“I do believe I’m still open.”

Before I had difficulty gathering all the fragments into something resembling a book. Now I have difficulty writing anything so careless and fragmentary without the overarching project of a book to motivate and give the words direction. And I miss that early carelessness. I miss how everything I wrote used to fragment almost against my will. Though at the time I didn’t appreciate it, wondered constantly how I could make my writing come together, make it more cohesive, find connections or some red thread that would go all the way from one end of its world to the other, draw some theme from beginning to end. Then I missed what I have now, what I felt uncertain I would ever be able to create, and now I miss what I had then, what I fear I might never be able to get back. 

Jacob Wren

Printer Porn

Tell the Turning (my illustrated collaboration with poet Tara Shepersky) went to press last week in Poland and our publisher, Stefan, has been sending the most delicious slew of process photos from the print house. I figured I’d post some of them here because I’m trying to get in the habit of using this space for visual stuff just as much as I use it for blathering in text about craft and money and comics and everything else.

SO!

Here’s our impressive and pristine stack of Munken Arctic paper! This is one of the few papers not currently suffering from extreme stock shortages in central Europe, leading to our unexpectedly-ahead-of-schedule print date. At a time when all sorts of publishers and indie creators are reporting a three-month average delay in production timelines, I’ll take it.

A towering pallet of pristine white paper.

Here it is all loaded into the printer. (I have an intense soft spot for the little vacuum plungers that lift the pages off one by one.)

A complex offset press housing a huge stack of blank paper.

And then of course comes the best part of any printing house update which is, naturally, the video:

WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH! BOOK BOOK BOOK!

That leaves us with a HUGE stack of printed pages…

A huge stack of printed pages.

…which will then be trimmed and sewn together to create the final book.

You can get a closer look at some of the illustrations (including the cover and the special Field Offering postcards I designed for Kickstarter backers) in this sheet:

A black and white sheet with several illustrations aligned with text, all pages from the book Tell the Turning. There are crows and owls and spirals of kelp—all pictures of things from the natural world.

Basically it’s going to be here before we even know it and I think it’s going to look and feel incredible and I cannot wait. What a joy.

(I should probably also mention that you can preorder the book here! It’s currently on track to begin shipping October 20th, which is just around the corner.)

This concludes the first installment of the “post more visual content, you coward” challenge. Thank you.

Making Noisy into Quiet

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.

A light, airy studio space with a white desk, an office chair, and a flat file. There are pieces of art tacked to the walls and two windows looking out onto greenery. There's a white futon couch against one wall and a Persian rug on the floor.

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.

(I really like Amanda Oliver’s newsletter.)

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Enemies

I’ll say it: I’ve been stuck.

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. I'm not exactly sure why I'm writing this letter, but I've been reading TCJ #188 for a couple hours now and my mind has just been racing and blood pounding. My excitement with the power and possibilities of comics mixed with the fear of a royally screwed-up marketplace... well, let's just say I've got a weird, shaky adrenaline rush.

I just felt suddenly like I had to write and say craft is the enemy! You could labor your whole life perfecting your "craft," struggling to draw better, hoping one day to have the skills to produce a truly great comic. If this is how you're thinking, you will never produce this great comic, this powerful work of art, that you dream of. There's nothing wrong with trying to draw well, but that is not of primary importance.

What every creator should do, must do, is use the skills they have right now. A great masterpiece is within reach if only your will power is strong enough (just like Green Lantern). Just look within yourself and say what you have to say. Cezanne and Jackson Pollock (and many other great painters) were horrible draughtsmen! It was only through sheer will power to be great that they were great. The fire they had inside eclipsed their lack of technical skill. Although they started out shaky and even laughable, they went on to create staggering works of art.

This letter is not for the established creators... they're hopeless. This letter is for the young bucks and does... let's kick some fucking ass!

“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:

A mind map of terms for creative practice gathered around color coded sections called Compulsion, Religion, Hobby, and Business.

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

A trippy mess of overlapping circles labeled with things like ownership, mindfulness, kid self, hula hoop, trickster, ecosystem, low tide, and interdependence. The background is colored in with blues and greens.

