“We weren’t even watching ourselves”

An added benefit of Brendan’s Christmas thread of appreciation: an enormous slew of new blogs to follow! Honestly too many. I get overwhelmed easily these days. But I lingered over his tweet about Nadia, because it mentioned experimentations with microgrants (HELLO), which then led me to her very clean and pleasing site.

I bopped around for a while, delighting in the short-form Notes and reading a few blog entries before adding the feed to my RSS reader. The joy in doing this (depending on how often someone updates their blog) is getting to jump back a few months or years in the timeline to see what they were up to before. That’s how I landed on this post about The Creator Economy from 2021. There are so many gems in here; things I think about all the time, but also things I don’t! She probes further beyond where this conversation usually ends, asking the kinds of questions the post suggests we should all be asking.

When I imagine a cultural renaissance that inspires me, I think about working together to address unsolved questions, tugging on threads in conversations that need unraveling, creating enduring artifacts for generations to pore over and iterate upon. The “publish or perish” model that nudges people to rack up more followers is not the pinnacle of creative freedom; it’s indentured spiritual servitude.

Indentured spiritual servitude! Hot damn!! This is precisely the situation so many of us cartoonists find ourselves in. Precisely the reason I feel so much resistance to the simple act of sharing a photograph or a passing thought on social media. However trivial, it still feels like something I have to do. It’s a matter of survival.

Towards the very end of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (which I finished in a glut yesterday morning), one of the protagonists gives a little speech about luck, and the circumstances of birth that led to their company being able to succeed at making video games where and when they did.

“[…] I think, because of the internet, we would have been overwhelmed by how many people were trying to do the exact same things we were. We had so much freedom—creatively, technically. No one was watching us, and we weren’t even watching ourselves.”

And just before that:

“It’s so easy to make a hit when you’re young and you don’t know anything.” “I think that, too,” Sadie said. “The knowledge and experience we have—it isn’t necessarily that helpful, in a way.” “So depressing,” Sam said, laughing. “What’s all of this struggle been for?”

They almost felt like too much, these tidy conversations at the end of the novel, because they’re exactly the conversations I have with my peers about “making it” in comics. But they were also so accurate I found myself nodding along.

I don’t have a tidy wrap-up for this. I just want to be watching myself less. I want to go unsurveilled.

Unselfing/Reselfing

I stopped off to download my Twitter data yesterday and caught a notification from this lovely thread that Brendan had put together sometime around Christmas:

Down among the thinkers and tinkerers and connectors, said the notification, he’d written some very sweet things about me. It came as something of a surprise.

It was a mention of “unselfing” by Helen Macdonald that drove me back to blogging in 2020. Since then I’ve heard it surface in other places. Annie Dillard describes it at length in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, saying “[…] I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I often wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves.”

Both women have their fingers tangled up in something true.

I feel it when I’m driving the highway, lost in dark thoughts of mortality, only to abandon every thread for a glimpse of a hawk on a telephone pole. The moments before sleep when a barn owl’s screech pulls me out of my own body. The day I left the house in a foul mood to pace the gravel drive, stomping up and down until the lifeless body of a hummingbird stopped me short and lifted the needle of my displeasure.

I know the value of unselfing more than I ever have before, living here, doing this work, marinading in the near-depth of near-death.

But this thing that Brendan gave me feels somehow the same—an inverted twin sensation: being reminded out of the blue of Who You Are (or Were) Perceived to Be. It comes to me in a season where I’ve stopped saying hello to myself quite so often, possibly to the point of forgetting who that self even was before now. I say hello to death, I say hello to loss and calibration and labor and tending, but I don’t always say hello to me.

And the minute I type that I’m thinking of Sarah Ruhl, and these lines from the first essay in her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write:

A page from a book whose text reads: "Perhaps that is equally 7. My son just typed 7 on my computer. There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby's diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses. I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life."

I’ve written about that line here before, and the mantra repeats in my head as I walk through the meadows near my house.

All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.

All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.

