creative process

I care very much about the fictional mundane

I read That Obsessive Recursiveness: An Interview With Leo Mandel (conducted by Seth Dickinson) on my morning commute last year. It was perhaps the online article I most loved reading in 2017. At one point in the exchange, something strange happened in my chest—a warm dawning light, some lovely instability, the very sense of recognition Leo Mandel names as fanfiction's particular magic:  

SD: Another writer taught me that fanfiction often explores narrative spaces that conventional work skips over. The practicalities of domestic life. Consequences of small actions. Recovery after trauma [...]

What do you think is important about fan work in the artistic, technical sense? The sense of "what can this do for me that a conventional novel cannot?" Why do people turn to fanfiction to fill in the margins and lacunae of a story?

LM: Um um um um. I left this for last and now it's super late where I am but I can think of two things true for me (omitting things I know people do seek out in fandom that I don't understand or enjoy personally): (1) a finer mesh, in mathematical terms, of emotional subtlety—like, I just read a well-reviewed novel that was supposed to be about this complex relationship and it was surreally boring, posed dolls, not a single move I didn't see coming. That attraction/repulsion thing with vulnerability again, I can mark out an author who came from fandom a mile away. Weight in small gestures, terror, gentleness. Fandom has made me feel less alone, a hundred times, via the delayed, reflected, ghost-trace intimacy of "someone else is moved or disquieted by this hair-thin vein of pathos; someone else notices this nuance, which I thought no one else detected; somewhere out there in this world moves an intelligence like mine." (2) queerness! [...] Fandom was the first queer space in my life; it's still the main, really the only queer space in my life. Obviously there are vast amounts of het work and plenty of homophobia in fandom also, but fandom as a whole feels queer to me in a particular "defiant, joyous, off-label use & doing it better" sort of way. So, commonalities—I think "subtleties in unusual experience" would be the theme, attention given to those subtleties, exactly as you suggested.

What a thing I did not know I needed. To have someone describe fanfic, its power and its charge, in this way. With dignity and poetry and reverence. Because yes, fanfic sings in pauses left by traditional narrative beats. But you do realize, don't you—that by filling in those spaces, fanfic deems them vital.

I just finished What Did You Eat Yesterday, Volume 7 by Fumi Yoshinaga. It's a slice-of-life cooking (!) manga featuring a gay couple in Japan. I smiled to myself many times while reading it, and I am not one who smiles easily. 


Whenever food, which lines the rhythms of every person's day, comes up in stories, I find myself enormously pleased. Food is a comforting thing, of course it is, but it's also an effective driver of narrative, in a way that I'm surprised by now that I'm articulating it.

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner features swordfights and intrigue and courtesans and murder, but I was awed by the chapter where 16-year-old Katherine is whisked off to train with master swordsman Richard St. Vier, who long ago withdrew from society. They live for some time in the countryside together, Richard teaching Katherine. In the process of learning the sword—and talking and eating and meandering through the estate grounds—they develop a shared intimacy, an ineffable bond.

The events of Chapter III of this section are so small. And so profound. Not because they rend the plot, but because the narrative eye makes them so. It is, simply, life. Good food, good company, a world ripe for observation:

There was always enough butter and cream and cheese, since there were more than enough cows. And suddenly, as the night air turned cold and the day sky burned a bright and gallant blue, the world was full of apples. The air smelt of them, sharp and crisp, then underlaid with the sweet rot of groundfall. One day the orchard was infested with children, filling their baskets with them for cider. The next week, pigs were rootling for what was left.

On one of the last warmish nights of autumn we sat by the stream, grilling trout stuffed with fennel over a fire of apple wood. The stars were thick as spilled salt above us. 

He pulled his cloak around him and poked the fire with his staff. "There were apple trees where I grew up. I used to collect fallen wood for my mother. And steal the lord's apples, with his sons."

"Were you caught?"

"Chased, not caught. [...]"

I'm now reading Elif Batuman's The Idiot, and it shares this belief in the grandiosity of the mundane. The book's humor draws from enlarging the trivial. But it's a tender, loving effort:  

I was supposed to make the dessert, a raspberry angel food cake with raspberry amaretto sauce. I had never made an angel food cake before, and got really excited when it started to rise, but then I opened the oven too soon and it fell down in the middle, like a collapsing civilization.

