Panel to Panel
By Nathan Patton
What It Is
Author: Lynda Barry
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Tips on finding the muse
Part memoir and part creativity guidebook, Lynda Barry’s “What It Is” is extremely ambitious in its venture to be so many things at once. But Barry accomplishes everything she sets out to do.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Barry asks simple questions about creativity and memory, such as: “What is an image?” and “Why do we keep bad memories?”
In between these questions, Barry attempts to answer them from her own perspective, while simultaneously telling the story of how she became a cartoonist. She started out copying pictures from the few books she was allowed to have by her overbearing mother, whom she compares to Medussa. Barry says she was “turned to stone‚” by her mother who constant stifling of her creativity
and self-confidence. So instead of using her talents, Barry chose to watch TV, which she views as something used as an escape from imagination and creativity. Once she overcame the fear of her mother’s disapproval, she started making her own comics. But where once was fear, now was self-doubt, something that has stuck with her through her entire creative life.
The autobiographical tale starts with Barry having a case of what is often called writer’s block‚and trying to understand how our minds allow our bad memories to survive and block our creativity.
She tells the story of her creative life with an almost journalistic eye, focusing on the details more than the emotions.
Just as the first section inspires creativity by asking questions, the second section commands it through free-writing exercises and abstract motivators. Culled directly from the cartoonist’s workshop she teaches, Barry attempts to get her students to use their memories to better use the most important tool for any writer: details. Whether or not this adaptation of her class works is debatable, but it is comprehensive.
Proving that she’s also a student of her own class, Barry uses the third section to show her work. She includes the notes and templates that she used while trying to decide how best to tell her story and get her ideas across. In a book about inspiration, the idea of her including these pages is obvious, but novel.
The entire book is comprised of single page, full-color collages, using mixed media. The collages are made up of her child-like drawings, doodles, paintings, handouts from her class, and even Barry’s childhood homework. The art is fantastically complex and is a real treat to take in without reading a word of the book.
As Barry ponders her philosophy on imagination and ideas on the page, she challenges her readers and pupils to do the same. This book is not only essential to any cartoonist, but to anyone in need of creative inspiration.