Historically, when I’ve done daily drawing projects like the 100 Day Project and Inktober, I’ve felt strongly about starting on a set day and finishing on a set day. It’s often built into the challenge itself (a given calendar month, or a collectively-accountable longer start and end date), so I guess it makes sense. If I miss a day, I do two entries the following day to catch up. Miss two days? Do three entries on the third day.
I’ve always prided myself on this rigorous adherence to rhythm. I’m someone who gets shit done. Even if I fall behind along the way, I will finish on time. It becomes a pageant designed to placate my completionist, perfectionist ego.
But it also means that the more time I’m away from a practice, the more stressful the task of returning becomes. The work piles up in drifts. I feel more and more anxious. More daunted. More overwhelmed.
As far back as 2016 I was busy chewing on the act of returning as the backbone of a practice, rather than any tangible output that might stem from it. Having a creative practice or a yoga practice or a whatever-kind-of-practice is less about the times when I’ve been in the habit of drawing in my sketchbook or going to yoga every week. It’s about the times when I haven’t been going and then choose to return.
[Obligatory link to Fish, because it’s all about returning. I didn’t read for the first time until 2018, but it’s definitely impacted my thinking here.]
I wrote this post-it note long before I started drawing Seacritters, when I still lived in Portland and was doing a lot of very different things with my life, but I think it’s more applicable than ever.
I decided at the start of this graphic novel project that I could reliably rough out two pages a day. It takes me about an hour per page, and I can manage to spend 2-4 hours at the studio each day. Of course I’ve already missed days in the last few months of starting work on the book. I got sick. I threw a disc out in my back. I took a road trip. I was just too tired to work.
And then on top of that there’s the fact that a comics script doesn’t always translate neatly to the illustrated page! Sometimes pages end up needing to be split in two. Sequences expand and contract like lungs.
And so I feel myself working at a deficit again. The anxiety ratchets up and I worry that my original estimate of when the book will be done will become less and less feasible over time. I push myself to rough out three, four, five pages a day when I do get back to work. To catch up. To buy myself time.
What if I stepped away from something and the pressure to return didn’t ratchet up with each passing day? What if I allowed myself the right to return knowing that the expectation will be exactly same as it’s always been? Returning is always hard. Why am I making it harder? When I return, I don’t have to draw sixteen pages in a single day. I just have to draw two pages.
I always only have to draw two pages.
(So much of this process is just trying to build a system that tells my brain I’m okay.)
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.