Because sometimes baking failures feel tantamount to disaster on a humanitarian scale, goddammit.

When a story holds joy, delight, strangeness, or funniness to the light, it tells us that lives that seem remarkably different—the king's and the pauper's, the savant's and the caretaker's—are fundamentally similar. It tells us circumstances within these lives may change—the empress' life before versus after ascension—but one moment is no less important than the next. It tells us moments are forever shifting—between the activist's serene, solitary morning and her striding bold before her people, ready to alter the shape of the world. It tells us the person at the center of a life may change, but her vitality will not.

Illuminating these facets of life is a way to value life itself. Because a majority of life is trivial, in-between, interstitial. Brushing your teeth, walking to the train station, scraping up the last rivulets of ice cream, adjusting your squeaking office chair, pausing at the grocery store because your favorite Top 40s song has just come on. Why shouldn't we celebrate all that in art? Why do we need calamity and war and the threat of a razed world, or triumph in the ring, or happily ever after with cake and a thousand spectators?  

So yes. I think slice-of-life is important. I think fanfic does crucial work. I think comedy is serious stuff, and thus prefer banter over intoned prophecy. I don't want to watch our heroes wage an epic, bloody battle; I want to watch them watch their glories re-enacted by a theatre troupe who gets approximately 80% wrong, to hilarious effect. I like domesticity and mundanity, as performed by exceptional characters who are revealed to have foibles, who are revealed to feel as petulant and inelegant as we all do sometimes.

I thought, as an artist, I needed to write about solemn emotions, inscrutable narrators, heartbreak and estrangement, quilt-work historical plots. I still might—I am stuffed full of multitudes, and all that. But this, dwelling in the small and unspoken, is the stuff that enlivens me. So whatever I write next will be 90% trivial, and 100% serious.

Perilous wrong turns in art-making

In 2013, I began drawing seriously because my job was a misery. "Seriously" meant I held myself to intense quantitative goals. "Seriously" meant I practiced editorial illustration—a commercially viable art field—rather than silly character sketches, the drawing mode of my heart. Aspiring toward Serious Artisthood challenged me to draw regularly and to confront vexing elements like musculature and shadow. No regrets about that. But I became ensnared in an incentive scheme wherein producing stuff was enough, no matter how little I enjoyed it.

Art, after all, was my lifeline. I needed it badly enough that I was willing to put in outlandish hours to keep the vision alive. I thought my goals were objective, when in fact they imbued the ~artist's life~ with psychic heft. In most people's minds, and mine too, the artist's life is a delicious fantasy, dressed in tantalizing set pieces. Those include: freedom in choice and time and expression; aesthetic and moral beauty; a life and livelihood steeped in one's individuality. To be successful as an artist is to know society approves of your unfettered self. It is the ultimate reassurance to the insecure.

Ostensibly, my goal was to draw 60 hours a month, but really, I was trying to attain a lifestyle. I didn't enjoy editorial work nearly as much as I did dumb fancomics; nevertheless, I thought I'd ascend to a higher plane of existence once I made it as an editorial illustrator. I went through a similar process with writing speculative fiction. I speculated wildly indeed—about all the kindred spirits I would meet, about days cleared for thinking and writing, free from bureaucracy or triviality or discomfort. 

Trying to wring out ideas for Dignified and Far-Reaching Speculative Fiction caused me endless anguish, but I ignored the feeling. I figured I could discipline myself into passion. Surely, I thought, the future would justify this frustration. But, as Rosalie Knecht writes in Let's Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer's Lifestyle, that future is illusory:

[...] the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is. I’m baffled when I come across interviews where writers laughingly allude to the solitude, say, or the introspection of the novelist’s life. No matter how solitary or introspective you are while you’re writing novels, you are likely spending many more hours each week at another job, or commuting, or raising kids, or trying to keep your house clean. I spend more time on the subway each week than I spend writing, and I’ve written two novels.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be living this fairly obvious reality can feel at times like we’ve failed. I have the pleasure of my work, but where’s my glamor? Why doesn’t it look the way I thought it would when I was 14? 

