Image of Lynda Barry via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr
My family has a home video of me when I was six, showing off a notebook full of my artwork. In the video, I hold up each drawing, then page through the book quickly, shaking my head and muttering to myself as if preoccupied with some urgent business matter. I'm performing for the camera, but I'm not self-conscious about the drawings or worried about what my parents will think of them. I take them seriously.
As kids, all of us play, and that includes drawing and coloring — we let ourselves create freely, use our imagination to narrate each picture, and build fantastic worlds that we really believe in. But at some point, when we're still young, we start to pull back and censor ourselves. We stunt our own creativity with anxious questions: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?"
That's the central idea of Lynda Barry's What It Is, a meandering meditation on creativity as something that all of us can access. In a series of dense, colorful collages interspersed with her own brush drawings and writing, Barry recalls her childhood imagination and freedom to create, and how she lost it over time. She asks a series of questions about imagination, dreams, memories, and the senses,
Kids can tap into their imaginations easily, until what Barry calls the Two Questions of "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" turn art into something only certain people are allowed to do. "The Two Questions find everybody," Barry says. Once they take hold, art becomes useful only when other people like it, not as something to be created for its own sake. Though Barry grew up to be a professional artist, she writes that after a certain point, she never drew for fun anymore: "I'd forgotten how stories used to bubble up out of the lines and surprise me. It was why I started drawing — to meet those lines and stories."
Our connection to creativity isn't lost forever, though. The second part of What It Is is an activity book — still made up of scattered, layered collages, but with specific exercises that encourage readers to draw, write, play, and think. One instruction says to set time for continuous, uninterrupted writing, and to draw spirals on a scratch pad if you get stuck so that your pen remains in motion. Barry includes pages from her own scratch pad, the doodles and notes she's written in the course of creating.
I doodled in the margins of my notebooks all through high school, but that was about it — by the time I reached adulthood, I had more or less stopped drawing completely. With my writing, too, I've let the Two Questions take over, getting paralyzed as I compare myself to other people's successes and question my own work. What It Is is a valuable reminder that everyone can make art, that the act of creating is important in itself, and that we can reconnect with our creativity just by starting to move a pen over paper, without worrying about where it will end up.