I’m taking advantage of a chance to work with a new acquaintance who’s training to be a coach. I’ve never had a coach before! The idea of having someone—ANYONE—to look out for me is really appealing right now!!
But also: I’m suspicious of why I’m doing this.
Some things I know:
The way I was working pre-Pandemic brought me a degree of financial stability, novelty, recognition, and stimulation that was deeply pleasing to me
The way I was working pre-Pandemic spread me thin, encouraged me to keep playing the hits, caught me in a web of social media addiction that didn’t make me happy, took me away from developing deeper and more intimate relationships with the people closest to me
I have a big fat A+ Student complex and a Perfectionist streak a mile wide
I have at least five personal projects that all feel like they’re languishing at 89% completion and if I could just get them finished everything would change
I have a knack for translating complex internal experiences into stories that speak to people
I feel pressure to translate every complex internal experience I have into stories that speak to people
Making work that connects me with other people nourishes my soul
I used to believe that by pulling off impossible deadlines I was somehow training to cheat death
My life as a caregiver (and co-parent-habitator) is so different from any other life I’ve lived before
I live in a society that systematically devalues the kind of labor I’m spending the majority of my time doing right now
I live in a society that systematically valorizes the kind of career I was building before I transitioned to this season
Doing more will not ultimately protect me from the grief of slowly and inevitably losing my dad
I’m sniffing around the idea that I might be using a coach as a taskmaster who will “get me back on track” and help me recapture the cadence of my pre-caregiving life. Do I really want that? Or is it just my best guess at what will give me the good brain drugs, and I’m so hungry for something that feels better than the inevitable decline I live with every day that I’m scrabbling for it with everything I’ve got?
I’ve heard a lot of variations on “I didn’t know what to say” when I’ve reconnected with people lately, or sometimes “I didn’t know whether you wanted to be contacted at all.” Going to ground online does often correspond with a desire to be left alone, and I suppose my social capacity has been greatly diminished of late, but I’ve really treasured the handful of emails or letters or texts that have arrived from folks just dropping in to share a little about what they’ve been up to, and to wish me well.
Anyway, I sent one of those kinds of emails to S. a couple weeks ago and we finally got to talk. It was such a nourishing and thought-provoking conversation that I wanted to jot down some of the things that stood out to me, just to refer back to down the line.
We talked about our shared resistance to the fixed nature of identity online, and how it might be driving an interest in disengaging from the broader landscape of social media. Neither of us are excited by spaces where it’s hard to be evolving or questioning right now.
At one point S. said “I’ve been circling the same star” in response to a bunch of thoughts I’d shared and I just love that expression!!WOW. It also makes me laugh because I’ve become quite wedded to the garden of metaphors I use to conceptualize my creative practice or talk about my life, and they’re all super terrestrial! Space Stuff isn’t in there at all! What a novel delight!
Just thinking a lot about how I organize my thinking in general these days. What are the guiding metaphors? What’s changed in my life and my creative work as I’ve started using seasons and maps and territory and wayfinding and murmurations as mental models? What might change if I tried on a different model?
Conceptual labor means asking “regardless of what I think I’m doing, what am I actually doing?” and then continuously refining your model of your labor — which includes the way you see the world — until it describes what you are actually doing. It only stops when it arrives at an internally-consistent model that has the power to describe new actions taken while subscribing to it. […] Conceptual labor is the process by which we fundamentally change our model of the world. The more fluent we are in how we practice conceptual labor in the areas that we have the power to control, whether it is poetry or politics, the more we will be able to critique the paradigms that control us.
The other day B. said he felt illegible to most people—except his grandmother, who could probably read the most chapters of him out of anyone. I jolted, because Aud had just (three months ago, but mentally “just”) written me an email containing a similar metaphor: the far edge of a chapter in one’s life approaching over the horizon. In both instances: resonance.
