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What It Is

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  18,861 ratings  ·  605 reviews
How do objects summon memories? What do real images feel like? For decades, these types of questions have permeated the pages of Lynda Barry’s compositions, with words attracting pictures and conjuring places through a pen that first and foremost keeps on moving. What It Is demonstrates a tried-and-true creative method that is playful, powerful, and accessible to anyone wi ...more
Hardcover, 210 pages
Published May 13th 2008 by Drawn and Quarterly
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Maxwell Mudd As a parent to a ten year old, and a fifteen year old, I would say any age after about 12 feels appropriate to me.

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Average rating 4.12  · 
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 ·  18,861 ratings  ·  605 reviews

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Jun 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to jess by: lynda barry
Shelves: 2008
THE ORDINARY IS EXTRAORDINARY. i love this book like i have never loved a book. i want to make out with it, caress it, sleep with it near my pillow and wake up clutching it after a bad dream.

this book is related to the Lynda Barry writing class WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE! which i took in april. this class and book are for people who think they want to write, but don't know where to start. it's also for people who never thought about writing, people who already write, and people who like other peop
Kevin Fanning
Aug 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I got this from the library but will be buying myself a copy post-haste.

This is what a book about writing should be. It was really interesting to read this so soon after Stephen King's "On Writing", because it really underlined how far short of the target his book fell.

A book about writing should do the following things:
* inspire you
* provide insight/discussion on the tools a writer needs
* offer framework for developing the skills of creativity.

This book does all of those things, but it's heavi

Imagine every page is like this, like opening a box of treasures. And in it, a germ of an idea: how and why does one write?

Many moons ago, when I was a teenager, I found a book that was very similar to this one in message (but in execution very different). It was Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

Like this one, it advocated writing non-stop for a set amount of time or until you fill a page. It also said to not stop to read over what you wrote until later. And
Jul 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-books
What It Is by Lynda Barry is a fascinating memoir/scrapbook/writing guide that almost defies definition. The first half of the book contains melancholic comic panels about Barry's alienated childhood and how drawing and writing saved her from loneliness interspersed with large one and two page spreads of collages that contain great writing prompts, like "Do thoughts move?" "What is a secret? What is it made of? Where is it kept?" "What is a monster? Do we need them?" The second half of the book ...more
Eve Kay
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book explains my whole entire childhood. Why I did what I did and why I didn't do most things other kids did.
This book explains why it all changed at some point and I stopped.
I'm glad I've already gotten back to most of the things I used to do as a kid (write, draw, color, imagine, play) because it's me. It's who I am.
This book explains a lot of the kind of mind I have right now. All the stuff about imagining, remembering, forgetting, dreams and fears and nightmares. It's all me. Why I dood
Emma Sea
Sep 24, 2014 marked it as non-fiction-to-read
The subtitle is "How to channel your inner cephalopod". How do I not already own this?

My cephalopod demands to be channeled!
Michelle Cristiani
Part graphic novel, part memoir, part writing prompt guide, this book is a treasure of many kinds of art in one. As inspiration, it's tops. As aesthetic assault, it's also tops. I really enjoyed it.

But I did have this nagging feeling I often get when I look at the graphic art from a clearly gifted mind: I don't know the word for it. Intimidation? Confusion? Guilt of some kind? The collage format makes me want to stare at each piece for individual inspiration, but the OCD in me wants to make sen
Feb 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Barry does it again! I love the free way she uses collage along with her more customary brush and ink work. Meet the Magic Cephalopod who guides us to our imagery,Sea-Ma, the nonjudgmental writing instructor, and the Near-Sighted Monkey who likes to clip magazines while watching TV and drinking beer.

6/16/09 I now own a copy of this book with my very own personal inscription from the author! She even drew a near-sighted monkey for me!

Jun 30, 2008 added it
Recommends it for: People whose brains can construct memory/images
Don't file this book under currently-reading.

Label it currently-utilizing.

Part philosophy, part workbook, all Right On!
Nov 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art-books

(More pictures at

This book screamed "Buy me!" when I saw it at the Drawn & Quarterly booth at San Diego Comic Con 2009. It is that good!

With a brush in the right hand, and a pencil on the left, the multi-eyed monster on the back cover spoked, "Welcome to writing the unthinkable". That's the essence of this book created by Lynda Barry, putting vivid imagination onto paper.

