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‘What It Is’ Review: Harnessing Images for Creativity

4.5 Stars

Cover of “What It Is” by Lynda Barry.
Cover of “What It Is” by Lynda Barry. By Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly
By Claire C. Swadling, Crimson Staff Writer

Lynda Barry’s “What It Is” is not just a creative scrapbook but an experience: full of thought-provoking questions, charismatic doodles, and insightful writing exercises. In dissecting innovative concepts with critical questions, telling her own personal stories through comics, and providing writing activities with the help of recurring characters like the Magic Cephalopod and Sea-ma, Barry uses images to realize creative potential.

What first strikes readers about “What It Is” is the book’s structure. Each page is a collage full of animal doodlings, hand drawn cartoons, text snippets, newspaper cut-outs, and other miscellaneous materials. Text is woven in and around objects on the page, sometimes appearing sideways or upside down and present in fragments, typeset or in cursive.

This unconventional format invites readers to let their eyes wander freely across the nooks and crannies of Barry’s collages, exploring the treasure trove that’s uncovered with each new collage. This myriad of scrawlings and textures adds many physical and metaphorical layers to her musings. Each page explores a similar concept from many different angles through the snippets of paper present.

The variety of visual resources used urges readers to think critically about creativity-oriented questions. For example, one page is dedicated to the question: “What is movement?” The page includes a drawn silhouette of a soldier, a clock with Roman numerals, and textured paper cutouts, along with marker and ink drawings of birds. It also sports relevant thoughts and fragments in calligraphy and cursive: “to go on being a being in motion,” “I don’t go walking any more,” and “I will dissipate drab discord,” to name a few.

However, what makes the page stand out are the seemingly tangential questions Barry provides in cursive and watercolor: “Where is your body when you think?,” “Do images have motion?,” and “Do thoughts move?” The exploration of concepts like these expands the variety of thought associations. The meaning that emerges from these bits and pieces is clear: The sum is much greater than the parts.

Furthermore, Barry’s personal stories help frame the reader’s exploration into the creative. These mini-narratives are told on lined paper in all caps and watercolor comics, depicting her path of creative discovery. For instance, in telling the story of how her art evolved throughout high school and college, Barry writes about visiting bookstores and the influence of an art teacher. In the margins, a few chosen scenes from Barry’s memories play out. Her signature animal doodles find their way into crevices as birds embellish the page, creating familiarity as readers explore the depths of her memories.

At times, it can seem as if Barry asks more questions than she answers, but that is precisely the charm of “What It Is.” Dissecting a concept through critical analysis engages the reader in a pseudo-Socratic style of learning.

This point is further driven home in the last section of the book which is an activity guide to aid the creative writing process. At the core of all of Barry’s activities is a focus on using a stimulus to explore an image. For example, readers are instructed to relax, think of a list of other people’s mothers, choose one from their list, answer a list of questions about the image, and look around in the physical space of the imaginary scene. The activity section also provides comprehension check quizzes and guidance from Sea-ma, a many-eyed sea monster, who is always eager to help out. Barry urges readers to examine firsthand how images can aid their creative processes by incorporating prescribed writing exercises.

Through her use of textures, questions, and doodles, Barry curates a critical thinking experience like no other. Accordingly, readers are advised to pick up “What It Is” in order to explore Barry’s creative ideation and its manifestations, as well as to discover their own images.

—Staff writer Claire C. Swadling can be reached at

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