Since launching The Right Number in 2020, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways people are using phone lines in creative projects. There’s services like Dialup, where you can connect to strangers for live conversation, and SARK’s Inspiration Line (a formative one for me), but there are two new ones that I caught this week and needed to put next to each other:
My friend Anis, who happens to be the current Poet Laureate of Oregon, is running a phone line this month where you can dial every day to hear a different poet read you one of their poems. It’s lovely.
For poetry: 503-928-7008
My friend Shing, who happens to be A MENACE (and brilliant creator of the absurd), just launched an existential horror phone sex hotline. You will definitely not be speaking to any live humans if you call, but you will probably shudder and then laugh and then shudder again. Make sure you Press 8 for aftercare!
Shing wrote a very perfect post-mortem about their epistolary keepsake game, Remember August. It is personal and statistical all at once, just as much about the logistics of running a very unique kind of mail-based narrative as it is about the decline of once-cherished relationships. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but this sentence in particular hit me in the chest:
I felt a little bit like by making games like this, I was tricking strangers and friends into telling me that I would be okay.
I feel this so keenly when I listen to messages from The Right Number. Much like the handwritten letters players posted during their interaction with Remember August, the human voice carries so many layers of intimacy. The current prompt is about refuges, and people have been calling to describe, in gorgeous detail, their chosen temples and cherished landscapes. I lie in the dark and let their accents and words wash over me, one by one. A house in the mountains of northern New Mexico. A warm beach. A particular couch in a family room.
I never listen to too many at once, so there’s actually a backlog of messages I haven’t gotten to yet, but they feel timeless. There’s no response forthcoming, just the knowledge that I’ll listen to them and keep them safe somehow. And in return, they keep me safe, too.
If you’ve been here for the last couple years, you might remember that I’m an authorized representative of an intergalactic entity known as The Boat Gnome.
If you haven’t been here for a couple years, here’s a visual introduction:
This spacefaring nautical merchant, operating in association with known Space Gnome representative Shing Yin Khor, accepts trinkets and trades via post in exchange for a special Trusted Trader pin. (You can also trade with the Space Gnome for pins by becoming a Patreon supporter of Shing’s, but you didn’t hear it from me.)
I’m delighted to announce that the Boat Gnome has now updated her ledgers and is open for the 2020-2021 trading season!
Desired items for this season are as follows:
A favorite passage describing the ocean (from an artistic work of your choosing)
A (mailably small) piece of driftwood
A design for a flag
A sea creature in any condition (illustrated, bottled, described with words—ideally not live because the ship has no aquarium in which to keep them)
To participate, print this intake form, fill it out, and pack it up with your trade item of choice AND a self-addressed-and-stamped box or bubble envelope (5×7” or larger) with at least $3.50 in regular postage (for US residents), or the equivalent for a 4oz package (for international residents). This envelope will be used to mail back your Trusted Trader pin. The Boat Gnome regretfully cannot accept thin paper or cardboard envelopes—padded is best!
Mail your trade item and SASE to the following address:
Boat Gnome Mercantile
PO Box 734
Ojai, CA 93024
In exchange, and under no specific timeline, you’ll receive one of these shiny Trusted Trader pins in the post:
That’s it! The Boat Gnome is very much looking forward to pawing over all your mailed offerings and I, as her Representative, can’t wait to file all the necessary paperwork.
Austin shared some lovely sketchnotes from a talk on writing as a form of prayer yesterday, and this bit really leapt out at me:
Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. […] Writing, for him, is never a struggle.
Absence of pressure as a prerequisite for pleasure. I love this.
I’ve still got Luke’s phrase “financial profit is not possible here” reverberating around my skull from the launch of GOES yesterday, which has me wondering:
What happens to a creative practice when you proactively divorce it from capitalism? (And what form does that divorce need to take in order to be an effective means of culture-shift for the individual and their wider community?)
I think of this as the inverse of those well-meaning friends and relatives whose first words after seeing something you’ve made is “You could sell these on Etsy!” You might as well say “You could siphon all the joy out of this practice and replace it with crippling performance anxiety!”
Who are the people in my life whose response to any nascent creative work is: “Have you considered trying to make this as un-commercially-viable as possible?”
And more importantly: what allows someone to follow that instinct?
Shing and I have talked a little lately about feeling the hustle go out of us in our 30s, and how following the course of that ebb is a privilege earned by hustling a lot in our earlier career days (alongside other factors, of course). Overfunding a Kickstarter or landing an unexpectedly lucrative illustration gig—or even, on a more sustainable scale, running a Patreon—is a means of buying your own creative freedom for a spell, but all of these still involve an initial influx of cash. You have to pay to play.
