"There are happy childhoods and unhappy childhoods, but most fall somewhere in between, swinging sometimes up or dragging sometimes low," says Lynda Barry in her new writing how-to, What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly). Cartoonist and novelist (and Reader contributor) Barry has chronicled childhood through its minutiae -- its flagrant injustices and small triumphs -- in her comics, novels, and graphic novels. In her new book she encourages would-be writers to "follow the wandering mind," paying close attention to images from their childhoods and emphasizing the connections between image, memory, and imagination. What It Is begins with a series of meditative questions ("What is the past made of?" "What makes something meaningful?") and concludes with a series of practical writing exercises that could function equally well as conversation starters for a dull party ("Make a list of the first ten cars that come to you from early in your life"). Along the way Barry interjects her own narrative about becoming a writer and artist, her swirling, dizzying collage art summoning readers into the depths of the subconscious and treating them to a cast of characters from Barry's personal iconography -- a winking cat, a black-sheathed ghost, various undersea creatures, meditating monkeys, and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few.