Alissa Nutting on Lynda Barry

“Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.”—Cruddy

Personally, I feel guilty, or I suppose unworthy, in naming any sort of mother, particularly a literary one. My writing/soul is weird & grotesque, and the last thing I’d want to do is give a heroic author I deeply admire the back-handed compliment of claiming an affinity, however subtle, with her artistic genome. My spirit animal is some misshapen, stillborn thing, preserved in a jar of cloudy fluid—no parent wants to look into the receiving blanket and see that.

So when I speak about the ways Lynda Barry’s writing makes me want to get MOM tattooed on every ventricle of my heart in her honor, I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as some delusional claim of similitude. Picture the dandelion puff-ball model of matriarchy rather than the abdominal pregnancy one: inspirational seeds of a vast, unknowable number, blown by the wind to far-off, unrelated places and received by the godly and the ungodly alike.

And oh, how her writing saved this ungodly child’s life. Since birth, it was like I was holding a tin can to my ear, a homemade phone with a long dingy string hanging out of it, and every time I felt like the singular most freakish freak it would grow longer and my hope of ever hearing a familiar voice on the other end died a little more. I remember being in church when I was young, watching everyone else sing happily while I played a game where I tried to pee just one drop at a time in my underwear and see how many drops I could do before it started to feel wet enough that I was in danger of it seeping through to my pants. One Sunday I realized, “Other people like it here. They are not doing pee-games to kill time right now,” and I felt alone. It seemed like this was how my life was in general: if other people were having a good time, I was not, and vice-versa. I also had unique parents. They did not buy into materialism, etc. My father was into frankengardening, a hobby where he liked to try to graft the branches of many different trees on to one tree, and amateur taxidermy. Most surfaces in the home were fair game for plaster-filled fish corpses to be laid upon them to dry. One summer I had a friend spend the night for my birthday, and my father took us to a local manure heap where we sat in the cab of his truck while he filled the entire truck bed with manure, one shovelful at a time. It probably took about two hours (the manure was for his trees).

Even in college, when I got to hang out with other freaks, I still felt particularly forsaken. One example is a time when we all took acid together. A few hours later they were in a circle in the living room laughing their heads off together. I was in the supply closet holding a bottle of Windex that I was convinced was sentient—how could I possibly protect it and keep it safe? The first and obvious step was to stay with it inside the closet for the rest of my life (which I was prepared to do) but I kept thinking of terrifying ways we might be thwarted nonetheless. When one of my friends opened the door, I screamed and began weeping. He shut the door. Hours later when I realized the Windex wasn’t alive, the grief and sorrow hit me like an actual death. Even weeks later, I felt like something good had been taken from me.

So in college when I decided to be a writer, and took a workshop and read my classmates’ stories about two attractive people falling in love, I thought: shit. The string on my lonely phone was very long by this point.

Then I read Lynda Barry’s Cruddy. The string went super taut and the tin can next to my ear echoed and the main character of the book was on the other end saying “HELL-O, HELL-O.” Then I read everything by Lynda Barry. Her books were the allies I’d always wanted. Suddenly I had a posse. I had numbers. I could do anything.

For one, Barry’s characters understand the motherless. Not literally motherless, just the feeling like you’re the only one of a species. Like you’re not the expected or the ideal. You think: Where did I come from? What am I? You worry about permission. If you’re already unaccepted, it’s hard to burrow down even further into that tunnel instead of trying to fit in above ground. You worry no one else will be down there. Barry’s books gave me the proof to make that leap of faith: there is a whole underground colony, nation, world of freaks, they insisted. I knew that trying to blend in was a dead end, but they confirmed it.

Hugely, her writing showed me that it’s ok for women to write the ugly—both the real ugly and the perceived-as-ugly-but-not-actually-ugly-unless-you’re-a-boring-facist. The gross, the creepy, the obscene, the lowbrow—in my brain, these had always been my tools for getting at truth, but I didn’t think I could write them. Cruddy said: write them. Cruddy has a female character reporting about another female character who puts a severed, dried-up penis inside a guy’s bottle of moonshine. Cruddy for the win.

Equally important, Barry’s books showed me that it’s ok to write about people, events, and places that aren’t celebrated in our culture. I’ve never been interested in the normal; Cruddy said that I didn’t have to be. And terrible things? Loneliness, danger, the myriad of threats that exist in the world, particularly the extra ones you have to worry about if you’re female? They can be written about with humor. Humor is survival, a skin that congeals atop the soup bowl of despair and lets you give it a few investigative pokes without getting your finger dirty. Be crass, be funny, be raw: though we live in a culture that often mistakes beauty for art, mistakes class for worth, these are faulty translations, and your writing does not have to repeat them.

How can I not feel mothered by her writing? Cruddy is my old-time religion: I read it anytime I need to feel reborn. 

Recommended reading: Cruddy, The Freddie Stories, One Hundred Demons, What It Is

Alissa Nutting is author of the novel Tampa and the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York
, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University.