Because ultimately, you're sitting at a desk—typing, sketching, researching. Because ultimately, your creative work is enmeshed in your routine, regardless of your professional success. Because ultimately, if all goes well, the work you do in your imagined future is the work you like doing now, in the anonymous dark. All the other shit is ancillary. In The Snarling Girl, Elisa Albert puts it like this:

I’d so much rather be writing my novel, my silly secret sacred new novel, which will take a while, during which time I will not garner new followers nor see my name in the paper nor seek an advance from the publisher nor receive the hearts and likes and dings and dongs that are supposed to keep my carnivorous cancerous ego afloat. I will simply do my work. Hole up with family and friends, live in the world as best I can, and do my work.

Creative work is supposed to be fulfilling. With the addition of a sweeping audience, it may occasionally be glamorous, but mostly not, and also, you'll have way more emails to deal with. Industry parties, Twitter repartee, awards shows, conferences, festivals, interviews—these will be glints. Sharp, rare, fleeting. You will spend more time choosing which grapefruit to buy at Trader Joe's, or picking hair out of your sink, or quarreling with your friends about which song to put on. You will spend more time staring blankly at the empty, uncooperative page. Because the work, the actual work, is getting it to cooperate.

Tim Urban has a neat analogy for the tendency to live in grandiose visions to the detriment of what's happening today. He equates this rosy vision of one's life to a picture, and the moments that comprise lived experience to pixels

Jack’s error is brushing off his mundane Wednesday and focusing entirely on the big picture, when in fact the mundane Wednesday is the experience of his actual life.

And his assumption that his future Todays would be as vibrant and rich as the broad picture of his life is misunderstanding the unremarkable nature of a pixel, no matter what one’s life looks like in broad strokes. 

Lord, can I relate. My mind is a time-machine, adept at hurtling into the distant future, where it surveys the surroundings and invariably deems them better. It's ridiculous, assessing an imagined world from the perspective of a god who knows nothing. Seeing in swathes, in months and years rather than minutes and days. 

When I seize my imagination and stare it firmly in the eye, I see the truth of doing art or writing or some other creative thing full-time. The truth is, it's what I'm doing now, plus the distraction of a clamoring, demanding audience. I know this, and yet, I've spent the last five years trying to decide whether I want to be a creative professional. I go through constant bouts of wondering: How do I ring in my presence? What do I flood social media with? How do I make a name for myself?

These questions all come down to: how, how, how do I reach success? Ah, success. A state at once elusive and urgent. 

The question was shrillest back when I hated my job. I didn't need my success to be quick, but I needed it to be assured. And so I simply picked something and went for it. That's how I ended up practicing editorial illustration. That's how I ended up here. 

Why editorial illustration? Not because I loved it, but because it is respectable. Because people actually earn money doing it. Because of the aforementioned imagined lifestyle. 

So that was my destination; quantitative goals were my vehicle. I made a plan, and it went like this:

  1. Produce enough to get good
  2. Produce enough to get known 
  3. Achieve success

For five years, I hacked at editorial illustration, but something always held me back. I was gratified to see myself getting better at color and lighting and composition, but god, when I forced myself to produce illustrated pieces, I just didn't care. No wonder I wasn't more prolific. No wonder I didn't share as much as I could have. I had no passion for what I was making.

What if I had willed myself past Step 2? God knows I could have. A fragile, honest part of me must have stunted the whole operation. That part of me knew how oppressive actually living out Step 3 would feel. I'd be known for my illustration work, forced to draw in a style manufactured for success, pressured to continue doing this thing that was now attached to my name, my public identity—because my livelihood depended on it.

Something interesting happened en route to my gloomy, unrealized illustration career. For a couple of years, I fell hard for a certain book series, and I spent my hours drawing fanart. I drew more than I ever had before. I was gleeful about what I was drawing. I fucking loved it. I loved the process of drawing, equally as much as I loved the results. When I posted my stuff, other people loved it too.

But I didn't stop wanting to be an illustrator.

