The NEH, Racism, Good Editors, and Me

A couple years ago, my friend and fellow cartoonist Tessa Hulls got a gig speaking with the Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau. Her role (which is still ongoing) involves being sent all over the state—from city libraries to rural town halls—to share her talk about women traveling solo in the early 20th century. (A talk written, I should mention, after she’d completed a 5,000-mile solo cycling trip from California to Maine. Bad. Ass.)

Hearing about her experiences with the Bureau was the closest I’d come to seeing what state-level humanities organizations were all about. I’d heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, but never really understood what it did. It turns out that there’s an entirely separate organization—the National Endowment for the Humanities—that Lyndon Johnson signed into law at the same moment in 1965.

The National Endowment for the Humanities established 56 state- and territorial-level humanities organizations all over the country in 1973—including our local branch: Oregon Humanities. These organizations all have marginally different aims, but their overarching goal is using the study of the humanities (defined very broadly) to nurture a society that is thoughtful, creative, equitable, and proactive about engaging with difference. Some organizations focus on grant-giving, others run public discussion groups or programming, and some (like Oregon’s) put out quarterly magazines. The amazing thing about this being a government-funded organization is that the magazine is free to anyone living in the state. Seriously: you give them your address and then they just mail it to you and it’s gorgeous and full of amazing writing and illustration and all kinds of good stuff. This is no fly-by-night operation.

Anyway that’s a mini history lesson about Oregon Humanities. Hopefully it explains why I was thrilled when their editor reached out to me at the end of 2020 about doing a comic on voting rights for the Spring issue. I’ve been cranking away at it over the last few months, doing a ton of research, conducting interviews, and trying to condense, condense, condense so I can cram a bunch of complex policy issues into six scant pages.

I learned an enormous amount about the history of the franchise (aka the right to vote) during this process and found that, as with most topics in U.S. history, the highlights we’re fed in school don’t tell nearly the whole story.

I ended up centering the comic on three key areas: age, immigration, and incarceration. While the organization I wanted to interview about a non-citizen voting bill ended up having to postpone their efforts until the next legislative session, I still had plenty to work with. I took a deep dive through the state’s founding documents, explored voting access wins in recent history, and spoke to advocates about lowering the state’s voting age and securing the vote for people in prison. The resulting story, which comes out in just a few weeks, is dense, but gives a pretty solid overview of the issues at play.

The reason I’m writing this, though, is to document the most valuable part of working on the project.

My friend Sarah Mirk, who’s also contributing a comic to the issue, got assigned to help edit my piece. This was great news, since we’ve worked together before and I admire her skills and ethics immensely. When I turned in the first draft of the script, I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d ingested and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all justice in such a small number of pages. I was particularly scared to tackle the wide-reaching impact of racism and White Supremacy on these systems. It’s a topic that many of us have engaged with very closely in the last ten months (and beyond), and it can very easily come to feel obvious.

“Of course these systems are founded on rotten policies that disproportionately impact people of color,” said some part of my brain. “Everyone knows that.

So I punted.

I didn’t think I’d punted, but when I look at the first draft of the script? I punted. I turned in a comic that talked about a variety of issues and historical facts and angles, but never explicitly stated that voter disenfranchisement is inextricably entangled with racist policy-making.

That unwillingness to be explicit stemmed from a scarier feeling: “This is so big and I feel like I still have so much to learn—there’s no way I’m capable of doing it right”. It’s a feeling tied to zero-sum thinking and perfectionism (both hallmark principles of White Supremacy—surprise!) that ended up pushing me to elide crucial information.

And Sarah, because she is a great editor, read the first draft and twigged this right away and said “There is a huge piece missing from this story, and I know it’s a lot to engage with and weave in, but I believe you can do this“.

It turns out I just needed permission to try. And (again, because she is a great editor) Sarah had a ton of practical suggestions for quotes, sources, and imagery to include that would make these links and themes clearer. This piece as it stands wouldn’t exist without her.