All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

I miss her. I miss that Lucy. And so Brendan’s tweet feels like a kindness. Perhaps the kindness that social media kept drawing me back in with for all those years: a whole realm of people who could look at every passing thought and doodle and hard-won victory and low moment and interview and blog post and reflect back someone cohesive and true.

True only to what I’d shared, maybe, but still.

Something I couldn’t see with my own eyes.

Something the hawk sees when it’s looking back at me.

“You can be a carpenter this time around.”

A lovely short post by Dave Rupert about platforms and silos and what we’re getting out of being in online spaces. Having been largely absent from social media since becoming a caregiver, I don’t feel a lot of Loud Feelings about the implosion of Twitter.1 I do feel the urge to encourage folks, as Dave does, to “pour a foundation for your own silo or home.” A personal website is a lovely thing. Nobody will buy this platform and use it as their personal plaything. No advertisers will boycott and send me scrambling to produce different content. No seed funding will run out overnight.

But as Robin said: “It’s not enough to make some­thing and post it online; you must also inject it into some channel that will carry it to peo­ple.”

For now, that channel is mostly RSS, with the occasional direct share to Discord and Slack. I’ve contented myself with carrying these posts to far fewer people of late, and maybe that trend will continue. I’m toying with the idea of Dunbar’s Digital Number. How many meaningful online relationships can I maintain? The number shifts dramatically given what I’m doing in the rest of my life, and the fact is that I’m currently walking around with overwhelming emotions sloshing perilously close to my airways at all times. So I don’t let myself worry over what will become of Twitter, even though it brought me so many treasures and connections and friendships and opportunities over the years, because I’m doing as Dave suggests and pouring value into myself.

That’s enough for now.

1. This might change when it’s time to promote my next book and I emerge from the bunker to find tumbleweeds where my weird and far-flung online friends once stood, but that’s a problem for Future Lucy.

Never Again

Saw a comic that made me laugh in queasy recognition. Didn’t want to link to it on Twitter, so I went hunting. Coni has a blog! But the comic isn’t on the blog. THE COMIC IS NOW ON THE BLOG, RENDERING THE REST OF THIS POST SEMI-MOOT! Coni has a Patreon with lots of comics on it! But not this one. Coni has an Instagram with this comic on it! But the formatting loses a lot in the jump to square panels. So: a Twitter embed.

I don’t say any of the above as a criticism! I do the same thing! There’s some obscure internal logic that dictates when I make the effort to cross-post things and when I don’t. Sometimes it’s about formatting, sure, but other times it’s about tone. Certain comics or posts just fit better in different parts of my online presence.

I’ve wondered with increasing frequency whether it makes the most sense to start consolidating everything on my own site, but the fact is there’s something valuable about maintaining these different tonal environments. I like having Patreon as a space to talk (mostly) about craft and maintaining a creative practice; it keeps my blog free of any pressure to produce “worthwhile” content. Maintaining a little distance helps combat context collapse, keeping certain things within certain circles and keeping those circles relatively small.

(I keep thinking about the era when comics friends would warn that Twitter became unusable for them after they’d surpassed 10,000 followers, a threshold I’ve been over for some time.)

But there’s something else under this: the idea of being a Word Person and/or an Image Person on the internet. Some people certainly play with both (I’m thinking of Robin’s essays), and you could even argue that cartoonist is the definition of a Word and Image Person, but I think the way we treat platforms online splits these categories by necessity. I have split myself.

A lot of this crystalized after I read Alexis Madrigal’s lovely thread on Word People:

I read this thread and think “Yes! That’s me!” Or at least the Me that occupies this particular corner of the web. The Word Person part of my brain is the one that wanted to go to a liberal arts college and get a degree in Something Other Than Art (although I fell at the final hurdle and ended up with one regardless). The Word Person is still reading like it’s her job and keeping a journal and talking too much. She even controls how I read comics (words first, images as a sort of subconscious afterthought), which is a source of much self-judgement. (I know how long those pages take to make!!)

