Rhymes

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:

A photo of a book that reads: As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. By its very nature, discipline is rooted in self-admiration. (Think of discipline as a battery, useful but short-lived.) We admire ourselves for being so wonderful. The discipline itself, not the creative outflow, becomes the point. That part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower, with a booster of pride to back it up. This is operating out of self-will. You know the image: rising at dawn with military precision, saluting the desk, the easel, the drawing board...

Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. Enthusiasm (from the Greek, "filled with God") is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself. Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. Far from being a brain-numbed soldier, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

An annotation in the margin reads "Jesus fucking christ, OKAY."

Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods:

"Right," said Om. "Now...listen. Do you know how gods get power?"
"By people believing in them," said Brutha. "Millions of people believe in you."
Om hesitated.
All right, all right. We are here and it is now. Sooner or later he'll find out for himself...
"They don't believe," said Om.
"But—"
"It's happened before," said the tortoise. "Dozens of times. D'you know Abraxas found the lost city of Ee? Very strange carvings, he says. Belief, he says. Belief shifts. People start out believing in the god and end up believing in the structure."

Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty:

The thing about living alone is that—exactly like living as a couple—after a long time it becomes either a habit or a practice. A habit is a way of living that you follow because it's what you did yesterday and the day before and the day before that. A practice is a way of living that you create and renew every day. A habit is a way of being that controls you. A practice is a way of being that you control—a deliberate (ad)venture into the unknown.

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.

I suppose this is how we learn.

Ramble #30

New year, new Ramble.

This one (my 30th since I started this practice in June of 2019!) is about stuff I lost track of in 2021, things I’m thinking about in the new year, trying to abandon perfectionism, what to share and what not to share, the topography of the Ojai Valley, and various other things.

Also: looked at a bunny, found some owls.

You can read the transcript or browse all the notes and associated ephemera over on Patreon for free, or just listen directly below.

A mountain range in the Ojai Valley turning pink at sunset.
January 1st, 2022

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]

Annual Workbooks

Susannah Conway just released her 2022 Unravel Your Year workbook. I’ve been doing these since…christ, 2015? Yeah, that sounds right. A long time. I love them. (There’s also Year Compass, which asks a lot of the same questions in a slightly less woo way.)

I take and leave bits of this workbook every time I sit down to do it, usually over several days between Christmas and New Year’s, but I’m always left with a satisfying stack of reflective pages that anchor me during the year to come.

A collection of printed workbooks with creative covers on a purple bedsheet, each labeled with "Unravel Your Year" and then a date stretching from 2015 to 2021.

Things I’ve noticed over the last seven years of doing this:

  • In the first few years, it was easy for me to fill out the Year in Review portion, but nearly impossible to fill out the second half of the workbook—the part about dreaming and planning for the year to come. I had a lot of fear around predicting anything. I worried about getting it “wrong,” or about setting goals and then failing to reach them and then judging myself harshly for that failure. The truth is that I have listed things I want to do, books I want to read, places I want to visit, and then just…not done them. Sometimes for multiple years at a stretch! But one of two things tends to happen: either I realize down the line that I’m just not that fussed about the goal in question, or I get it done eventually and have to admit that a single year, while long, isn’t the only possible timeline for accomplishing a project.
  • The words I’ve chosen to anchor and guide myself each year seem to be moving toward more abstract or intuitive territory. (Ask -> Tell -> Trust -> Choose -> Cultivate -> Yield -> Flow) Some definitely worked better than others, but they all brought certain kinds of gifts. Absolutely a more effective and rewarding framework for me than specific resolutions.
  • I don’t usually refer back to previous workbooks unless I’m in major pattern-seeking mode, often due to some kind of emotional upheaval or major life change. The exception is the ritual of reading through the most recent workbook in July, which is both halfway(ish) through the year and also my birthday. I try not to spend too much time with it otherwise.
  • The letters I write to Lucy in The Present while pretending to be Lucy in December of Next Year never fail to make me cry. They also tend to be shockingly accurate in ways I cannot predict.

I used to have a really robust journaling practice—pages and pages of dense prose every day, each one compulsively smushed into the corners so no blank space remained. I’m sitting under a shelf full of these books, stretching all the way back to high school. They’re a valuable record, but also sort of…exhausting.

A dense spread of handwritten text in black and white, photographed from a journal.

I was so driven to write everything down in this breathless rush, as if writing could save me.

But over the last few years I’ve moved away from that practice. Now there’s the annual workbook, which gives me a view of the year from 10,000 feet, and then a collection of larger, unruled notebooks where I doodle and take messy notes and connect ideas. I started out telling myself those were just “feelings notebooks” (I think the first one started out exclusively as a space to grapple with the dissolution of a major relationship), but they’ve gradually become all-purpose repositories of emotion. Many of the Visual Dispatches I’ve posted here come from their pages.

Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness explores her own attachment to keeping a compulsive written record of everything in her life, and how the practice has waxed and waned over time. She writes:

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it—which is to say imperfectly. Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing. And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

Yes.

Old Post-It

A post-it note with "skipping days and piling up vs. skipping and always only having to do one thing. Second more forgiving. No consequences. Gets harder the longer you don't do it vs. stays the same effort."

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.)

Ramble #28

Some thoughts after a long absence from this practice:

Between the weight of the world and my new role as a full-time caregiver, I’m barely managing to do my own work, which means I have no time for the work around the work—the work about the work. It feels like this second kind of work is what actually brings people to my door. The art is fine, but the thinking and talking ABOUT the art (and the craft, and the business, and the being-human-ness of it all) is what I’ve come to rely on for my livelihood. It also gives me a sense of greater meaning within the landscape of my chosen profession. It helps me feel connected to something bigger.

