Need a break from a long-form project or some inspiration to generate new work? In this vlog I try out cartoonist, author and writing instructor Lynda Barry’s X-page exercise (and a few other techniques) from her amazing book What It Is To Kickstart A New Story and offer 5 takeaways from the experience. Ready to try Lynda Barry’s writing process with me?
Watch the video here.
In ‘I tried Lynda Barry’s Writing Process – Here’s What Happened, you’ll:
- Work with me on a generative creative practice by Lynda Barry
- Access the images that are in your memory
- Quickly rediscover memories that you had long forgotten
- Learn an exercise to generate a new story from random words
- Get inspiration to generate new stories
- Listen to 5 takeaways from Lynda Barry’s “What It Is”
‘I tried Lynda Barry’s Writing Process – Here’s What Happened’ – Video transcript
[Nicole] Today I’m taking a break from my Memoir in progress to try a generative creative practice by Lynda Barry who is the author of two of my favorite books on creativity, drawing, and writing; Syllabus and What it is.
[Nicole] What I love about Lynda’s teaching is her deep creativity and whole minded approach to teaching the creative process in all of her books and workshops and videos. So I’d like to take a minute not just to say how much I love this book but to explain a little bit about why I love it.
[Nicole] This book is accomplishing so many things. It is an inquiry into the creative process. It is asking questions throughout the entire book about the nature of image, memory, experience, and the power that images hold for us. And why they’re so essential to all kinds of storytelling. But this book is definitely a hybrid book too! It is part Memoir, part comic, part activity book, and part craft book. It has so many facets and it’s just so fascinating to get a peek inside Lynda Barry’s brain. I love the way she teaches. I love how generously she shares her experience with the creative process. This is a book that I would highly recommend to visual artists delving into graphic novels, and graphic storytelling. Or any writer who just wants to have a deeper understanding of their own process and how to access the images that will make storytelling so much easier.
<Nicole showcasing the book here by flipping pages>
[Nicole] There’s a quote in this book that I think is essential to the entire process. That Lynda Barry has tapped into and shares with her students and that is, thinking up stories is hard, getting them to come to you is easier. And that is what she teaches when she shows her students how to access the images that are just a part of their memory.
[Nicole] Writing the unthinkable is the beginning of the activity book section in What it is. It’s also the name of a workshop that Lynda Barry teaches. A part of the book where she actually shows you step by step how to access those images that are in your memory.
[Nicole] The reason that I’m spending some time today trying out this process is because I’ve been working on a long-form project for some time and I find it’s really beneficial to take a break from time to time – especially when dealing with grief and healing in personal storytelling. Just to kind of reignite the creativity and give your brain a rest. To try something new that you have no expectations for and can just see where it takes you. So the main technique I’m going to try
today is known as the X Page. I’m just going to read a little bit from Syllabus around on this technique that Lynda teaches.
[Nicole] Both writing and drawing lean on a certain kind of picturing. Not the kind that is already finished in your head and just needs to be put to words or reproduced on paper. It’s a kind of picturing that is formed by our own activity. One line suggesting the next. We have a general direction but can’t see where we are until we let ourselves take a step and then another and then we move on to the Third. When you are working from one of your X page stories to make some drawings, you know where the Story begins and ends and you know two things happen in the middle. If you are drawing it in four panels but you don’t know what your drawings will be like until you draw them with this kind of picturing in your mind that moves your hand. The trick is just that, let it move your hand.
[Lynda] Okay so this is something I call the X page. And this is a place where you’re going to be taking some notes. I’m going to be asking you some questions about this image and I want you to write the answers anywhere on this page. You can write in all four four quadrants, you can go right through the X. Part of the reason to draw the X; one is for people who don’t draw, that’s the longest line you’ve drawn in like years. But another thing is when we see an X there’s a part of us that sort of instinctively knows that no story has a big X through the middle of it.
[Nicole] One of the fun things about today is that I’m really looking forward to taking a break from my project. I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m here to trust the process and follow Lynda’s instructions step by step, just trusting that it’s going to take me somewhere new and exciting. And I just love the process of discovery with writing so I’m really looking forward to getting started.
[Nicole] So here’s what I’m going to, do I’m going to tune into a video that Lynda has created about the X page exercise and I’m going to drop that link in the description. So that if you want to watch it yourself you can follow along too another time.
[Nicole] So in the video Lynda just gives you the word to start with, “neighbors”. I don’t want to work with neighbors because I I’ve already watched the video, so I I have another word in my mind. I know I’ve already had some neighbors come to mind but I want to start completely fresh.
[Nicole] So I am going to work from the word list, which she gives you and asks you to just cut up the words and then select them from random when you’re ready to generate a new story. So I’ve already done that. I have a bowl here with cut up words and I’m just gonna pick one without looking and begin with that. So I’ll just do that right now. The word that I’m going to work with today is “wrap”
[Lynda] I’d like you to start by drawing a little dot on your page and then starting to do a spiral around it, kind of slow. Your task is to try to get that line that you’re drawing as close as possible to the line right next to it without them touching. So go ahead and draw your spiral for this next part. So as you’re drawing your spiral I want you to also put your focus to the very tip top of your head.
<Time to work with me and do the exercise>
[Lynda] I’m going to ask you a series of questions about a theme that you’re going to imagine and I’d like you to write the answers anywhere on this X. And I encourage you to sort of move your answers around. The X has a lot of a lot of purposes but mainly it’s just to let us know that this is a thinking page. There’s something about having an X there that lets us know this isn’t actually the work, this is still thinking page. I want you to picture this scene by thinking of it as a scene that you can see but I can’t. It’s as if I’m on the phone and I’m asking you these questions so that you help me see what’s going. So the first question I have is, as you’re picturing this scene, what time of day or night does it seem to be?