What It Is is a scrapbook that's filled to the brim with sketches, coloured illustrations, collages, comic
Aug 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I think about this book, about Lynda Barry, a lot. 5 stars a lot. I can't tell you why I like it, that'd be embarrassing, you might find out I care about stuff and then you might call me a pussy and then I might cry - or punch you - depending on the day. And let's face it, more than being honest about who I am I want you to like me.... ...more
Heather (DeathByBook)
Feb 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everybody. People who like to read & people who want to write.
Recommended to Heather (DeathByBook) by: Marlys
Great book! A simple yet incredibly effective techniques for finding stories that are already there inside you. I love Lynda Barry! Great for both young Adults and the older kind of Adults too.
Bowie Rowan
"What It Is" by Lynda Barry is part journal, scrapbook, sketchpad, self-help book, memoir, and writing exercise book, so I find it rather limiting to think of it as solely a journal. However, I suppose this book asks us to look at how we define the boundaries of a journal in the first place. "What It Is" is not a journal in the traditional sense. It is a journal that has been compiled with an audience in mind and with well-crafted pages in which the image often corresponds with the words, such a ...more
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very good book about how to get started writing, presented in Lynda Barry's inimitable style of illustration. This older book covers some of the same ground as Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, but with less drawing involved. If I had to pick just one, I would definitely go for Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. (Even though Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor doesn't have the helpful Magic and Creative Cephalopod.) ...more
First, let’s start with what Lynda Barry’s graphic novel is not: drab, ordinary, boring. As an intellectual rhapsody of the power of image, form, and function within writing, What It Is is unlike any book I’ve ever experienced: undeniably an oddity– although wonderfully so. Barry’s stylized use of color, text, imagery, and wording is gorgeous, and the thoughts/questions that she poses are intuitively reflective. Her “essay” questions (which bear the post script “we do not know the answers”) cove ...more
Nov 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating book. I picked it up and could not put it down. It was shelved with YA in my library. I usually only read and comment on books up to MG, and that's really all I feel qualified to discuss, but I have to say, if you know a teen-ager who is highly creative OR OR OR a teen-ager who feels they are highly un-creative, put this book in their hands. Heck, put it in the hands of ANY teen-ager or older person (and even more mature middle-schoolers). It is a fascinating study of the c ...more
Dec 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Lynda Barry takes readers on a visual exploration of insecurities and uncertainties about the world in What It Is. Barry's obsession with storytelling and authenticity shines as she reflects on incidents in her life that led her to express herself through words and drawings. She reflects on whether childhood is a place or a time in one's life, and whether the past isn't an integral part of your present experience that you can draw on to help the creative process. The book contains many ideas, qu ...more
Karin Cope
Jul 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I teach with this book. Students' first response is usually quite wild: look at my textbook! I can't believe I get to have a textbook that looks like this! Sometimes their parents and others make similar comments, but to opposite effect--you call THAT serious work?! Yes. I call that serious work. Serious as anything can be. It's a subversive, brilliant, heart-rending, tricky kind of book, full of wisdom about creativity and writing and image making--and living and being. Much of the insight of a ...more
Jul 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, nonfiction, self-help
Lynda Barry has great suggestions for creativity, insight into what happens to creativity in childhood, and some memories from childhood that will sound familiar to a lot of people (weird things kids do! Sad/true/real/weird/relatable). I read this because Austin Kleon talks about Barry a lot, and I can see why. She seems to be the embodiment of "Keep Going." I would not confuse the two, but I was reminded of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear in many ways. ...more
Jun 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book is a must read, as far as I'm concerned. The layers of meaning create an entire world. The visual language is as compelling as the hand-drawn words on the page, and her humanity and humor are a treat to be around. I was delighted to see that someone else shares my weird habit of drawing the alphabet/letter forms as a way to center and free one's thoughts in preparation for diving off into the creative unknown. So cool! ...more
Lord Beardsley
Jan 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read2014
This beautiful, inspiring book is essential reading for anyone from the life-long artist/writer feeling down on themselves to those suffering from writer's/artist's block, all the way to those who for whatever reason gave up their childhood joy of writing and drawing for more adulty pursuits. Lynda Barry always manages to speak to the heart without ever going down the cutsie path. Essential reading material.

P.S. I really adore her friend the Magic Cephalopod.
Wow! This book is as fun to look at as a great example of art journalling as it is to soak in all the wisdom about writing and art making from the multi-talented Lynda Barry. I found it really inspiring and am going to try many of the exercises for writing which are so different than the ones that you usually encounter in "how to write" books. Terrific, unusual and inspiring, all in one book. ...more
Andee Marley
May 28, 2013 rated it did not like it
This collage /mixed media graphic novel is usually the type of book that thrills me, chills me and lights my fire.

I have no idea why there is no spark, if it were an ex-boyfriend I would whine "but we look so good together on paper..." By the end if this zine I screamed UUGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH inside my head.

It's not you, it's me.
May 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: writers, non-writers, everyone
Shelves: comix
Amazing, beautiful, and thought-provoking. My goal for the next month or so is to attempt all the writing exercises and unleash my inner Magic Cephalopod.
Jun 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is absolutely one of the most beautiful things I own. It also is very wise, and I feel like kissing Ms. Barry's feet for gifting the world with it. ...more
Aug 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: female, favorites, english
This book is Lynda Barry herself.
April Henry
Aug 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
On the front of the book, it says "How to Write." I write books and I look books about writing.

I'm not sure what I expected, and at first my reaction was this wasn't it. In the beginning there's a lot of interesting questions interspersed with doodles and collages. In between there are stories about Lynda's childhood, which was difficult to say the least.

The last section does have a lot of writing prompts.

But when I take a step back and look at it as a whole, the book was deep and moving. It w
Jun 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
What a strange but inspiring book about creativity and the importance of art. Barry makes a strong case for writing in journals by hand and not just typing everything, which I also endorse. I love my notebooks!

This structure is a little messy but I think that is sort of the point. I will come back to the second half where Barry has some great prompts. A wonderful way to spend a morning when faced with so-called writer's block!
Stephanie (aka WW)
Sep 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
(3.75 stars) This is not my favorite Lynda Barry book, but I'm not a wannabe writer and that is the target audience. The writing exercises seem like they would be very helpful to beginners and Lynda's wacky illustrations are themselves idea generators. ...more
Will McGrath
Nov 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Lynda Barry is a singular weirdo genius. This is an uncategorizable object - graphic memoir? creative writing class? manifesto for living? activity book? standalone autotelic visual artwork?

I don't know what it is, but "What It is" rules.
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Lynda Barry is an American cartoonist and author, perhaps best known for her weekly comic strip Ernie Pook's Comeek. ...more

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“There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.

I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.

They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”
“What year is it in your imagination?” 28 likes
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