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?
It’s been three weeks since Tansy was killed. I Rambled about it a little, but I haven’t really written about it. I didn’t write much of anything for a while there. I logged out of every online account I could think of the day it happened and told myself I would take a week at least to do whatever I needed to do to be okay.
That was new. Time was I wouldn’t have been able to give myself permission to disappear.
For the first few days I needed to tell people. I needed them to validate my experience, to affirm that it was horrific—as if every person I told might take some piece of it away with them, until I was left holding something I could bear. But I couldn’t stand the thought of the wider internet. I had to call myfriends.
That, too, was new. It sounds like such a simple sentence. Of course you call your friends when something traumatic happens to you. But I didn’t used to be that kind of person.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about my cat or my friends. I was trying to talk about the fact that I haven’t been on Instagram or Twitter for the last few weeks, and that when I finally peeked today, this pair of tweets from Shing was at the top of my feed:
I read them, and faved them, and then I left.
Shing often says things I’ve been thinking with such clarity that I check behind my ears to make sure my brain hasn’t been bugged. The choice of language here—this idea of alignment—encapsulates so much of what I’ve been thinking about lately. Values and how we enact them. The moments when carving away is actually carving towards. It’s also present in Ashon Crawley saying “abolition is performative, it only happens when you do it” as part of a beautiful thread from December 15th, 2020.1
Critical Resistance Portland, the organization I’ve been writing letters with, are currently helping to get information about Economic Impact Payments into the hands of people in prison. Today I printed 25 info packets. Tomorrow I’ll address 25 envelopes, a couple at a time, here and there, and put the packets in the envelopes and then mail the envelopes to people imprisoned in Oregon. Maybe some of those people will be able to get their stimulus checks as a result. It isn’t complicated or particularly glamorous work, but it is important.2
And the thing is…it doesn’t take place on Twitter. All of the people I speak to on Twitter are privileged enough to have access to Twitter, for starters.
Having been off of Twitter for a few weeks, I do realize that I am, in many respects, less informed.
But I’ve also used the time I would’ve spent absorbing that deluge of information (much of it horrific) to distill and illustrate hours of interviews with voting rights activists about felony disenfranchisement and lowering the voting age in Oregon. I’ve reclaimed enough of my brain to align my skillset with my politics—something that is much, much harder to do when I’m caught in the mental landscape of social media, the one that screams “If you’re going to make art about this, it has to be done NOW.“
I have so little time these days.
I mean, time is stretching, in the strange way it often does in Ojai, but there is relatively little of it that is mine and mine alone. I don’t have room to drink from the misery firehose. Instead, I am carving away everything that isn’t aligned. I am dedicating myself to the slow accumulation of calcium carbonate on stone. The drip, drip, drip of incremental progress.
Shing says “my hope in change lies there” and I know, immediately and without question, what they’re talking about.
It’s here, in the practice.
1. It’s been three months and I’m still thinking about it. I could write so many blog posts about the positive use of “performative” alone. He’s a gem. ↩
2. If you’re the kind of person who wants to help with that work, you can sign up to get your own list of names and addresses here. ↩
If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you’ve probably seen an uptick in posts about something called the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. Maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, so here’s a big ol’ post with some background about this zany undertaking and how you can play along.
If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome (even if you are, perhaps, a little unclear about what that entails), the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons at any pledge level. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by becoming a Patron and visiting this post.
The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:
An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)
The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story.
Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.
Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can’t make it out to conventions.
I love this project. It’s subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:
“Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say…a Boat Gnome?”
I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can’t I come up with my own ideas? Isn’t this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it’s not commercial in the slightest. Nobody’s making a profit. It’s a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted “YES!!!”
One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can’t recount here, so you’ll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.
Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.
So here’s our Boat Gnome. (Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO’S KEEPING SCORE.) I translated this small friend onto a postcard that would mimic Shing’s space-themed offering with a load of nautical motifs.
And then came the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing’s design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.
Once I had all my elements assembled, it was time to number all the backing cards and start assembling pins. The final result looks amazing.
The great thing about doing a project that won’t make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just…gone. Who cares if this isn’t utterly perfect? It’s a game. People are going to play.
I’ve spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would’ve felt impossible three years ago. But I’m finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There’s so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It’s such a wonderful privilege. I’ve already completed over 40 trades with people from all over the country, and the offerings are universally stellar.