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: 

“Does this nourish you? If so, I celebrate it.”

It makes so much sense to me.

When Tom Spurgeon interviewed Kochalka in 2008, he closed by asking whether craft was still the enemy. Kochalka replied:

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.

Let’s go make comics.

Commonplace

Piper Haywood wrote one of those very good posts last week—a cross-section of personal interests that manages to be both minutely specific and widely resonant. It was full of thoughts about female furniture designers I’d never heard of and Joan Didion essays on notebooks and ideas about the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet. I loved reading it. It also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about here.

It seems silly to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often I’d come face to face with the things that made me now that I’m living at home.

A black and white photograph of a small notebook with a handwritten quote on Monday the 14th of November. "The future may always be uncertain. But paradoxically, the future holds an irrefutable certainty: we know that we don't know what will happen. This grim absurdity diminishes all chatter." (British sculptor Herbert Ward)

My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.

Piper shared a quote from Didion where she talks about the notebook as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” This certainly seems to have been the way my dad approached his pocket-sized collections. His penmanship makes every page feel like a work of art, but I don’t think they were primarily made to be shared—at least not in this form.

And yet below every quotation about children or parenting there’s a note:

An open spread of a tiny diary with many quotes written in differently colored pen. "McCarthy said he would not have written the novel (The Road) had he not had a son as an older man. "It wrenches you up out of your nap, and makes you look at things fresh. It forces the world on you, and I think it's a good thing." (Hello Lucy!) "Not knowing something essential makes you more involved." (Divisadero by Michael Ondaajte) "It is a wonderful thing to be taken seriously and to be taken seriously for who you already are, without your having to perform." (Robert Lloyd, on Apted's Married in America 2) "Man must sit in chair with mouth open for very long time before roast duck fly in." (Old Chinese Proverb, @ Theater 150) "What's braver than a brave face?" (Aimee Mann, Singer/Songwriter)

There’s no way he could’ve known I’d open to this page, having just read Ondaajte’s poetry for the first time last November. Having listened to Aimee Mann in college. Line after line, I see so many names and themes that have showed up in my own obsessive collecting.

When Didion lists the kinds of people who keep notebooks, she closes with “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It makes me shudder in recognition.

Growing up, I was all too aware that my parents were the age of my friends’ grandparents. My extended family weren’t down the road, but scattered throughout England and South Africa and Canada. I didn’t have siblings. I’ve been bracing for as long as I can remember to try and make sure I’ll be able to survive on my own. (No wonder I placed such a high value on independence in my career.)

I think I felt that keeping my parents had to be an act of willpower—one I could fail at and therefore had to approach with constant vigilance. But when I see these notebooks, something shifts in me. These words are confirmation of something I’m trying to learn in my bones: I couldn’t lose these people even if I tried. Their patterns made my patterns, at least in part, and as long as I pursue those patterns, I carry them forward in the world.

My inheritance is ubiquitous.

Commonplace.

1. I don’t know how to do tenses with him. He doesn’t do these things anymore, but to speak about any of it in the past tense makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not dead, but vast parts of him are no longer present. How do I talk about that? I don’t know.

The NEH, Racism, Good Editors, and Me

A couple years ago, my friend and fellow cartoonist Tessa Hulls got a gig speaking with the Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau. Her role (which is still ongoing) involves being sent all over the state—from city libraries to rural town halls—to share her talk about women traveling solo in the early 20th century. (A talk written, I should mention, after she’d completed a 5,000-mile solo cycling trip from California to Maine. Bad. Ass.)

Hearing about her experiences with the Bureau was the closest I’d come to seeing what state-level humanities organizations were all about. I’d heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, but never really understood what it did. It turns out that there’s an entirely separate organization—the National Endowment for the Humanities—that Lyndon Johnson signed into law at the same moment in 1965.

