What It Is: The Lynda Barry “Distraction”

I think it’s time we talked about the supreme awesomeness of Lynda Barry . . .

. . . and maybe a little bit about why I love her most recent book, What It Is.

I’m not practiced at writing reviews, but fortunately there’s already a ton of great material out there. I’ll bust out the links as we go, and you can get distracted just like me.

Let me back up for a minute. Here I am, okay, it’s Monday and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I’m trying to figure out a new book, so I started the day determined to FOCUS and CONCENTRATE (two excellent candidates for 2009 OLWs, if you haven’t grabbed one already). But here am I, DISTRACTED by Lynda Barry. Rather than resist it, however, I’m thinking maybe that’s the entire point of her book, of creativity itself. Or at least an aspect of it: That you can’t always direct creativity. And that maybe it’s absolutely the worst thing you could do, like attempting to “master” nature, when what you need to do is ride that wave.

If I had a motto, it would be this: Follow Your Enthusiasms. Take that walk into the deep dark woods. And trust your instincts, even if you don’t know where you are going. So today it’s Lynda Barry. I can’t shake her out of my mind and I’m thinking that it’s wrong to try, like trying to push away a dream.

My distraction — this impulse I have today to “deal” with Lynda Barry’s work — to read her, watch her on youtube (genius clip beow!), to think and read and write about her, may be feeding my soul. It might even be, strangely, helping me work on this unwritten book. It may be exactly what I need, because really, who knows what we need? Or how “work” works? We only know what we want, or think we need, and often that may be the opposite of Need.

I mean to ask, is this UNPRODUCTIVE?

All I know is that I have to answer it, this tug. I am compelled to respond. I can’t and won’t push it away. And at the same time, I know that by doing this, writing about it, I will be able to get back to where I once belonged, start doing what I “need” to do.

It is a dance between conscious motivation and the wellspring of unconsciousness. No matter how busy you are, it’s seriously bad Mojo to push away the things that inspire you.

So I’m loving Lynda Barry’s most recent book, What It Is. Douglas Wolk wrote an excellent review of it at Salon. Here’s an excerpt:

Every page of Lynda Barry’s book demands to be stared at lingeringly and lovingly. What It Is is nominally a book about writing rather than cartooning; it’s jumbled and digressive, occasionally vague on the details. Even so, it’s likely to be useful and even inspiring to anyone who wants to make comics, or any kind of narrative art, for that matter, because what it’s meant to serve isn’t the mechanics of creative work but the creative impulse itself.

To give you a feeling for the book, check out these screen captures (some of these borrowed from the Pop Candy blog):

And on and on it goes. One amazing page after another. (Visually, it reminds me of what Vera B. Williams did with More More More Said the Baby, the way she felt compelled to fill each inch of every page with paint, had to pour everything into it.)

As a reader, and a writer, I’ve often sought out books that will feed my imagination. Books that inspire me. Books that I can use. And at the same time, when I’m writing, there are so many books that could get in the way, could stop me cold. Which is why a lot of writers don’t read novels when they are deep into working on a book. For example, I’m writing a school based-story, so I absolutely can’t go near anything by Andrew Clements.

But this book, What It Is, well, that’s just food. It sustains me, urges me forward. It is not a “how to” book but, come to think of it, a “Do” book (which aligns nicely with my OLW for 2009). A book you want to close after reading dreaming through a few pages. A book that goads you into action.

Lynda Barry also teaches workshops, “Writing the Unthinkable.” Her Myspace page is a revelation, staggeringly good. I’m stunned by how much I don’t know about this woman, though I’ve read her comics, it seems, all my life:

Now check out this three-minute clip from a bookstore talk. Isn’t she great? Don’t you love her? Aren’t you distracted and inspired and happy? I am.

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POSTSCRIPT: For more Lynda Barry goodness, click like crazy right here!


  1. Heck yeah! All hail Lynda Barry! Thanks for the vid, P–good way to start the day.

  2. Caroline Barrett says:

    Jimmy, love her, love it, love you!

    Also like her youtube video talk about how it made her so happy as a child to make a construction paper book. And it still does.

  3. Jimmy says:

    Thanks, CB, I’ll loan you the book. A large part of it is memoir — a painful life, saved by art and the imagination, accutely observed and felt — it’s really moving. If I ran a publishing company, I’d try to entice her into writing a YA novel.

  4. Ellen says:

    lynda barry is funk queen of the universe!

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