I haven’t historically been someone who reads a lot of books simultaneously, but I won’t lie: it’s doing a lot for me right now. My brain is scattered and anxious and burnt out and overwhelmed and uncertain, but allowing pattern recognition to come into play as I’m reading across genres and timescales…that I can manage. It helps things feel as if they make sense.
Of course, sometimes the patterns I recognize are massively uncomfortable. Here’s three about habit, practice, belief, and enthusiasm:
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way:
Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods:
Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty:
I think I’ve listed these in the order I encountered them, but I can’t be sure. I just know I read the Cameron passage and felt personally attacked in that good, awful way that means something true is surfacing. I love daily drawing challenges. Arguably I’ve built a whole career on them. But I also, deep down, know that they can become a kind of ego trap. Fortunately there are all these other rhyming passages that offer alternative paths and approaches. Johnson underlines a truth I’ve already folded into large parts of my brain: that there’s a fundamental difference between a habit and a practice.
Bonus Kicker: I read Zina that passage from Cameron and she immediately latched onto the etymology of enthusiasm. “Did you know?” she asked. And I had to reply that I did, because there’s a phrase rattling around in my brain:
“The Greeks said that to be enthusiastic was to be filled with God.”
Why do I know this? Why do I know it with this specific wording? It feels like something I know through repetition, like I’ve heard it read aloud many times or included in a talk. I dig around in the filing cabinets of surface memory and find nothing.
At 11:30 that night I finally find it: a single quote pulled from a series of small stories written by Frank Chimero in, as far as I can tell, 2010. I’d written it down in 2016 in an old notes document where I kept links and things to include in my newsletter. A quick spin through the archives suggests that I never actually wove it into an update, but every time I went to write one I’d skim through that list of quotes and links and there it would be: a phrase.
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.
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.
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.
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” 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:
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.
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:
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.
If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.
But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.
But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? Might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting.
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.
On a call with some of the folks from the Wayward community the other night, someone shared a conversation they’d had with their therapist about emerging into 2021. PTSD, the therapist pointed out, doesn’t generally rear its head while soldiers are on the battlefield. It comes later, when things are supposedly “safe” or “better” and everyone around us is celebrating or relaxing and we’re only just beginning to experience the full impact of what we’ve been through.
It hit me like a pile of bricks.
I feel so far away from my creative self right now. The only thing I keep finding comfort in is learning that a lot of other friends are in the same boat—that maybe a majority of us are actually grieving the loss of whatever creative spaciousness or clarity we’d managed to eke out in the solitude of Quarantine. Or maybe we’re all just braced for the next wave of closures and infections and losses, or finally feeling the full weight of the closures and infections and losses that have already come and gone.
My first family COVID deaths happened in quick succession within the last two weeks—far past the peak of the Pandemic. What does that mean? How am I supposed to feel? They lived in another country, separated by oceans and continents and the 17 years since I saw them last in person. But they were family—a community I struggle to feel connected to at the best of times, even though I yearn for it desperately. I’m vaccinated. My parents are vaccinated. Nothing quite like thinking you’re “safe” and then realizing grief can still snake its way into your circles, no matter the care you take.
I’m thinking, too, about the way I keep brushing off this mental and creative slump in conversation, waving my hands and explaining to friends that “it’s just a phase” and “things will feel better as soon as I get stuck into my next project.”
“This always happens,” I say. “I always pull through.”
But something I didn’t account for is living in house alongside my dad, one of my primary sources of creative inspiration and cheerleading growing up, who genuinely has lost contact his creative self. Dementia is not the seasonal cycle that I usually comfort myself with when I think of the ebb and flow of creative embodiment. It’s a far darker and more linear decline. It makes the threat of permanent loss in these low tide seasons feel more real.
It’s not to say that I’m over here worrying about imminently losing all my marbles. More that…I don’t know. Maybe that I haven’t been making enough space for the enormity of everything. When I make light of this season—either because I’m afraid of it, or embarrassed that it’s happening to me, or something else—I rob myself of the chance to feel my way through into whatever comes next.
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.
On April 16th, 2018, a friend of mine began a 100 Day Project—a collection of self portraits in ink, framed as a meditation on gender.
The tiny illustrations began to pile up: two weeks, 100 days, a year.
They kept drawing.
At 862, they stopped sharing to Instagram, but said they would probably keep going in private. (We love to see it.)
And then, a couple days ago, a text:
I asked how they were feeling about the milestone.
And now I’m laughing thinking about Benoit Blanc and donuts, because this is how I feel at moments like this—screenshotting a perfectly normal text conversation because something about it makes me think “HANG ON”.
Not the art, but the behavior around the art.
A donut! One central piece, and if it reveals itself the fog would lift, the arc would resolve, the slinky become unkinked…
These are all projects where the structure of the undertaking supersedes the content. Fixating on the satisfaction of completing another link in the chain allows my less-than-perfect artistic skill to slip past the Watcher at the Gate undetected. Success is defined as adherence to the practice, not excellence in the craft.
The joke, of course, is that they’re one and the same.