Death or Glory

Heady reading yesterday.

I read a lot. I'm not saying that to be like "Oh ho! No one reads anymore but me, ye god-fearing, X-Box playing, printless heathens!" because I really don't have an opinion on the Middle America culture war that wants to fight about whether reading, television, news, video games, etc., are more or less worth your time than something else in that list. I tend to think down time and entertainment, decompressing, are a lot like vegetables - whatever way you can get them in you, that's just fine. But because of my day-to-day responsibilities, I have what I'd say is probably an inordinate amount of free time in little bursts, and what I tend to do with that is read. My life here, a lot of it revolves around waiting, "hurry-up-and-wait" waiting, a lot of errands that usually involve five minutes here, five minutes there of - you guessed it, waiting. So I read a lot.

I suppose I could use the time for writing. I have tried that before, though I'm always incredibly disappointed with the outcome more often than not. I always feel like I get more, better, focused work done when I sit down, and just pour things out on the page, uninterrupted, and don't have to worry about losing a funny line or a major plotting point because a prescription is ready, or the poodle's treatment is finished. So, yeah, I'm not saying I never jam some writing out in there, but I'm saying, mostly, in those little moments between things, I prefer to read.

Because I read so much, I think I probably don't absorb things as well, or as universally as I should. I'm not crazy or happy about that, but wet, saturated soil floods more easily, and not everything I read is going to get more than a "huh" or a acknowledging nod. Sometimes, there will be anger, sometimes, there will be a little outrage, but I've noticed more and more that's not too much different than the "huh" or the nod - and if I take my time, it'll pass pretty quickly. I've been trying to be better about this, to come away from things I read with as much as was imparted to me as possible. But it's kind of... eh, right now.

Still. Some things just hit you at the right time. In high school, it was "The Great Gatsby," a very visual work that hit me during a time when I feel like the visual part of my imagination was firing almost 24/7. When I think of "Gatsby" I think of Jay, and Nick, and Daisy, and Tom Buchanan and the wasteland between West Egg and New York, and that immutable [shut-the-fuck-up-it's-only-as-heavy-handed-as-it-needs-to-be] green light, and I actually see it, in my head, as this sprawling epic drawn by John Romita Jr. Anyone else ever completely fabricate an American Classic as drawn by J.R. Jr. in their own head? No? These things just hit me, like a re-read of "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" hit me at the height of the 2008 presidential primaries. How "Tristam Shandy" and "So Long See You Tomorrow" hit me when I was trying to find my voice, and my place [respectively] in college.

How "Clerks" hit me when I didn't think I could do what I wanted in my life. How "Strangers in Paradise" hit me, when I so desperately needed to know if the stories I wanted to tell were worthwhile. How "Watchmen" hit me when I wondered if they could be art.

I mean, there are a lot more examples than these - many of you saw when I went "Riot Grrl" crazy [hell, I'm still Riot Grrl crazy], partly because I needed an outlet for some of my anger at all the social bullshit, and partly because I'd had enough time for hindsight that I realized, looking back, the kind of man I'd been just wasn't good enough. And "Girls to the Front" was there. And when I wanted someone just as awkward and screaming to get noticed as me, I found Mia Zapata. There are others, some private, some not, but the point is, a lot of things can hit you, and when you read as much as I do, those things tend to be things in print. And all you need is that right timing, and ding, they hit you.

I took a short hiatus not too long ago. I actually considered it a pretty long hiatus, and a lot of it was about clearing my palate, and trying to get back into something that resembled a healthy work structure, not with responsibilities that I'm called on to perform in my day-to-day, but with my writing, which had been jammed into places and was suffering for it, or worse, wasn't getting done at all. Coming back has been difficult, because I'm still trying to eek out that groove, and there are new things - good things - along with the same old challenges I need to try and circumvent.

The hiatus also gave me a lot of time to think, and while most of that has gone into some sort of ordering, trying to form habits that are healthy and productive, it also made me realize there are a lot roadblocks in front of me for what I want to do, and some of them I either have no idea how to overcome, or am just incapable of tackling myself. I'm not... ashamed to say that last part either, there are some things that I just don't excel at, probably will never excel at. And some of that might be more integral to writing, to making my art, and to getting it out there for people to see. Definitely for making money at it.

