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What It Is h/c

What It Is h/c What It Is h/c What It Is h/c

What It Is h/c back

Lynda Barry


Page 45 Review by Stephen

"What is now proved was once only imagin'd...
One thought fills immensity."

- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

If you think I've just set the bar a little too high there, think again. Think, imagine, and remember a time when you did so uninhibited by your own expectations, and regardless of the judgement of others. This is what Lynda has learned once again after struggling with two terrible questions which held her hostage for thirty long years: "Is it good? Does this suck?" The paralysis! "I'm not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called 'my work'... I just know I'd stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it."

Amen to that. My first job was as a commercial designer for a t-shirt, bag and tea-towel company, drawing longboats and harbours and several nautical miles of rope to frame them all in. And as for the lettering... it killed my love of art for quite some time.

But it wasn't so for any of us in childhood, was it? We'd gamely fill page after page with scrawls that meant so much more to us than adults could see in them: whole sagas which we'd have in our heads and perhaps talked through outloud or added sound effects to whether in company or alone. Here Lynda gently seeks to reassure every one of us that we can still create using words and images in our heads, and helps us to do so first by asking a series of seemingly simple but profound questions surrounded by thoughts and images that may strike a chord or spark an idea, then gently steering us in potential directions before offering an activity section which jump-starts the memory to rekindle your imagination and thence your ability to tell stories. Each one of us, I'll wager, can benefit enormously if only to get us to play with our minds and thoroughly enjoy doing so.

Playing is vital as Barry makes clear ("At the centre of everything we call 'The Arts' and children call 'play' is something which seems somehow alive"), and she's doing just that in this colourful, impressionistic collage of words and images which made me smile throughout. Some of the images are freshly drawn by Lynda, some are cut out then decorated with paint, beads and cloth, and there are an awful lot of animals, aren't there? Hmm. It's also laced through with poignant autobiography which tells of a childhood during which play filled the vacuum of parental neglect verging on abandonment or acted as an escape from her Gorgon of a mother. The past, in fact, is a key component in both sections of the book.

"What is the past? Where is it located?" A glib answer would be in Another Country ("They do things differently there"), but as Lynda identifies correctly, it's not just there, is it? It's here as well, with us all the time, constantly informing the way we react to sights, sounds and smell, and it's this link she uses in her exercises to catalyse our creative process.

In separate lessons, with the aid of the magic cephalopod (oh you'll see - he's so much fun!), she asks you to open your mind to ten cars you recall from early life, or other people's mothers, or perhaps ten of your school chums. She then suggests you use your mind's eye to picture (amongst other things) the following: "Where are you? What are you doing? What time of day or night does it seem? Who else is there? Why are you there?" I'm truncating (for example, you're also exhorted to look above, below and all around you, and you're encouraged to write instinctively without pause to find out what pops into your head rather than trying too hard), but it's this last question which gives the clue to later developments because it suggests a narrative from the time a decision was made through your current location to where you will be and what you will be doing later on.

Once you're onto your childhood friends, it gets even more interesting. List twenty early classmates who spring to mind. "Can you write two sentences about each person on your list?" So far, so good, but now, "Pick 10 people from your list and imagine each of them is doing the last exercise and you are on their list. Write two or three sentences from each person's point of view about you." Ah, you're having to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. Then, using someone particularly vivid from that list, you're first asked to repeat the previous exercise about friends' mothers (see similar questions above) by writing about your friend instead, and then... repeat the exercise from your friend's point of view, pretending you're them. You're now heading towards creating fiction!

It's far more expansive than that, involving cutting out images to store and surprise yourself with later, creating a story around them, and composing words in relation to each other in order to cause specific effect (or, as Alan Moore would call it, "casting a spell"), but the initial process involves triggering your memory.

"What," Lynda asks early on, "is the difference between imagination and memory?" Is there one?
"What is a memory?" According to Lynda, it's an image that travels through time.
"Can images exist without thinking?" Or vice-versa?
"Can we remember something we can't imagine?" No, I don't think so.
"Is dream autobiography or fiction?" Good question.

Yes, it's that sort of a book: a work of profound but gentle philosophy (that at times verges on actual therapy!) about the power and importance of the unfettered imagination which immediately put me in mind of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, not least because of its visual execution and the importance it attaches to physically using a pen. Blake wasn't at all keen on the mechanical printing process, whilst Barry eschews the pressing of keys on a computer because what occurs is merely representational: "Handwriting is an image left by a living being in motion." And doesn't that matter? Also, just as you would with a drawing, I'd have thought you're having to imagine on the paper in front of you the word you're about to create, thereby exercising the same part of your brain. It's all good practice: "The best way to learn how to do it is to do it a lot". Applies to everything, I'd have thought.

This is a magical book - in Moore's sense of the word particularly - taking in all manner of things including monsters, toys, pets and painful memories as you're transported back to a time when storytelling came instinctively and was its own reward, when you saw constellations in flowers, terror in the shadows, and "playing with yourself" had a completely different meaning.

The mind is a pretty weird place, to be sure, but if Lynda's taught me anything, it's that the most important thing is to think about it.
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