I may be as proud of the pieces on my portfolio website, but I carry them around like jewels. Every time I tell someone I draw, and they ask me if they can see my stuff, I think, Thank god, thank god, because I have an arsenal now, and it is attached to my name. What you see here are the fruits of years of unenthused grinding. Splashy pieces of reasonable proficiency, appealing to the layperson's eye, enough to earn me the right to call myself an illustrator. 

For you see, I am more than a purveyor of lowbrow fanart. I am a Serious Artist. 

The fantasy, of course, is not merely about an ideal lifestyle, but an ideal self. Contained within the vision of an Artist's Life is a version of yourself that deserves to live that life. 

The creative profession comes with an insidious edge. By definition, artists create. They create stuff that can be seen, touched, felt, heard. There are now systems, SO MANY SYSTEMS, for that stuff to be shared, and for people to express their approval. In art, you can earn awards (retweets, likes, comments... but also literal awards) for your skills. The creative profession is the school system writ beastly and unruly. 

No wonder it all went awry. My job failed to validate me, and so I turned to art. How easy it was to imagine that external validation would come with side servings of purpose, worth, identity. 

We all know equating metrics and merit is bullshit. We all know we're in it to find truth, delight, subtlety. To clarify the edges. To coax the edges a little further.

Still. It is so, so easy to tuck it all up in the jaws of productivity. 

When someone tells me they do art or writing, my instinct is suspicion. I think, Are you any good, though? But many of the people who aren't good yet, who aren't published or recognized or awarded or successful yet, myself included, may very well be successful in the future. And when they are, they will be the same people they have always been. They will have the same character, a character, one hopes, of exploration, insight, drive, and focus.

I am already as good as I'll ever need to be. I contain the fuel that will take me where I wish to go. The me who has ~achieved success~, who is a literary sensation (or not!), is the very same me who now spends her days reading, writing, drawing, discussing, analyzing. I'm already there.

And so is my life. 

So maybe I don't want to make a career out of art. Maybe I don't want to specialize in just one thing. Maybe I want to explore forever, wander from thing to thing, move with feline insouciance. I already have a great job, one that leaves me plenty of time to make whatever I want. Financial security, time, anonymity... freedom indeed. Nobody to tell me what to do, no trolls to befoul my sanctuary. I can draw comics about characters going grocery shopping. I can pen deep analyses of obscure, funny short stories. I can write a novel about best friends philosophizing over drinks. And once I do, I can show it to people. Or not.  

Elisa Albert again, on the point of art: 

What makes a work of art special and meaningful is your private relationship with it, the magic of finding it amidst the noise and distraction, the magic of letting it speak to you directly. You found it, it’s yours. (This, however, requires the awesome skill of being able to think for yourself in the first place; hardly a given.) Art can change you; it can move and validate and shift and bait and wreck and kindle you in the best way. And others who feel similarly about said work can be your kin. It is not a more-is-better equation.

I repeat: more is not better.

Because the point is never to prove that you're an Artist. The point is not to amass trophies, or bylines, or reblogs. The point is to express what you most need to express, to travel through the spangly dusk that is your mind. To transmute your particular cosmos into the one we all share.

What on earth was my productivity for?

Today is Saturday, February 3. Six days ago, I gave in and stopped tracking how many hours I spent drawing and writing. Six days ago, or Sunday, January 28: mark down this date as a fated occasion in my life, a watershed moment, the open gate between misery and dawning serenity.

Since releasing myself from the tyranny of quantitative goals, I have dallied more, gone outside more, and realized gobsmacking truths about myself. I have created work I am proud of, without fretting about the prestige, the accolades it can win me. I have delighted in the process of creating that work. The cincher lies here: I have written and drawn no less than I did when I was clocking my productivity. Fewer hours, maybe, but equivalent, if not greater, output.

I notice more of the life before me, and as such, ideas are now aplenty. They seem to sidle up, drop in, and waft over from all directions. It was awful before, when I was all but staging archeological missions to dig up workable ideas, and still had nothing.   