What are the chapters of the book that is me? Which are the most legible? Which are the least? Are there whole sections written in cuneiform? Is there a folded letter tucked inside the dust jacket that falls out when you think there’s nothing more to read? Are there people I’ve stayed close to because I fear they are the only ones who will ever be able to read certain sections?
I blathered about my increasingly complex feelings around making art under capitalism for a while, talking a lot about what I didn’t want to do, until S. said “You’re not hurting capitalism—you’re hurting yourself.”
Then I blathered some more about my increasingly complex feelings around “getting it right” when I finally release my 100 Day Project from 2020, until S. said (with great gentleness) “What’s your relationship to repetition?” and I laughed, because I’d just blogged and tweeted about the fear of not having access to repetition as a right. Having to nail it on the first try. Never getting a second chance. So silly. 100 Demon Dialogues had been around in multiple different guises before it became a book. So had Baggywrinkles. Everything I’ve done, really.
Perhaps this is the dark side of making work that I keep secret—it raises the stakes when I finally decide to share.
(Another Ním Thing was this concept we came up with called The Permuta Triangle to describe the territory in one’s practice that gets circled around and re-hashed over and over throughout the course of a life. See also: the idea of growth as an upward spiral rather than a line. We’re going in circles, yes, but we’re moving UP. We traverse the same territory with greater and greater depth and perspective over time.)
Anyway, read your own damn tweets, Bellwood.
But the idea I wrote down in the biggest letters of all was
WEBSITE LIKE A NEWSPAPER
We’d been talking about the struggle to know where to file the muchness of what gets captured in our own blogs, plus the tendency to adopt different tones and personas across various platforms, when S. dropped this glorious, glittering thing. It makes so much sense to me.
Folks in my circles approach this issue in different ways. Lots of the people I enjoy following have at least some subdivision to their work, although the majority of it is still textual content. Robin has Notes and Essays. Mandy has Reading Notes and Essays. Justin has Quotes and Snippets and Words(!) and a bunch of other stuff. Mark has Books and Posts. I love all that.
What I find myself struggling with is the desire to bring the goofy visuals of Instagram, the fleeting thoughts of Twitter, the in-depth artwork process posts of Patreon, and the educational recordings of SoundCloud together under one roof. Oh yeah, and the essays from Medium. And the porthole videos from Tumblr. And the talks from YouTube. Maybe also playlists from Spotify and movie reviews from Letterboxd and…jeez there’s so much to all of this.
I’m different people everywhere.
But when S. talked about organizing a blog like a newspaper, my brain lit up. This is that Parts Integration shit I adore. Just think! I could treat these different online selves I’ve inhabited over the years as different columnists, each with their own op-ed. A newspaper has a page for classifieds where I can shove all my ads for stuff! Book reviews! Editorial illustrations! There’s a whole COMICS SECTION, fer chrissake.
I don’t know. Maybe this is all obvious. Maybe the electricity of it will dissipate tomorrow, but it does feel like one of those new metaphorical models that could be really helpful. If I can flag somehow that Classified Ad Lucy is taking the mic at the start of a post, maybe these parts can coexist more peacefully. It’s not so much about me building a whole new website from the ground up with headlines and bylines and everything else. It’s more about the way I think about inhabiting this space in my own brain.
Historically, I’ve been someone who uses what I’m doing as an indication of how I’m doing.
I’m far from the only person doing this, I know. Capitalism and America’s Puritan work ethic really get off on doing as a substitute for being. But the thing is…it used to work relatively well. My creative work gave me The Good Brain Drugs, and so when I was working effectively and a lot, I’d feel good. A lot of my angst over the past year has stemmed from the anxiety of waiting to start on this graphic novel, which makes sense in this model. Now that I’ve finally started rolling on the project, hitting the studio every morning for three straight weeks, the creative blockade is lifting.
So why do I still feel awful?
The truth of the matter is that my creative/productive self is doing exceptionally well, but my emotional self is not. I have no idea how to deal with this information.
