Reviewed by Steven Wolk
I post my reviews on the 25th of each month. This review spot in Guys Lit Wire--the 23rd of each month--is normally the place for Dewey's book review. Tragically, Dewey passed away recently. I was asked this month to post in Dewey's spot. I did not know Dewey, who was an English teacher (and that tells me something about her), but I want to acknowledge that this is her place. I'm just a guest today. Rest in peace.
There is just one Lynda Barry. Artist, playwright, novelist, comic creator. Lynda Barry is an original, and as my Grandma used to say, they made her and broke the mold. Her book, What It Is, is a visual and creative marvel. Nearly every page is a mixed media collage made up of found images, original painting, found text, added text, manipulated text, and photos. Barry puts them all together to create a beautiful and stimulating image on each page. You can spend hours looking at all of the details and reading the bits and pieces of text scattered around the pages.
Separately, the pages are a feast for the eyes, but together they are meant to motivate and inspire the artist and writer and thinker and creator inside each of us. Barry offers writing workshops, and this is a book version of her workshop. Most of the collage pages center around a question: What is the past made of? What are we doing when we are looking? Do memories have mass? Can images exist without thinking? Do you wish you could draw? What is intention?
What makes What It Is especially interesting--and gives it a vital dimension--is a running autobiographical narrative through the book. Barry relates key periods in her life that either hindered or energized her creativity. From her mother to her art teachers to her own self-doubt, Barry tells a compelling story that shows how easy it is for the people and systems around us to obstruct--or even destroy--our creativity, curiosity, wonder, and our youthful urge to create. In a nation (and a larger belief system of schooling) that does not value art, imagination, or questioning the status quo, What It Is serves as a bright beacon to nurture and appreciate the artist and thinker inside all of us.
I assume some readers will be compelled to just flip through this book to look at the amazing imagery and read an occasional piece of text. While there is nothing wrong with roaming through a book--in fact, this book makes marvelous meandering material--I urge readers to actually read the book. When you finish it you will feel the power and the joy of this wonderful thing called imagination.