Friday 5 April 2019

Lynda Barry's Daily Diary - Alex English

I am fascinated by the creative process, and lap up books on creativity. One of my favourite writers (and illustrators) on the subject is Lynda Barry, an American cartoonist, author and assistant professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If you haven't heard of Lynda, I urge you to look her up and buy her books. Syllabus is a particular joy. It is what it says on the tin, the syllabus of her workshops at Wisconsin-Madison, set out like a densely-illustrated graphic novel. It feels like taking a sneaky look through someone's rather beautiful sketchpad.

Barry's class is a hybrid of comics and writing class for students of all disciplines. She believes that everyone can write and draw, and the class she runs is one of pure creativity. There's no 3-act-structure or how to find an agent, it's all about observation, imagination and not being scared to fail. She selects her students across disciplines, aiming for a mix of interests, ages and abilities. Then she gives everyone a code name (for one class, everyone was named for part of the brain).

While I dream of being able to take a class like this, reading Syllabus is the next best thing for someone who is not likely to be heading to Wisconsin any time soon. The key takeaway for me from the book was the incredible Daily Diary.

Now, I'm sure pretty much all writers keep some kind of notebook, whether it's a literal block of paper or a digital alternative. But what Lynda does is construct a format for daily notes that helps to train her students to hear, see and remember the world around them. It's a really simple way to 'fill the well' of inspiration. She insists her students complete it every day, but the format is so simple that it's not at all intimidating, even for a beginner.
"The point of the daily diary exercise is not to record what you already know about what happened to you in the last 24 hours. Instead, it’s an invitation to the back of your mind to come forward and reveal to you the perishable images about the day you didn’t notice you noticed at all." Lynda Barry
The daily diary takes five minutes. You split your page into four. The first quarter is for 7 things you did (2 minutes). The second quarter is for 7 things you saw (2 minutes). The third quarter is for something you overhead (30 secs). The fourth quarter is a quick sketch of something you saw (30 secs). Easy. Five minutes! Even the busiest person ever could fit this in to their life.

It's very simple, but an incredibly useful tool. I love looking back over my daily diaries.

One day in August, I saw a man with the tip of his pinkie finger missing, a man holding a baby with a napkin balanced on its head (while he ate lunch over it) and a giant bee sculpture. I also ate moon ice cream. All in one day! I can feel the story ideas bubbling already.

I have no idea what I drew here, but I know I told off my son for tearing leaves from a tree. Quote of the day was 'it's so I don't drop my lunch on her head!' Presumably about the aforementioned baby.

I am sure I would never have remembered these little gems without Lynda Barry's daily diary. Even my ordinary notebook habits would not have picked up these miniscule morsels, but they're a great resource for characters, dialogue and story ideas.

I really do urge you to give Lynda's daily diary a go and to check out her books. There are also plenty of other variations on the daily diary format on her fantastic tumblr page.

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing and she has more forthcoming from Bloomsbury and Faber & Faber.


Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Alex. Both as a creativity book addict and someone in need of a "arty" but not heavy book for a teenager's birthday.

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds great! Thank you, Alex.

Jenny Alexander said...

Lovely post - thanks, Alex!

Alex English said...

Glad you enjoyed it!