How can I reconcile how excited I am by this project—how tangled up in the joy of designing new characters and solving page layouts like crossword puzzles every morning—with how utterly depleted and depressed and grief-riddled I am in the rest of my life? I’m not used to there being a mismatch. Usually I feel stymied creatively and emotionally until the former comes loose and I hit a rhythm of making that scratches the itch, at which point the latter resolves of its own accord.
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.
It feels redundant to keep pointing wildly at everyone who’s coming to similar conclusions about the instability of this online ecosystem right now—BUT—every time I find another person doing it I start yelling “YES. YES!” and do want to catalogue them in some way because these conversations are unfolding in many different spaces concurrently. It’s not just cartoonists writing about being cartoonists. It’s dancers and authors and comedians and zinesters and activists and journalists and musicians all pausing to look around and say, collectively, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Robin called the other day and mentioned that I seemed to have stopped blogging, to which I say: it’s a fair cop. I was in Portland being consumed by my newfound ability to be close to other people and then I was moving and for the past ten days I’ve still been moving, but it’s the shitty back-end part of moving that we don’t talk about as much where you have to actually unpack and (in the case of this particular move) jettison decades of childhood ephemera from your tiny bedroom in order to make it a livable space for yourself as an adult.
The last piece of furniture I needed to move in was my bed frame, which I’d decided to stain and refinish because “Imperfect DIY Projects” was in my “More” column for this year. Now that I can sleep in a space with visible floor area and a desk I can actually sit at (though I am, in fact, writing this on the bed), it turns out my brain is far more capable of turning to the digital spaces I’ve been neglecting for the past six weeks. By returning to writing, I’m breathing a habitual sigh of relief—the kind that turns into a stream of words about shit I didn’t know I was even processing in the background of whatever I was busy doing while I was thinking that I’d never write another word ever again.1
So, after all that preamble:
Nicole Brinkley wrote this essay called Did Twitter Break YA? as part of her Misshelved series on Patreon and it’s fucking great. YA isn’t my community, but it’s adjacent to my community. And booksellers (the community Nicole talks about most frequently in her writing) are absolutely within my community. The patterns she describes in this piece—of context collapse and “morally motivated networked harassment” and parasocial relationships and burnout—are patterns I know like the back of my hand.
There are so many nod-inducing moments, but this was the one that really made my blood run cold:
After all, access to authors is the real product—and if an author missteps, they’re just a failed product. There are always more authors to fill that spot on the shelf.
Bluergh. Hurk. Ek. How often have I slipped into thinking of myself as a failed product on a shelf? Certainly every time I’ve stopped posting as often on Patreon, or expressed enthusiasm about doing a drawing challenge and then failed to follow through. Definitely in those moments when I think that if I just had a bit more energy and time I could start making content that would grow my following “in earnest”. When I take two years to send a new installment of my newsletter. When I disappear.
But it’s not just the disappearance. It’s feeling of one’s absence being invisible within the onrushing tide of Other People’s Output. Remember that Drew Austin essay I linked a couple posts ago? He gets into it there, noting that “Every social media feed is an endless parade of these fragmentary identities, disaggregated into units of content and passing by quickly enough to evade the scrutiny that would detect their incompleteness.” The incompleteness being that we are all also doing and contending with other things. We have to be. We’re not just on Twitter 24/7—even people who seem as if they are.
This is the price of trying to succeed within the ecosystem of capitalism, and maybe it’s also why I want to keep sharing here and here alone: I haven’t contaminated this container yet. It gets to sit apart from everything else, just me and my thoughts.2
Earlier in the Pandemic Mara made a rare Instagram appearance, posting a series of text-based stories from her new home in Winthrop, Washington. I transcribed them immediately because, as with most things she writes and shares and speaks about, it sparked something in me that I needed to sit with for a long time.
