Filming a Cartoonist in the Classroom

Professor of English Theresa Tensuan and filmmaker and bookstore buyer Mary DiLullo are shooting a documentary about the innovative writing workshops led by bestselling author and artist Lynda Barry. The two filmed Barry as she led her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop as part of the symposium “Drawing the Line: Comics and the Art of Social Transformation”.

If you’re going to participate in one of author/artist Lynda Barry’s writing workshops, you must follow the rules.

You aren’t allowed to re-read or edit anything you’ve just written. You must not look at fellow writers who have volunteered to read their work to the class. You are required to turn off all cell phones and other electronic devices, and you must try not to check them even during lunch breaks.

However, you are allowed to sleep in class.

The innovation and energy Barry brings to her workshops have inspired Professor of English Theresa Tensuan and filmmaker and College bookstore buyer Mary DiLullo to shoot a documentary tentatively titled A Cartoonist in the Classroom. The film is funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

The two filmed Barry—bestselling author of the graphic nonfiction works One! Hundred! Demons!, The Good Times are Killing Me, and What It Is—as she led her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop for members of the Haverford community during Family and Friends Weekend in October. Barry came to campus as part of the symposium “Drawing the Line: Comics and the Art of Social Transformation,” which was organized by Tensuan.

The filmmakers also followed Barry through similar workshops for ESL students at Community College of Philadelphia and for inmates at the city’s Alternative and Special Detention correctional facility.

Tensuan, who teaches One! Hundred! Demons! in her “Contemporary Women Writers” class, first got the idea for the documentary during Barry’s last visit to campus in 2003. “Her workshops were incredibly generative,” she says. “I appreciated the ways she made people think about narrative, and how images can provide access to different kinds of stories.”

As a teacher, Tensuan was also struck by how Barry changed her students’ views of their own writing processes: “She enabled them to quiet their internal editors, and as a result produce incredibly rich stories.”

To make the documentary, Tensuan partnered with Mary DiLullo, who has been making films for 16 years; her Christmas at the Cemetery, a seriocomic look at the Philadelphia Italian tradition of decorating graves for the holidays, has been a mainstay at film festivals and on local PBS affiliates. DiLullo, a longtime Barry fan, took her 2003 workshop and was energized by the experience.

“I got hip to the notion of not trying too hard,” she says. “When we try to write, many times we end up staring at a scary blank page thinking we have to write something brilliant or it isn’t worthwhile. Lynda takes the scariness out of writing by guiding us though it step by step and conjuring long forgotten images for us to draw [from].”

Tensuan and DiLullo expect a rough cut of the film to be complete by January. Eventually, they hope to distribute it through Pennsylvania public libraries, and possibly make it available via website. Tensuan hopes that the film will impact not only potential writers, but current educators as well.

“I’ve learned so much from [Barry’s] pedagogical process,” she says. “It’s informed me in how I tailor my own practices.”

Adds DiLullo, “I hope that people take from the film that writing and art are for everyone—not just people who write best sellers or artists who have their work hanging in museums.”

-Brenna McBride