I’ve been wanting to write about this book for a while now, but I have this thing about actually finishing a book before I blog about it.
…And I finally had to accept that I’m taking forever to finish this one, because I really don’t want the experience to end. Do you ever get that – where you experience something glorious for the first time, and there’s a slight pang of sadness because you also know you’ll never have this exact experience of discovery again?
Wait – I’ll quit waxing rhapsodic for a moment and actually tell you about What It Is. It’s a wonderful odd bird of a book, part graphic memoir, part instruction book on creating, and part meditation, and part art book.
It’s the work of Lynda Barry, whose comics you may have seen in your local newspaper over the years. Here, she makes a big departure from her comic style to work in something that’s almost mixed media, but really more like stream of consciousness with art supplies.
The first two-thirds of What It Is are filled with these lavish full-page collages. You move through them slowly, taking them in as wholes, and then roaming around among the details. They’re filled with the color and texture we creatives are naturally attracted to, and also with seemingly-simple questions that slowly penetrate your conscious mind.
…And interspersed with the collages, Lynda Barry shares her own story of how drawing (and later, other media) was an escape during her childhood, and how it led her to find value in herself through her school years. She shares how she struggled with her art in college, and how one particular professor helped her decode that struggle.
The hand lettering, interspersed with drawings, is totally compelling.
The effect reading this book has had on me is tangible. It’s a book with its own rhythm. Instead of flipping through, thinking “Oh, I might make that, and I wouldn’t make that, and isn’t that pretty,”, you actually find yourself slowing down, taking in the smallest details, moving seamlessly between art and memoir, and entering a dreamlike creative state.
It’s hard to tell whether this effect was a deliberate creation by Lynda Barry, but if it was, color me extremely freaking impressed.
Let’s talk about the workbook section, then. It’s just as colorful and fun, and it’s full of accessible exercises to get you wrestling with where your personal lexicon of images comes from. (Is it your memories? Is it your own inventions? Is it a reaction to your experiences?)
The exercises are mostly writing exercises, but they’re designed to evoke images – which you might then use in any other creative media you like using.
It’s such an engaging visual style to me. There are a lot of creative workbooks in the world, and they’re all valuable to someone. But I have to say, I’m loving the way this presentation keeps me in a more flowing mindset.
Since What It Is defies categorization to some extent, you might have to poke around your local bookstore to find a copy – here in PDX, I always see it in the Graphic Novels section. Or of course, the links will take you to it online.
…And Lynda Barry has a companion volume to this book out, called Picture This, which is a similar format, but with art instruction.
On. My. Wishlist, Baby!