I have so enjoyed every story and post by you all, dear friends. How does it work when I just observe you, and when to like/comment on what you make here is to feed an algorithm that watches and profits off of our affection? I don’t do it because it feels…violent?…to us. This platform is very hard for me. Thank you for understanding. It pales in comparison to being near you. The simulacrum of closeness feels nauseating. I know we are killing something important in the process of creating connection. I want you to walk through the door, for us to play. You’re all here always.
This is it—the heart of the thing. We chase engagement as if it’s the Holy Grail, and yet to play the game on any level means we’ve already lost. There are so many people I can think of who I’ve finally been able to see and embrace and laugh with over the past month and attempting to get that through social media does pale in comparison. The simulacrum is nauseating.
This handful of broken online platforms can’t be everything.
Past a certain point I don’t want to spend my time cataloguing people’s writing about this—or generating my own—because (and this is the curse of the over-informed over-thinker) I know it all already. I know it in my bones. I may not have the right terminology for it, but I can feel it. I fear I am admiring the problem, thrilling to ever more accurate descriptors that tell me precisely how and why I’m locked in this unfulfilling spiral, rather than taking steps to change my behavior.3
As Tolentino points out, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”
But Nicole is ready for that.
[…] I do not want to wear the armor of cynicism. I do not want to be trapped in the ouroboros of perfection just because the community I interact with demands it.
So here is what I will say to you, dear reader: You do not have to participate in this cycle.
The system is broken, but the system can be abandoned.
In addressing this head-on, she wins my heart.4 She admits that the piece started out as one thing and then turned into another. She describes the trajectory it might have taken had she chosen to focus solely on the issue of where actual teenage readers sit in the modern YA landscape, and then she recognizes that this is really a conversation about so much more. (I will never stop loving this pattern, wherever I encounter it.)
The Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It School, the Grit School, the Capitalism School—they all urge us to keep producing and grinding and persevering, trusting that clarity will come from more work (even if that work, at its core, is purposeless, unfulfilling, or even actively harmful). With no time to reflect or catch our breath, we feel we have no choice but to trust the systems we’re given, to push and push and push until we “break into” the spaces that are communally regarded as desirable, and then fight like hell to keep that power safe because don’t you know this is a landscape of scarcity? There’s only so much to go around.
When I think about the last year, I don’t think about pushing. I think about waiting.
I had to wait. I had to wait a long, long time. In some ways I’m still waiting.
So when Nicole says:
These days it’s okay to not be sure what Twitter is for. We can stop going there until we figure it out.
It feels like permission.
It makes my soul exhale.
“I don’t feel good when I’m here” is enough of a reason to leave. Even if the places I wish I could stay—or the people I wish I could stay with—sometimes bring me connection and joy and validation and money and, yes, even love. If my gut tells me that I am not, at baseline, nourished the way I need to be: I can walk.
That’s the new rule.
Thank you, Nicole.
1. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that my obsessive nesting has masked a deeper discomfort with having to face the true emotional cost of this transition. That’s a conversation for another time. But, as my therapist reminded me: this grief is chronic, not acute. Avoidance is a tactic we use to survive ongoing adversity. It’s not inherently evil. ↩
2. Also, just a general side note in relation to all this: how often have I shared something like Nicole’s essay on Twitter or Instagram with the caveat “I’m fully aware of the irony of sharing this here, but…”? I want to stop doing that. If I’m reading something about how fucked it feels to still be on a certain platform and it resonates with me, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN THAT PLATFORM. (I am yelling at myself here because this is a footnote and that’s what they’re for, I think.) ↩
3. Whoops this is the moment I realized that this essay is also about my historical approach to relationships. Surprise! ↩
4. She also reminds me of this stunning essay from adrienne maree brown about disrupting patterns of harm that specifically target Black women within movement work. I’m due a re-read because I haven’t stopped thinking about it for months. ↩
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.
Of course Mara has already been talking about these questions for years. Of course she posted a link to this report just a couple weeks ago. Of course there’s a huge body of ongoing work unfolding around these questions across every industry at this weird crisis point in history.