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.)

The Legend of Curly’s Newsletter

Legend has it that I’ve been maintaining a newsletter for several years, although given that I last sent one in May of this year, I’d started to believe that the rumors weren’t true.

When I don’t write in a particular channel for a long time, my anxiety about saying something worthwhile gets amplified. This is extra true with the newsletter, which feels like a sacred space because I’m barging directly into people’s inboxes rather than waving to them across the crowded halls of social media (or muttering to myself in the whispering gallery of my own website).

There’s also the fact that when I sent my last newsletter in May, after changing service providers, my previously deliverable messages got sent to most people’s Spam folders. The newsletter went from having a whopping 90% open rate to something like…27%. Why did this happen?! I have a couple hunches, but I’m not certain. The truth is I don’t fully understand email. Then again, I don’t fully understand the algorithms on Twitter and Instagram either. I simply don’t want to spend my time learning those systems. I have other things to do. I just fling things out into the ether (very irregularly these days) and hope for the best.

But I still worry about making sure people have a smooth experience when they sign up to hear from me in their inboxes, because I want it to be an easy, enjoyable thing.

It is certifiably silly to worry many of these worries. These are people who’ve opted in! Maybe I worry that if I write to them, but the messages go to Spam, they will somehow figure out what’s happening and then be mad? At me?? For not delivering the things they want more effectively???

Wow I’m really on one here.

But this story has a happy ending because I did the only thing that ever seems to get me over the hump in these circumstances and enlisted help from my friends. Danielle (blessèd saint that she is) sat down with me on FaceTime because she also had a long-neglected newsletter to write, and we both tapped away at our keyboards until we’d managed to draft what we meant to say to our respective subscribers. It worked great. I love friendship.

A newsletter can be anything. The ones I like the most are very simple, either in content or delivery. Pome is just a brief poem—no frills, no discernible cadence, just seasons that stop and start as if by magic. Robin Sloan’s Society of the Double Dagger is wide-ranging in the extreme, but the newsletters themselves just contain a brief blurb and a link to a static webpage, which is where all the riches reside. He’s got channels, too. The man is onto something.

When I send mine so infrequently, they become repositories of news and status updates on my various creative projects which is…not bad, per se, but weighty in a way that isn’t always what I want. Still: it gives me a chance to sit back and look over the last six months and say to myself:

“Yes, this’ll do.”

Service-Agnostic Environments

I know the title of this post sounds like absolute corporate hokum, but I tried tweeting these thoughts ages ago and then realized it was really more of a discussion for long-form writing and so I started a Patreon post and then forgot about it and now it’s many, many months later and I’m blogging again so here I am putting it in a blog post.

Last summer Wendell and I ended up talking about “service-agnostic environments” for online community-building, and the question of generating adjacent, overlapping communities centered around particular groups of creators.

The whole practice of being an Online Creator (i.e. A Charming, Hyper-Available, Vulnerable Internet Personality, or CHAV-IP, as I have just decided to call it) feels centered around siphoning people into these isolated social buckets where you can make demands on their time and attention and finances. But this doesn’t make for a sustainable and interconnected ecosystem. An audience member can only be a part of so many tiny silos before it becomes overwhelming.

For example: there are a lot of people who probably follow both my work and Shing’s work, but each of us also have readers uniquely drawn to our particular brand of BS (boat stuff and Bunyan statues, probably). We have both built followings on public social platforms and in more private, paid spaces like Patreon and Discord.

What would it look like to have a combined location where our overlapping readers could talk to each other?

My general obsession recently (and I know I’m not alone in this) has been more about getting audience members to connect with one another rather than singularly with me. I want people who enjoy my work to see themselves as part of an ecosystem—to cross-pollinate and experiment and build and play.

I brushed up against this when Shing invited me to begin playing in the Mercantile Gnome Universe (MGU?) they’ve built over the past handful of years. I became a representative of the Boat Gnome and started offering to trade pins with people through the mail. The game revealed a lot of crossover between our audiences, but it also encouraged more of my people to learn about Shing and vice versa. If I had been supporting a creator who did something similar, I think I would’ve found the experience exciting. It feels more like a treasure hunt and less like product placement. An invitation written in code, delivered with a wink and a tip of the hat.

It makes me think of Robin’s Republic of Newsletters—a section of his newsletter that used to keep up with other interesting and adjacent written projects as if they were physical outposts in a shared landscape. It’s webrings and blogrolls, cross-links and quotations. Everyone loves to feel the thrill of discovery, but it’s sweeter when the core of that experience is someone you trust taking your hand and saying “Wow, look.”

