What is it? Lynda Barry’s New Book: “What It Is”

January 19, 2009

Left: Cover of Lynda Barry's new book, What It Is, ©Lynda Barry (Click on the title link to view the book on Amazon and see inside the book.)

I’m a huge fan of Lynda Barry’s work. I love her style, the unsentimental access to emotion, and her sense of humor. When I saw an ad in the New Yorker for her new book What It Is, I went right out and bought it. Didn’t even look at it in the store—and I wasn’t running late for an appointment or a meeting. I just didn’t have a need to look at it. It was going to be wonderful.

Then I got the book home and my confusion set in. There was no dust jacket, just a dust “strip” over the back cover. It informed me that Salon, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times Review of Books, and the San Francisco Chronicle all thought the book I had in my hands was brilliant, but their blurbs (excerpts from longer articles) didn’t tell me what the book was.

Then an explanatory paragraph from the publishers (Drawn and Quarterly) told me What It Is “demonstrates a tried-and-true creative method that is playful, powerful,…” It promised that Barry explored the depths of creativity. Well I was up for that. I opened the book and was confused again.

The first portion of the book isn’t a tried-and-true creative method. The first portion of the book is searching questions posed in collage form alternately interspersed with autobiographical bits rendered like a graphic novel. My first reaction was one of irritation. “I don’t have time to work this hard, reading a book,” I said to myself, and I put it aside and went back to baking bread and pineapple upside down cakes (yes cakes) for relatives and friends during the recent holiday season.

So that was my first mistake. I tried to read this book during the one time of the year when I am not only the grumpiest, but also the most in need of a dark and violent murder mystery to get me out of my head, or at least into a different part of my head. (I survived Dottie’s final illness reading Michael Connelly books all night, waiting until she wanted to take her next sub-zero walk.)

I mention my difficulty in approaching and reading this book just in case it confuses some of you too. I want you to know that there is in fact a workbook for writers (and exercises that can be adapted for visual artists) starting on page 137. Also, even with my grumpy state, by page 80 I was liking it more and more.

Initially I thought the collaged “question pages” were too abundant, and too repetitive (the same question approached from a slightly nuanced angle). I wanted to get back to the autobiographical pages and have some forward momentum.

Now that I have finished the book (and am no longer grumpy, though I do have a distinct craving for pineapple upside down cake) I have revisited the first portion of the book and see it as more balanced, inviting, and insight-inspiring than I did in my first grumpy pass. I also think that the nature of the question pages supports the biographical and activity bits in an essential way. The complex collages stand up to a second or third viewing as there are a lot of elements brought together in each one.

So, if you are a fan of Barry’s artwork, someone who is interested in collage, someone who likes to see process and who is always asking questions, and even a writer looking for some helpful exercises to get the mind and hand moving, I think you should check out this book. It’s always great to see a creative mind ranging around like this. Something will pop out and hit you smack in the head, and that’s always a good thing, creatively. (It might even smack you out of a grumpy mood.)

    • mo
    • January 25, 2009

    i read about this book just recently, and yesterday i happened across it at my local indie bookstore. of course i snapped it up, went next door for a cup of earl grey, and browsed thru the pages. what a complete treasure! the friend who was with me is absolutely salivating to get her hands on it, but i’m selfish and want to look thru it more carefully before i start lending it out. i completely fell in love with this book, so i’ll check out more of her books 😉

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