WHAT IT IS reviewed by the Montreal Mirror

When I finally got my copy of Lynda Barry's book on writing What It Is: The Formless Thing Which Gives Things Form, I was like a kid who'd been waiting a year for her Sea Monkey kit to arrive.

Last summer, Drawn & Quarterly sent out a teaser section of this book: a crazy, colourful "Activity Book." It was like something your mother might have bought you for a road trip, if your mother was an underground comix genius intent on stretching your brain.

It promised fail safe exercises to help you "write the unthinkable." Various characters, like Sea-Ma the tutorial sea monster, and her friend the multi-armed "magic cephalopod," led you through a series of simple, fun exercises for generating images and stories.

Barry has a lighthearted creative process that feels something like doodling on a pad while you're on the phone with your muse. I fooled around with it for a while, but for some reason, the exercises alone never quite satisfied me. Just like when I was a kid, pictures of funny characters weren't enough. I needed to have a family of them in their very own sea monkey aquarium. So, I waited for the book.

Finally, here it was in all its beauty. And it is beautiful. If you've ever seen the illustrated version of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, you'll recognize the colour scheme. Still, on my first reading of the somewhat murky, meandering opening section, I felt a vague unease.

I flipped through watery images seemingly clipped from old school books and bad dreams, images of kittens, spiders and pre-historic fish, collaged around abstract essay questions like "What is an Idea made of?" "Can we remember something that we can’t imagine," and "What year is it in your imagination?" I felt something of the buzzing, bitter irritation that accompanies this question, "Excuse me, but when do these formless things turn into monkeys?"

What kept me reading were the autobiographical sections interspersed with cartoons of mean, smoking mothers, rigidly stupid teachers and perfect, taunting classmates. Barry is best known for her comics, but I'm a big fan of her writing, particularly her coming-of-age novel Cruddy. These are invariably grim, bleak, absurdist tales of homily, poor children deprived of emotional warmth. Stories barren of all hope, except for the vague sense that someone out there must care about these kids, or no one would know this was a story.

Barry's own tale about her creative death and re-awakening is compelling enough to get anyone through the first reading of the cryptic first section. It is a story that will probably resonate with any reader who grew up in the '70s or '80s, as they gave up crayons for television, and creating for consuming. This story leads to an epiphany of sorts, that creativity only thrives if you develop a tolerance for uncertainty.

Most writing books lure you in with easy promises. Follow the simple formula and you will write that novel, screenplay, memoir. Do this and there'll be sea monkeys, and they'll live forever.

Essentially, it's the same thing that most of our media promises us. Subscribe to this cable company/internet provider/DVD mail plan, and you will never run out of interesting, stimulating things to entertain you. And it's true, you won't. That is certain, as long as you continue to believe one thing: that there is nothing interesting for you to do with your own mind and a piece of paper.

Barry's book promises something else. Risk that queasy feeling of boredom and uncertainly, and you'll never run out of things that can be created. Try this. Try that. And one day, inevitably, the monkeys you made on your own will be even bigger and weirder and better than the ones you thought you needed to order.

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