The Image Person struggles to keep up, or speaks in a register that’s harder to hear.

And then there’s the coding angle! Most of the blogging services my internet friends are gushing over these days focus on the written word. Introducing images of all different sizes and formats to the experience of building a website automatically shoots it into a realm beyond my limited technical ken.

Anyway, back to the what-goes-where-ness of platforms. Other Robin had a bit about that in his latest newsletter:

It’s not enough to make some­thing and post it online; you must also inject it into some channel that will carry it to peo­ple. The web itself doesn’t do that; you need an extra layer, some reser­voir of atten­tion and/or curiosity, whether it’s Google, the blo­gosphere (RIP), Stum­ble­Upon (RIP), Twit­ter (RIP) … hmm, there seem to be a lot of dead chan­nels out here.

Back in the 2000s, I thought I knew things about dis­tri­b­u­tion, about atten­tion and networks — but I didn’t really.

It was, honestly, the expe­ri­ence of pub­lish­ing a book with FSG that showed me what dis­tri­b­u­tion really looks like, and taught me that you just can­not be start­ing from scratch every time. You need sup­ply chains — not only (or even pri­mar­ily) physical, but com­mer­cial and intellectual. Emotional, even.

I love the idea of a reservoir of curiosity coupled with an emotional supply chain. And those features don’t need to be built! They live in the people I want to spend time with! Curious people who maintain relationships over time and space, even when those relationships lie fallow for a spell.

I don’t measure the health of my friendships by whether or not we speak every day. Why should I then transfer that pressure onto my internet spaces?

Ambient Friendship

Bobbie’s on a roll right now.

Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it. 

To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other. 

Ambient friendship.

aaaggghhhh

Good Weird Stuff

Four Five! places to poke around when the sight of another bland-looking personal website or social network makes me want to launch my brain into low orbit:

  • Multiverse: A CONSTELLATION OF INTERNET CORNERS HELLO HELLO HELLO
  • Secret Room Press built a Google Doc guest book for their website and it’s v cute
  • Meatspace, the friendly little chat website that pairs outgoing messages with 2-second GIF recordings of participants faces, still exists
  • thoughts, a quiet microblogging space
  • The joyous surge of personal website action happening on Neocities

I don’t even know that this 90s revival aesthetic is my aesthetic (at least on this go around), but I still love seeing it come back because of what it stands for. It’s reminding me of how much I thought about anonymity as a feature of my early web experiences while reading Better Than IRL. Post-Facebook, it felt as if anonymity became synonymous with cruelty, trolling, and lack of accountability. The real move was to be Extremely Online under one’s own name—especially if one hoped to make a career out of making creative work on the web.

But that stifling trajectory has also led to a culture of fear. Fear of imperfection, fear of unprofessionalism, fear of everything and everyone. I’d forgotten all about the freedom and exuberance of being anonymous. The weirdness. Now it feels like a liberation.

And maybe that’s the root of the fear: if you’re someone who believes people are inherently shitty, then a liberation looks like a return to one’s worst impulses. If you believe in altruism and basic goodness, maybe it’s something better. A weirder web, yes, but also a kinder one.

Late Afternoon Slump Thoughts

Everyone is making so much stuff so well all the time and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else but also I am so tired. I tire myself when I sit down to list my accomplishments with Erika and Danielle during our monthly check-in meetings. There’s surprise and pride, yeah, but also this reflexive sense of embarrassment at how much I’m doing. Knowing that I’d rather be present than productive, but still falling prey to the urge to do make distill grasp learn post share.

I know that social media is a big part of this. I know my own perfectionism is part of it too. And capitalism, that’s in the mix.

There are a lot of ways to do what I do, none of them necessarily right or wrong, but all different, all with their own pros and cons. I’m looking for a space on the web that isn’t shackled to a particular platform, but at the end of the day every avenue for getting paid for my work is owned by somebody.

(This site, at least, is mine.)

What am I asking for when I ask my audience to support me financially? Freedom and permission.

