I have nearly a hundred of my old reviews and columns from the old sequart.com site that I've managed to recover. I will occasionally post some of the better ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This column was written in 2008.
2008 has already seen some remarkable comics. My shortlist for the best of the best would include Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings, Dash Shaw's Bottomless Bellybutton and Michel Rabagliatti's Paul Goes Fishing.. However, if I had to chose just one comic as best of the year to date it would be Lynda Barry's amazing What It Is. The quickest way to describe it is as a book version of her workshop course "Writing The Unthinkable", but that's really only a small portion of this project. What It Is is part memoir, part art project, part philosophical treatise on cognition, part aesthetic analysis, part linguistic theory, part sketchbook, and part art textbook. At its heart, it addresses the concerns of ontology as they relate to aesthetics. That is, this book gets at the heart of what it is to be (human), and how art brings meaning to that being. After she wrestles with this idea for 130 pages, Barry then describes a particular method she uses in her writing workshop, one that allows ideas to reveal themselves to the writer.
The format of the first section of the book flips between fairly straightforward autobiographical memoirs about her relationship with creating art and what she describes as "essay questions". On those pages, she employs a dizzyingly dense collage approach to illustrate those questions. She uses her own drawings and doodles, clip art, cut-out bits of repurposed text, and old schoolchildren's homework assignments, among other source material. The questions she asks are straight out of a Philosophy of Mind textbook, including "What Is An Image", "Why Do They Exist?", "What/Where Is Your Imagination?", "What Is An Imaginary Friend?", "What Is A Memory", etc. Barry's interest and study of cognition and linguistics, however, relates directly to identity and being. The questions she asks are given no direct answers at first; instead, Barry redirects the reader by discussing her childhood relationship with art.
As it turns out, asking those questions about art with regard to Barry are precisely those that yield the greatest insight. She grew up in a poor family that did not exactly embrace self-expression or the arts. Barry eventually learned that the world of images that she slipped into when she read the very few books in her house were something that "can transform your experience" of your situation. As a result "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay...we have...always used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable". This activity can loosely be described as "play", be it staring at an image and thinking it's alive, creating an imaginary friend or playing alone--or drawing. Barry is careful to note that play and "fun" aren't necessarily the same thing, but that this is something we forget as adults. She goes on to say that "If playing isn't happiness or fun, if it is something which may lead to those things or to something else entirely, not being able to play is misery." This is one of the key points of the book, and she hits on an idea that Heidegger explores in his philosophical writings.
Barry stresses that we can't come up with ideas by thinking about them, taking them by force of mind and will. Similarly, Heidegger notes that we can't understand Being through conventional rational/cognitive means, because the way we use language inherently limits our ability to do so. Language simply can't capture this essence. The essential observational truth of the matter, however, is that we do experience ideas and we did experience play as children. In both instances, in order to get access to ideas and play, we can't attempt to seize them; instead, we have to allow ideas/images to reveal themselves to us. This is what I refer to as "the aesthetic experience": the moment in time and space where we have a particular experience of the world (be it art, nature or a relationship) revealing itself to us. It's not simply mystical, because it always involves a kind of physical and temporal interaction. The feeling can be described, analyzed and named--but the name of the experience is not the experience. It's not a thought or a feeling per se, but something rooted in temporality. It's a visceral experience, even when one is not trying to create art but simply experience it.
Barry sinks her teeth into the ways that this experience manifests itself physically, and it's perhaps the most lucid exploration of this subject that I've ever read. Discussing why humans like to think about monsters, Barry discusses an anecdote about her obsession with the Gorgon Medusa as a child. She found herself drawing it even as the entire notion of being turned to stone by it consumed her. It was only much later that she understood that she needed this monster to cope with a mother who frightened her: "...a furious woman with terrifying eyes and snakelike hair was the perfect monster for me." She then asks us, "What was yours?"
That leads into her discussing the very act of mark-making, that activity that all children engage in but most stop at some point in their life. The exception is the doodle: those marks we idly make on paper while waiting on the phone, "where one line can still follow another without plan". The physical act of doodling allows us to alter our sense of temporality with relation to being stuck in a particular physical situation. It allows us to engage the world, and that engagement is at the heart of play. As with her Gorgon drawings, being able to play, to engage that spirit and activity, helped Barry get through her teenage years, making "steady moods I could rely on" as she tried to envision a different life, a different identity.
Barry's most important advice for aspiring artists and writers comes in how to deal with what she calls "the Two Questions": "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" Those two questions bring on paralysis, dread and block for all artists. Instead of being able to revel in the creation of art for its own sake, when one becomes more concerned about some objective validation, it destroys our ability to access our imagination. It alienates us from being able to access the "floating feeling" of mark-making that we all understand as children, making us "feel like I was both there and not there". The Two Questions find everyone eventually, holding ideas hostage as you try to solve their riddle--that not every drawing has to have a purpose, not everything written is for anything in particular. That paradoxical surrender is what allows one access to that well of ideas, "to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape". One couldn't think or theorize way out of this paralysis, only allowing ideas to reveal themselves to you, like Heidegger and Being.
To this end, Barry concludes the book with a series of timed writing exercises designed to get her students to use images as a means of jumping into the physical act of writing. And I do mean physical: Barry is very strict in noting that these examples must be done with pen or pencil on paper, and not on a computer. Somehow, this act of motion, moving one's hand, is itself an act of creation that leads to other acts of creation. She starts by encouraging the reader to remember their first phone number and what feelings that evokes. She then works up to cars that we remember, mothers other than our own that we can think of, and then a variety of questions regarding time & place and that image. The key in these timed exercises is that one's pen can never stop moving; if one gets stuck, simply start to doodle or draw patterns on a notepad. There's obviously some kind of meditative quality that this repetitive physical act contains that is not unlike the states of mind achieved through meditation, prayer or exercise. The other key rule is that one must wait at least a week before even looking at what one writes--because any sooner and one worries about whether something is Any Good. You're too close to the work to be able to have an experience of it as something separate from you. Anyone who does any kind of writing should go through the exercises at least once; it's a process that illuminates one's own creative process.
The page that really sums up what Barry's trying to say is 122, where she nails down precisely what she means by "image": "It's the pull-toy that pulls you, takes you from one place to another...the ability to stay in motion, to be pulled by something, to follow it, and stay behind it." Memory, motion and creation are all bound up together in mysterious ways. At a certain level, that interconnection can't be further reduced, understood or described by way of language. The nature of that interconnection is not important, only the understanding that the connection exists and has always existed in one's life (even if it was forgotten). Barry's moving story of her own halting struggle with the process of creation and imagination serves to make the reader think about their own struggle without being overly didactic. At the same time, the way she delineates her method is inspiring because of the way she establishes borders and boundaries for her exercises. Without play, our imaginations wither and we devolve into rage, madness and/or numbness. Finding ways to engage in play is the essence of what it is to be human.