So I guess I had my knees taken out from under me a little bit when I popped on Twitter and found the article "Two Voices of Experience on Comics as a Career" by Johanna Draper Carlson on her blog "Comics Worth Reading." I'm a big fan of Johanna's blog, sort of swear my limited comic book-funds by CWR's reviews of things, even use it to find comics I wouldn't normally read, but would work as gifts for other people. It's all about spreading the love, as a friend of mine would say. Can't recommend the site enough.

But "Two Voices..." was complicated for me because of the blog posts by creators in the industry that they linked to. Each contain first-hand, real-life comic industry advice, creating as a profession advice, the kind that, as Johanna so succinctly puts it, "you either listen to and take to heart or you suffer through yourself." [I find this statement rigid, but not entirely unfair.]

The first is by Steve Bissette, probably best known for his legendary run with Alan Moore and Jon Totleben on DC's "Swamp-Thing." His posting "Looking for Magic Carpets - An Open Letter to My Fellow Writers (& Artists)" covers a wide variety of topics, not to mention a great deal of common sense-but-not-so-commonly-shared rules when it comes to things like collaboration, ownership, and people who are deluded enough to think that guaranteeing success is some sort of incentive anymore. If you're a person who wants to do something creative for a living - writing, drawing, film making - you should read it. It's a cutting indictment of those out-of-work screenwriters who have a script that they want to take to paneled world of comics, in hopes of exploiting the current popularity of the genre to nab lucrative intellectual property rights and stepping stones to movie deals [I always thought this fair-weather pursuit of comics reminded me too much of the attitudes behind the speculation boom of the 90s - but that's probably a post for another time] .

But more importantly than that, it busts the notion that comics as a medium are somehow easier, that one can be thrown together with little work and come out as a great monument to storytelling, or at least something that will sell high to some Hollywood executive looking for the next big thing. It's hard work, often arduous, often stressful, and always time consuming. And even more importantly than that, it's a reminder that a professional artist or illustrator, that is [to be clear] an artist or illustrator looking to do art for a living, isn't going to be eager to sacrifice that time and stress for next to no compensation. And that's entirely fair.

Now, that being said, I could quibble with some of Bissette's lesser points, but I think in most of the cases that I want to say "wait... but that's not how that works!" it just means I haven't reached his level yet. I did find the way he treats the different mediums - film, novels, comics - as more or less interchangeable a little lackadaisical - as how you go about telling your tale, the way in which you choose to tell it, is just as important as the other aspects of the story. I just don't believe that a screenplay can anymore easily be switched to a comic or a novel, and as someone who works in many mediums himself, I'm a little shocked he implied that would be viable in certain circumstance. Though I guess there are certain circumstances it would.

But this is all parsing. There's more to take from Bissette's single blog post about collaboration than, in most if not all, books on the subject of "Making Comics" that are out there, and I think any creative person is going to take a lot away from it. I think what I most importantly took away from it, what's most applicable to me right now, was bullet #2:

"Cartoonists have their own projects they’d dearly love to afford to do, many of those lengthy works."

I also quite like how Johanna put it - that if "he had the time to work for little or no pay, then he’d be working on his own projects." And that is a smack-across-the-face fair point. And it wasn't something I didn't know, quite the contrary, it's the problem that's frustrated me to no end of late, and finally, I have a name for it. And yes, I've been complaining quite a lot lately about how hard it's been for me to find artists interested in working on comics with me - even gotten to the point if perhaps it came down to just not being very good at selling my projects to them, but in this case, the answers a lot simpler.

So. I think I'm going to stop. Not writing comics mind you, not even asking artists that I can't afford to pay to work on them for me [and I think most encouraging about Bissette's post is his adamance that you should "never be afraid to ask"], but rather complaining. I'm done bitching about how this isn't happening, or how that isn't there, because that's the nature of the beast. And while maybe I haven't been successful, I've been lucky, lucky enough to work with Justin, to work with Ander.