It feels selfish to take that without giving anything in return. (Just two months ago I was yelling lovingly at a comics friend for saying something similar, as if her work isn’t achingly personal and helpful and vulnerable and funny. As if she’s not giving back via her art. I guess I’m guilty of thinking that way, too. Worrying I’m a mooch.)

I’m tired of packaging myself and I know I need to share what’s going on under the hood in order to welcome people into the tribe that makes my life and my work possible. I know I am braver creatively when I have that community around me.

I know the way we’ve built an industry around producing graphic novels burns people out fast fast fast.

I don’t want to get burned.

The Owl Neck Problem

[Apparently I drafted this in April of 2021 and never posted it? Found it this morning while searching for something connected to the introduction to my 100 Day Project, which I’m planning to launch sometime in the next couple weeks.]

I gave a lot of talks in 2016, and the one I usually point to is the Big One at XOXO in September, but much earlier in the year I was in Viborg, Denmark for my second stint of teaching at The Animation Workshop. At the time I was feeling very much in love with having an online community, as evidenced by this screenshot from the talk:

Lucy giving a lecture in front of a projection screen that says "I used to loathe the very notion of social media, but I've grown to love it."
hollow laughter

I find myself wondering if this is some kind of cicada-esque situation. Six years of being a dedicated luddite, six years of being a massively social and enthusiastic online extrovert, six more years of burying myself in a nice, quiet, mud flat and then emerging to abandon my chitinous shell and begin the cycle anew.

But I think it’s more complicated than that.

All these thoughts I’ve been having lately about social media and going away from it and coming back to it and then hating that I’ve come back to it but also wondering if I can sustain my career without it has me reflecting on this conversation I had with doreen in May of 2020.

The talk wasn’t actually about the experience of being a creator on social media, but when I was reading doreen’s book Deviced, a concept that really leapt out at me was the idea of having an internal vs. external locus of control. Turns out I’ve been remembering the definition incorrectly. The term technically applies to the degree of control we feel we have over the outcomes of our actions. Having an internal locus of control translates to a sense of personal agency, feeling like your efforts matter, that kind of thing. Having an external locus of control generally means you feel like the universe is largely random and all your efforts will come to naught, regardless of what you try.

The way it had lodged in my brain was more to do with feeling like I could validate my own efforts, which is what I was writing about yesterday. I talked about not wanting to “give away that kind of power.” What am I talking about there?

I’m good at social media. I mean, not in the growth-hacking sense, but in the “sharing enthusiastically and consistently over time in order to welcome people into my process and build meaningful connections” sense. So far it has served me extremely well. I’ve built a career that’s largely self-determined, raised a lot of money to make things I’m proud of, and gotten to go on amazing expeditions and meet incredible people all around the world.

The danger is figuring out where to draw the line. Historically I haven’t been “good at social media” because I’ve gotten a degree in digital marketing or taken endless online workshops or adhered to a rigorous schedule. I’ve been good at it because my goals and behaviors and socio-physical traits have happened to align with the ways these platforms work.

The two words I’ve kept coming back over the past year are reminders and permission. Social feedback reflects the self back to the self. I need reminding of who I am, and I need permission to take the next step. To feel brave or foolish enough. And, ideally, I would like to be able to give those things to myself. Throughout Deviced, doreen is really diving into that concept: how we seek the type of self-soothing we’d usually learn to cultivate in ourselves on the external playing field of social media, and how that can create a distorted sense of self.

I don’t find myself drawn into the manic cycle of posting and scheduling and refreshing and responding because I think my efforts don’t matter. Far from it. I fall into that hole because I come to feel like they’re the only thing that matters. That the only thing standing between me and building the crowdsourced career of my dreams is effort. (But, crucially, it has to be effort expended by me. There is no room in this mental model for the idea that other people might champion my work when I’m not in the room. This is why hearing anyone say “Oh, I told my friend about your book” or “I was just thinking about this thing you wrote/said a few years ago…” is so deeply meaningful. I genuinely struggle to understand that any of this endures.)

doreen says:

“[…] we must tell ourselves the truth about how our interactions in digital space may shape our unconscious assumptions about communication in general and how they might lead us to act in ways that don’t get us what we need or want.”