I’m not saying the comic is now The Best Thing Ever—there’s still so much that had to be left out—but the reason I wanted to write all this up (rather that doing another “Here’s the roughs and here’s the inks and here’s the colors” kind of process post like I usually do) is that I think many of us have probably been in situations like this: moments where we recognize the impact of racism, but worry that we don’t yet have enough knowledge or language or mastery to call it out.

And the role we can play for each other, as editors or just friends with eyeballs looking over a project, is to create trusted relationships where we can encourage one another to lean into that discomfort and practice. It’s very easy to feel like getting this stuff wrong will doom us, but in fact the opposite is true. We don’t get better without being willing to goof it up sometimes.

So that’s a lot of words about relatively few pictures. I’m really looking forward to sharing the whole comic when the magazine launches later this month.


P.S. Go look up your local Humanities organization. I bet you won’t regret it.

Your Book Tour

Here’s what happens when you tell people you’re going on book tour:

Their eyes widen like they’re picturing private jets and limousines, booksellers laying stock to be signed at your feet, adoring fans queued up out the door. They congratulate you—assuming you have “made it.” You try not to let the lunatic edge invade your laughter as you thank them, unable to explain that they are wrong.

The truth is, you’re about to spend two months sleeping on couches and washing your underwear in the sink. You’re three months past the date any “real” author would’ve had their tour stops booked by a publisher, but you’re emailing venues anyway because you got yourself into this glorious mess, and you love it, and it’s time to go big or go home.

You fill pads of paper with train times and bus lines—an endless game of Cheap Travel Tetris.
You schedule posts on every social media platform known to man, but still manage to avoid updating your own website.
You learn that the barcode doesn’t scan properly on your entire print run of books. You make a lot of phone calls and hope you can fix everything before the ship date.

You whoop with delight whenever a venue confirms, then falter when you see all the other, more impressive authors on the week’s lineup.

You realize those authors may feel just as fraudulent as you do.

You set up endless Facebook events, cripplingly aware of how often you ignore invites from everyone else.
You find out exactly how many of your friends live in Minneapolis.
You worry nobody will come.
You worry everybody will come.

You throw yourself on the kindness of the Internet—your people, your tribe, your network. They offer rides, couches, venues, connections. You recognize, again and again, that you are nothing without them.

It will feel like a miracle any time you meet a flesh and blood human being who knows your work. These moments of connection will pile up behind your sternum. They will turn your abstract Twitter followers into live heartbeats.

Two months from now you know you’ll come home changed.

The Long, Hard, Elegant, Easy, Stupid, Creative Way

I read something this week that really ticked me off.

I’ve been building my page on Goodreads as I gear up to put 100 Demon Dialogues into the world, which partly means leaving lots of reviews for creators whose work I admire. If you follow me on Patreon you’ll know Deb Norton because I interviewed her for my unofficial podcast, but just in case you don’t she’s got an amazing book called Part Wild: a Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance. She was also my writing mentor in high school, and I owe her an enormous debt for her impact on my creative development.

Anyway, I realize reading reviews on Goodreads is basically like reading the comments anywhere else on the internet (DANGER, DANGER), but after writing my review for Part Wild, I idly scrolled down the page to see what else people had said about the book. And then I stumbled on the following sentence:

…if you are really finding it that hard to write and need to use all these prompts and tips, then it probably means that writing is not for you – find something else to do.

You know Ghost Rider? He’s that comic book character who’s basically a flaming skeleton on a motorbike. That’s what I turned into directly after reading this sentence: just a skull on fire in road leathers doing 90 down a highway screaming “FUCK OFFFFFFFFFF.”

Whenever I react this violently to something it’s usually because I fear there’s a grain of truth in it.

This attitude digs at the root of something that’s deeply entrenched in our cultural beliefs about what creativity “is” (the answer, of course, is many things—it’s a paradox—but we’ll get into that later). We’re taught to think that, for creative people, making things is easy. You know you’re “Creative” when you’re able to sit down and art flows from your fingertips like water from a mountain spring. The Muse appears, the Art happens, and there you are like some sort of divine lightning rod just channeling your Gift into the world.

