“I do believe I’m still open.”

Before I had difficulty gathering all the fragments into something resembling a book. Now I have difficulty writing anything so careless and fragmentary without the overarching project of a book to motivate and give the words direction. And I miss that early carelessness. I miss how everything I wrote used to fragment almost against my will. Though at the time I didn’t appreciate it, wondered constantly how I could make my writing come together, make it more cohesive, find connections or some red thread that would go all the way from one end of its world to the other, draw some theme from beginning to end. Then I missed what I have now, what I felt uncertain I would ever be able to create, and now I miss what I had then, what I fear I might never be able to get back. 

Jacob Wren

Bring It On Home

A good day to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: shifting monthly donations from Portland-area organizations to ones in my hometown. The Pandemic has had me thinking a lot about the movement of capital, and how focusing my efforts on redistributing resources on a hyper-local level often feels more productive and meaningful that flinging money into national programs. Then again, there are many issues that transcend my immediate bubble, so I want to keep a certain amount going farther afield. I haven’t figured out an ideal ratio, really, it’s just been on my mind.

I grew up in schools that acknowledged the history of the Chumash people in this region, but didn’t go so far as to emphasize the full impact of settler-colonial violence on their communities—nor to focus on the crucial modern-day work of reparations. I’ve admired the Shuumi Land Tax program in the Bay Area and Real Rent Duwamish in Seattle, but hadn’t heard of a similar initiative in Ojai.

It turns out Ventura County doesn’t have an exact match, but we do have the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. I’m excited to become a recurring donor there and start to learn more about the programs they’re working on.

Printer Porn

Tell the Turning (my illustrated collaboration with poet Tara Shepersky) went to press last week in Poland and our publisher, Stefan, has been sending the most delicious slew of process photos from the print house. I figured I’d post some of them here because I’m trying to get in the habit of using this space for visual stuff just as much as I use it for blathering in text about craft and money and comics and everything else.

SO!

Here’s our impressive and pristine stack of Munken Arctic paper! This is one of the few papers not currently suffering from extreme stock shortages in central Europe, leading to our unexpectedly-ahead-of-schedule print date. At a time when all sorts of publishers and indie creators are reporting a three-month average delay in production timelines, I’ll take it.

A towering pallet of pristine white paper.

Here it is all loaded into the printer. (I have an intense soft spot for the little vacuum plungers that lift the pages off one by one.)

A complex offset press housing a huge stack of blank paper.

And then of course comes the best part of any printing house update which is, naturally, the video:

WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH! BOOK BOOK BOOK!

That leaves us with a HUGE stack of printed pages…

A huge stack of printed pages.

…which will then be trimmed and sewn together to create the final book.

You can get a closer look at some of the illustrations (including the cover and the special Field Offering postcards I designed for Kickstarter backers) in this sheet:

A black and white sheet with several illustrations aligned with text, all pages from the book Tell the Turning. There are crows and owls and spirals of kelp—all pictures of things from the natural world.

Basically it’s going to be here before we even know it and I think it’s going to look and feel incredible and I cannot wait. What a joy.

(I should probably also mention that you can preorder the book here! It’s currently on track to begin shipping October 20th, which is just around the corner.)

This concludes the first installment of the “post more visual content, you coward” challenge. Thank you.

Artist Brain/Worker Brain

Still wrestling with how to write up this post demystifying the money behind my book deal. It’s unearthing some real discrepancies in how I want to talk about this stuff on the internet. I think the fundamental problem is that I have two brains. Or two selves. Two wolves. Y’know. Whatever you wanna call it.

The Artist part of my brain is drawn to gift economies, to trust-based models of community and mutual support, to play and movement and exchange. The Artist likes living in the space of thinking we already have enough, and that art can serve its highest role in society if it exists beyond the constraints of financial exchange. The Artist has also, so far, done a pretty good job giving things away for free and then managing to receive financial support for them in a roundabout way that feels almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Capitalism.

