Cartoonist Lynda Barry's How-To Book 'What It Is' Makes Being an Artist Easy

You, Too, Can Be Creative!
Cartoonist Lynda Barry’s how-to makes being an artist easy

Why is it that most classes in creativity stifle the very thing they seek to nurture? Somehow, becoming conscious of the creative process—in the way it’s usually taught—extinguishes creativity. You remember those grade-school lessons in which what you drew or what you wrote was really an attempt at gaining approval from your teachers and peers, which had little to do with actually making art? When was it that we learned, if we did, to color outside the lines?

Cartoonist Lynda Barry, she of Ernie Pook’s Comeek fame, has pursued these question and come up with a method of making art that renders it a simple process. In distilled form, here it is: Keep moving. Don’t stop drawing or writing. If you’re suddenly stuck on the sentence displayed on your computer screen, switch to the note pad kept handy on your desk. Don’t let the flow stop. You’ll end up with puddles. Write what you know. And what you don’t.

What It Is (The Formless Thing Which Gives Things Form) is a beautiful and unsettling book that serves as a primer on artistic creation and self-knowledge. Barry digs into her twisted psyche to pass on what she’s learned, and in the process, she has created a dreamy art book. A collage of symbols and ideas, the book less resembles her Ernie Pook strip, in which she explores the thumb-sucking angst of pre-adult life, than her weirdly reflective One! Hundred! Demons! in its assemblage and technique. Part memoir, part sketch book, part strategy for unlocking the mystery of image, it’s Barry’s least narrative work and, in a sense, her most ambitious. A riddle about visual puzzles, it stirs both the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s a sort of Zen koan that poses questions—lots of questions—for which there are no simple answers.

Confused? That’s just the state Barry wants you to start from. The inside cover of the book is filled with jottings—some on Post-It notes, some on file cards—that aren’t exactly revelatory. “Living Bacon” and “Freak out after” share space with “No narrative memories until language” and “Images require some sort of representation in the world outside of us.” Once inside, this sort of random thinking begins to firm up, leaving (mostly) clear lines of thought. Certain images reoccur. Birds, cats, monkeys and ghost-like creatures with hollow eyes drift through the pages. Deep-sea images, complete with toothy fish, stand in for the subconscious, and a cephalopod (yes, an octopus) serves as a sort of Beatrice into the world of creation.

In her quest to capture the creative process (you just know she hates the word “process”), Barry pushes innocence. Childhood serves as a vehicle to revelation. “At the center of everything we call ‘the arts’ and children call ‘play’ is something which seems somehow alive,” she writes early on. “Adults are scared to do this,” she pens next to an owl, barely escaping triviality. Questions pile upon questions, and the search for answers seems confused and hopeless. What keeps us moving through this hodgepodge are the personal narratives—her early discovery of Medusa figures—and the strangeness of her pages that blend a variety of scripts and images into thoughtful mosaics.

In other words, this is as pretty and entrancing a picture book as you’ll find, something to be explored under the spell of psychedelics as well as studied when perfectly straight. Many of the narrative pages appear to be done on lined yellow legal paper, giving space to her words and a structured frame for her drawing. Detailed pencil sketches from her “copying” days are contrasted with colorful constructions of flowers, candles, phrases and peanut shells.

It all starts making sense past the halfway point of the book, after the story of how she became a cartoonist and was able to generate “that strange floating feeling of being there and not being there,” in which “one line led to another and a story slowly formed under my hands.” Barry sets us up with somewhat absurd activities as to “writing the unthinkable” and giving images “living form.” Suddenly, all the questions posed find value, if not answers, as she provides ways to bring out the details in the images we create. One facet left unexplored—revisions—seems foreign to her philosophy. (One of the cover-page notes sums up her thinking: “Why we don’t read it over? The person reading it over is not the same person writing it.”) Surprisingly, this weird and wonderful book ends up being as practical as it is dream-like. But you might like it just for its visual appeal.

What It Is (The Formless Thing Which Gives Things Form) by Lynda Barry; Drawn and Quarterly. Hardcover, 208 pages, $24.95.

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