There’s more commentary and a list of links to things I referenced in this recording over on Patreon, but if you prefer you can just dive in and listen below:

September 3rd, 2021

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]

A Donut

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:

A screenshot of a text message which reads "I'm on day 1006 of my little drawings. Quite something."

I asked how they were feeling about the milestone.

A screenshot of an iMessage chat dialogue. The speaker on the left says: Honestly right now my relationship to these drawings is similar to flossing. It’s something I do every day and then I feel virtuous  And I actually like that I’ve managed to make it that much of a habit  They’re not phenomenally interesting but the continuity and the habit is cool. The other speaker replies: Mm I really like that point where it ceases to be about the art itself and shifts to being the behavior around the art. The first speaker says: Yeah that’s an interesting place. And probably where most art actually comes from.

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…

It feels right, at least in relation to my own practice, which is often very much predicated on rules and rituals. (30 Days of Portraits. 100 Demon Dialogues. 1000 words a day.)

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.

Strange, Familiar Seas

Not every night, but most nights, the English writer Philip Hoare gets into the sea.

I know this because he tweets about it. Not every night, but most nights. A brief, poetic, timestamped dispatch from the waves.

I read Hoare’s book Risingtidefallingstar toward the end of 2018 and fell hopelessly in love. It’s a sweeping voyage through various coastal regions, literary lives, and strange creatures of the sea. It defies categorization—feels tidal rather than textual. (Just describing the book makes me realize that it shares many qualities with Always Coming Home, which should hardly come as a surprise at this point.)

When I followed Hoare on Twitter, I started seeing these fleeting messages in my feed. The nature of the platform meant that it took me a while to realize how consistently they cropped up, but when I noticed, it shifted something.

In 2019, I made a pact with myself after a week by a lake on an island in Canada: if I find myself near a body of water and it is even remotely possible for me to get into it, I must get into it.1 I’ve since plunged into frigid waves on the Oregon coast, silky river waters of the Columbia Gorge, and the hidden shock of a creek in my hometown of Ojai, California.

Often, as I’m sprinting, screaming across the wide expanse of sand toward the breakers, or furtively scrambling out of my clothes in the underbrush, I think of Hoare’s constant devotion to being where he feels most alive. Most held.

It’s not even about whether or not he swims every night, or what time he goes (does the man ever sleep? Unclear), or what the sky is doing on that particular Tuesday. It’s just a reminder that there is a person who embodies his affection for the sea so fully and faithfully that he’s out there, in the water, baptized night after night.

Whatever Hoare writes next, I’ll probably love it. But my primary interest isn’t his creative output. The thing I want to know is whether he is still himself, and as far as I can tell plunging bodily into the ocean on a near-nightly basis is the backbone of his existence.

I’ve chewed on the idea of object permanence a lot this year—dug into my mistrust of fleeting social media feedback, questioned how online creators can feel secure in taking leaves of absence, and wondered at what it is about our work that truly endures. Hoare makes me consider relocating the idea of permanence from deliverables like books and art and films to the substrates of our creative practices; these undercurrents of selfhood.

That is the thing I want to celebrate and support.

1. Even having trod on a stingray and endured unimaginable agony two months after taking said vow, I still believe it to be sound.

Perfectionism, Process, Patterns

[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:

A moody photograph of a skyline at sunrise. There are black buildings and telephone poles silhouetted in the foreground and a streak of orange against slate-grey clouds on the horizon.
December 8th, 2020

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:

So that’s that. These come out roughly every 2-3 weeks, or as the mood strikes. Don’t set your watch by it.

Beyond Urgency

About a month ago I signed up to participate in #WriteThemAll, a campaign organized by Critical Resistance PDX with the goal of writing to every incarcerated person in the state of Oregon. (That’s 14,500 human beings, in case you were wondering.)

I joined for a few reasons:

First: I love writing letters. I send a lot of mail, and the realization that I could leverage that love for causes I care about has informed a lot of my activism this year. Letter writing is also a slow motion activity—a category of thing I’m trying to spend more time in these days. (There’s a separate post in there, I’m sure, but I’ll leave it for now.)

Second: I’ve read more about abolition this year than ever before, which is great, but I made it a personal goal to pair insight with action in 2020 so it felt like the right time to step up and do more than learn. Abolition feels like a vast and occasionally overwhelming conceptual goal, but I think engaging with it through a slower activity like writing letters is a good way to operate at the edge of my comfort zone and become more familiar with the concepts in practice.

Third: CR PDX has a mail night once a month where folks can gather on Zoom and write letters together. This is very good. I’ve found a lot of solace in Kat Vellos’s Connection Club during 2020, and am glad for any opportunity to sit in companionable silence with other people (even remotely) and work towards something we all believe in.

Fourth: I needed to plug into something that wasn’t about the election. I wrote many Vote Forward letters and Sunrise Movement postcards to young voters last month, but if 2020 has made one thing inescapably clear, it’s that voting is just the tip of the iceberg. The urgency of this moment makes it easy to feel like getting out the vote is THE most important thing, but our country is failing so many communities right now, and they will continue to face the same challenges on November 4th, and December 4th, and January 4th, and so on.

When people scream “WE’RE OUT OF TIME” I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that I don’t believe in zero-sum games.

Instead, I think about the things I can still work towards next week, next month, or next year. None of this is over. Not racism or injustice or climate change or my creative practice or the love I have for my loony parents or the to-be-read pile on my bedside table—and certainly not the list of letters I signed up to write.

They will very likely reach their destination after the election has come and gone, and there will still be work to do. These days I find that state of ongoingness a comfort rather than a burden.

We get to keep up this practice, day after day. What a gift.


If you’re curious about #WriteThemAll, here are some ways to learn more and get involved: