What It Is by Lynda Barry

10 Aug

Bibliographic Information

What It Is written and illustrated by Lynda Barry, Drawn and Quarterly, ISBN: 978-1897-299-357

Plot Summary

Lynda Barry’s What It Is is part memoir, part creative writing lesson, and part exploration of the imagination.  Barry, best known for her comic Ernie Pook’s Comeek, writes and illustrates each page, telling stories of her past and giving advice on where to find stories in our own lives.  Her goal is to help writers avoid the trap of looking for a story and focus instead on looking for an image that resonates with them in some way.

Her writing exercises are structured around helping readers find and write about these images from their life, whether it’s a car, someone else’s mother, or a dog. After brainstorming a list of cars, mothers, or dogs, she has readers select one that they see most clearly and then spend time in the image, describing what it is, what’s above it, below it, next to it, etc.  Once readers have gathered this information, she has them freewrite in the present tense, beginning with the words “I am…”.   The process is broken down into various steps and lasts a total of 30 minutes.

Critical Evaluation

What It Is is one of the best creative writing books I have ever read.  Through the autobiographical comics she includes, the reader understands and relates to the creative frustrations experienced by Barry when she was younger.  These include being creatively blocked and obsessing if her work was any good.

To combat these enemies of creativity, Barry has designed her exercises to shut down the more critical left hemisphere of our brains and do more free association and free writing to find and tell our stories.

What makes What It Is different from other creative writing books are Barry’s amazing illustrations.  There are her terrific comics and illustrations, but more impressive (at least for this reader) are her collages that accompany the pages that ask more philosophical questions on the creative process like “What is thought?”, “What is an image?” and “Can we remember something we can’t imagine?”  Readers can spend hours on these pages considering the question and studying the images for symbolic meaning.

Reader’s Annotation

Where do stories come from?  This is one of the profound questions Lynda Barry explores in her beautiful book What It Is. Not only does Barry offer excellent advice for how to find stories, she also shares philosophical musings and stories from her own life as an artist. The words and images will inspire you to write, draw, and reflect.

Information about the author

From the author’s page on Amazon.com, we learn that “Lynda Barry has worked as a painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator and teacher and found they are very much alike. She is the inimitable creator behind the seminal comic strip that was syndicated across North America in alternative weeklies for two decades, Ernie Pook’s Comeek featuring the incomparable Marlys and Freddy, as well as the books One! Hundred! Demons!, The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, Cruddy: An Illustrated Novel, Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies! Naked Ladies!, The Good Times are Killing Me which was adapted as an off-Broadway play and won the Washington State Governor’s Award. Her bestselling and acclaimed creative writing-how to-graphic novel for Drawn & Quarterly, What It Is, won the Eisner Award for Best Reality Based Graphic Novel and R.R. Donnelly Award for highest literary achievement by a Wisconsin author. D+Q plans to publish a multivolume collection of Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Barry’s next prose novel, and the follow up and creative drawing companion to What It Is, November 2010’s Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book.


Non-Fiction, Art and Writing

Curriculum Ties

Art, English

Booktalking Ideas


Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

Challenge Issues


Why did I include this title?

This is one of my favorite books in my collection.  I not only use it for my students, but refer to it whenever I’m creatively blocked or frustrated.  It is an inspirational book that will help young people find and tell the stories of their lives.



One Response to “What It Is by Lynda Barry”

  1. Impybat August 10, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    I just read this last week!

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