When it comes to my writing, I've really only ever thought of myself struggling with rejection once, but I think in a round about way, the not being able to root out an artist to collaborate on this project or that, well, that's not much different, and I'm getting over it. I'm going to get okay with it. Just, you know... not okay enough to stop looking. Stop hoping.

Which leads me [roughly], into the other posting CWR featured, "If you’re not happy, comics won’t make you happy" by Colleen Doran. Doran is prolific [just look at her Wikipedia page, which is far from comprehensive, and say slowly "Jeeee-zuuus..."], an artist and a writer in both the comics and animation industries whose name may not come immediately to mind, but who has done so much great work that if you're involved in fandom at all, I'm certain you've brushed up against her work more than a few times.

Her article is more of a cautionary tale [seriously, go read it for the same reasons as Bissette's. It's great, and important.], looking at someone who I'm not going to name here who struggled with depression, and a lack of success and fulfillment, and blamed everyone else for those shortcomings and failures. There are parts of it that... they cut me very deep, and it was one of those situations where I almost needed a mantra of "this is not about you, you are not the center of the universe, this is not being accusatory" because let's face it, creativity and a lack of success and fulfillment, in my case just a basic lack of acknowledgment that I'm even on the right path to be creatively recognized for anything - that's me all over, and it's difficult for me to not take a lot of what she was saying to heart, and as, specifically, discouragement. I mean, let's face it, her words here, a little over half way through the article - this, to a point, this is very much me:

"When things go well as a creator, there is nothing like it. It’s a high, an emotional drug. Some people get addicted to it. They don’t look at any payoff except the payoff of seeing their work being seen. Eating, medical care, roof over head: tertiary concerns. Until the day they wake up and realize they are fifty-years-old, they have no savings, nowhere to live, and their teeth are falling out."

Except, of course, my standards of what "going well" is are much lower, and I guess thankfully I still have time to come around to those tertiary concerns. And I don't know if this means me, that I'm one of those people who should, as Doran puts it, "get as far away from the art and entertainment business as possible." I mean, comically, I don't think you can get much farther from the entertainment business than where I am now, but in a self-reflective sort of way, the point stands. And what this is challenging is going far beyond my concerns as to whether or not my work is good, and whether or not I have something important and worthwhile to say.

There are a lot of other things in the article that are hard for me, for anyone I'd imagine, to take - it's hard being told by a pro that it's okay to not be a pro. Advice from someone who has found success, but now pauses to call back to the rest of us to let us know that what we're clamoring for, it's just not all a tea party up top. That said, it's a kind of benevolence that's very common among writers, I imagine less so among artists, but I don't really know, the constant reminder of what's lost, sacrificed, all the bad stuff you should be looking out for, and making plans to tackle [seriously, name the last thing about writing or other kinds of art you read that didn't profess to give you the cold, hard, no-nonsense facts of what you're trying to do. Name the last time you read a something by a professional telling you how wonderful and fun their profession was]. And the posting itself strikes a difficult tone too, because any challenge to it is setup as a fairly indefensible position - disagreement with it is just petulance, a lack of maturity. And rightfully so, if I'm being honest.

But like before, none of this parsing changes the absolute validity of her point. And not just to those who go to the extremes, like the older creator who had fallen so far, but to anyone who is committing to this path. I hope I'm not doing this just for validation. I only include the "just" because I'll admit, the lack of success at 26 is getting to me [yes, this would be a good time to make fun - in writing, 26 is when you should be nowhere near success, yet I still interact fairly regularly with those younger, and more successful in the things I'm pursuing, that I want to do]. Yet I'm not quite there with the "know yourself" part, for the writing, or for the greater part of my life. And that's frightening.

Other things seem in the article I'm not so willing to embrace completely. I've never done this out of some sort of pursuit of happiness. Fundamentally, I've always seen that sort of reasoning as flawed, as though a fulfilling, exciting life can only come out of attaining this thing we call "happy." Don't get me wrong, my writing makes me happy, as much as it makes me angry, or frustrated, or sometimes even sad, but all of those reactions I'm okay with. And while I support the fundamental idea of pursuing wellness, taking care of yourself which the post heralds as some of the most important things a creative person can do [and things I will admit to at times being negligent in], I'm not sure happiness is something necessarily worth actively seeking out. If, for no other reason, than to me it always seemed like those who chased happiness the hardest rarely really find it for themselves.

