“What It Is” and Beyond

Initially, when I picked up Lynda Barry’s book “What It Is,” I was not exactly sure what to make of it. Its scrapbook collage style was something I had not anticipated, and to be honest, I was not overly enthusiastic about reading it. However, the more I read, I realized that there is perhaps potentially more to Ms. Barry’s message than she originally intended.


This book is both a textbook and workbook in that it tries to inspire the creative juices for drawing and storytelling, and to remind us, the adult reader, what it was like to play when we were children. The first section, surrounded in a blue border, is layered with seemingly random images and text, like a scrapbook, which expounds each pages larger philosophical question. Each one is extremely thought provoking and forces us to look deep within ourselves. I mean how do you answer questions like, “what is the past made of?” or “what do real images feel like?” Additionally, Ms. Barry adds several autobiographical snippets of her unhappy childhood, and how she made the journey to a career in art.


The second section, the workbook, using a pink border, is based on Ms. Barry’s popular writing seminar, “Writing the Unthinkable.” Offered to adults from all walks of life, it is advertised that her workshop, “works especially well for ‘non-writers.'” It uses memory recall by using words or sentences to invoke images from your past, to unlock a proverbial flood of memories to spark the creative writing process. In other writing exercises, Ms. Barry incorporates the use of timers, as she feels, “limitation creates structure.”


What Ms. Barry is trying to teach us is that we all have the capacity to be remarkable, creative beings. She wants us to remember what it was like to look at the world when we were children. To remember a time that was full of magic, before we grew up and became jaded or scarred with the passage of time. Because eventually our lives become mired down with Ms. Barry’s two questions, “Is it good?” or “Does it suck?”


Strictly speaking, when it comes to these two questions, as it applies to this book, of course they are completely relevant. However, in my experience, both can hinder a person as they undertake any venture, not just writing and drawing.


“Does it suck?” or “Is it good?” My God, I cannot think of two more debilitating questions a person could ask themselves when referring to their art or craft. For the better part of my life, I was a musician. I grew up and went to public school in Fairfax County, VA. At that time, the best public school music programs where found in the state of Texas, and in Fairfax County. And that is probably still true today. After high school, I attended a major university and double majored in Music Education and Trumpet Performance.


The pressure to perform always at the highest level was continuously present. Based on the individual’s specific instrument, everyone was vying for the top spot. At first, this primarily meant the school’s musical ensembles. However, a little later on, you would be competing against each other at auditions for potential employment. While friendships were formed, the competition was fierce, not only with others, but with yourself.

After reading that section in “What It Is,” and followed by a little classroom discussion, my own memories from that time came flooding back. I truly remember asking, not only myself those questions, but my professors, and peers as well, and always with the highest level of anxiety. As a performance major, one of the stipulations was that you needed to perform. A lot. Trumpet playing, which was once a source of great joy for me, was becoming less and less fun, as I worried more and more about what other people thought.


However, like all things in life, with age comes experience and that ever-wonderful “A-HA moment.” I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing when it finally happened to me. I had just finished performing in a weekly departmental recital, and was receiving mostly positive feedback from professors and audience members…until…this one person approached me. He proceeded to criticize my entire performance, from my interpretations regarding certain passages in the music, to my overall sound on the instrument. To make this story even more interesting, I did not even know him. Afterwards, instead of being able to focus on the positive, I fixated on this one guy, and basically went through the seven stages of grief.


When I finally reached the acceptance and hope stage, I realized that it is simply impossible to please everybody all the time. Furthermore, to try would be completely futile, and really, I would essentially have to drive myself mad, in any such attempt. Fundamentally removing the joy and pleasure from what lead me to music in the first place. And this is true in all things, not just writing and drawing.


So, what I am really saying is, of course, yes, you should always try to do your best in everything you do. Is it important to have goals and a competitive edge as we go through life? Again, yes. However, it is important to remember to have fun when we play, write, draw, or whatever, regardless of one’s age, or whatever the stakes may be.






Kios, Dan. “Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself.” New York Times Magazine.

Oct 27, 2011. Web. Date accessed Oct 7, 2015.