“What It Is” by Lynda Barry

Book Review by Rebecca Ahl

I first started reading Lynda Barry in 1990, when her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek ran in Seattle’s free weekly paper, The Stranger. The oddly ugly drawings and scathing observations about childhood grabbed me every week. Later, I picked up her book One! Hundred! Demons! The book stunned me with its naked grappling with life’s painful and mysterious experiences. That book closes with Barry’s encouraging invitation to pick up a sumi brush, and try this kind of writing. What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008) feels like a full-length continuation of that invitation, offering thoughtful insights and advice for creatives of all types, and especially those looking to write memoir.

In recent years, Barry has taken a deep dive into research into images and human cognition, designing and teaching a multi-disciplinary course at UW-Madison called “Writing the Unthinkable.” What It Is came from these deep explorations into images, writing and memory. It’s an illustrated book for adults, about plumbing the depth of your own memory, and using writing and images to better understand your own life. What It Is is presented as a richly layered multi-media art-journal, that reads as a do-it-yourself guide to inquiry into the self. Barry raises the deep questions she has pondered and researched: What is an idea made of? What is an image? Where do images come from? What is the difference between remembering and imagining? In exploring these questions, Barry offers not only personal observations about imagination, but also precise insights into memory and cognition. She translates these observations into useful exercises for unblocking creative drives and exercising creative muscles many adults have let atrophy with decades of disuse.

Throughout the book, Barry offers practical exercises for writing, especially writing memoir or writing from memory. Examples include writing prompts that start from lists (10 Mothers You Have Known; 10 Cars You Remember), and prompts that begin from randomly selected words from “word bags.” You don’t need this book to make a word bag, randomly draw a noun and a verb, and start writing. What What It Is gives you is broad ideas about memory to explore, as well as step-by-step questions to consider that help you add to those first thoughts that pop to mind from the prompt. Some are easy to answer (What color was her apron?), and some are deeply challenging (Why do you remember that day)?

I’ve learned a lot from Lynda Barry over the years: from specific, simple tips for creativity to broad, life-altering skills. A common theme among all her shared wisdom is a strong message of permission. One of my favorite tips from her is that when she sits down to create something, she first makes a big “X” across the center of a blank page. “There,” she says, “now I’ve already ruined it, so anything else I do can’t make it any worse.” I’ve been encouraged by her to make things by hand, all the time, every day. Barry presses hard on the neurological evidence for greater neuroplasticity and cross-cortical activity created by simply doing things with our hands. Another practical bit of advice from these scientific observations: Barry always has scrap paper available on her workspace; when she gets “stuck”, she can continue moving her hand – with no agenda – on the scrap paper. This manual activity keeps the creative juices flowing, without imposing judgement or anxiety. Like other creatives who’ve worked to bury the notion that “inspiration” randomly strikes, Barry encourages readers to create, create, create, without an agenda or goal, and to be willing to throw the product away. Throughout What It Is, Barry also encourages readers to watch for and use unexpected memories that bubble up. She teaches readers to pay attention to these seemingly untethered images, and to follow them, and gather them, as a means of understanding them.

For me, one of the most memorable pages of the book is one where Barry, as herself, is shown walking and talking with her husband about what’s been troubling her. She can’t figure out why she can’t remember some things, but also can’t stop going back and re-playing something stupid she said thirty years ago. In What It Is, Barry gives herself and her audience permission to pick up these breadcrumbs of memory, to gather and examine them, without judgement, and even to let them go.

Pick up What It Is from your bookstore or library, and let Lynda Barry lead you on an unusual exploration of your memory and your creative abilities. I also strongly recommend Syllabus (Drawn and Quarterly, 20014), her follow-up how-to book that explores even more directly the creative art and writing exercises she developed in “Writing the Unthinkable.” For more, check out all her graphic novels and illustrated novels, and search online for interviews and lectures, and her Tumbler page.

©  2018 Rebecca Ahl

Rebecca Ahl is a mom who likes to explore, make things, and write things. She is overeducated and unemployed. Most days she can be found making things with her kids, near Madison, Wisconsin.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to “What It Is” by Lynda Barry

  1. Sue Beal says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful book review. I’m headed for the library to check it out. Suzy Beal


  2. tctextiles says:

    Thanks for circling Ms Barry back around into my awareness again. She’s a gem with so much to offer. There’s always another, valuable takeaway each time her work crosses my path.


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