The Worker part of my brain, on the other hand, (especially the Worker that exists under Capitalism) is concerned with the business of enoughness, but that enoughness is often tied to needing more. The Worker sees how creative freelancers are getting the short end of the stick and is feeling utterly insane watching herself behave as if it’s all we’re allowed to ask for. The Worker wants fair wages and paid time off and benefits. Fewer barriers to entry and better conditions. The Worker wants unionization. The Worker is angry.

When I start talking about the ludicrously low amount of compensation afforded to creators through publishing’s advance system (even in instances where an author lands a “good” advance!), I feel like I’m operating from a place of lack. A world of scarcity. And it’s hard to tease apart how much of that feeling is productive. There’s a real sense of not wanting to sound ungrateful—or worse, petulant. But I also can’t help but be furious when I think about how many people—people without a decade of work behind them, or a relatively stable monthly draw from Patreon, or a forgiven PPP loan from the government, or a family to move in with (even if that move comes twinned with a new identity as a full-time caregiver)—cannot survive on the money publishing wants to pay them.

I don’t want to spend the next two years working on this book and nursing the bitter brew of this industry’s broken compensation system. I will probably—almost certainly—be okay. I built the scaffolding, I laid in supplies, I changed my life to accommodate this next season. It won’t be the golden field I’d let myself dream it might be, but I’ll do fine. The book might even sell enough to turn a profit down the line. But! But.

I want things to be better.

Context Creation

Caught up with Brendan and Celine from Hyperlink Academy yesterday. Brendan said something about how certain creators or teachers or people are drawn to context creation and man I can’t stop thinking about that phrase. CONTEXT CREATION! Maybe context creation in opposition to (or in conversation with) content creation? Dunno.

What I do know is that these days I’m far less interested in pedagogic mastery or academic power structures and far more interested in people who can cultivate an environment (physical, mental, emotional) that allows everyone around them to explore and get curious. Reminders and permission! Reminders and permission. Have I even blogged about how obsessed I’ve been with those two words over the last year? Dunno. But it’s coming up a lot.

The VR Tightrope

I’m having one of those days where everything comes unstuck and I suddenly reply to all the emails I’ve been putting off replying to for months and months and months on end. This often ends up being a hugely heartening exercise because I find that my “Reply Later” stack, grown into a source of guilt and avoidance, is actually full of the loveliest stuff—the internet penpal stuff, the unexpected fan mail stuff, the slow motion friendship stuff. It’s because it’s lovely that it gets shoved into that folder in the first place! I want to give it time.

And you know, maybe that’s okay.

Anyway, I’m going to do something potentially gauche and quote myself because I jotted this thing down in an email to James back in January and I realized instead of waiting to write the perfect blog post about it I could just copy and paste right out of the email and be done with it. So that’s what I’m doing.

Your comment about “the arbitrary nature of the rope” brought back a memory I kept wanting to write about of seeing folks trying a VR tightrope simulator for the first time in 2016. They just had to walk across a rope lying on the floor, but of course the headset makes you think you’re wobbling along over 50 metres of thin air. Watching people try to accomplish something that was, from where I was standing, clearly safe, but behaving as if they were performing a death-defying high wire act…god. It just felt like such an accurate metaphor for the process of creating anything. Our brains convince us that certain death awaits on every side, but we’re absolutely safe. We are.

There we go. This thing I’ve been meaning to write about for five years now exists on my website. Incomplete, minimally described, but whatever. It doesn’t have to be an essay every time, y’know?

🥳

Making Noisy into Quiet

I don’t really care what I’m doing for money so long as I can write. And not write like I want a job writing copy, write like I sit down most days in my underwear and make noisy into quiet.

This phrase. Making noisy into quiet. I love it.

I scrambled out of the house yesterday with the words “If I don’t go to the studio and make headway on this project I’ll have a panic attack”. Dramatic, yes, but also probably true.

It feels like dying sometimes to watch the time I’d set aside to go make art slip through my fingers, gnawed at by obligation and muddle and distraction. But when I got to the studio, this little space I’m carving into something that feels nourishing and calm, I exhaled everything and sat down and the work was just easy and focused and joyful.

A light, airy studio space with a white desk, an office chair, and a flat file. There are pieces of art tacked to the walls and two windows looking out onto greenery. There's a white futon couch against one wall and a Persian rug on the floor.

