Last year my friend, the relentless writer and unfailingly generous, tough-loving writing instructor/mentor, Vanessa Mártir, was inspired to take on the challenge of writing and posting an essay a week. I watched her progress with awe and am joining the ranks of hundreds of writers who have taken up the challenge for 2017. (No, really. Hundreds. It’s amazing! It’s also not too late to join, and it would be fabulous to have you on this journey!)
And so, kicking things off with some writing about writing, here’s my first essay. Let the wild ride begin!
Learning to Walk All Over Again
When I went to VONA in 2014, I was pretty clear about what I was doing and where I needed to be moving with my comic. I was overwhelmed by how the project had mushroomed into something enormous, even more overwhelmed by the amount of drawing that lay ahead of me. I was hoping Mat’s graphic novel workshop would help me understand comics better, that I’d leave with a clearer idea of how the graphic memoir I’d begun could be shaped, that I’d leave ready to dive deeper and get the work done.
As it happened (big surprise), I knew just about nothing. The memoir I thought I was writing turned out to be not a memoir but, instead, a whole other thing. I left VONA with one bright, glittering idea: I was going to write and draw a series of essays about racism. The idea was new and shiny … and I had not the first idea what it meant or how I had any chance of making it happen.
The idea that I was writing essays that took my personal experiences as their jumping off points felt 100 percent right, made so much more sense than writing a memoir. When I’d created my memoir comics, I’d stumbled again and again over a) my insistence on keeping all the comics short¹ and b) my desire to branch out from my story, to write more than memoir. I’d had to reel myself in with each successive revision. Thinking about essays wouldn’t answer the first point, but would resolve the second entirely.
I’d read some not-a-memoir graphic nonfiction – Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld’s The Influencing Machine had been the most recent, and I thought I understood how to approach the writing. Of course, I’d thought that when I’d started making Adventures, back at the very beginning. I struggled. Hard. I thought that, since I’ve written so much fiction and memoir, the writing would be the easy part. I know how to tell a story about myself. It’s one of my favorite things to do! But even with the first comic, the 4-page, oh-you’re-so-articulate story, I ran into problems. I had to scrap and restart several times. But I started to figure it out.
When I began writing my first essay script, I thought I’d learned enough, all I needed to know, about the writing part of comics. Essays about race? Wasn’t that totally my wheelhouse? Wasn’t that what I’d been writing off and on since starting my blog?
Guess again. My first drafts were more picture books than comics, and disappointing ones at that. Pages of almost solid text dotted with the occasional unnecessary image – usually just a drawing of me talking. I just know you’d be running to Midtown Comics for that one!
I looked at those early drafts, then thought about some of the things I’d learned in Mat’s workshop – about the work the images need to do, about being greedy with space, spreading text out over a series of panels. I started again.
It’s interesting how quickly I fell back into my original mindset about how to write for comics. I realized as I worked through the next draft that I was, once again, trying to write the essay first and then fit some images in with what I’d written. It really – REALLY – doesn’t work that way. But I’m so stubborn, I just turn right back to my old way, and it took me three lousy drafts to recognize it.
The size of this project overwhelmed me when it was a memoir. It has, at the very least, doubled in size now that it’s a collection of essays. And that’s daunting. I’m a slow artist, and some of the images I envision are well beyond my fledgling skills. But I’m excited for the work. It feels more right with every script draft, more like exactly what I should be doing.
This is still a new form for me – comics in general and these essays in particular. I feel as if I am having to learn the basics every single day. There are beautiful, powerful role models to learn from everywhere – most recently my fascination/obsession/minimal-text-envy love for Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s stunning Monstress.²
I have so very much to learn. But I’m here for it. So much so that I’m even considering sending myself to a town I have no desire to visit to take what looks like an excellent comics course. And yesterday I submitted an application for a late-summer residency: two weeks of nothing to do but write (and maybe draw) Adventures. Yes, that feels exactly right.
I’ve decided that I’ll try to post my essays on Tuesdays, that way, I can get back to consistent participation in the Slice of Life story challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what everyone else is writing!
¹ Why was I so adamant about that? I am nothing if not long-winded!
² If you haven’t read this yet, get on that. Pronto!