Post Road Magazine #27

What It Is by Lynda Barry

Joe Garden

I don't know exactly what constitutes a nervous breakdown. In fact, when I think about the term, it seems like an old-timey catch-all mental ailment, such as hysteria, or dementia praecox. Really, it's probably a panic attack, or an onerous flare-up of depression. Feel free to correct me in a condescending email, but I'm not going to look it up.

What I do know is that, late in 2012, I started to experience a pressing dread when I would go to work. My mind ran through the same script over and over: I didn't know what I was doing, I was going to be fired at any moment, I was a fraud, I was a failure. One day in mid-December, I went to my midtown office, sat in front of my computer, and started silently crying. Fortunately, thanks to a previous experience with a co-worker, I knew the protocol for such an event and crawled under my desk to minimize the discomfort of my colleagues while maximizing my own comfort.

For context, 2012 was a shit year. My marriage fell apart (or I left my wife, depending on how candid and self-loathing I feel when asked), I quit my job of nineteen years at The Onion rather than relocate back to the Midwest (it's much more complicated, but that's an entirely different story), and I was in a new relationship that I had pinned a lot of hopes on, but I felt tentative at best (an instinct I wish I had pad more attention to).

My new job was to write content for a new website that was owned by Adult Swim, a cable network that airs cartoons with hick squids, talking milkshakes, and…well, if that makes sense to you, then you're already familiar with it. Most of us were from The Onion, and we were hired because we were a talented group of writers who had an aesthetic cohesion already in place, and could launch a website without a lot of guesswork.

But it's one thing to write fake news stories that adhere to a particularly rigid format/formula. Establishing a whole new site with its own unique viewpoint was another. We had a blank canvas, and that meant there was a much greater chance for failure. In addition, we were building the mechanical process of making a website. The new day—to-day workload was chaotic, far removed from the comfortable routine I had left behind. Already thrashing about to try to get some stability in my life, I was lost in infinite possibility, and, as a result, sobbing under my desk.

Shortly thereafter, I picked up my copy of Lynda Barry's* What It Is, which had sat on my shelf untouched** since I got it.

It is very difficult—for me, at least—to write about What It Is without using the clunky construction "What It Is is" at least once***, so let's just get it out of the way. What It Is is a gorgeous 210-page full-color book filled with autobiographical comics, collages, essays, and exercises for the reader to complete, and most of it seemingly created on legal pads.

That last detail is the most important, because though it has the look and feel of a serious piece of art, the lined yellow paper carries a very important message: do not get hung up on the medium when you're creating. Everything you need to be creative is at your disposal already.

It starts with a sentiment that is all too familiar to me. In a comic prelude, Lynda is talking to her husband about her anxieties, many of which are just her brain sabotaging itself by latching onto things she can't change and the regrettable words or actions of fifteen years ago. From there, she discusses her childhood, then asks a series of philosophical questions, such as "What is an image?" or "Where is your imagination?" Each question is given a full page of painting and written thoughts to help the reader consider the question without being frightened off by it.

In this, Barry is an excellent guide through the process of creativity, amazing the reader with her own abilities while assuring us all the while that we are capable of amazing creations of our own. She presents a series of exercises that better help the reader realize a vision, interspersed with confessionals of her own struggles to create. While Barry is filled with self-doubt throughout the book, she is never anything but positive about the creative abilities of others, and that was an extremely powerful message to me when I read it.

What It Is is**** part workbook, part memoir, and part cheerleader. I read it through without doing the exercises—the book is beautifully executed in full color, and it seemed a crime to defile it with my own writing—but I fully intend to go back soon to do them at some point, because it also would be a crime not to use it as Barry intended. I eventually came out from under the desk because one can't live under a desk, no matter how many snacks are at your disposal. Hopefully, What It Is will keep me from doubting my own creative mind and keep me from going back under.

* Though we haven't spoken in some time, I consider Lynda a friend, as, among other things, we share a hometown in common.

**Well, unread at least. I had to touch it to move it to my new apartment after my marriage, well…

***This construction reminds me of two things: the Einstürzende Neubauten song "Was Ist Ist" ("What Is Is," with the propulsive chorus, translated from German, "What is is! What is not is possible!"), and my friend Julieanne (@boobsradley) Smolinski's tweet "The best Jeopardy question ever would be 'This is a Dave Eggers' novel about a Sudanese refugee.'"

****Sorry, I did it again.

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