<Time to work with me and do the exercise>
[Lynda] I’d like you to take a fresh piece of paper and begin with the words “I am…” and start by telling me where you are. I’m standing on my front porch looking at a tree at Mrs Clemenson who is yelling at her children. Just write in the first person present tense. You’re just writing this scene up, you’ve already taken all the notes, right into the CNet. And if you get stuck, if the story stops happening; instead of reading things over and trying to figure out what to write next, just write the words tick tick tick tick until the story starts up again. If you keep your hand in motion there’s a good chance the story will start up again.
[Lynda] So you’re going to begin with the words “I am”. You are going to write in the first person present tense and you’re going to start by telling me where you are. You’re going to have eight minutes to do it and I’ll let you know when you have about three minutes left. So you can start to wrap up. And I’ll just sit here at the whole time and while you’re working.
<8 minute timer to implement what’s discussed above>
[Nicole] Well that was a really interesting process. Creating some memories around the word wrap for me started out being fairly abstract, not very specific, until I came along to – I think it was the the fifth idea – concealing gifts for the kids. It made me think about a very specific game that we used to play, that I made up for them, called the stoking game. I actually felt a little bit emotional as I was writing because I didn’t realize how many details were stored in my brain.
[Nicole] I haven’t thought about the stocking game in a long time. It’s probably been 10 years since I would have played this game with my kids. As I was drafting, I felt my eyes tearing up a little bit at the memory and also just the fact that that information is there, it’s in the vault. I don’t have to think about some of these stories from my kid’s early life frequently to be able to access them. Like I did with this prompt. So that was really cool. And I really I really liked remembering that time. I was surprised actually at how easy it was to place myself, see the rooms, in the home I haven’t lived in in many years. That was cool and all of the sort of sensory details that I was able to recall as well knowing that they’re there for me to access whenever I want to time travel and spend some time at different points in my life. So I I really like this exercise.
[Nicole] I know that there’s several different ways to do it. I think it might have been in one of the books that spiral exercise I did at the very beginning to kind of get into the Zone. I think Lynda recommends that as an alternative to the tick tick tick if you get stuck and stop. Just to keep the pen moving, she recommends going back to the spiral. I’ve also seen the X page note taking done differently where where each quadrant represents a space. So if you’re in the center, the quadrant above you. What do you see above. What’s in front of you. The quadrant underneath would be below. What’s to your left. What’s to your right. And then a rectangle at the top. What’s above you. And a rectangle at the bottom. What’s below you.
[Nicole] That’s a way to generate more information, more memory, more sensory details, so that when you do write your draft in the present tense with the “I am” prompt, you have all that information there. Before you start you have the images. Because our stories are made of images. Whether you are drawing, you’re telling a story visually, you’re telling a story in words, textually, or you’re using a little bit of both like you would if you were a comic artist like Lynda, the image is the most important part of the story.
[Nicole] So five takeaways from this process. First of all I love that this is an easily repeatable process that can be used again and again and again. I love that pretty much any word that has a connection to a story that you want to tell can be used to generate some associations, some memories. Use the X page to get deeper into the details and I always really appreciate present tense. I think it is so immediate and powerful.
[Nicole] Number two I really like that this process is so generative, you can sit down at your writing desk with no idea what you want to write about and find something that you’re going to connect with, just by simply pulling random words out. Or if you have a theme in mind, you have a story that you do want to work on…you can pick any object, item, or noun that you can start to generate some memories around. I think this is so valuable and can be used by writers who just want to make a start.
[Nicole] My third takeaway is I would like to do this again, changing the pacing a little bit. Maybe instead of working with the video, work with the questions. So that when I feel like I’ve finished with the answer to the previous question, I’m ready to go on to the next. So I would just pace it a little bit more slowly to have the chance for more detail and more information to come up before I move on to the next.
[Nicole] My fourth takeaway is that I really like timed writing sessions generally. I think adding a timer to a writing session is a really powerful way to keep the pen moving. You know that you’re working within a time constraint, and it just adds more energy to the process when you know that there’s a set time.
[Nicole] My fifth takeaway is really just that the importance of image was reinforced for me in this process. Images, like structures, are really the building block of a story. Images are scenes, our building blocks. And so I really like that about Lynda Barry’s approach to teaching the creative process to artists and writers. So I’m definitely going to use these techniques again, and I’m just going to pull a word. If I were to do this again today my next prompt would be “sandwiches” or “do-over” or “teeth”.
[Nicole] In this video, I’ve really wanted to honor the work of Lynda Barry, sharing a little bit about her book with you, and trying out some of her techniques to see what would happen. And I want to encourage you to pick up What it is because although I’ve covered some of the basics that Lynda teaches, there is so much more in her book. So many more activities, exercises, and techniques to work with. I really can’t say enough about how impactful this book has been for me in my creative process, so I hope you will check it out.
[Nicole] I just want to leave you with one more of Lynda’s quotes. We’ve talked a lot about the importance of image so I want to leave you with this.
[Nicole] She says the best way to find an image is to start with a word. And I think that’s so important find an object, find a word, pick a noun, use a word list like I worked with earlier – cutting up all of those words from the back of What it is. Start with a word let the images come to you and then start writing from that place. Thanks so much for watching and I will see you in another video.