Stumbling

“If everyone’s social media experience looked like your social media experience I think people would want to be on social media a lot more.”

I’m in therapy. I mean, I’m in my house, same as every other day, but I’m looking at the particular video call window that corresponds to “being in therapy” and my therapist is saying these nice things to me and I’m laughing because my feeds are full of just as much chaos and anxiety as anyone else’s, but she presses on.

“Every time you tell me about some new community or project you found or someone you met online, it sounds fascinating and beautiful and hopeful. That’s…well. That’s not my experience of being online. I had to quit.”

I stop laughing and try to hear what she’s saying—turning it over, weighing it against my experience. Is it true? So many days I feel like I’m purposefully recoiling from the internet at large, erecting sandcastle barricades against an inrushing tide. 

But it is true.

I’ve been changing my relationship to being online.

Some of it is keeping in touch with friends who are fascinated by the same sorts of hybrid creations I am. Friends who build things. Friends in different professional communities. Paying attention when they mention some new discovery or avenue of interest.

Some of it is using an RSS reader to change the cadence and depth of my consumption—pulling away from the quick-hit likes of social media in favor of a space where I can run my thoughts to their logical conclusion (and then sit on them long enough to consider whether or not they’re true).

Some of it is joining small communities who meet regularly to write letters or discuss abolition or cheer each other on throughout the work day.

Some of it is just letting myself wander, link to link, through people’s personal websites and passion projects, seeing what comes up.1

Most people (myself included) stopped using the internet this way years ago. Our footpaths converged around the same 5-10 platforms, each with its own particular manner of communication. I have learned, unintentionally, to code switch every time I craft a new post. It’s exhausting, trying to keep track of all those unspoken rules shaped by years of use.

But I don’t have rules like that on my blog. I turned off stats. There are no comments. No likes. It’s been long enough since I wrote regularly here that I’m not bringing any tonal baggage with me.

Hell, the last time I had a regular personal writing practice online I was eighteen.

A theme of the past year has been trying to disengage from my attachment to what I think other people want or need from me, and to rekindle my working relationship with myself. Changing my relationship to being online hasn’t been linear. I still go on social media. It’s not like it’s become obsolete in my world overnight. But my therapist (as usual) is right. 

Something’s on the move.

1. I spent an afternoon last week dredging up memories of StumbleUpon, a service that flung users around to random sites with the click of a button between 2002 and 2018. It was great! The closest thing I’ve experienced recently was Jenny Odell asking folks on Twitter to share their favorite single serving websites. (LEAF.COM!!!) Not a full replacement for the service, but a delight nonetheless.

Scarcity/Support

Photographer Joshua Kissi articulated something I relate to very deeply about the idea of “success” for creators in the current age in this interview:

“There’s less of a binary now. It’s not a clear ‘you made it,’ or ‘you didn’t.’ For a long time, people romanticized this idea of the starving artist because there were so few that make it to the top. Now people are finding spaces that make sense for them, and it’s not because it’s being forced upon them. They’ve had way more control and autonomy over building a space they feel comfortable creating from. They’re not making things from a scarcity mindset anymore.”

Read this via Aundre Larrow, who I followed after hearing him speak about Instinct, Luck + Preparation for In/Visible Talks. When I thanked him for his insights on Twitter, he immediately messaged me and asked “How can I support you?”

The question caught me off-guard. I can be cagey about this stuff when put on the spot, despite maintaining such an open demeanor online. Usually I’m the one doing the offering, the listening, the supporting. 

I get uncomfortable when people turn it back on me. 

And when it comes from a fellow creator at a similar stage in their career? Then it’s not as simple as just saying “Here’s my Patreon!” and moving on. There are things we need, but perhaps don’t know how to ask for—things other creators might understand better than anyone.

So even though I don’t think I gave a particularly profound answer at the time, I still think about that exchange whenever I interact with someone new. What happens when I open a conversation with an offer of assistance? And when (jumping back to that Interintellect conversation on authenticity) might it feel misaligned with the default level of intimacy that’s present between strangers? This is stuff I love thinking about, and behavior that I love seeing in my timeline.

As Kissi says elsewhere in the interview:

“I am most proud of the ability to impact people over time. […] Even if something is starting with me, it’s not ending with me.”

May we all start things that don’t end with us.

The Infinite Carrier Bag

What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.

— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas

I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.

There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.

If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.

I like a book that forces me to take my time.

I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.

Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.

The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.

If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.

This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”

They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.

It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.

