Adventures in Fear and Procrastination

Today I had a writing date with two wonderful women. It’s the first time we’ve gotten together in a while, and I was looking forward to it. First, of course, I love them both and love spending time with them. Second, they are both really productive writers, ad that energy helps me, fuels me.

And finally, they are responsible for the essay I published on The Rumpus last year. They pushed and prodded me to not just post it on my blog but to submit it for publication. They helped me write my pitch letter and followed up with me to make sure I actually got it done. And I’ve been feeling the need for exactly that kind of writing support these days. I’ve fallen back into my old, familiar rut of not even thinking about sending out work. What is that? (Other than supremely annoying.)

They each gave me an extraordinary gift today. They each mentioned that their partners keep asking when there will be new comics to read.

Such a small thing, right? But so not small. So not small. The idea that anyone is thinking about my comics, that anyone is wishing there were more comics than those first four tentative ones from forever ago.  That is HUGE.

 

So, um, where are my comics? Good question. I’ve felt, not stuck exactly, more like frozen. And I’ve been this way for quite some time. I let the enormity of the project get in my head and scare me. I’ve had flurries of activity in the last couple of years — writing scripts, signing up for an online comics class, thinking about comics … but I haven’t really imagined myself working anything through to a place that looks like completion.

The closest I came to getting somewhere was a draft of a mini-comic. I sent my panels to a group of beta readers and got some helpful critiques back … and then I put all of it aside and did nothing. that was more than a year ago. More than a year.

This project is important to me. The discovery of comics as a form I could work in was huge. I thought I knew who I was as a writer, and then suddenly I was seeing a whole other way of being. And it was resonating with people. And it was fun. And it felt freeing and full of possibilities.

So why haven’t I thrown myself in and gotten some solid drafts written and drawn.

Yeah. That would be the question. Yes, I can fall back on blaming La Impostora. She’s a handy foil, to be sure. And yes, she’s surely at least in part responsible for me stopping myself every time I make even the least bit of progress in this work. But this feels like more than Impostor Syndrome.

Adventures in Racism, AIR, truly is huge. And that’s daunting. When I thought I was writing a graphic memoir, working on a series of mini-comics, the work seemed, if not easy, at least do-able. Even the longer stories I’d planned to include weren’t all that long. There were a LOT of them, but the idea of the whole endeavor still seemed manageable, like something I could hold in my hands and see my way through.

When I had the realization that I wasn’t writing memoir but was using my memoir stories as frames for a series of essays about racism, the size of Adventures suddenly ballooned. When, out of curiosity, I wrote the script for what I thought was the shortest of the essays, I wound up with an outline for a 25-page comic. Twenty-five pages … when I’d thought it would be, at most, eight. How in the actual fuck was I going to make it through all the essays I’d mapped out?

So yes, the length of each piece made the idea of the entirety of AIR seem impossible. This is a classic way of freezing my process. The whole feels too big, I can’t focus on the pieces and plow my way through them (sort of like how my apartment is still full of boxes almost a year after my move).

The other impossibility is the fact that AIR is a comic. These crazy-long scripts are daunting because I will be the one who has to figure out a way to draw each of the panels. Me. I will have to do it. This woman who is one of the slowest, most unsure artists in the history of comics-making. I will be the one who has to draw these panels.

Now here, maybe, you’re thinking what so many friends have thought and said to me: I don’t have to be the one who draws this comic. I can write and, and I can work with an illustrator. That is 100 percent true. Except that it’s not. I could work with an illustrator, and the final product would be great, might even be spectacular. But it wouldn’t be right. When I see the finished comics in my head, they look like my little line drawings. And, too, this work is so close to me, I am greedy and selfish with it, want all the aspects of it to be mine, to come from my hands.

So, yeah. There’s that. Stubbornness. Absolute stubbornness.

 

All of this is read. The project is huge. And insisting on doing all the artwork myself will make it take that much longer to complete. All of that is true.

It all also feels like excuses.

Why am I really not doing the work? What am I afraid of that’s fueling my procrastination?

 

Over the summer, I got a push in the right direction. I stumbled on a call for writings that specifically asked for graphic work in addition to prose. And the theme of the journal matched the theme of my beta-tested mini-comic. Of course I had to submit.