Moments like that it feels as if I’m doing something right.

A weird thing people sometimes say to me is “I wish I was as [free, ok being alone, adventurous] as you” and I always want to say, “I’ve always been [lonely, anxious, scared] throughout any of it” but I think they’d think I meant it wasn’t worth it or that I was trying to teach them a lesson. What I mean is just that I didn’t trade an unhappy thing for a happy thing. I just found some balance.

(I really like Amanda Oliver’s newsletter.)

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Enemies

I’ll say it: I’ve been stuck.

In some ways I’m always stuck and just engaged in various stages of trying to wrestle myself free, but lately I’ve felt really stuck.

I cracked James Kochalka’s The Cute Manifesto in the studio a couple weeks ago because I’ve been trying to revisit formative reads from my early years of making comics and I couldn’t remember anything about it beyond a vague sense that it had been Important to me (although I was never really a dedicated reader of American Elf). The first piece is this:

Craft is the Enemy. I'm not exactly sure why I'm writing this letter, but I've been reading TCJ #188 for a couple hours now and my mind has just been racing and blood pounding. My excitement with the power and possibilities of comics mixed with the fear of a royally screwed-up marketplace... well, let's just say I've got a weird, shaky adrenaline rush.

I just felt suddenly like I had to write and say craft is the enemy! You could labor your whole life perfecting your "craft," struggling to draw better, hoping one day to have the skills to produce a truly great comic. If this is how you're thinking, you will never produce this great comic, this powerful work of art, that you dream of. There's nothing wrong with trying to draw well, but that is not of primary importance.

What every creator should do, must do, is use the skills they have right now. A great masterpiece is within reach if only your will power is strong enough (just like Green Lantern). Just look within yourself and say what you have to say. Cezanne and Jackson Pollock (and many other great painters) were horrible draughtsmen! It was only through sheer will power to be great that they were great. The fire they had inside eclipsed their lack of technical skill. Although they started out shaky and even laughable, they went on to create staggering works of art.

This letter is not for the established creators... they're hopeless. This letter is for the young bucks and does... let's kick some fucking ass!

“Craft is the Enemy” was originally published as a letter to The Comics Journal in 1996. It sparked a textual brawl between several readers and cartoonists (all, as far as I can tell, men) that lasted for months afterward. TCJ published an archive of all the letters on their blog, Blood and Thunder: Craft is the Enemy.

The debate exhausted me just skimming it.

I didn’t know about the fight when I opened the book. I just knew that somehow, a quarter of a century later, I was still the target audience for certain parts of this message: someone so prone to getting sidetracked by her own perfectionism that she was forgetting why she’d even walked into the room.

I am fucking petrified of starting work on my next project. I feel convinced that it won’t measure up to the standards of professionalism I’ve been cultivating from my own internal scripts and the constant barrage of everyone’s best selves on social media. I am someone who desperately needs the reminder that I have the tools I need to make comics RIGHT NOW, even if they don’t turn out the way I imagine they “should”. 

And look, before anyone brings it up, yes, I’ve been the person giving this reminder to others in the past. But it’s a role that’s hard for me to occupy right now. I needed to hear it from someone else. I needed it because I have plenty of proof that I’ll do well if I turn my attention to a project or task at hand, and that knowledge becomes a prison. Every project must be bigger and better than the one before. The line must go up and to the right. If you did well before you must do better now. The practice gets harder, not easier.

I fret and pace and gnaw my fingernails thinking about how much work it will take to cultivate the craft I think I need to make the thing I want to make the way I imagine making it, but no amount of craft will save me from the truth: nothing has EVER come out exactly the way I picture it in my brain. Not once. Every single time it’s a surprise. And I know from reading other artists’ accounts of their practice that this will continue to be true for the rest of my life. 

This is the struggle, but it’s also the joy of the work. It’s endemic to the practice. It’s a liberation.

Why do I keep forgetting?

I don’t want to obsess about what will make my work perfect. That’s an impossible benchmark. I want to engage with the parts of the process that bring me joy. I want to tell stories. I want to explore with words and pictures. I want to get closer while still knowing I’ll never reach the finish line. A lot of the time this goal makes me think of Hokusai:

[…] all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.