Some people that helped me get here, or: Primer on how (and why) to fuck productivity

how to do nothing by Jenny Odell, on how silence allows for Deep Listening, the dangers of untrammeled growth, and the vitality of cyclical maintenance work

...perhaps the granularity of attention we achieve outward also extends inward, so that as the perceptual details of our environment unfold in surprising ways, so too do our own intricacies and contradictions.

The tension between creativity and productivity by Jason Kottke, which references Cory Doctorow's How to Do Everything (Lifehacking Considered Harmful):

But today, thanks to a vicious Darwinian winnowing process, the only activities left in my day serve double- and triple-duty... And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.

Also: Quinn Norton's fantastic Against Productivity

We dream now of making Every Moment Count, of achieving flow and never leaving, creating one project that must be better than the last, of working harder and smarter. [...] Productivity never asks what it builds, just how much of it can be piled up before we leave or die. It is irrelevant to pleasure. It’s agnostic about the fate of humanity.
Despite having more labor-saving technology than anyone in history, we have made it so we have more to get done than any form of society before us. [...]
Productive people, like productive machines, have no scores for metis, wisdom, or worthy life. So these things live on in poetry, and fantasy, and if we’re lucky, our sinful unproductive time. They are erased, and with them, the futures they contain. They are not creatures of now, which is what productivity is about. They only ever come up these days when all the other stuff inevitably collapses.
This is killing us. It’s starving our souls and stunting our intellectual pursuits into ever more stratified vertical slices.

I begrudgingly acknowledge everyone in my life who insisted on the importance of downtime, despite my exaggerated and unrelenting scoffing. FINE, YOU ARE ALL VERY WISE.  

I've also been thinking about more generous, abundant ways to love. (Christ, did I have to resist painting a coat of sarcasm over that sentence.) This stuff is unfamiliar territory. But it's all tied to these screwy productivity discourses, which—isn't mechanized productivity all about seeking self-worth? And doesn't self-worth always come down to wanting to be loved?

THIS SHIT IS DEEP. (Listen, I made it a whole paragraph before I gave in. Graffiti over ALL THE SINCERITY!)

Sometimes you shouldn't emulate your heroes

Setting quantitative goals around art-making was useful for a few years. I can now sit and draw for a whole day if I must. So my determination around how much to draw (a lot) was soundBut I made some dubious choices about what to draw, and how to go about it. The choices were dubious because my motives were warped. 

From 2013 to 2017, hellbent on achieving Illustration Skills, I spent a lot of time emulating artists I admired. I amassed an inspiration folder featuring a wide spread of styles, but the ones I envied most were gorgeous, intricate, succulent with color. I was taken with the prize-winning artists who created these works. I so wanted to be as good as they were. I fretted over my inferior skills, duplicating their pieces wholesale, trying to bludgeon my style into something resembling theirs. 

Emulation is necessary for improvement! But I came at art practice so militantly, I didn't realize how little I was enjoying the process. What I was experiencing wasn't inspiration. What I was doing wasn't as innocent as drawing from my influences. It was as if I wanted to possess the art I loved—specifically, the stuff The Institution* deemed exemplary. I imagined that if I learned to draw like Sam Bosma and Jillian Tamaki and Richie Pope and every other esteemed illustrator there ever was, I would achieve... I don't know. Nirvana?

That's the thing: my motivations were fucked. I didn't want their styles. I wanted their careers. I wanted their happiness, which I assumed that they, being successful professional artists, possessed in spades. I wanted their job satisfaction, their freedom, their jouissance. Their fearlessness in doing what they loved.

I assumed, mistakenly, that mastering illustration skills would come with the full suite of self-actualization software. 

My emulation simply had no center. It was joyless. Apparently, you can love to look at, or read, or listen to a thing, and hate creating it yourself. I love looking at gorgeous paintings, but you know what I actually like making? Stupid hilarious comics, that's what.

I will be influenced by 100000 artists in my lifetime, but there is only one me. (How very special I am!) My style will shift, but probably not more than a dozen times, unless I go after a career in art forgery. But art forgers don't win industry awards or get invited to speak at conferences, so what even is the point.

Kidding! Don't chase awards, friends. That, too, will make you sallow and curmudgeonly.