There's a lot to be gotten from Doran's post [I think the not tearing others down part is so important, and I regret that I won't be touching on it here], and again, I can't encourage people enough to give it a read. And I'd encourage scouring the comments too, as even more than the post-proper I find myself caught on some of Doran's additions, further down the page:

"You don’t get to sit around and create all day. If it is that difficult to handle a day job and create on the side, there is no way you will be able to handle the creative business."

Coming out of college, I kept a pretty standard 9-to-5 retail job, for about a year. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't an environment that I could work around - this, what Doran describes here, is very much me, unable to create side-by-side while working the day job. I was on my feet all day, and when I got home, I crashed. There was no place, or no time to jot things of worth down. It wasn't like college, where things could be creatively scheduled - I was on someone's else's schedule, they expected me to a do a job, and it could pause because I had an idea, or pulled an all-night working on something.

So I've actually taken a bit of a stance that is "anti-day job," and have been "lucky" enough that my current living situation calls on me to not really take up that kind of work again, because of the necessity of me being as present here as possible. But at the same time, I have a sizable amount of debt hanging over me, and I know that I'm playing fast and loose with some aspects of my life - a certain kind of tragedy or one ill-timed bill, and the day job is an inevitability. Less inevitable, but highly possible going by my short history in retail, that could mean the end of my creative work.

As is, I'm currently struggling to balance being of assistance here at home, doing my freelance work [mostly the book reviews for Kirkus], and also making sure I have time for my writing. It's constant. It's hard. And I'd like to think if there was some success, if I suddenly had to step up and "handle the creative business" I could - because it would be something I loved, and I cared for, and my excitement and my ability would get me through. Maybe, just maybe, something about me has changed from that person before. The thought of finding out is disconcerting, because I know what kind of situations I'd have to be in. But what Doran says seems to make sense to me, and like my inability to sell myself, I fear I've come across another aspect of what I want to do that seems to have so little to do with what I love - creating, story-telling - and seems to be so outside my wheelhouse as to doom success from the beginning.

The one thing I have so long focused on, the one thing I've believed, that getting good, tearing myself down, rebuilding myself, being the best storyteller, being the best writer I could be, that would be enough for people to take notice of, to recognize, that maybe not being the case? That likely not being the case? The very idea that you can be great at something - I'm talking barn-burning, genre-busting, Ulysses-writing great - at something, and you may not be able to do that professionally isn't so much news to me, as it is just more frustrating each time I encounter it. More frustrating that it's repetition is due to it being true.

The thought that talent is not enough, that refining and perfecting your craft is not enough, it's something that I struggle with daily, because the long and short is that a mediocre story with a good salesman behind it is almost always going to beat out a great story from someone who sucks at being a shill [this neglects those who excel at both - I'm not one of them, but I've recognize them, among those I'd be hubristic enough to call peers]. And I'm not really sure how to fix that - I'm not even sure there is a fix for that. And what I am left to struggle with is the very basic concept that no matter how good I get at this thing I love, it's unlikely, maybe impossible, I'll ever actually be able to make a living off of it.

I don't know what to do with that. It overwhelms me sometimes, but I also don't view quitting as an option. Still, time and time again I seem to run into these entirely reasonable indicators that I have no business being on the field. I mean, I am a writer. It's the only thing I've ever felt the least bit of confidence saying about myself, and while I do sometimes have doubts, that still feels true, and real to me.

So I don't know. I don't know what to do with it, or if it even really matters. Again, I know I'm not keen to quit, even if these are all signs that is what I'm supposed to do. But I'm not even sure about that.

Despite the timing [no one can be blamed for my moods but me], I'd like to thank Johanna Draper Carlson for posting the links - my RSS is so backed up, it's unlikely I'd have found them if not for her calling attention to them, and her presence on Twitter. I'd also like to thank Steven R. Bissette and Colleen Doran, not just for these blog posts I've been dissecting, but also for all the stellar work they've produced over the years. I hope sincerely nothing here offends.

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