The National Endowment for the Humanities established 56 state- and territorial-level humanities organizations all over the country in 1973—including our local branch: Oregon Humanities. These organizations all have marginally different aims, but their overarching goal is using the study of the humanities (defined very broadly) to nurture a society that is thoughtful, creative, equitable, and proactive about engaging with difference. Some organizations focus on grant-giving, others run public discussion groups or programming, and some (like Oregon’s) put out quarterly magazines. The amazing thing about this being a government-funded organization is that the magazine is free to anyone living in the state. Seriously: you give them your address and then they just mail it to you and it’s gorgeous and full of amazing writing and illustration and all kinds of good stuff. This is no fly-by-night operation.

Anyway that’s a mini history lesson about Oregon Humanities. Hopefully it explains why I was thrilled when their editor reached out to me at the end of 2020 about doing a comic on voting rights for the Spring issue. I’ve been cranking away at it over the last few months, doing a ton of research, conducting interviews, and trying to condense, condense, condense so I can cram a bunch of complex policy issues into six scant pages.

I learned an enormous amount about the history of the franchise (aka the right to vote) during this process and found that, as with most topics in U.S. history, the highlights we’re fed in school don’t tell nearly the whole story.

I ended up centering the comic on three key areas: age, immigration, and incarceration. While the organization I wanted to interview about a non-citizen voting bill ended up having to postpone their efforts until the next legislative session, I still had plenty to work with. I took a deep dive through the state’s founding documents, explored voting access wins in recent history, and spoke to advocates about lowering the state’s voting age and securing the vote for people in prison. The resulting story, which comes out in just a few weeks, is dense, but gives a pretty solid overview of the issues at play.

The reason I’m writing this, though, is to document the most valuable part of working on the project.

My friend Sarah Mirk, who’s also contributing a comic to the issue, got assigned to help edit my piece. This was great news, since we’ve worked together before and I admire her skills and ethics immensely. When I turned in the first draft of the script, I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d ingested and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all justice in such a small number of pages. I was particularly scared to tackle the wide-reaching impact of racism and White Supremacy on these systems. It’s a topic that many of us have engaged with very closely in the last ten months (and beyond), and it can very easily come to feel obvious.

“Of course these systems are founded on rotten policies that disproportionately impact people of color,” said some part of my brain. “Everyone knows that.

So I punted.

I didn’t think I’d punted, but when I look at the first draft of the script? I punted. I turned in a comic that talked about a variety of issues and historical facts and angles, but never explicitly stated that voter disenfranchisement is inextricably entangled with racist policy-making.

That unwillingness to be explicit stemmed from a scarier feeling: “This is so big and I feel like I still have so much to learn—there’s no way I’m capable of doing it right”. It’s a feeling tied to zero-sum thinking and perfectionism (both hallmark principles of White Supremacy—surprise!) that ended up pushing me to elide crucial information.

And Sarah, because she is a great editor, read the first draft and twigged this right away and said “There is a huge piece missing from this story, and I know it’s a lot to engage with and weave in, but I believe you can do this“.

It turns out I just needed permission to try. And (again, because she is a great editor) Sarah had a ton of practical suggestions for quotes, sources, and imagery to include that would make these links and themes clearer. This piece as it stands wouldn’t exist without her.

I’m not saying the comic is now The Best Thing Ever—there’s still so much that had to be left out—but the reason I wanted to write all this up (rather that doing another “Here’s the roughs and here’s the inks and here’s the colors” kind of process post like I usually do) is that I think many of us have probably been in situations like this: moments where we recognize the impact of racism, but worry that we don’t yet have enough knowledge or language or mastery to call it out.

And the role we can play for each other, as editors or just friends with eyeballs looking over a project, is to create trusted relationships where we can encourage one another to lean into that discomfort and practice. It’s very easy to feel like getting this stuff wrong will doom us, but in fact the opposite is true. We don’t get better without being willing to goof it up sometimes.

So that’s a lot of words about relatively few pictures. I’m really looking forward to sharing the whole comic when the magazine launches later this month.


P.S. Go look up your local Humanities organization. I bet you won’t regret it.

