Since launching The Right Number in 2020, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways people are using phone lines in creative projects. There’s services like Dialup, where you can connect to strangers for live conversation, and SARK’s Inspiration Line (a formative one for me), but there are two new ones that I caught this week and needed to put next to each other:
My friend Anis, who happens to be the current Poet Laureate of Oregon, is running a phone line this month where you can dial every day to hear a different poet read you one of their poems. It’s lovely.
For poetry: 503-928-7008
My friend Shing, who happens to be A MENACE (and brilliant creator of the absurd), just launched an existential horror phone sex hotline. You will definitely not be speaking to any live humans if you call, but you will probably shudder and then laugh and then shudder again. Make sure you Press 8 for aftercare!
Shing wrote a very perfect post-mortem about their epistolary keepsake game, Remember August. It is personal and statistical all at once, just as much about the logistics of running a very unique kind of mail-based narrative as it is about the decline of once-cherished relationships. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but this sentence in particular hit me in the chest:
I felt a little bit like by making games like this, I was tricking strangers and friends into telling me that I would be okay.
I feel this so keenly when I listen to messages from The Right Number. Much like the handwritten letters players posted during their interaction with Remember August, the human voice carries so many layers of intimacy. The current prompt is about refuges, and people have been calling to describe, in gorgeous detail, their chosen temples and cherished landscapes. I lie in the dark and let their accents and words wash over me, one by one. A house in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A warm beach. A particular couch in a family room.
I never listen to too many at once, so there’s actually a backlog of messages I haven’t gotten to yet, but they feel timeless. There’s no response forthcoming, just the knowledge that I’ll listen to them and keep them safe somehow. And in return, they keep me safe, too.
Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it.
To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other.
I’m wrestling with the letter I want to write to introduce my 2020 100 Day Project when I release it later this month. I’m feeling the pressure to get it just right. To say it just so. (Sound familiar? I keep finding different elements of this project to obsess over as a way to avoid sharing it. Go figure. Just share it, Lucy.)
I poked my head into Instagram briefly this morning and found Anis sharing a project that has its roots in a much older project and is now reemerging:
Back in 2014/2015 I was in a place of heavy loss, a place of relearning, rewiring, reforming my self, & began writing down & sharing online these monthly wisdoms/lessons for my self to learn, think on, & try to remember. Have wanted to return to this for years now, & being now in some months of heavy reflection seemed a good time for this returning. Here’s things I put down last month for me to hold & turn over & try to remember.
This subtitle sings to me.
It’s a funny thing how we all begin turning toward the same subjects at the same times (or have already been turning for several years). Reminders. Permission. Speaking to the self as the self, but at a removal from the self. This is the energy of the thing I’m about to release, too. Seeing it reflected in these words from my brilliant friend fills me with compassion and energy and, okay, a little envy, too. I have to elbow myself in the psychic ribs as if to say “Hey. Cut it out. There’s no race here, ya dingbat.”
On another slide, Anis writes:
I sometimes use vulnerability w/self to avoid vulnerability w/others. I wear my heart, but wearing can be a costume.
This is one of the things that drives me away from sharing such a personal thing in public. I want it to be known (I want to be known), but not in a space where I’ve traditionally used perceived vulnerability to mask real connection.
The greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this project has been pressing the physical prototype (or the Dropbox folder of images) into the hands of trusted friends, and then talking about it with them. That’s energy I want to preserve moving forward. This connection. This depth.
Jez and I talked about bonsai trees a lot tonight. He’d gone to the Pacific Bonsai Museum. We talked about creative work that becomes a conversation between a craftsperson and a living being—a conversation that will outlast its originator. A conversation across multiple generations.
The oldest tree he saw dated from 1850.
Lives stop, but life keeps going. Flesh begets flesh.
Great cathedrals were built by generations of stonemasons to whom the architect was a man who might once have greeted their grandfathers’ grandfathers. How agreeable, then, to believe in God.
To set stones on stones not for the architect but for eternity.
The Latin epitaph in one seventeenth-century cathedral translates: Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.
The words are carved in a disk of black marble set beneath the center of the dome. The disk was placed there by the architect’s son.
It’s easy to imagine the great man, but try to imagine the son who knows his father’s cathedral will be loved longer than the flesh of his flesh.
Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
I’m in a cathedral. My dad is in the cathedral. Our friends and neighbors—we’re all in the cathedral, eighteen-foot tall and wool-woven. Ostensibly we’re saints, but anyone from town would look around and just see people they knew. She lost her house in the Thomas Fire. He passed away last Christmas from pneumonia. This is the real record.
I posed for the portrait in 1998. Before Y2K, but after the release of Spiceworld. When we saw the Cathedral open its doors in 2002, I was 13 and felt so worldly compared to the child self hung high on the yellowed walls.
