Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key ele­ments of dis­cov­ery: lone­li­ness, uncer­tain­ty and bore­dom. Those have always been where cre­ative ideas come from. — Lyn­da Bar­ry

In the spring of 2016, the great car­toon­ist and edu­ca­tor, Lyn­da Bar­ry, did the unthink­able, pri­or to giv­ing a lec­ture and writ­ing class at NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter.

She demand­ed that all par­tic­i­pat­ing staff mem­bers sur­ren­der their phones and oth­er such per­son­al devices.

Her vic­tims were as jan­gled by this prospect as your aver­age iPhone-addict­ed teen, but sur­ren­dered, agree­ing to write by hand, anoth­er anti­quat­ed notion Bar­ry sub­scribes to:

The delete but­ton makes it so that any­thing you’re unsure of you can get rid of, so noth­ing new has a chance. Writ­ing by hand is a rev­e­la­tion for peo­ple. Maybe that’s why they asked me to NASA – I still know how to use my hands… there is a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing that goes along with them.

Barry—who told the Onion’s AV Club that she craft­ed her book What It Is with an eye toward bored read­ers stuck in a Jiffy Lube oil-change wait­ing room—is also a big pro­po­nent of doo­dling, which she views as a cre­ative neu­ro­log­i­cal response to bore­dom:

Bor­ing meet­ing, you have a pen, the usu­al clowns are yakking. Most peo­ple will draw some­thing, even peo­ple who can’t draw. I say “If you’re bored, what do you draw?” And every­body has some­thing they draw. Like “Oh yeah, my lit­tle guy, I draw him.” Or “I draw eye­balls, or palm trees.” … So I asked them “Why do you think you do that? Why do you think you doo­dle dur­ing those meet­ings?” I believe that it’s because it makes hav­ing to endure that par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion more bear­able, by chang­ing our expe­ri­ence of time. It’s so slight. I always say it’s the dif­fer­ence between, if you’re not doo­dling, the min­utes feel like a cheese grater on your face. But if you are doo­dling, it’s more like Bril­lo.  It’s not much bet­ter, but there is a dif­fer­ence. You could han­dle Bril­lo a lit­tle longer than the cheese grater.

Meet­ings and class­rooms are among the few remain­ing venues in which screen-addict­ed moths are expect­ed to force them­selves away from the phone’s invit­ing flame. Oth­er settings—like the Jiffy Lube wait­ing room—require more ini­tia­tive on the user’s part.

Once, we were keen­er stu­dents of minor changes to famil­iar envi­ron­ments, the books strangers were read­ing in the sub­way, and those strangers them­selves. Our sub­se­quent obser­va­tions were known to spark con­ver­sa­tion and some­times ideas that led to cre­ative projects.

Now, many of us let those oppor­tu­ni­ties slide by, as we fill up on such fleet­ing con­fec­tions as Can­dy Crush, fun­ny videos, and all-you-can-eat serv­ings of social media.

It’s also tempt­ing to use our phones as defac­to shields any time social anx­i­ety looms. This dodge may pro­vide short term com­fort, espe­cial­ly to younger peo­ple, but remem­ber, Bar­ry and many of her car­toon­ist peers, includ­ing Daniel Clowes, Simon Hansel­mann, and Ariel Schrag, toughed it out by mak­ing art. That’s what got them through the lone­li­ness, uncer­tain­ty, and bore­dom of their mid­dle and high school years.

The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence for me… It was on those qui­et week­end nights when even my par­ents were out hav­ing fun that I began mak­ing seri­ous attempts to make sto­ries in comics form.

Adri­an Tomine, intro­duc­tion to 32 Sto­ries

Bar­ry is far from alone in encour­ag­ing adults to peel them­selves away from their phone depen­den­cy for their cre­ative good.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Eric Pickersgill’s Removed imag­ines a series of every­day sit­u­a­tions in which phones and oth­er per­son­al devices have been ren­dered invis­i­ble. (It’s worth not­ing that he removed the offend­ing arti­cles from the mod­els’ hands, rather that Pho­to­shop­ping them out lat­er.)

Com­put­er Sci­ence Pro­fes­sor Calvin Newport’s recent book, Deep Work, posits that all that shal­low phone time is cre­at­ing stress, anx­i­ety, and lost cre­ative oppor­tu­ni­ties, while also doing a num­ber on our per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al lives.

