What is an image?
What is/where is your imagination?
What happens when we read a story?
Most pages in the first half of “What It Is” presents you with one or more of these kinds of questions amid strange, dreamlike, and sometimes-disturbing imagery. The book doesn’t answer them for you, but that isn’t the point. You’re meant to think about them and come up with your own answers (or not, some things have no answer) as part of your journey to becoming a creative person. The rest of this section is filled with sections about the author herself, that, taken together, form a memoir of her experiences with creativity in her youth.
To be honest, I did not enjoy “What It Is.” Art is a very subjective thing, and I did not enjoy Lynda Barry’s very much. I’m not much a fan of her abstract imagery or color use, especially the overwhelming presence of obnoxious yellows, but most of all I simply don’t see the point in most pages. The books is vague and mysterious, seemingly building up to a dramatic reveal about just what creativity is, only for the book to finally say…
“I don’t know.”
There are legitimate points made in this revelation. Trying too hard to plan out your process or caring too much about what you or others think about the end result is not very helpful, and can interfere with actually creating anything. Doodling, or creating without purpose, is also important, however…did we really need 136 pages to essentially be told, “Don’t overthink things?” I don’t think we did.
I think deliberation is just as important as letting things come to you when it comes to creating anything worthwhile. Does art need to be worthwhile to other people? No, but it should at least be worthwhile to yourself. Doodle, write, create freely, then find the bits you like best and polish them. Let things come to you and cull the junk. This is, I think, an important second step to “I don’t know/don’t overthink” that is completely overlooked in this book. Barry argues that dwelling on whether something sucks or not is pointless, and leaves it at that. True, it’s not healthy to constantly criticize yourself and your work if you wish to create at all, but it’s also important to be able to look at what you DO create and think, “how could this be better?”
Part of being a creative person is the never-ending process of improving your work. This artistic growth will take a different form for every creator, but it must always be there if you want your work to be alive. Life is, after all, a never-ending process of growth and change, and if your work doesn’t grow with you…then what more is it than lines on a page?