with Barry about her unique approach to writer's block, which has a lot to do with moving your hands in ways that fire up your brain. What do you need to bring to class? Only your blocked creativity, 100 sheets of notebook paper, a few pens, and a three-ring binder. Let Ms. Barry tell you why these are the only things you'll ever need to tell your tale.

Cultist: Can you share one technique non-writers can use to get their creative writing juices flowing?

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Lynda Barry: The trick that always works for me is to write by hand and use a timer.

Although hand writing may seem slower than typing on a computer, my experience has been that in the long run, it's actually faster, mainly because there is no delete button when I'm writing by hand and ideas seem to present themselves more solidly because of it. They aren't going to be wiped out as fast as they would be on a computer.

Handwriting also feels more like a conversation or speaking -- there is a voice to it that is missing somehow from keyboard work. It feels more like speaking and also like listening.

Actually, an interesting study I read recently found that a part of the brain connected with language (Broca's area) is activated when we write by hand, but it's not activated by keyboard work. There are also studies that show we are able to remember things we write by hand more readily than if we type them. Messy or neat, legible or illegible, even writing a grocery list by hand is a skill that requires complicated motion and awareness of spatial relationships. There is more going on in the brain when you are drawing letters than when you are pushing buttons to make them appear or pushing buttons to make them disappear.

I know handwriting is not a priority in elementary school anymore and some schools have stopped teaching cursive. I'm really worried about what other things we may be throwing away when we throw away handwriting.

What keeps you writing and cartooning?

Writing and drawing gives me the feeling that life is worth living. Not really, really worth living, but it even just a little bit more worth living than not worth living makes all the difference. I'm pretty sure that this thing we call creativity has a direct tie to our mental health, in the same way our immune system has a direct tie to our physical health. I believe it has a biological function. That it's not decoration, not an 'elective' and not something that should be cut from schools when the money gets low. Not if you want kids to have the tools they'll need to deal with life's inexplicable disasters without going nuts, or driving someone else nuts.

What's your favorite part about the work you do? 

I love sitting down at my desk with nothing on my mind but the knowledge that I have three hours of uninterrupted time ahead of me to do what I want with the paper and paint and glue and brushes I have around me. My favorite thing is to work at my desk for a set amount of time for no reason, with no plan, just messing around like I did when I was a kid.

What do you think "non-writers" have to offer to literature that maybe seasoned writers don't?

Non-writers haven't found a false voice yet. They haven't found that false way of writing with a lot of conscious composition and intent and loads of uncommon adjectives. They haven't studied story structure so they don't try to cram their story into that crazy corset. Once you know about it it's hard to shake it off and very hard to get back to the natural story structure that we use every single day when we communicate with each other. Seasoned writers are always trying to do something big. Sometimes a story has more power when told in a small and plain way.

Who should come to this class?

Anyone who is interested in memory, writing and the brain is welcome in the class. I think people should be at least 16 or 17 years old though.

Why does everyone need to specifically use a three ring binder?

We move pages around in the class, and copy from pieces we've written. A three ring binder is ideal for this. It's also familiar, inexpensive, and I love the way the rings sound when they are open and shut. Also if you bring a binder, you're likely to bring paper in it and a pen. I'm always surprised by how many people show up to a writing class with no paper or pen. It happens so often I just prepare for it now. The funniest part is when I ask folks why they came to a writing class with nothing to write on or with they are just as mystified by this as I am. In other words, they don't know why, and to me that's pretty interesting.

The non-credit course is hosted by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College's Writers Institute at the Wolfson Campus (300 NE 2nd Ave., Miami), from May 4 through the 7 from 9 a.m. to noon. Visit for more information.

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