Category Archives: Art

On Patreon and capitalism. On community and artmaking.

((This is a cross-post from my Patreon page.))

Happy new year!

I did a reflection of my 2017 and posted a year-end review to my mailing list, which you can read here (and subscribe here). It includes a handy-dandy list of all the comics I put out last year and some highlights worth celebrating. As I said over there, it was a rough year to make art, to be an American citizen, to just be sometimes. And I’m proud of myself for continuing to show up here again and again.

I launched this Patreon in the middle of last year, and I continue to be humbled and inspired by the fact that you all show up here again and again — for me and for any other artists you support. It may sound like hyperbole, but I truly believe that these are tiny revolutionary acts — the action of showing up, the action of supporting artists directly, the action of giving, the action of participating in new ways of doing things. Maybe Patreon is old hat to you by now, maybe you are used to this model from NPR/podcast sponsorship drives, maybe it doesn’t feel that different to you than backing Kickstarters…but I want to acknowledge that it requires a fundamental mindset shift to pledge money to someone on a monthly basis without a set transactional promise on the other side of it.

It’s a mindset shift for all of us, right, the creators and the patrons and the supporters and the readers and the makers and the audience. And in some sense, in my worldview, we are all those things at once — or rather we all embody those different pieces of ourselves and there is a lot of fluidity as we move from behind-the-scenes to onstage to audience member in the house. Maybe that’s why it makes sense that the people who are earliest to support via Patreon or Ko-Fi or whatever the newest thing is are other artists, because these tools become familiar to them first, because they understand in their bones the idea of throwing energy (in whatever form) behind the things that energize them. The ones who are the most supportive speak this language of community-supported arts because that is the ideal they are building towards, and those are the values they are living into their own lives.

I’ve been reading Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, and have been rolling these words around in my mind. (highlights are mine)

“The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. A new context acknowledges that we have all the capacity, expertise, and resources that an alternative future requires. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging.Conversations that focus on stories about the past become a limitation to the community; ones that are teaching parables and focus on the future restore community.”

“Community occurs in part as a shift in context, the mental models we bring to our collective efforts.”

It’s these shifts in our mental models of how things could be, that are truly revolutionary.

But I have to remind myself that not everyone speaks this language yet. Just as it took me many years to build up sustainable habits to become a “green girl” and who over time stopped needing to call herself that anymore because it’s embedded into the ways she lives, it takes time to move from a transactional view of artist-as-schiller-of-physical-objects to a Gift (as in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift) view of artist-as-community-supported-emotional-conduit.

Both ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ and ‘save the planet’ might feel lofty and impossible as goals, but in practice it boils down to small steps of transforming old habits into new habits. Keep a reusable bag in your vehicle of choice for grocery runs; turn off the light when you leave a room; bring your empty water bottle through airport security. And eventually your mindset follows your actions, and you find yourself saying no to plastic bags when you can just stash whatever it is in your backpack  and looking for ways to buy less packaging at the store. Hell you even start buying less in general because mending is fun.

Likewise ‘directly support artists’ and ‘create a new(old) gift-economy’ might feel idealistic and impossible as goals, but in practice it boils down to small steps of adding new habits into your rotation of existing habits. I feel like it’s cliché at this point, but when we say, “There are so many ways to support us”…it’s true! Throwing energy behind the things that energize you creates more energy in the world. And that energy can come in many forms:

  • sharing what touches you with your own circles
  • volunteering with the crew
  • buying physical products in-person or online
  • connecting at shows and in-person events
  • generous use of tip jars
  • signing up for subscription services
  • kickstarters, patreons, ko-fi’s >> follow wherever artists go, cuz they’re following you wherever you go
  • becoming a sustaining patron
  • bringing someone a snack or offering to cover their table for 10 minutes when they’ve been sitting behind a zine fest table for hours without a break
  • making fan art/fan zines
  • showing support on your sleeve via merch
  • signing up for mailing lists and following [insert channel here] for updates, so we can get in touch when new ways to support come up
  • sending a note of appreciation
  • engaging in the conversation
  • making your own art inspired by all the art you absorb

It’s magical. When we are tapped into the flow of that energy and the interconnectedness of our communities as humans, it’s electrifying. The time that most embodied this for me from 2017 was the weekend of Long Beach Zine Fest. I not only tabled but was also asked to host a zinemaking workshop around second languages, and I watched as Dear Daughter emotionally move someone to tears. In return, I felt moved to make more art. It was a reminder of why I do the work I do, and the people I met gave me so much that weekend. A true exchange.