Author Manoush Zomoro­di’s recent TED Talk on how bore­dom can lead to bril­liant ideas, below, details a week­long exper­i­ment in bat­tling smart­phone habits, with lots of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to back up her find­ings.

But what if you wipe the slate of dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions only to find that your brain’s just… emp­ty? A once occu­pied room, now devoid of any­thing but dim­ly recalled memes, and gen­er­al­ized dread over the state of the world?

The afore­men­tioned 2010 AV Club inter­view with Bar­ry offers both encour­age­ment and some use­ful sug­ges­tions that will get the tem­porar­i­ly par­a­lyzed mov­ing again:

I don’t know what the strip’s going to be about when I start. I nev­er know. I often­times have—I call it the word-bag. Just a bag of words. I’ll just reach in there, and I’ll pull out a word, and it’ll say “ping-pong.” I’ll just have that in my head, and I’ll start draw­ing the pic­tures as if I can… I hear a sen­tence, I just hear it. As soon as I hear even the begin­ning of the first sen­tence, then I just… I write real­ly slow. So I’ll be writ­ing that, and I’ll know what’s going to go at the top of the pan­el. Then, when it gets to the end, usu­al­ly I’ll know what the next one is. By three sen­tences or four in that first pan­el, I stop, and then I say “Now it’s time for the draw­ing.” Then I’ll draw. But then I’ll hear the next one over on anoth­er page! Or when I’m draw­ing Marlys and Arna, I might hear her say some­thing, but then I’ll hear Marlys say some­thing back. So once that first sen­tence is there, I have all kinds of choic­es as to where I put my brush. But if noth­ing is hap­pen­ing, then I just go over to what I call my decoy page. It’s like decoy ducks. I go over there and just start mess­ing around.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Prof. Cal New­port

Lyn­da Barry’s Illus­trat­ed Syl­labus & Home­work Assign­ments from Her New UW-Madi­son Course, “Mak­ing Comics”

Lyn­da Bar­ry, Car­toon­ist Turned Pro­fes­sor, Gives Her Old Fash­ioned Take on the Future of Edu­ca­tion

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (7)
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  • Joshua says:

    Lon­li­ness, uncer­tain­ty and espe­cial­ly bore­dom don’t hinge on whether you have a smart­phone or not. David Hock­ney’s recent work is cre­at­ed using iphone and ipad — cre­ativ­i­ty is about HOW you approach things- not which things you approach.
    There is an old adage: “A good work­man nev­er blames his tools”

  • Alex says:

    You ever cut a tough steak with a dull knife?

  • Cheri Johnson says:


  • berit lunch branch says:

    Lyn­da Bar­ry, Yay! Thank you.

  • Ellen Goldberg says:

    I can’t get past the fact that I would not have read this had I not been check­ing my phone email. Irony, para­dox? Thanks, Lyn­da: I love your work.

  • Roddy McKenzie says:

    That’ll be a ‘bad’ work­man. I think the point is that spend­ing too long on mobile phones etc blunts cre­ativ­i­ty — not that you can’t use those devices in the act of cre­at­ing.

  • Ana Marie Lopez says:

    I would like to sin­cere­ly thank you for shar­ing this arti­cle with us. It not only made me reflect on how I grew up com­pared to how my grand chil­dren are grow­ing up nowa­days. I tru­ly agree with your knowledge/experience and wish to share it with my fam­i­ly and friends and espe­cial­ly with my grand chil­dren. Espe­cial­ly due to the fact that they often tell me that they are bored. So I hope to help them to become more cre­ative and pro­duc­tive and find the gift of doodling/writing/art and espe­cial­ly open­ing their minds of the poten­tial of so so much more. Once again I thank you.


    Ana Marie Lopez

    PS: Just a small note that my mom would tell me; that it’s very impor­tant to doo­dle (even if it’s just writ­ing the let­ter “O” over and over. Because that will help us write in cur­sive prop­er­ly and that will also help us learn how to spell each word cor­rect­ly and gain the knowl­edge of its mean­ing. And how we could get ahead in life if we knew how to address any issues that may come our way in life. I hope that make sense. As you can see, it’s been a very long time since I have writ­ten any­thing. And if I have made any errors in my gram­mar or spelling, I sin­cere­ly apol­o­gize. Lol. Life…

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