What is the landscape of affinity for my work? Who are the creators I find myself sharing fans with? Which subjects do we mutually gravitate towards? Where are we different? How is a creative community like a map? 

I have very few answers and a lot of questions.

Higher Education

I’m a hindsight junky. I’m always flipping through old journals and sketchbooks, trying to find a narrative through-line that I can string up and hang insights on like so much laundry. The weird contemplative timelessness of Quarantine—not to mention the exhaustive self-reflection that tends to accompany a breakup—has only encouraged this behavior. But it’s not recriminatory! I love making sense of my life this way; seeing how the seeds of everything dear to me took root far earlier than I could’ve known.

2016 to 2020: a period bookended by two formative talks. The first wrestling with the paradox of gaining professional recognition faster than my financial situation was improving, the second realizing what I wanted to do with my time once that discrepancy had evened out.

Those four years also held a presidential term of unprecedented dreadfulness, a deeply formative relationship, profound shifts in my creative practice, and the growing realization that the systems underpinning this country are deeply broken. My undergraduate degree also took this amount of time, albeit from 2009-2012, which has had me thinking about the last four years as an education of its own. What do I hold a degree in now?

I asked people this question on Twitter, and the responses were predictably fascinating and funny in equal measure, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation to this venue. And THEN the other day I saw Robin Sloan playing with inline response forms via his newsletter/blog and everything clicked into place. The invitation to contribute creates a bit of interactive magic without the bloat of a comments section—just a quick way to remind the reader that this is a collaborative experiment.1 I thought implementing something like this was out of my technical reach, but it turns out I have a plugin for contact forms already installed, so LET’S TRY:

    (If you’re reading this via RSS, the contact form doesn’t carry over. Beyond my skill to heal, I’m afraid, so just open this post in your browser if you’re dying to play.)

    Maybe I’ll update this post with some of your impressive new diploma titles? But then again, maybe not.

    1. I know I’ve said that I like how private this space feels right now, and this could break that illusion by inviting people to get in touch, but I also really like tiny emails as a form of call and response—and I’m not asking for anyone’s name or email address, so I literally can’t respond.

    Selves

    Tonight I opened Twitter, exhausted from another long day of menial tasks laden with outsized emotional significance because they all have to do with moving, to find this tweet from Beck Tench.1

    The thread that follows? I love it more than words can express.

    This is one of those moments where I wish there was a better way to share these little…presentations? Mini keynotes? What are Twitter threads, really? Especially with Beck’s delightful illustrations, this collection of thoughts cries out for something bespoke like Robin’s scroll-snap essay on newsletters or Other Robin’s tap essay on fish. Twitter doesn’t do it justice—jumbles the order, messes with the pace. The best I can offer is this version on Thread Reader which, y’know? It’s actually all right.

    I appreciate you, Thread Reader. You’re doing a decent job.

    A N Y W A Y:

    I came to wonder if the sharks swimming in the waters aren’t fears or doubts, but rather they are actually selves. And if, in times of stress, it’s those selves we must stay true to.

    Yes.

    1. Do you have those people in your circles who just consistently say and think and share the most lovely, considered, thought-provoking things? Beck is one of those people for me. I love her tweets. And blog posts. And just…her whole deal.

    A Machine for Confidence

    The nice thing about having friends in the UK is that sometimes I get to wake up to genuinely lovely dispatches from them on Twitter. In this case: Clarrie (who, I should point out, helps small biz and freelance folks with their bookkeeping, should you need that sort of thing) built a machine that rotates through all the entries from 100 Demon Dialogues on a set schedule. Observe:

    I am flummoxed and delighted by this tiny technical marvel. (It is, I just learned, a Raspberry Pi hooked up to a 720×720-pixel LCD screen! TECHNOLOGY!)

    Hearing that anyone still reads this book (or builds marvelous automated machines out of it) gets me right in the amygdala. It flies in the face of social media’s decree: that if something isn’t NEW and SHINY and UPDATING DAILY then it might as well not exist. That once we have finished the project and stopped posting to Instagram and run the Kickstarter and published the book and concluded the tour, all of it will fade from memory.

    But that’s not how stories work.

    To love something, suggests Robin Sloan, is to return to it. I think about this all the time. The longer I am alive and making things, the more I realize that it is (for me) a foundational definition of success.

    This is probably why I’m tearing up at my desk on a Friday morning, looking at this tiny box of pixels from across the sea.