Austin shared some lovely sketchnotes from a talk on writing as a form of prayer yesterday, and this bit really leapt out at me:
Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. […] Writing, for him, is never a struggle.
Absence of pressure as a prerequisite for pleasure. I love this.
I’ve still got Luke’s phrase “financial profit is not possible here” reverberating around my skull from the launch of GOES yesterday, which has me wondering:
What happens to a creative practice when you proactively divorce it from capitalism? (And what form does that divorce need to take in order to be an effective means of culture-shift for the individual and their wider community?)
I think of this as the inverse of those well-meaning friends and relatives whose first words after seeing something you’ve made is “You could sell these on Etsy!” You might as well say “You could siphon all the joy out of this practice and replace it with crippling performance anxiety!”
Who are the people in my life whose response to any nascent creative work is: “Have you considered trying to make this as un-commercially-viable as possible?”
And more importantly: what allows someone to follow that instinct?
Shing and I have talked a little lately about feeling the hustle go out of us in our 30s, and how following the course of that ebb is a privilege earned by hustling a lot in our earlier career days (alongside other factors, of course). Overfunding a Kickstarter or landing an unexpectedly lucrative illustration gig—or even, on a more sustainable scale, running a Patreon—is a means of buying your own creative freedom for a spell, but all of these still involve an initial influx of cash. You have to pay to play.
Usually we get Great Horned Owls in our garden, slow and mournful and resonant, but last night I heard a newcomer with a call like a rubber ball dropped down a flight of stairs.
It’s a Western Screech Owl!
This audio recording is from April 4th, 2020. It was captured 130 miles from here in the San Gabriel Mountains by Lance A. M. Benner, a Principal Scientist at NASA JPL, and uploaded to the miracle that is Xeno-canto. If you haven’t come across that site name before…well. It’s a community-driven database of bird calls from around the globe, but that description doesn’t really capture its magnificence. The site’s been around since 2005, and the breadth and quality of the recording collection is staggering. You can look for absolutely anything there, and a great deal of it is licensed under Creative Commons.
Benner has contributed 1,926 recordings to the site.
Isn’t it wild that people just do stuff like this?
The most famous Western Screech Owl in my internet circles right now is probably Coconut the Owl, who took up residence in Austin Kleon’s backyard earlier in the Pandemic and recently received a new abode:
Also apropos of nothing I followed some links about Benner out of idle curiosity and found myself listening to a few of his owl-specific recordings on Owl Pages Dot Com, a site devoted to…well, you know.
[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]
Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.
I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.
On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.
Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.
Anyway, here’s today’s:
This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.
And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned:
In previous years I’ve been really inspired by my studiomate Natalie Nourigat‘s year-end wrap-up posts, so I thought I’d do one of my own for 2014/2015! I spent most of December in California with my family—my first trip home in a whole year—getting some much-needed perspective on 2014 and hashing out some concrete plans for 2015. Also jumping into very cold swimming holes.
Taken as a whole? 2014 was a Really Good Year. I became an official member at Periscope, I found a dream housing situation, I got asked to document and sail aboard the last wooden whaling ship in the world, I tabled at shows in Canada, England, and both coasts of the US, I did work that I was proud of…but even with all of that in the bag I still felt like 2014 was a year of reacting to things as they were flung at me. Everything was extremely loud and incredibly close. More often than not I was finishing projects in massive work gluts in between flying around all over the place for conventions and work opportunities. I had at least one trip every month, if not two, and the toll showed in my over-all page count for the year and my general health and sanity.
So for 2015 I want more intention. I want some control. I want the stability of a routine that supports my health, my creative habits, and my heart. I also want to draw a ton of comics. But before we get to that let’s talk about 2014. My goals (personal and professional) were:
1. Find a place to live.
Boy this one panned out really, really well. At the start of 2014 I was long-term housesitting for my studiomates Paul and Anina with most of my belongings in storage in a nearby basement. I didn’t really know where I was going when they got back. Everything was uncertain. Then, in exchange for helping my dear friend Zina by giving her a place to crash while she looked for new housing, we somehow ended up playing grown-up and working with an awesome realtor to help her parents buy a house in Portland. A house that we then got to move into. Words can’t really express what a difference this has made in my life. We live right smack dab in the middle of a lovely neighborhood, the house is just the right size for the two of us, and we cohabit like fucking champs. Looking back on 2014, this is definitely the Best Thing That Happened to Me. Here’s to happy homes.