The truth is: she’ll outlast me.
I haven’t been back to the Cathedral since, but I think about it all the time.
It was by this making of comparisons to analyse her feelings that Taryn returned from her period of healing to who she was, what mattered to her, and what was inescapable. Her troubles had pressed on her for weeks, not just ill health caused by the demon but the Muleskinner’s slow approach and what she thought she owed him—or worried he’d think she owed him. And there were other failings: how she took her former husband’s generosity for granted, and how little kindness she seemed able to show to her father. The rest of it—her book, the festivals, her agent’s and publisher’s expectations—receded. But what had taken the place of the pressures wasn’t Taryn’s own tranquillity; it was the land itself, the Sidh, promising always to be there, always to be the same. Promising also that it would be the same Taryn who stepped out with sound knees and clear eyes from this blue lake, or stone hearth, or apple shade. Come again, be again—that was its promise, a sense of permanence Taryn hadn’t felt since she was under ten years old and only able to imagine that she would always stay at Princes Gate with her grandparents, always find the same old Monopoly set, quoits, croquet hoops and mallets, the familiar punt, the cats—only a little indifferent whenever she arrived—but all as it should be, the same, permanent. The Sidh was turning Taryn into a child again, a child who knew everything sustaining would last. It gave her back that knowledge beyond faith—what the faithful meant when they said ‘faith’.
Elizabeth Knox, The Absolute Book
I got a card at the Ojai Library last week. Walked into this building for the first time since I was a child and breathed the particular scent of spines and plastic and dust. Things were different, of course. Fewer shelves in the children’s section, no more chunky CRT monitors blinking green on black, keyboards shrouded in that satisfyingly tacky plastic skin. Keys you really had to punch to pull up the author of your choosing.
When I went looking for the books I remember devouring as a young reader, I found the same phalanx of Nancy Drew titles intact.
The Moomin novels, though, the ones I really wanted to see again, they were gone.
If we take the average woman artist’s 1980 income of $24,153 dollars and plug it into the US Inflation Calculator, we learn that in today’s 2021 money that would be $81,073.47.
Funnily enough, when I sat down in 2018 to try and figure out what I really needed to be earning to maintain my quality of life at the time, the number I settled on was $72,000 a year. (This process deserves a whole blog post of its own, because it also dovetails with adopting Whiteboard Accounting and was fascinating and only possible thanks to having started keeping an actual budget the year before. DATA! It’s life-changing.)
Anyway, jumping back to my post from yesterday: if I were charging my standard freelance hourly rate for my work on this graphic novel, I’d likely earn somewhere around $78,750 for a year’s work. This feels bang on target with what Lily is talking about! Bingo! Amazing! Inflation adjustment accomplished!
But that’s not the reality.
[…] when we compare that $81,073 to what the 2020 Census numbers are for artists... we find that the average income in 2020 was only $52,340. Meaning, yes, artists income hasn’t adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. In fact, artist’s income is less than $30,000 more than what it was in 1980, which is about $30,000 under what it should be if it had adjusted for inflation properly over the last 41 years.
Am I surprised? No. No I’m not.
So what do we do with the information that artists are underpaid and that their income has not adjusted for inflation since the 1980s? We strike back in the ways that we are able. Freelancers are less likely to make a strike because of the individual nature of freelance work, unlike more organized fields in art like creatives in the film industry, who have the IATSE Guild information and network to help organize strikes. So, from an empowered standpoint knowing we deserve more… what we do is charge more and we do not settle for less.
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.
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.
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.
Even before the Pandemic, I spent a great deal of time finding connection through machines. It was part and parcel of my work, the backbone of my audience and my ability to make a living. But having spent the past year being forced to mediate all my relationships through the internet or the telephone has left me hungry for connection in space in ways I can’t fully articulate.
Don’t get me wrong: I learned so much over the past year. From Kat. From Rachel. From Erika and Danielle and Robin and James and Sarah and Zina and Jez and Tess and Kristen and Vivian and RSS and Wayward and Hyperlink and everyone. I deepened and renewed and began so many friendships. So it’s a little surprising to me that I’ve had barely any interest in opening my laptop or getting on social media in weeks.
The obvious reason is that I’m currently moving out of my home in Portland for good. My days are full of boxes and warehouses and logistics and flaky Craigslist randos. But beyond the chaos of the move, there’s also the fact that in this post-vaccine, pre-moving-to-Ojai-for-the-long-haul moment, I’m being given the chance to reengage with the physical world—with my flesh-and-blood Portland humans who can give each other hugs and cook together and dance and laugh and cry in the same space. It’s commanding absolutely all of my attention.
I don’t even miss the internet. It feels so strange after a year of feeling like it was my lifeline.