WHAT IT IS reviewed by The Toronto Star

A book you can judge by its cover

Toronto Star    |    Daphne Gordon    |    October 26, 2008

So what is What It Is?

As author and illustrator of this genre-bending book, Lynda Barry ought to know. But the best she can do is describe her latest book as "my crazy little dropped plate of spaghetti."

A sloppily delicious and nutritious blend of autobiography, illustration, creativity guide and cultural commentary, the book recently hit shelves, and Barry is in town to talk about it at the International Festival of Authors.

Yesterday, she read from the book, and today at 1 p.m. in the Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room, she and famed book designer Chip Kidd will discuss how you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.

The cover of What It Is hints at the complexity of the content inside. Collages, drawings, comic strips, creativity exercises and blank space for doodling create a dense visual experience.

"People expect it to be a book that you can read front to back," says Barry, 52, the legendary comic artist most known for her syndicated strip Ernie Pook's Comeek and author of several illustrated books. "But it's not really like that."

This plate of spaghetti is meant to be savoured in small bites. Because slowing down is part of the creative process, and that's really what Barry is talking about here. Each page of What It Is meditates on the origins of creativity, and many feature exercises to help wannabe artists get into the groove.

"People long to do it," Barry says. "They want to write or paint or draw or dance. Human beings are born with the ability to tell stories. But something happens at the age of 10 or 11 and they stop doing it. That's when you start to go a little crazy."

Arguing that creativity is the best tonic for mental health, Barry says we've become a culture of consumers rather than creators.

"We're watching these singing and dancing shows instead of doing it. There's something compelling about it, but it's like trying to get your nutrition from gummi bears."

After nearly 20 years of supporting herself as an artist and writer, Barry knows a little about making stuff. And she has been teaching others how to do it, too, at creativity workshops across North America over the past 10 years.

Sharing a creative method she adopted at 19 as a student at Evergreen State College in Washington, she encourages participants to make stuff not for the sake of earning a living or getting famous, but rather for the sake of fun and sanity.

"We know that play and mental health are connected," she says, but at some point, we stop playing. It starts about the time recess is taken away and art becomes an elective.

If unfettered creativity leads to happiness, Barry seems an ideal, if eccentric, role model. Though her comics are known for having a dark side, What It Is suggests contentment and engagement are possible in spite of life's disappointments.

"This is the happiest I've ever been, when I was working on this book," says Barry, "because it's such a strange book, and I could let it be whatever it wanted to be."

Artist Lynda Barry urges us to be creative for fun and sanity

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