2. Table at lots of new conventions.
This is really a continuation of last year’s goal to try and figure out what the best shows are for me to prioritize each year. This year was a great mix of new shows and old favorites. I tabled at…
Wizard World (Portland)
Emerald City (Seattle)
Rose City (Portland)
Thought Bubble (Leeds!)
Beyond conventions I also did a ton of traveling for work projects like Down to the Seas Again, plus I had my first two bookstore events! By a rough estimate I traveled 26,370 miles this year. HOLY HELL.
3. Draw more than I drew in 2013.
Victory! I drew 91 pages of comics in 2014, over 82 pages in 2013. Granted, I was hoping to hit 100, but some things just don’t work out the way we want. It’s an okay number given how much I traveled in 2014. The breakdown went as follows:
“Bandette” Guest Short: 3 pages
“Oh Joy, Sex Toy” Guest Comic #2: 5 pages
Cartozia Issue 4: 4 pages
Cartozia Issue 4 Extra: 1 Page
“Greening Islam” story for Symbolia: 11 Pages
“Flip the Switch” Float comic for The Nib: 6 Pages
Girls With Slingshots Guest Comics: 5 Pages
Cartozia Tales #5: 3 Pages
Cartozia Tales #6: 4 pages
Down to the Seas Again: 18 pages
“Pacific Passages” with Jim Mockford: 12 pages
“Yeah Maybe, No” documentary: 17 pages
Lube Comic: 2 pages
I also colored 35 pages of a longer nonfiction comic for a studiomate. It was my first gig as a colorist and I had a ton of fun, but I won’t count it towards my year total since it wasn’t “big picture” drawing work.
You’ll notice that a lot of those projects are for other people, which is great! Collaboration is aces. But I also want to be working on more of my own projects. I think I use freelance comics jobs or collaborations to get around my own fears about owning my material, which is silly and should stop forthwith.
4. Bring in more money than I did in 2013.
So I know there’s been a lot of brouhaha recently about artists sharing their financial figures, but this stuff is important to me so I’m gonna level with you: I was thrilled in 2013 because I brought in about $22,900 over the course of the year (before all my business and living expenses, of course), which wasn’t gads of money but it was enough! I was making it! And this year it’s looking like I’ll have brought in about $3,600 more than last year. Lemme tell you, that feels amazing. It may not be 130k a year for software development, but that’s not my passion. My passion is the thing that I’m stretching and saving to make possible, and if it grows a little bit each year (even a tiny bit!) it’ll put me closer to building a sustainable life off of it.
In addition to the freelance work I was chugging through, I bit the bullet and started a Patreon page, which continues to motivate and humble me every month.
It’s a little over $500 a month right now, and that money is an absolute godsend. It keeps me focused on bringing more of my work into the world rather than chasing down commercial gigs, and I’m so grateful for it.
Of course, most of the new income from 2014 has gone straight back into tabling at more shows, printing new comics, and traveling to do research for future projects, but more money, more problems, right?
In 2015 I start paying for health insurance on my own. I’m also becoming a fully-paying member at Periscope. I’m really scared about the addition of any new expenses because right now keeping everything in balance feels doable, but incredibly tenuous. I’m taking it easy on the travel front. Instead of flying to eight conventions (two of them cross-country, one of them international), I’ll be keeping it local in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of self-publishing expensive color minicomics, I’m going to focus on producing content online with an eye to creating a book.
I know I can do it, and I know there will be plenty of work to go around, but I also don’t want to end up with tunnel vision as often as I did in 2014. As it stands, I feel like I’m making progress towards crafting a sustainable career, which is the Big Goal. Hooray!
SO THAT’S ENOUGH OF 2014.
What’s going to be different about 2015? WELL LEMME TELL YOU:
The basic goals will always be the same: draw more comics, make more money. If I can keep upping those numbers every year then I feel like I’m making progress towards success.