*Which I imagine to be housed in a grand Art Deco-ish edifice

Using metrics to motivate creativity

I've been thinking about creative goal-setting.

I possess limited quantities of "passion," the creative person's rocket fuel. Not wanting to become one of those wistful waifs, forever proclaiming my desire to "write essays" or "be an illustrator" or "see my name on the cover of an influential cultural monument," I had to resort to "metrics" (the business person's rocket fuel) for motivation.

I started setting art goals back in November 2013. That first month, I hit 50 hours of drawing. The second month, I hit 150. Then came time to set New Year's resolutions. Based on my success, I decided on 60 hours/month, or 720 hours throughout 2014.

It worked. I drew 830 hours that year. I wasn't tracking my hours before this, but I doubt I drew so much when my choice to draw or not draw relied on the answer to "BUT DO I FEEL LIKE IT?"

I set similar goals the next year, and the next. For about four years, establishing these targets served me well:

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 2.03.04 PM.png

2,650+ hours of drawing over five years. Plus a good amount of drawing and a dollop of coding. After importuning myself to "DRAW AND WRITE MORE" every single New Year's since 2007, I finally figured out how to do so. Having to hit a threshold of hours forced me to establish a habit, to realize that sitting my ass down and doing the thing mattered more than doing the thing in a particular fashion.

My overarching goals have changed, though. The metrics I once relied on no longer serve me. My skills have improved, no doubt. But if I had supplemented my input-based goal with output-based ones? Given how many hours I've drawn, I could be much closer to being an established illustration / comics artist / creative person. 

When I first started, I had to forget about producing work of quality. I just had to produce something. Now that I know how to put in the hours, I need to think about making stuff with an audience in mind, and sharing my work. 

Also, I started writing in earnest last year, and writing doesn't quite pair with setting minimum hours. So I'm in the process of rejiggering my goals to accommodate a new, rather more unruly, medium.

And so it begins.

"START BLOGGING PUBLICLY" is one of those goals that's squatted in my brain for over a decade now. I've nursed many goals to preteen age, including "complete more polished illustrations" and "figure out color and lighting" and "eat some damn vegetables, you're going to get polyps." 

In the last few years, I've made steady progress on my long-standing goals. I now have a portfolio of commissioned illustrations, essays, and stories, and a body replete with vitamins. 

Still, I've played it safe. I've frequently publish pseudonymously or churn out sketches that I never show anyone. I only share my work when I am assured of its value, after days of nipping and tucking each sentence. I self-censor most of what I make, because the world is already drowning in slurry, and I am loath to ladle on more.  

BUT. Who's to say my slurry won't be mineral-rich? I've had to sidestep enough crap on the internet, but I've also found writing (and art) that's enlightening, enlivening, and enriching.  

I have other worries, too. I'm worried about how my thinking will change. What if I start to ceaselessly monitor my mind? What if blogging starts to feel like caging my most precious thoughts and taming them for exhibition? And what if I'm depriving myself of time to work on worthier, more difficult forms of writing, like fiction and criticism? 

What if, what if. What if it's fucking amazing?

If it sucks, I'll stop. If not, I'll keep going. I'll probably keep going anyway, because the masochistic streak is strong in this one.

I intend to write about media, the creative process, and perhaps career & workplace matters. All those years I had "BLOG MORE" as a resolution, I used to work my mind into a froth, trying to figure out what the hell I'd write about—international development? economics? philosophy? capitalism? fandom? editing? pastries? ice cream???—and in the end, I never wrote about any of it. So screw all of that. 

I will know this experiment has gone well only after I have reaped the following rewards:

  • Learned to write with an audience in mind
  • Honed my ability to communicate ideas 
  • Learned not to give a damn about audience size or external validation
  • Come to believe the ideas/creations I put into the world have worth and are no burden
  • Traveled toward intellectual destinations I cannot presently fathom
  • Discovered facets of my own thinking
  • Started conversations and formed unlikely connections
  • Transformed into an uncommonly hilarious and witty individual 

Finally, many forces conspired to get me to start blogging, but these posts are especially worth noting: