guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2008

Lynda Barry, What It Is (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2008); $24.95, hardcover.

By Michael Moon



When you grow up, would you like to be an actor, a singer, or a dancer? Nowadays, we tend to assume that a kid needs to figure out pretty early which track (and what part of that track) her particular talents (should she be so favored) have equipped her to pursue. Eventual success is supposed to depend on the kid’s sticking to that track for a decade or two of continual training and trials – usually to the neglect of other artistic pursuits. But histories tell us that in the early modern period (say, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), performers with anything much in the way of formal training studied all these arts extensively. Actors, for example, learned not just the rudiments of singing and dancing but developed sufficient skill to perform credibly alongside other performers for whom singing or dancing were primary pursuits. No one expects a “serious actor” in the theater today also to be able to enthrall an audience with a high C or a quick set of leaps and turns – but performers were once expected to have cultivated this whole range of skills to a pretty high degree. It probably seems strange to most of us now.

Yet something like what theater historians tell us happened in the performance world in the West beginning in the eighteenth century happens to most of us as we start growing up. Many little kids, Lynda Barry observes in her new book
What It Is, have a way of making lines on paper that pretty quickly turn into images that pretty quickly turn into stories. As she also points out, many children can also sing and dance to their own full satisfaction. Don’t you wish you could draw, write, sing and dance? You were quite likely able to do all these things at least passing well – did them and really enjoyed doing them – when you were a little kid. What happened?

What It Is is an amazing achievement. Full of ideas about how it is that lots of children seem so creative, so well equipped to intuit how to tap and develop the richness of their own sensorium and their own experience in relation to what seems initially to be an inexhaustible reservoir of artistic gifts, the book also provides a toolbox (a “workbook”) of exercises and techniques that can enable damaged, depressed, dissociated, and just plain “too busy” adolescents and adults to rediscover and redevelop the enlivening and inspiring connections to our energy, our “good demons,” our childhood muses, “the sun in my belly.” (Barry has been on to some of this for a long time: in an earlier work, she describes how, as a child at home, she would sometimes lie on the living room floor and take a perfectly sharpened pencil and poke tiny holes in the fabric that covered the stereo consoles’ speakers – why? Because, she says, it gave her “a perfect feeling in my pants.”)

Barry does this through a pretty compelling set of ideas about the image / images, and about human psychic functioning and its relation to the image. Rather than defining “image,” Barry intimates what seems important to her to understand about it: it’s “somehow alive” (“not in the way you and I are alive, but it’s certainly not dead”). It can move, and move us – in one of her most suggestive evocations of the dynamics of the image, Barry calls it “the pulltoy that pulls you.” “At the center of everything we call ‘the arts’ and children call ‘play,’ is something which seems somehow alive” (p. 14). “A kid who is playing is not alone. There is something brought alive during play, and this something, when played with, seems to play back” (p. 51). “An image,” she writes, “is a place. Not a picture of a place, but a place in and of itself” (p. 88).

The heart of the book, and of Barry’s method, is to be found in the section entitled “Two Questions.” “Is this good? Does this suck? I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something called ‘my work’ – I just know I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it.” But the relentless internalized censor with his two obsessive questions can be evaded. “When I was little,” Barry recalls, “I noticed that making lines on paper gave me a certain floating feeling. It made me feel like I was both there and not there” (pp. 123-24). Here and elsewhere Barry’s ideas about the creative process and its relation to self, identity, consciousness, and self-judgment may remind us of Gertrude Stein’s similar pronouncements in her 1936 lecture, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them”:

It is not extremely difficult not to have identity but it is extremely difficult the knowing not having identity. One might say it is impossible but that it is not impossible is proved by the existence of masterpieces which are just that. They are knowing that there is no identity and producing while identity is not.


“To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape,” Barry writes, “Without the two questions [“Is this good?” “Does this suck?”] so much is possible. To all the kids who quit drawing . . . come back!” (p. 135).

According to Barry, and in contradiction with almost everybody’s working (and perhaps also playing) habits today, the practices one needs to do in order to regain one’s lost connections to image-play cannot be performed on a computer. Call her oldfashioned, but three-hole notebook paper, a binder, and, above all, a pen is necessary. Many of the enabling exercises Barry presents have as their central imperative, “Keep the pen moving.” Choreographer Agnes De Mille tells in her 1952 memoir Dance to the Piper how once, during a discouraging phase in her own artistic life, her friend and fellow movement genius Martha Graham sent her the following message:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all Time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.


Barry’s “Class Monitor,” the friendly, many-eyed creature named Sea-Ma, couldn’t have put it better.

Barry shows more of the raw than of the finished edges in her processes and projects in this book. Readers of
What It Is, for example, get a preview of Barry’s fabric constructions of the four sisters in Little Women, of which she writes:
Here are my rejected little Women. I like them so much but have been told they are not LYNDABARRY enough – The art director says it doesn’t look like my work enough which make me laugh a little and also cry a little. (p. 200)

Although she is not identified by name in the book, the tired-but-resolute-looking woman depicted seated and reading at a desk on p. 169 is Louisa May Alcott, who knew a thing or two herself about what goes into unblocking life force. The Wikipedia entry for Lynda Barry claims that she is a fan of Mary Parker Follett’s 1930 magnum opus
Creative Experience. Follett lived at the foot of Beacon Hill in a “Boston marriage” with the woman who’d been the principal of the first school where she’d taught. Follett gave us the invaluable concept of a “win-win situation” and many other nuggets of relational and organizational wisdom, and her work is now recognized as having been the Motherlode (so to call it – Follett was no one’s mother) for the ideas of many of the “management gurus” of the later twentieth century. Follett had graduated from Radcliffe in1898 alongside classmate Gertrude Stein (Follett summa, Stein magna). Lynda Barry has been doing brilliantly innovative and moving work for decades now. With What It Is she has produced an account of her own discoveries about the creative process that are as helpful and inspiring as Follett’s, Stein’s, De Mille’s, and Graham’s. If you want to get up close and personal with that weird but accessible being or state of being that Barry calls “the formless thing which gives things form,” I suggest you get out your gluestick and scissors and start making your way through What It Is.

    But just looking at the book, even if you don’t fully get with its “Writing the Unthinkable” program, has its own transformative potential.  Every one of its 210 pages is a collage of enigmatic phrases, weird creatures (many of them pretty cute, it must be admitted), and helpful directives.  Barry’s way with color in this book represents a breakthrough for her: the palette is both strong and muted; its combination of softly bright figures against sometimes shadowy or even muddied backgrounds makes many of the pages  look more like certain old quilts and other handsewn objects than like what we expect to see in a conventionally printed picture-book (those “rejected” Little Women dolls may epitomize this new aesthetic of Barry’s).  Hats off to Barry’s new publishers, Drawn & Quarterly, for giving this artist’s work the very special treatment it deserves.