I dredged up the critiques from last year and set about revising. I drafted new ideas for panels and figured out how to draw them. And then, just a couple of days before submissions were due, I realized there was a hole in the work, and I needed more panels. six to be exact. It didn’t seem possible that I could draw six panels in to days … but then I did. I got the thing finished and sent it in.

That was an enormous step for me. Completing a full comic — script and artwork — was something I hadn’t done since I’d worked on the memoir minis. And seeing that I could draw more quickly than I’d imagined was good, too. And actually submitting it to a journal? That was most astounding of all.

Okay. So lot’s of good stuff. What happened?

What happened was … I reverted to being myself. I sent my comic out into the world and behaved as if I could do not one thing more until I heard back from that journal. And I didn’t even realize I was doing that until I talked about it today with my friends — see how important writing dates can be?!

Even if, in some crazy version of the world, it make sense for me to refrain from submitting any additional comics until I heard back about that once submission, that certainly shouldn’t have meant that I needed to stop writing and drawing all together! And yet, that’s what I did. I haven’t looked at or thought about a script since that submission went in at the end of July.

What the hell?

Yeah. What the hell. And, never mind the possibility of creating and submitting new comics. I could have sent that one completed comic other places. They journal I sent it to stated very clearly that they were fine — as they should be — with simultaneous submissions. And yet I’ve done not one thing with that comic, haven’t even thought about other places that might be a good fit.

 

Despite my claim that whatever is going on with me has to be more than “just” La Impostora, I am beginning to see how absolutely this mess has her fingerprints all over it. How better to hold me back than to make me see my options as narrower and narrower still? How better to stop me in my tracks than to create random and nonsensical rules about when and how often I can send out work?

I procrastinate. It is perhaps the things I do best of all the things I know how to do. And my procrastination saves me from proving La Impostora right. If I ever get Adventures written and drawn, she never gets to pint and laugh and say, “I told you so,” when it isn’t perfect, when it doesn’t find and audience, when the world asks me to please sit all the way down with my delusions of being a comics writer.

Ugh.

Having my friends tell me their partners have asked — more than once — about my comic is an indication that La Impostora might just be wrong about me. That is a gift beyond measure.

 

Time to claw my way up out of this pit of procrastination and get back to work on my passion project. First up: submitting my mini-comic to a few other journals before I head home for Thanksgiving, rock La Impostora back on her heels and then dive into script-writing again.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Learning to Walk All Over Again

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!


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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

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!

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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!

Third time’s the (age-old) charm.

In which my title really doesn’t make any sense but is, instead, a lame attempt at a pun.

I was in a waiting room today. A doctor’s office waiting room. With lots of magazines, but also lots of books. There’s a shelf full of a rotating collection of random reading material. Today, I saw a book called Ageism and picked it up, not because I had any intention of reading about ageism, but because I thought it would make a good text for me to try another erasure poem. That’s right. I haven’t let this go yet. Wanted to give it a try using the directions for a change. So, while I waited to be called for my appointment, I poked through a couple of pages and picked out some words and phrases. Here’s the result:

Undiminished 

Implicit stereotypes are probably
Not diminished
If anything
The process of bias seems reasonable
Automatic assumptions strengthen
Following unpleasant words
Suggested in context
Regardless of evidence.

Attitudes
Not fully addressed
Join visible markers
Common discourse
Discriminatory language, comments, judgement
All context
Regardless of evidence.

Okay. I can see the value of following the instructions for how to “find” one of these poems. This one actually makes sense, unlike the ones I wrote when I was only getting a piece of the instructions right. (Somewhere, my sister Fox is shaking her head in despair, wondering when her family will ever learn to read directions before starting.)

And now that I’ve followed the rules … I may be done. We’ll see. This did give me some things to think about, however. The words, “the process of bias” practically leapt off the page at me. The process of bias. Yeah. I want to sit with that a while. Last weekend, my writers’ group critiqued the new script I’m working on for Adventures in Racism, and I’ve been thinking about the question I’m grappling with in that comic — how children learn prejudice and whether or how they can unlearn it. The process of bias. Yes. So much to think about here. Maybe this is the path I’ve been dumbly and divinely stumbling along through this whole erasure poem process … keep futzing around until I get back to Adventures, until my mind refocuses on my work.