And yet, even he fell prey to it—right to the end.

If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.

I’m trying to keep skipping back and forth between dedication and gentleness, discipline and play. That’s what makes it a practice. Ním recently finished writing his Theory of Conceptual Labor after years of exploration and refinement. There’s a lot of craft at work there, but the text itself is also about this nebulous space of flitting from adherence to exploration and back again. (Writing about the Theory is a whole post in itself, so I’ll leave it for now, but I couldn’t not throw it in here.)

Years ago, on Twitter, I polled people on how they’d describe their relationship to creativity. I asked whether it felt like a job or an obsession or a calling. Everyone who responded to that poll had their own suggestions to include. I’ve thrown them all together into a loose mind map below:

A mind map of terms for creative practice gathered around color coded sections called Compulsion, Religion, Hobby, and Business.

This whole map feels true.

I have, at varying times, thought of myself as a craftsperson, a business owner, a religious zealot, a hack. I’ve pored over pages and relished the presence of thoughtful choices in composition and line weight. I’ve also seen the toll a dedication to craft can take on someone who’s being crushed in the vice of a traditional publishing deadline. I’ve copied and pasted and traced. I’ve insisted on using an Ames guide. I’ve worked digitally. I’ve worked traditionally. I want all of it. Is that so bad?

The roundup of letters from TCJ feels so deeply, seriously (and often cruelly and condescendingly) concerned with Rightness. Who is going to win in this fight? I wonder whether there’s more room these days for “This advice is exactly what some people need to hear, and for some other people thinking of comics as a craft is what THEY need to hear”.

Like…why fight about it? The relationship is between you and your work. What works FOR YOU in THIS MOMENT?

And then I realize where I’ve seen this pattern before. It reminds me of the ways I see queerness operating in our culture right now—working as a verb. There is, of course, still a lot of Discourse about identity and rulesets and gender and all the rest of it. The same patterns of policing abound. But I also feel like the increasing queerness of these spaces makes more room for a mentality of Yes, And instead of Either/Or

A trippy mess of overlapping circles labeled with things like ownership, mindfulness, kid self, hula hoop, trickster, ecosystem, low tide, and interdependence. The background is colored in with blues and greens.

When I look at the immeasurable wealth of queer identities and relationships and backgrounds at play in my circles, I see an enormous field of willingness to accept paradox. I see people engaging deeply and earnestly with the question of how they want to be seen and what they want to be called and who they want to get into bed with and how they want to love and where they want to fit in, but really, far more importantly, what makes them happy.  

And I see people supporting each other by applying a simple metric: 

“Does this nourish you? If so, I celebrate it.”

It makes so much sense to me.

When Tom Spurgeon interviewed Kochalka in 2008, he closed by asking whether craft was still the enemy. Kochalka replied:

Yes. However, because I draw so much, so hard, I almost can’t help but to improve my chops and solidify my craft. I have to purposefully cultivate a situation where I can still be surprised, where the new and unexpected sneaks in and overpowers my years of experience. 

Some people are very concerned about mapping and naming, plotting and quantifying. I run the risk of being that kind of person from time to time, too. Someone asked me the other day how long I’d been in unconventional relationships and I struggled to answer. I felt that pressure to be able to explain. To know.

But I never felt like I had a good name for what I wanted, so I just kept stumbling along a path without a map, until one day I looked up and found myself somewhere that felt like home. These are the ways queerness operates: by circumventing the boundaries of the expected. By overpowering experience.

Anyway, craft and queerness. Yes, And. Forage for what feeds you, leave the rest.

Let’s go make comics.

Retrieval

I call my friend.

We met in Portland, but we live far apart now, both recently relocated and trying to rebuild creative selfhood in our respective hometowns.

“The perils of craft,” I say.
“But resonant frequencies,” he says.

And we’re off.

I know we’ll need more than 50 minutes, and sure enough we only get into the really good stuff right before I’m due to hop onto another call, but we started.

The starting is more important than anything else.