Saturday, July 25, 2009

What It Is by Lynda Barry

I've written previously about my love for Lynda Barry's comics and novel (The Good Times Are Killing Me) and how I suspect her language has influenced my own from when I first read her over 20 years ago. I recently came across a book of writing instruction she made that I didn't know about. That's an exciting find. I snatched it up, and read it last month and thought I would give it a shout out here.

It's called What It Is. pub. date 2008. The LOC tag is graphic novels, so it may be hard to find. I can understand the mistake, because it does resemble a graphic novel, since it's made up of cartoons and collages with hand lettered text. However it's not a novel but a long non-fiction essay/instruction manual about the creative process that Barry uses and teaches, which she says learned herself from a particular teacher who she celebrates throughout.

Now, most of the book is not my particular thing--abstract collages that appear to be examples of warm-up exercises from her notebooks. There is a hint of a narrative thread--a series of related inquiries about where creative ideas come from. But for me it's a gossamer thread that never latches on anything long enough, and the collages themselves, while probably excellent examples of their form, are a form that just doesn't interest me as much. I loved the short comics interspersed throughout.

What does interest me is the second half of the book where she starts to focus more directly in this instructional method that she calls "Writing The Unthinkable." The mascot of the class is the Magic Cephalopod who is summoned from the image world by the creative act. In practice, this section of What It Is amounts to a series of creative writing exercises using freewriting techniques with specific prompts or guided questions, all explained or illustrated in comic or collage form. The exercises have the writer making lists of certain kinds of words or childhood memories (e.g. the first 10 cars from your early life that you remember) and than using those as prompts in timed exercises. Some relaxation exercises are also an important part of the process.

Now, I'm a big proponent of freewriting, and I think as long as you can come up with good focused prompts, it's an exericse worth the time in most cases. So it was fun seeing what amounts to Lynda Barry's idea of a never-ending prompt generator.

I think the kind of advice she's giving here is most suited to the early stages of a writing project, especially generating ideas for a story. If you've written your story and are revising or are trying to find focus or are otherwise further along in a project, this is less useful.

In short, this is a good handbook to get you off the dime when the creative impulse is itching and you are despairing for something to write about. If it's what Barry uses, it must be worthwhile, because her comics rock.

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