“Kids don’t plan to play,” she told her class in the first day. “They don’t go: ‘Barbie, Ken, you ready to play? It’s gonna be a three-act.’” Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct. Barry calls that state of mind “the image world” and feels it’s as central to a person’s well-being as the immune system.
To explain, she told a story about the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, who helps patients experiencing phantom-limb pain. Barry discussed one patient who felt that his missing left hand was clenched in a fist and could never shake the discomfort — could never “unclench” it.
So Ramachandran used a mirror box — a compartment into which the patient could insert his right hand and see it reflected at the end of his left arm. “And Ramachandran said, ‘Open your hands.’ And the patient saw this” — Barry opened two clenched fists in unison. “That’s what I think images do.
“I think that in the course of human life,” she continued softly, “we have events that cause” — she clenched her fist and held it up, inspecting it from all angles. “Losing your parents might cause it. Or a war. Or things going bad in a family.”
The only way to open that fist, she said, is to see your own trouble reflected in an image, as the patient saw his hand reflected in a mirror. It might be a story you write, or a book you read, or a song that means the world to you. “And then?” She opened her hand and waved.
In Barry’s class, every writing exercise is a repeated ritual. At the beginning of each one, for example, students slowly draw a spiral on a sheet of paper. While everyone did that, Barry recited a poem. It’s the same poem every time, by Rumi, and Barry recited it quickly, her head down, her fingers tented before her. “You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,” she intoned, “yet you’re wind.”