1. Draw more than 100 pages in 2015.
On the note of not doing so many projects for other people, I’ll be pitching a bunch of shorter comics to The Nib this year. It’s a great platform and supports a lot of the nonfiction/adventure work I love doing. It’ll also help get me over the hump of worrying about pitching my own ideas. I have a handful of stories already bubbling away, including a longer Baggywrinkles installment about the history of scurvy and the culinary arts of the sea, all of which I want to run on Patreon on a monthly basis in addition to putting them on The Nib. My patrons are all rockstars, and I want to treat them as such.
The elephant in the room is A Longer Project, which I have a few ideas about. Not saying too much until I know more, but the desire for it came up a lot this year so I’d like to start moving in the direction.
Earlier this year I joined a couple of my studiomates in a monthly practice where we discuss our accomplishments and challenges from the previous month and our goals for the upcoming month. GAME-CHANGING. I strongly encourage any of you reading this to start a check-in group of with some friends or colleagues—”accountabilibuddies”, if you will. It keeps me focused and forces me to admit that I’ve accomplished things when I feel like I’m drowning in work. It also stops me from procrastination on Big Picture projects that might otherwise fall by the wayside.
However: I want to keep that specificity and intention going in other parts of my life. I am terrible at asking for things. Asking myself what I really want and need on a regular basis, asking for help when things get to be too much—I’m just not great at doing that kind of work. After playing around with some of the prompts in this year-end workbook, I decided that my challenge to myself for 2015 will be to ask more. This includes checking in about my goals and whether I’m pursuing them to best of my ability, checking in with my friends and loves to figure out what they need and how I can best support them, and ruthlessly jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit into those two pictures.
3. Read 50 books.
I’ve finally gotten over my post-undergrad reading phobia, which means getting serious about devouring more books. Zina and I are putting up a giant list between our rooms where we can record the titles of books we read this year and I’m super excited. I want more fuel in the brain tank. Currently I’m about a third of the way into Moby Dick and just starting Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz. On the other “various stages of completion” nightstand there’s Sex From Scratch (by my rad hometown friend Sarah Mirk), The Power of Habit, Show Your Work, Welcome to the Monkey House, and a few others I can’t think of right now. Lots to choose from. I go fast when I get going, so the goal now is just making time.
4. Create an ideal day/week.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of changing days rather than years. Resolutions never work so well for me, and with so much upheaval in 2014 I really just yearned for a consistent week-to-week schedule that could keep me grounded. The days when I go to bed thinking “Man, that was a Good Day” generally include waking up early (6:45-7-30ish), creative time first thing in the morning, the completion of small, concrete tasks, exercise (dancing, riding my bike, yoga), recuperation (knitting, writing letters, reading, TV), home-cooked food, socialization of some sort, and early bed. With that in mind, here are some things I’ll be trying out:
Not looking at my phone for at least the first hour of every day. This means getting an analog alarm clock and charging my phone downstairs instead of beside my bed so I don’t wake up to tweets and emails.
Writing a page in my journal every morning rather than waiting for “enough” time to do a proper entry. Anything further is frosting.
Going to yoga once a week. Just once. Anything further is also frosting.
Devoting the first three hours of the workday to brain-heavy creative tasks (scripting, thumbnails, pencils).
Devoting two hours post-lunch to admin work (filling orders, writing blog posts, categorizing finances, promoting stuff on social media).
Making time for 30 minutes of reading before bed so I can fulfill my goal of finishing 50 books this year.
Doing a proper weekly shop on Sundays and cooking two meals that I can dole out for lunch when I don’t have time to cook throughout the week.
5. Keep developing my sketching practice.
I did a lot of sketchbook work this year, which felt fantastic. In 2015 I’d like to be finishing sketchbooks every six months or faster, which means taking time to draw out in the world, doing studies when I get the chance, and committing to figure drawing (at least) once a month. That last one will feel really good if I can do it consistently.
So that’s it!
If you made it all the way through this: CONGRATULATIONS! You are like this noble capybara—a champion among mammals. Bask in the adoration of your monkeys.