What It Is by Lynda Barry

22nd September 2011

*I bought this book at the Strand bookstore when I was there for BEA in May.

In What It Is, Lynda Barry talks about writing – both personally and anecdotally. One part instructive and three parts creative, the book first talks about images, stories, characters, and monsters and where they come from, although in a very different way than Scott McCloud does in Understanding Comics.

When I brought this book into my ESL classroom a couple weeks ago to illustrate something we were discussing, several students wanted to share their opinions: “That person must be the crazy” and “Something is wrong with the writer’s head” were two common phrases.

No doubt about it, Lynda Barry is obsessive, though in my opinion, all good artists are. You could read this book and look at it half a dozen times and still miss something because each page is an elaborate collage. Some have her drawings on top of old letters. Some have old letters or ads or newspaper clippings pasted onto her drawings to illustrate her own creative exploration. Most often, the clipping adds to the meaning or interprets the meaning.

While this is interesting, and I loved seeing her evolution as an artist, I really loved the discussion of creativity in children. She argues that at some point in each of our lives, creativity is snuffed out and becomes something we either apologize for or do completely on our own. It’s an interesting concept and one I know I’ve read somewhere but cannot find support for. She also argues in the page below that “the time for [creativity] is always with us though we say I do not have that kind of time. The kind of time I have is not for this but for that. I wish I had that kind of time.” This is and will always be, for me, what distinguishes artists from amateurs: choosing the time and using it for art.

What It Is is a beautiful, compelling book, and it even includes a section in the back to get you started writing or drawing or creating. This section is by no means small, and the only reason I haven’t attempted it is because the book is really too pretty to write in. What It Is is a book I’ll treasure and come back to again and again, and it’s one I would encourage anyone who enjoys writing, reading or creating to have on hand.

Read this: If you need a shot in the arm to write, draw, paint, sing, create. Be prepared to pore over the pages.

  • I love Lynda Barry, I’m so glad to see someone writing about her! Some of her work is so difficult to get through…I mean, I guess your students’ observation that she must be nuts isn’t a strange one to have after glancing through her work. It’s not just the detail of her artwork, but the darkness of the issues she explores she explores in some of her work, especially in Cruddy, which must’ve been one of the hardest novels I’ve ever read.

    • No, it’s definitely not far off. I’ve sampled some of her other work and can see that. And now you’ve piqued my curiosity, and I need to get my hands on Cruddy.

  • Nishita

    Goodness, that cover looks so pretty…and intense. I want to look at a full-size image of that now and really pore over it.

    I think I agree with her POV about prioritizing time for creativity.

    Thanks for highlighting her on your blog. I never heard of her before.

    • No problem! Glad to.

      And the whole book is one you’ll want to pore over. Each page is really intense and beautiful.

  • Pooch

    That is a lush book! How can you stop looking at it? Interesting that you teach ESL as I did for 10 years with primary students. Love the word “pickily”!!


    • Isn’t it amazing? I just began teaching ESL so any nuggets of wisdom are welcome.

      And thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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