She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.

The Trap

Sometimes being a person on the internet feels like tap dancing.

I love to dance. I’ve trained in it, I take joy and pleasure in it, and I like doing it where other people can see me.

But the more of a following I amass making a living from my selfhood online, the more it feels like I’m still dancing, but someone is erecting…walls. Like theatrical flats around a stage. They don’t start out so bad—just the odd two dimensional shrub or trompe l’oeil archway to work around here and there—but over time they get taller and more crowded and suddenly they’ve got big honking metal spikes all over them and come to think of it they’re rather tenuously balanced and the spikes do look terribly sharp and here I am, in the middle of the it all, stomping on the floor.

So I take smaller steps. I’m not leaping and spinning and pounding and whirling anymore. I’m tiptoeing.

I’m afraid.

You might not know it to look at me. I’m resolutely sharing things I find meaningful or beautiful or proactive. I’m staying engaged. I’m trying to make art and support the people I love and encourage everyone around me because I struggle to see the value in sharing the ugly, hopeless stuff and I want, more than anything, to be of use.

But this behavior is, in and of itself, a kind of restriction. The act of sharing these days feels different. There’s no “FUCK IT, WE’LL DO IT LIVE” energy in my public online spaces, or if there is it emerges in manic fits and starts, tinged with an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety. The dancer I have pared myself back to doesn’t feel like me.

And of course she doesn’t. This year is a nightmare—for all the collective reasons and a host of personal ones as well. My partner and I split up six months ago and no matter how sound a decision it was I’m still torn up about it. I’ve signed a contract for three graphic novels that will take up the next six years of my life and I’m terrified I’m not up to the task. My dad is 81 and has dementia and I’m trying to figure out when The Correct Moment will come to move home and help look after him. It is utterly unreasonable to expect that anything could feel normal or okay right now.

And yes, maybe the tenor of this post has something to do with the fact that I’ve been housesitting alone in a three-story building with four cats and a deaf, flatulent dog who probably weighs more than I do for the past week. My internet blocker also failed to activate this evening so I got to engage in a rare bout of Nighttime Twitter Yelling—something I’ve effectively prevented myself from doing for months. All of this is to say: it’s 1:15 in the morning and my filter is MIA. As someone said to me over email recently “just…being very blunt right now because, and i cannot emphasize this enough, it’s 2020.”

Anyway, remember the spiky theatrical flats? The trick, in these moments, is to get proactive; go for catharsis. The longer I wait for a perfect solution, the more trapped I’m going to feel. I can’t explain this in any kind of rational or systematic way, and I certainly can’t win playing by the rules. Better to just heave it all out into the open—get on a stage somewhere and yell about the paradox of it to a room full of relative strangers. Kick the flats down from the inside and they’ll fall away like dominoes; harmless.

Dramatic, too.

People will probably even think it’s part of the show. 1

Maybe this is my brand. Not the part where I yell about boats and post goofy bespoke GIFs and write a zillion letters to voters and keep my chin up no matter the cost, but the part where I crack and articulate all the other garbage in an eloquent torrent.

Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.

1. Once, in the summer of 2006, I watched five different cast members desperately try to reason with an audience who refused to leave their seats during an active fire alarm because they were convinced it was part of the play. It took ages to get them out of the theater. In their defense the show was set on a space ship and featured many other blaring alarms, but STILL.

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.

New Talk: The View from Aloft

I have new video up from my time at The Animation Workshop in Denmark, where I was teaching a class on webcomics and social media earlier this month. (This is the first time I’ve had video footage of my public speaking—thanks, Sam!—which is really exciting.) If you’re a person who makes things on the Internet, or a person who wants to make things on the Internet, or a cartoonist, or a budding creator—this probably has some utility for you.

Things I cover:

  • How I ended up doing what I’m doing now (full-time adventure-cartoonist-ing, most days)
  • How social media has enabled me to succeed in crowdfunding, freelancing, and basically everything else
  • What sailing has in common with being an artist (it’s more than you think)
  • Communities and gratitude economies and how they shape our work
  • My unified very vague theory of How the Internet Makes Us Better People
  • What you can gain by giving your work away for free

I had so much fun teaching at TAW, and I hope this talk distills some of the stuff we were exploring and discussing over the course of my two weeks there. If you enjoyed it and want to see/enable more, feel free to check out my Patreon page! I post a ton of behind-the-scenes, nitty gritty, creative-in-the-trenches stuff there every single week, and I’d love to have you on board.