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Doodle Your Way Out Of Writer's Block

Nov 11, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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When it comes to writer's block, author Lynda Barry believes the key to unblocking your thoughts is right in your hands.

In her latest graphic memoir, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, she writes,"The worst thing I can do when I'm stuck is to start thinking and stop moving my hands."

And if you also have doodler's block too, or think you can't draw?

"All I tell them is try drawing a cigarette on anybody in a magazine," Barry tells NPR's Neal Conan. "They always start laughing, and I can tell they always feel better."

A lot of Barry's characters smoke — her fictional brand of cigarettes is called Don't — and she says that's a deliberate choice.

"I wanted to piggyback on the idea of cigarettes being bad for you," she says, "[and] this idea of not drawing or not writing ... as being just as bad for you."

Picture This tells the story of two monkeys, one of which — the Near-Sighted Monkey — is Barry's alter-ego. Barry says the first thing you should know about the Near-Sighted Monkey is that she's a really bad house guest.

"[She] hogs the remote, when you get up to answer the phone she'll finish your drink ... she loves to smoke," Barry says.

But that doesn't mean Barry didn't enjoy drawing her. In fact, Barry says Near-Sighted Monkey helped motivate her to keep working.

"Whenever I do a book, I'm usually guided by a question or something that I'm trying to tease out," she says. "And I was trying to figure out why drawing this dang monkey made me feel so good."

The story of the second monkey, Meditating Monkey, is a bit more sober. Barry says the attacks on 9/11, the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the deaths of several friends had left her bereft.

"I found myself compelled — like this weird, shameful compulsion — to draw cute animals," she remembers, "just cry and draw cute animals."

She says she started with dancing dogs and friendly ducks — then she found the Meditating Monkey.

"When I drew that monkey, it's not that it fixed the problem," she says, "but it did shift it a little bit, or provide me some kind of relief."

Barry says that's when she began to think about the power of images.

"I believe with all my heart they have an absolute biological function," she says. "They are not decoration. They are not an elective. They have a function."

She says drawing the monkey's lines over and over again reminded her of being 12, falling in love with a favorite song and listening to it on repeat.

"It fixed something," Barry recalls, "or it made a difficult time more bearable."

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