I have always had trouble keeping a journal. It’s a practice that comes highly recommended by my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to David Sedaris, but I have never been able to stick with it. My attempts always devolve into a space of anxiety and over-worry; what should be a method of achieving presence and clarity turns into a Petri dish for every negative thought I have. The only time I’ve ever completed a journal cover-to-cover was when I was in elementary school. I was inspired by the Amelia’s Notebook series by Marissa Moss, a series of books written in the form of the fictional diary of the protagonist, Amelia. The notebooks were a combination of writing and drawings, and often they didn’t just depict the events of a day. The Amelia character would use cartoons and charts to explore her interests, tease out ideas she had, and elaborate on her relationships with her friends and family. I modeled a composition book after this idea, and it’s the only time I’ve been able to keep a journal. The book itself is also the most complete record I have of myself from this time; while it’s a tad embarrassing, I’m glad I have it.
I bring up Amelia’s Notebook because I was so reminded of it while reading this book. Syllabus is an account of Lynda Barry’s experience teaching an interdisciplinary college course about the psychology of art-making. The book is also structured as the author’s composition book, though it is actually a combination of Barry’s actual syllabus, notes from the course, and her recollection of teaching the course. Barry is a writer and artist, and she uses a variety of mediums, from drawing to handwriting to collage, to pursue the themes and ideas of the course. It’s been a long time since a book inspired me to create so immediately, but I plan to go out and get a composition book as quickly as possible.
Syllabus pursues some rather large ideas about what it means to make art. The psychological angle of the work explores the effect that art-making has on our brains and psyche, and its importance in our development and happiness. Why are humans driven to create? And why does this drive dissipate as we age? How can we enhance our lives by rekindling our once-simple pleasure in creating a line, a picture, a story? Barry brings a variety of scholarship and disciplines to these questions, but she also observes as her students tease out their own answers.
While some of the themes of this book can seem a bit grand and abstract, Barry grounds these ideas with practical, step-by-step exercises to get her students (and her readers) started. She includes the assignments she gave to her students; the reader can almost follow along with the course work if they choose. This was the part of the book that I found the most enjoyable. In one example, Barry provides a template for keeping a daily diary of observations, one that includes writing and drawing. She encourages her students to use this format as a way of being more present in the world, of observing more acutely, hoping that this act of observing will feed into the students’ artwork. I am so excited to start keeping a diary in this way.
This book seems determined to help the reader create, no matter their artistic skill level. In fact, Barry is clear to encourage a simplicity of style, of simply using lines and colors to convey an idea quickly, without worrying about how “good” it is. Barry interrogates our understanding of what makes a drawing “good,” encouraging anyone to create simply for the pleasure of it. By breaking down the barriers of accessibility, Barry is able to get across the message that art-making is beneficial to the human experience itself. Not only is creativity accessible to everyone, it is essential. Amidst the current trend of adult coloring books and wine-and-painting events, I think we’re at the perfect place for these themes. If I could, I would hand everyone I know a copy of Syllabus, a blank composition book, and some colored pencils. Go make stuff, dear reader, and find joy in it.