Review: What It Is

21 May 2012


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!



I think this is something I love about Lynda Barry's work - it has a youthful quality that's uniquely hers. I'd love to hear your thoughts about Picture This!

What a cool book! I'll definitely track it down, I love books that get you thinking about your art. Thanks for pointing it out.

WOW i love this! inspiring! thanks for the review....i gotta read this!


I own this one, and I agree with everything you said. I was thinking about reviewing it, but as you say it's hard to define and categorize, so now I'm glad you wrote about it and made more people find it! Something I love is the cut out words and questions with no (or thousands) answers that really made me smile as I "read" through the book.

YES! And all the snippets from old letters that don't seem to be talking about the questions on the page, but then magically, somehow ARE.

ohhhh, how I love Lynda Barry! This looks wonderful - thanks for a very cool and personal review, Diane!

This looks awesome!! And with so much too look at and mull over, it looks like it'd easily see many readings and not get old.

Thank you so much for blogging about this!!!! I wouldn't have found it on my own and I think it will be a great creative project for my daughters and I to work through this summer. Think we'll be making some of our own collage pages.

Thanks. You've got such a great eye for things.

Ooh, I love the idea of working through this with your daughters! Maybe I'll try an exercise with my nephew when he's visiting this summer. I'm so glad this book spoke to you like it did to me!

My library system had both books - goody! I admired several of the page layouts. My scrapbook pages aren't so organic, and I draw like a 12 year old, but these books look vibrant.

Ditto to the infinite power! I love this book -- always a great one to return to when I'm floundering creatively. Sometimes I pair it with Twyla Tharp's no-nonsense "The Creative Habit" and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's meditative "Gift From The Sea."

Boy, I've heard so many people reference Twyla Tharp's book. Really must check that one out. Thanks for the recommendations, Gbemi!

Wait, you haven't read the Creative Habit?! Get on it, girl!
(also, you know the Artist's Way, right? To me, the Creative Habit and The Artist's Way (or Right to Write, or anything by JC) go together to form a kind of foundation of my philosophy of the creative life.)
While we're at books that shaped my creative life - A Whack on the Side of The Head was another book I read about the same time.

Ah, yes, I think I've read most of Julia Cameron's output - those are such important books. Creative Habit is on my list!

Lynda Barry just taught a class here at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. What wonderful energy she has.

Oh, I would so love to attend a class of hers!

Yes! I have had this book for years and just keep pulling it out when I need inspiration. I'm so glad you wrote about it!