All I Want

After a couple extremely chaotic late-night email threads at the start of our collaboration on Seacritters, Kate and I quickly agreed that the best thing to do would be a weekly phone check-in where we could talk about story issues, share sketches, and debrief on any notes we’d received from our editor. I’m not used to working in cahoots with this many other people, and I find it overwhelming keeping everyone on the same page, so the ritual of a weekly call seemed both helpful and necessary.

This morning’s was only vaguely concerned with the book, though. We talked about story questions for about thirty minutes and then just…meandered off. We covered a lot of ground (Commonplace Books! Patreon! Gesture drawing equivalents for writers! The Emperor’s New Groove!), but the thing that really stuck with me was the phrase “This was time well spent”.

Kate said it, and it set off that little zing in my brain that registers as truth. This is what I’m looking for, when I draft things or draw things or design things, no matter how tangentially related they might be to my primary aim. And when I’m in a rut, as I am now, it’s often because anything I lay my hands to feels divorced from any context that might make it “worthy”.1

On the good days, everything feels connected—a giant wall of conspiracy string. But on the bad days, every gesture and thought sits in isolation. It’s like I’m looking at the same board, but someone has turned off the layer containing the string. Rather than an electric galaxy of potential I just see…a mess. Disorganized, aimless, futile.

While I would love to be in a position to turn that layer off and on at will, sometimes it’s out of my hands. Those are the moments when I miss the drip-feed of social validation that comes from sharing things on public platforms. It’s a steady piping cry of “Yes! Keep going! This matters!” that can make all the difference between enthusiasm and despair. But I don’t want to rely on it. I don’t want to give away that kind of power.

Talking to Kate got me excited again about ideas that had, only yesterday, seemed dull and lifeless. She made me think that it might not be about the public validation at all. It might just take an enthusiastic co-conspirator to say that it all matters. Everything is new to somebody.

This was time well spent.

1. The whole question of what constitutes worthiness in a creative practice is another matter entirely.

First Foray

I’ve made my first YouTube video! It’s a four-minute rundown on how to bring emotion, action, rhythm, and clarity to bear in writing for comics.

Folks who follow me on Patreon know this came about because I’m working on a graphic novel called Seacritters with my friend Kate right now and it’s her first time moving from prose to comics. I DO NOT ENVY HER. Most of what I learned while putting this together had to do with remembering just how many factors there are to consider in telling stories visually. Hopefully this makes it a bit less overwhelming.

(If you want to learn more, I originally delivered this information to Kate in a much more expansive, 54-slide visual presentation. I’ll be uploading that for Patreon subscribers at all levels later today. An excellent time to join.)

I miss going into Helioscope and getting to enjoy these kinds of conversations around the lunch table, but a nice side effect of the Pandemic is that we’re making more of them available online. (I say “we” but what I really mean is Leila, who’s been a champion about recording, editing, and uploading all kinds of content to the studio YouTube channel. Go take a look around if you like this sort of thing!)

I Don’t Know What I Know Till I Know How I Know It

I love it when my Patrons prove me wrong.

The best instance of this was when a few of them bullied me into making a $50 tier for the page—which I thought nobody would spring for—so they could give me more money. Years later, I am still flabbergasted that anyone has joined at that level—let alone the very loyal and kind group who have stuck around. They are life-changing types.

So you’d think at this point I’d know not to underestimate them.

But this morning I published a 1,300-word essay about trying to start work on the scripting process for Seacritters, my forthcoming graphic novel project with writer Kate Milford, and thought that nobody in their right mind would read it.

I liked the writing a great deal, and it definitely captured what I was going for, but it was, y’know, 1,300 words. If I’d received it in my inbox as a Patron, I would’ve taken one look and thought “mmmmmmaybe I’ll read that one later.”

Because my attention span these days is, to put it mildly, not great.

So I gave myself a bit of a talking-to about engaging my Inner Editor a little more in the future…but then people started to comment! They began to discuss! And over the course of the morning I realized that a bunch of humans I respect immensely had actually taken the time to read those 1,300 words, and had found them helpful, and were excited for more.

The best feeling.