Stars in My Eyes — SOLSC 28

I had a ridiculously late lunch yesterday, walking out of my building at 3:15 to find something I could buy and eat quickly enough to be ready for a 4pm meeting.¹ I walked outside, turned the corner and immediately saw a man coming up the block. It took a nanosecond for my brain to do the processing:

I turned the corner and immediately saw a good-looking Black man with a nice afro coming up the block.

familiar good-looking Black man with a nice afro coming up the block.

familiar-because-he’s-famous good-looking Black man with a nice afro coming up the block.

IT’S NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON!

Seriously. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in all his smooth-walking, self-assured glory. Dr. I-Make-Astrophysics-Crazy-Cool. Dr. I’m-in-a-Superman-Comic Tyson.²

Oh, do I need to tell you I am a science geek and Tyson fangirl?

But I was calm. Ish. I neither stopped walking and pointed frantically nor threw myself at him. Sadly, however, I couldn’t quite function well enough to either take out my phone and snap a pick, or better still, take out my phone and ask to take a selfie with him. Alas. All I could do was stare (yes, very cool). He gave me a knowing smirk and kept it moving.

Neil deGrass Tyson, people!

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

Is it any wonder I was starstruck? As Dr. Tyson so grandly informs us, he’s made of “star stuff.”


 

It’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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¹ Ha! As if I could kid you that I had anything in mind other than pizza!

² No, really. He charted the location of Krypton for the Man of Steel.

Beyond My Ken — SOLSC 4

Show don’t tell.

How many times have we been told this as writing students, as writers? How many times have we said it to our students as teachers of writing?

If you think I would have internalized this rule by now, you — like me — would be wrong.

In comics, this should be a rule that doesn’t need saying. Should be. And maybe it is understood by all comics folk other than me. I’ve struggled with this one from the first comic I drew in that Brainery class three years ago. Why draw another picture — that’s so hard! — when I can just shove more text in next to the picture I’ve already drawn?

As I described Wednesday, Mat’s class at VONA was huge for me. But even before I knew how huge, we ran up on the bête noire of show-don’t-tell.

One of the first things Mat did was walk us through the opening panels of his graphic novel, Incognegro.  Those images spoke volumes and needed not one word to make their point. I don’t pretend I’ll ever get to that place. I’m not even sure I want to — I like to talk too much for all that text-less-ness. But  oh — such a level to aspire to!

I’m having a similar aspiration fantasy these days as I read (devourMarjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s stunning Monstress series. The story and art of Monstress floor me. The sparing use of text amazes me. Amazes me. How can I know so much of this story with so little text to read?

This is the same fascination I have with Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. So few words, so much said. I really don’t imagine scraping myself down to such pure essentials, but I can continue to admire that skill, can learn this craft better in the hope of getting closer to that level.

This week’s comics homework is to keep a diary, to draw five pages, each practicing a different comics relationship.*

Did you ever see the movie Bring on the Night? It’s a documentary about the making of Sting’s first solo album and its accompanying concert. There’s a moment where Sting says that everyone has three basic facial expressions, and he proceeds to demonstrate them … only to discover that he only has two. He kind of stutters to halt for a second then keeps on with the larger point he was trying to make.

That moment is always coming back to me. That moment is a prefect illustration of my response to seeing the assignment for this week’s class. There are, apparently, FOURTEEN possible relationships in comics, seven image relationships and seven text relationships. You guessed it: I pretty much have one of each. Seriously.

And now I have to do five pages — not panels, but PAGES — that showcase some of those other relationships?! Crazypants.

This, of course, brings us back to the show-don’t-tell dictum. The comics I’ve been looking at lately are definitely all about graphic relationships that are outside my wheelhouse.

So, I guess I know how this weekend’s down time will be spent. Does anyone have any tips for stepping out of one’s comfort zone? What do you do when you need to take on a task that feels beyond you?


It’s Slice of Life Story Challenge time! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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* Hey, I’m just realizing that my current comics class instructor is also a Matt! Are we noticing a pattern? Well, no, not really. My first comics teacher was named Dane, so never mind.