And to think about it in this way means it’s not one-way but multi-dimensional; it’s not all on us as creators either. It’s also on all of us as readers/audience members/consumers to contribute in multiple ways. We are all creative citizens in this ecosystem feeding the ecosystem.

It’s still easy for me as a creator to get sucked into the rabbithole of focusing on the numbers and dollar signs — the form of energy that capitalism’s taught me has the most value and meaning. For survival’s sake, I want to keep disrupting the brain patterns that value money energy over all other forms of connection. It’s why I’ve always tried to have a letter exchange or some kind of interactive activity at my zine fest tables that have nothing to do with whether you give me paper money in exchange for paper book or not.

In this interview between poets Vi Khi Nao and Jennifer S. Cheng, Vi asks: When do you feel least alive? What aspect of modern life stops you from breathing? And Jennifer answers:

“When I am in too close proximity to the capitalist/hierarchical/hegemonic machine I feel suffocated (as many do). When I have to socially perform inside this machine, my body breaks down (in the form of panic attacks).”

I think that’s what happened to me in December with this Patreon. When I reminded too much that all this idealistic striving for community happens on a platform that exists squarely within capitalism, I didn’t have a panic attack but I did freeze up and withdraw. I don’t know if y’all heard about the kerfuffle that happened with Patreon in December, but the short of it was that they decided to change their fee structure saying it was better for creators, and creators and their supporters went into an angry uproar on Twitter about it mostly because of undue impact on supporters at the $1-3 levels. This feedback did make its way up to Patreon’s team, and they decided not to update their fee structure after all.

By the time I was halfway through processing what all this meant, and how I felt about it, and wanted to write something on here about it…it was all over. (I probably would have linked to Amanda Palmer and Cory Doctorow; and mentioned that Gumroad is heading toward open source and that Ko-Fi doesn’t take any fees at all.) I think a lot of trust was shattered or lost those few weeks — and sometimes the trust between creator and audience gets tangled up in the mistrust we have for capitalistic systems…which only flair up every once in awhile (because we’re lulled into comfortable complacency most other times).

While intellectually, the whole thing resolved when they decided not to change their fee structure and I decided not to write a post here addressing it…something about the whole kerfuffle worked its way into my body. It fueled the doubts around my value as a creator — just in general, during a year where invalidation lurked behind every tweet and shadowed nearly every way of being in this world. I sort of just shut down.

I find myself feeling paralyzed still by some of these same entanglements. The co-existence of: on the one hand, the ideals of community and artmaking and blank space and co-creation that I want to explore and build and live into, and on the other hand, the ways in which these platforms are still oriented around money and art-as-business and hierarchy and one-way communication.

Writing this, I am coming to the realization that the thing I really want from this Patreon is more multi-dimensional communication. I have loved sharing time with some of you on our Zoom calls and writing circles, and I appreciate every comment or note that appears below. And maybe it is worthy of exploration moving forward as to how to engage here in ways that encourages your engagement back. I have many other channels where I speak into the void and never expect any responses (Twitter always, and more and more my newsletter too, which has been sad), and I don’t want this to become another place where I quietly shout into a void.

One fear that I have is that you’ll go away because I persist in writing so much about these meta-topics of my struggles with how to engage with this Patreon instead of just making my art and sending it to you. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that part of my art right now is wrapped up in figuring out how to live my life as an artist. Building towards the ideals I believe in and living my values into my life’s actions. And likely some or all of the above will work its way into some comic essays in the future.

So maybe I just need to talk to you, to ask you: Why are you here? What do you want from this relationship, from this community, from me? What are your favorite ways to support your favorite artists? And what has been challenging as a fan supporting artists on the wild internets? Am I expecting too much from you; maybe you’re not here for community; maybe you’re just here to receive comics in your inbox every once in awhile? Do you like reading about my thoughts on how I art? What’s been your favorite thing that’s happened here?

Feel free to comment, converse with each other in the comments, or email a reply directly to me.

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Self-care is a series of small actions

Sometimes you go looking for a book,
and other times the perfect book seems to find you.

As if some unplanned hand is guiding you to exactly what you need to read or hear in that moment.

I hadn’t planned on going to the library, but this branch was a few doors down from the lunch spot I happened upon after the hike I chose spontaneously that morning after a couple quick google searches. I wouldn’t have even been out of my house except that they were doing construction upstairs and had turned off the electricity.

I wandered around the stacks for a little while, until I happened upon the memoir section.