I was trusting the process, rolling along with the understanding that as long as I kept sharing what caught my eye, things would work out. It felt like being a toddler learning to run away from my parents, looking back over my shoulder less and less, but whenever I did look it was because I was worrying that they might not be there the next time I turned around, because I could only keep running if there were still people standing behind me.

Social media asks the toddler to become owl-like, constantly cranking her own head around 180º, permanently craning towards her source of validation, unable to orient herself towards her own goals because she can never let the audience out of her sight. 

When is it going to be enough?

I think a lot of what I’m testing with the harebrained scheme I have for sharing my Very Private 100 Day Project from 2020 is the idea that I actually do have enough people in my corner who will trust me to make…whatever I wanna make. Small, weird things.

A vote of confidence in financial form.

An ever-increasing spiral of enoughness.

A moving target.

Wisdoms for Self

I’m wrestling with the letter I want to write to introduce my 2020 100 Day Project when I release it later this month. I’m feeling the pressure to get it just right. To say it just so. (Sound familiar? I keep finding different elements of this project to obsess over as a way to avoid sharing it. Go figure. Just share it, Lucy.)

I poked my head into Instagram briefly this morning and found Anis sharing a project that has its roots in a much older project and is now reemerging:

Back in 2014/2015 I was in a place of heavy loss, a place of relearning, rewiring, reforming my self, & began writing down & sharing online these monthly wisdoms/lessons for my self to learn, think on, & try to remember. Have wanted to return to this for years now, & being now in some months of heavy reflection seemed a good time for this returning. Here’s things I put down last month for me to hold & turn over & try to remember.

Here’s one:

12.21 Lessons for Self
(to learn anew &/or to be reminded of to continue learning)
Anis you do not need to straighten every wrinkle. Nor do you
need to respond in a moment. If someone is upset & out of that
anger speaking poorly to you, it is not your job to temper
them-
-if you need time to acknowledge your transgression to
them without theirs to you, step away & come back.
Dont forget Anis, no one gets to tell you how you process your
loss & rowboat your grief.
This means too, don't forget, you don't get to direct how others
process theirs, to expect them to rudder across the lake in the
way you might.
Decisions are not just cerebral in nature. Not all abstracted can
be bent for the brain to weigh, Anis you have to also recognize
that the heart & the body are part of the decision making pro-
cess.
Indecision is an enemy of vulnerability.

This subtitle sings to me.

It’s a funny thing how we all begin turning toward the same subjects at the same times (or have already been turning for several years). Reminders. Permission. Speaking to the self as the self, but at a removal from the self. This is the energy of the thing I’m about to release, too. Seeing it reflected in these words from my brilliant friend fills me with compassion and energy and, okay, a little envy, too. I have to elbow myself in the psychic ribs as if to say “Hey. Cut it out. There’s no race here, ya dingbat.”

On another slide, Anis writes:

I sometimes use vulnerability w/self to avoid vulnerability w/others. I wear my heart, but wearing can be a costume.

This is one of the things that drives me away from sharing such a personal thing in public. I want it to be known (I want to be known), but not in a space where I’ve traditionally used perceived vulnerability to mask real connection.

The greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this project has been pressing the physical prototype (or the Dropbox folder of images) into the hands of trusted friends, and then talking about it with them. That’s energy I want to preserve moving forward. This connection. This depth.

Ramble #30

New year, new Ramble.

This one (my 30th since I started this practice in June of 2019!) is about stuff I lost track of in 2021, things I’m thinking about in the new year, trying to abandon perfectionism, what to share and what not to share, the topography of the Ojai Valley, and various other things.

Also: looked at a bunny, found some owls.

You can read the transcript or browse all the notes and associated ephemera over on Patreon for free, or just listen directly below.

A mountain range in the Ojai Valley turning pink at sunset.
January 1st, 2022

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]