‘What It Is’ and the power of stories


A page from Lynda Barry’s WHAT IT IS

What is an experience? Is it something you have? Or something which has you?

I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Lynda Barry’s What it Is. Each page is a mixture of collage, cartoons, snippets of text, and handwritten notes. Interspersed throughout are sections of autobiographical material which tell the story of Barry’s early creative life and, at the same time, continue to ask questions about the nature of narrative, image, meaning, and play. I love the way these questions stimulate more questions and, in the process, make my brain melt a little.

I spent my teenage years reading Arthurian legends: the retellings of Roger Lancelyn Green and Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. My favourite poem was Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. I would read the poem every weekend, never tiring of it. The poem, like the stories, were doorways to a world I could visit simply through the act of reading. I always thought they gave me an escape route, a chance to envisage a more meaningful life elsewhere, one filled with quests and adventures. One of the autobiographical sections of What It Is opened up a completely different way of seeing the power of stories.

I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.

What It Is (39-40)

This section melts my brain a little and yet it also makes sense. It helps me to see that these stories provided a way of staying and dealing with things.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.

The Lady of Shalott

In some mysterious way, with the reading of these words all those years ago, teenage life in 1980’s London made a little bit more sense. Somehow these two worlds informed each other. Later on in What It Is, when Barry talks about her early experiences of drawing, she says:

I did it because it helped me to stay by giving me somewhere else to go.

– What It Is (105)

I imagine that stories continue to perform this mysterious function whatever our age or stage of life.

What It Is communicates something of the aliveness of images and various ways to access them. Reading this book, I feel a great sense of creative freedom. Freedom to explore and to ask questions. I don’t have to know the answers. In fact, it may well be better if I don’t.


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