As far as the dude goes, he’s secondary. A closed door is always secondary to the prayer you say in front of it. Go back to your prayer instead. Ask what’s in your prayer. What did you want from this closed door? What did you imagine behind it? All of the beauty and light and fun and passion that you are imagining lives inside your cells already. You are a creative force in this world and you can make art using this lonely, intense feeling you get from your prayer.
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.
It feels redundant to keep pointing wildly at everyone who’s coming to similar conclusions about the instability of this online ecosystem right now—BUT—every time I find another person doing it I start yelling “YES. YES!” and do want to catalogue them in some way because these conversations are unfolding in many different spaces concurrently. It’s not just cartoonists writing about being cartoonists. It’s dancers and authors and comedians and zinesters and activists and journalists and musicians all pausing to look around and say, collectively, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Robin called the other day and mentioned that I seemed to have stopped blogging, to which I say: it’s a fair cop. I was in Portland being consumed by my newfound ability to be close to other people and then I was moving and for the past ten days I’ve still been moving, but it’s the shitty back-end part of moving that we don’t talk about as much where you have to actually unpack and (in the case of this particular move) jettison decades of childhood ephemera from your tiny bedroom in order to make it a livable space for yourself as an adult.
The last piece of furniture I needed to move in was my bed frame, which I’d decided to stain and refinish because “Imperfect DIY Projects” was in my “More” column for this year. Now that I can sleep in a space with visible floor area and a desk I can actually sit at (though I am, in fact, writing this on the bed), it turns out my brain is far more capable of turning to the digital spaces I’ve been neglecting for the past six weeks. By returning to writing, I’m breathing a habitual sigh of relief—the kind that turns into a stream of words about shit I didn’t know I was even processing in the background of whatever I was busy doing while I was thinking that I’d never write another word ever again.1
So, after all that preamble:
Nicole Brinkley wrote this essay called Did Twitter Break YA? as part of her Misshelved series on Patreon and it’s fucking great. YA isn’t my community, but it’s adjacent to my community. And booksellers (the community Nicole talks about most frequently in her writing) are absolutely within my community. The patterns she describes in this piece—of context collapse and “morally motivated networked harassment” and parasocial relationships and burnout—are patterns I know like the back of my hand.
There are so many nod-inducing moments, but this was the one that really made my blood run cold:
After all, access to authors is the real product—and if an author missteps, they’re just a failed product. There are always more authors to fill that spot on the shelf.
Bluergh. Hurk. Ek. How often have I slipped into thinking of myself as a failed product on a shelf? Certainly every time I’ve stopped posting as often on Patreon, or expressed enthusiasm about doing a drawing challenge and then failed to follow through. Definitely in those moments when I think that if I just had a bit more energy and time I could start making content that would grow my following “in earnest”. When I take two years to send a new installment of my newsletter. When I disappear.
But it’s not just the disappearance. It’s feeling of one’s absence being invisible within the onrushing tide of Other People’s Output. Remember that Drew Austin essay I linked a couple posts ago? He gets into it there, noting that “Every social media feed is an endless parade of these fragmentary identities, disaggregated into units of content and passing by quickly enough to evade the scrutiny that would detect their incompleteness.” The incompleteness being that we are all also doing and contending with other things. We have to be. We’re not just on Twitter 24/7—even people who seem as if they are.
This is the price of trying to succeed within the ecosystem of capitalism, and maybe it’s also why I want to keep sharing here and here alone: I haven’t contaminated this container yet. It gets to sit apart from everything else, just me and my thoughts.2
Earlier in the Pandemic Mara made a rare Instagram appearance, posting a series of text-based stories from her new home in Winthrop, Washington. I transcribed them immediately because, as with most things she writes and shares and speaks about, it sparked something in me that I needed to sit with for a long time.
I have so enjoyed every story and post by you all, dear friends. How does it work when I just observe you, and when to like/comment on what you make here is to feed an algorithm that watches and profits off of our affection? I don’t do it because it feels…violent?…to us. This platform is very hard for me. Thank you for understanding. It pales in comparison to being near you. The simulacrum of closeness feels nauseating. I know we are killing something important in the process of creating connection. I want you to walk through the door, for us to play. You’re all here always.
This is it—the heart of the thing. We chase engagement as if it’s the Holy Grail, and yet to play the game on any level means we’ve already lost. There are so many people I can think of who I’ve finally been able to see and embrace and laugh with over the past month and attempting to get that through social media does pale in comparison. The simulacrum is nauseating.
This handful of broken online platforms can’t be everything.
Past a certain point I don’t want to spend my time cataloguing people’s writing about this—or generating my own—because (and this is the curse of the over-informed over-thinker) I know it all already. I know it in my bones. I may not have the right terminology for it, but I can feel it. I fear I am admiring the problem, thrilling to ever more accurate descriptors that tell me precisely how and why I’m locked in this unfulfilling spiral, rather than taking steps to change my behavior.3
As Tolentino points out, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”
But Nicole is ready for that.
[…] I do not want to wear the armor of cynicism. I do not want to be trapped in the ouroboros of perfection just because the community I interact with demands it.
So here is what I will say to you, dear reader: You do not have to participate in this cycle.
The system is broken, but the system can be abandoned.
In addressing this head-on, she wins my heart.4 She admits that the piece started out as one thing and then turned into another. She describes the trajectory it might have taken had she chosen to focus solely on the issue of where actual teenage readers sit in the modern YA landscape, and then she recognizes that this is really a conversation about so much more. (I will never stop loving this pattern, wherever I encounter it.)
The Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It School, the Grit School, the Capitalism School—they all urge us to keep producing and grinding and persevering, trusting that clarity will come from more work (even if that work, at its core, is purposeless, unfulfilling, or even actively harmful). With no time to reflect or catch our breath, we feel we have no choice but to trust the systems we’re given, to push and push and push until we “break into” the spaces that are communally regarded as desirable, and then fight like hell to keep that power safe because don’t you know this is a landscape of scarcity? There’s only so much to go around.
When I think about the last year, I don’t think about pushing. I think about waiting.
I had to wait. I had to wait a long, long time. In some ways I’m still waiting.
So when Nicole says:
These days it’s okay to not be sure what Twitter is for. We can stop going there until we figure it out.
It feels like permission.
It makes my soul exhale.
“I don’t feel good when I’m here” is enough of a reason to leave. Even if the places I wish I could stay—or the people I wish I could stay with—sometimes bring me connection and joy and validation and money and, yes, even love. If my gut tells me that I am not, at baseline, nourished the way I need to be: I can walk.
That’s the new rule.
Thank you, Nicole.
1. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that my obsessive nesting has masked a deeper discomfort with having to face the true emotional cost of this transition. That’s a conversation for another time. But, as my therapist reminded me: this grief is chronic, not acute. Avoidance is a tactic we use to survive ongoing adversity. It’s not inherently evil. ↩
2. Also, just a general side note in relation to all this: how often have I shared something like Nicole’s essay on Twitter or Instagram with the caveat “I’m fully aware of the irony of sharing this here, but…”? I want to stop doing that. If I’m reading something about how fucked it feels to still be on a certain platform and it resonates with me, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN THAT PLATFORM. (I am yelling at myself here because this is a footnote and that’s what they’re for, I think.) ↩
3. Whoops this is the moment I realized that this essay is also about my historical approach to relationships. Surprise! ↩
4. She also reminds me of this stunning essay from adrienne maree brown about disrupting patterns of harm that specifically target Black women within movement work. I’m due a re-read because I haven’t stopped thinking about it for months. ↩
“I thought by the time I was doing this I’d be with someone.”
I cried when I told her—another one of the myriad griefs threading through this kintsugi year: that not being in a romantic partnership somehow rendered me incapable of facing my father’s decline.
But when I was writing the FAQ about my move, I kept drafting and deleting a passage about how becoming single had actually given me the freedom to leave Portland.
Because it’s not true.
I mean, it is, but not the part about being single.
It’s Valentine’s Day as I’m writing this and I feel so far from being “single.”
“Most other people have a switch that gets flipped between friendship and relationship,” he used to say. “But you love people on a spectrum.”
I felt seen by that (he was good at making me feel seen), but there’s no decent shorthand for that kind of life. Or if there is, it’s couched in the culture of labels, and they’ve never done much good for me.
“Housemate,” for example, feels wholly inadequate for my relationship with Zina. We’ve lived together in one form or another for ten years; just the two of us for the last seven. The term we settled on at some point was Boston Wives, but that often involved giving an impromptu 19th century history lesson on female cohabitation to whoever was doing the asking. When we entered a Registered Domestic Partnership two years ago, I breathed a sigh of relief because I could just call her my wife and let everyone else muddle it out for themselves.
But what does that mean, really?
I’ve told people “Well, we’re not in a romantic relationship—” but then I stop. We take baths together and buy each other flowers and read epistolary science fiction love stories aloud in bed and fuck me if that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.
We turn to each other, in amongst all these activities, and say “We’re so rich.”
The older I get the more wobbly my definition of being “in a relationship” becomes. It sounds so singular.
I used to think I wasn’t very good at making friends. Being liked, sure, but not being vulnerable in the way truly reciprocal, intimate friendships demand. Never to ask, never to need. Far easier to unilaterally support other people to shore up my own sense of being worth something. Far better to fling all my devotion and intimacy into one heteronormative partnership and pin my hopes of making it through any major life challenges on that.
It’s a decent plan until it’s not.
Because I’m still going through this reckoning—relationship or no—and it’s forcing me to recognize that somewhere along the way I started figuring out how to be truly vulnerable. I picked up a community of (for lack of a better word) friends.
There are friends who bring me pie when my Kickstarter funds and soup when I’m down with the flu.
Friends I have flown across the country to support through unspeakable loss, who I know would do the same for me in a heartbeat.
Friends who are also lovers. Whose parents I have met. Whose kids I get to help look after when I visit.
Friends who will yell on the phone with me about books and websites at all hours of the day and night, pacing the block, gesticulating.
Friends who send nudes but also commiserating texts about caring for loved ones with dementia (a potent combo).
Friends who know how to reassure me of my intrinsic value when I think all I’m good for is being productive.
And these are the people in my immediate circle. Never mind the far-flung folks online, around the country—around the globe—with whom I have shared hotel rooms and letters and meals and Zoom calls. And then the circle beyond that: the strangers who have read my work and feel some degree of connection through that avenue. People I have never spoken to who might, given the invitation, share something heartfelt or helpful out of the blue.
I don’t know what to call all that, but when I stop to think about it I get dizzy and start to cry.
And beyond it lies the thing I hesitate to name because it feels trite: my relationship with myself. This person who delights me the more I get the measure of her, who has words of wisdom when I feel lost, who makes me laugh and brings me intellectual baubles and dazzles me with her tenacity and vision. I love my friendship with her most of all.
So here I am: not single, but communal. A dragon curled atop her glistening hoard.