I’m as much a fan of being in a flow state as the next guy, but I also think this is a dangerous load of hooey.

Like, what does this mean, really? That experiencing any type of resistance or challenge means you should just give up and go do something else? This is not a growth mindset. It is small and constrained and petty and miserable and OOOH IT MAKES ME SO MAD.

Okay, okay. I’m under control. I can do this.

Do I worry that I’m not cut out to be an artist (or a writer, or a small business owner, or a public speaker, or a…) whenever the work feels like pulling teeth? Of course I do. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this great talk Frank Chimero gave about doing things “the long, hard, stupid way,” and it always makes me feel a lot better.

Frank was struggling writing his first book, and then judging himself for struggling because clearly it meant he was doing something “wrong.” (This is something I’m very guilty of.) But then he shifted his perspective and recognized that this less efficient methodology actually defined his creative process. Accepting the quirks of his personal practice allowed him to relax into it. (Pair this with Chuck Wendig’s excellent advice to “embrace the joy of the forbidden.“)

I am constantly reminding myself that experiencing resistance, strife, doubt, and complexity mean I am on the right track. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my career it’s that these feelings are normal and they do not go away. In fact, if you’re experiencing a total absence of those feelings it probably means you’re not taking any risks at all, which means you’re not growing, which means it’s time to get back in the ring.

Okay, next paradox:

I have complex feelings about Tim Ferriss, a massively successful technology-culture-productivity-type entrepreneur, but I was interested to read about his take on overcoming these mental traps:

What would this look like if it were easy? is such a lovely and deceptively leveraged question. It’s easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard, that if you’re not redlining, you’re not trying hard enough. This leads us to look for paths of most resistance, creating unnecessary hardship in the process.

But what happens if we frame things in terms of elegance instead of strain? In doing so, we sometimes find incredible results with ease instead of stress. Sometimes, we “solve” the problem by simply rewording it.

So now we fight, right? The Long, Hard, Stupid Way vs. The Elegant, Easy, Simple Way.

But I don’t actually think these attitudes are opposites. There’s the inherent challenge of making creative work, but then there’s the self-judgement of that challenge—and that’s what Ferriss’s question can help us get around.

Rather than getting mad at ourselves for being a skull on fire, maybe we just accept that being on fire is sometimes a normal part of the creative process. That way whenever we burst into flames and/or have a case of the brain weasels we don’t have to worry that there’s something wrong with us. We can accept the weasels as part of the process and get on with doing normal things, like riding other wheeled contraptions, coming up with new ideas, and continuing to move forward with the work.

I think I’m gonna leave it at that.

***

(A note on credit: the Ghost Riders—or should that be Ghosts Rider?—in this post were illustrated by: Marc Silvestri, John Cassaday, and Mike Bear. Thanks, fellas.)

New Essay: “Sexy Lucy”

Nude-Workup

“So, I have a challenge for you.”

I’m sitting on the couch scarfing pomegranate seeds and ice cream while my gentleman friend looks up from doing the crossword.

“I’d love to see you draw Sexy Lucy. I mean, if you want to. If you think it would be fun.”

I laugh through a mouthful of dessert. “What? Why?”

“Well, I saw you draw Happy Lucy today and that was really adorable, and I’ve seen Grumpy Lucy and Goofy Lucy and Tired Lucy, but you never seem to draw Sexy Lucy.”

Some of you may’ve already seen the essay I posted last week on Medium about setting boundaries in autobio comics, but I figured I’d post a link here too just in case you missed it. This is a question I’m always navigating in my own work, but it took a particular conversation to get me to articulate my feelings on the subject. How do we skew our lives in their presentation online? Can I craft an alternative reality in my work that alters who I am in the physical world? What right do my readers have to my innermost thoughts?

Give the whole thing a read and let me know what you think. I’d be really curious to hear from any of you (especially women) who handle questions of intimacy in your autobiographical work. Where do you draw the line and why?