A chair had been pulled up alongside the shelf next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. I had heard her interview on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons”, so I plucked up the book to skim a couple pages. But I couldn’t stop. I found myself reading nearly the entire book sitting there in that chair in the library. Her writing is so clear and straightforward that it is easy to underestimate how searingly honest she is being every step of the way.

Later that same day I re-listened to that podcast episode, and when Gilbert asks her why she writes her answer is that she wants to be known. It is truly astonishing how clearly she sees and knows herself, and in presenting us with her most flawed, true, human self that, we are able to see and know ourselves in poignant, touching ways that left me reeling — but also freer.

Here are some of the important reminders from this book that I needed to hear this week:

  • We all learned to hide our bignesses starting in childhood. For the sake of the unspoken rules of the game, we are numbing and running from pain and from our “hot loneliness” (Pema Chodron’s words) when these are the very things we should be running toward. Each of our running and hiding takes different forms (food, sex, work, books, tv, money, positivity, productivity, etc.) but we know when we’re using those things to take us away and out of our very lived experiences. This pain, our loneliness, our struggles are inevitable. They are what make us human, and that means we are not alone. The ‘Journey of the Warrior’ is to stay with the journey, to stay with yourself in those moments, and to feel those things. Every crisis is an invitation to grow.
  • You oftentimes won’t have the answer. It’s not a big puzzle to be solved. All you have to do is figure out your next right action. One day at a time. It strikes me that the nuns at Nuns & Nones also talked about being able to sit still and listen and reflect and the importance of that practice in being able to discern the next right action. The way the sisters talked about it is that the root of ‘obedience’ is to listen. And whether you are talking about God, the Spirit, the Universe, or your own inner wisdom, if you are still and silent enough, that voice is clearer. It usually doesn’t tell you the answer (‘living the questions’ is more interesting anyway). But it can tell you what might be the next right action, right now. What you can do next.
  • You are loved. Just as you are. << It’s not about knowing or learning or coming to that. It’s allowing ourselves those moments when we can strip away everything else and remember that.
  • You can always find yourself home again, via your breath.

And more from the podcast re-listen, which has been so helpful. My belief in my artwork and how I spend my time has been shaky for the past 6 months, but the doubts have definitely been amplified in the past few weeks.

  • Your job is to make the thing and put it out there. Your job is not to defend it afterward, or to babysit it. Just let it go once it’s out in the world and go make more.
  • You are not unique and neither is your message, and that’s okay. That’s more than okay. The way you present it will be unique to you — and that might break through to this person whereas the way Liz Gilbert or Glennon Doyle Melton presents it might resonate with those people over there. Even if all of our messages are the same, we need the chorus of all the voices.
  • The way to grow your following is to deeply serve the following you already have. What an honor that they show up to read your words at all. Give them light.
  • Related to above point about next right actions: “Be still and know.” Listen to the voice inside. The book Love Warrior is ultimately about trusting yourself. When we say we don’t know what to do, more often we just don’t want to do the thing we know we need to do.
  • Stop deeming yourself unworthy of these invitations. Trust the inviter and show up before you’re ready.
  • Stay open / Go back in. It never ends. It’s a practice and an action.

I think my biggest mistake recently with self-care or emotional wellbeing is in believing somehow that there is a finish line. Like if I do enough therapy and read enough self-help and meditate enough and awaken enough and have enough language, that I’ll get to a point where I’ll be okay and that I will need less support then. That I might get to a point where I won’t fall apart, like ever, like ever again. Or that somehow I will have all the tools and capacities to “handle” falling apart better so that even if I fall apart, it won’t, like, affect me. But now that feels off. Because that would be like saying, I will eventually get to a point where I can stop being human. Emotional wellbeing is not an end state; it is a practice, a series of small actions that I need to take in my life to keep myself on track.

Stay open. Go back in. It never ends.

After the move, I was relying on my crutch of workaholism (in this case, working from home and making art) in order to survive. I wasn’t really present, I wasn’t really here. I tried to workaholic through the days, but when that broke under the pressures of too much doubt, I turned inward and shut down completely. I was in a zombie state, zoned out, and escaping into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which I reread in a marathon over 2 days. Sitting and reading for 10 hours straight really hecked up my neck. I realized yesterday that this was all because I was in survival mode and because none of my other support systems were in play.

“For me, I survived because of books. which doesn’t work for everyone, but you have to have something. You have to have something you care about that’s external to you and that isn’t dependent on other people, whether it’s art or music or reading or writing or a combination of the above, or knitting or running.” -Roxanne Gay, from her interview on the Rookie podcast, about how she survived the times that she was profoundly lonely and profoundly lost, those times in her life where she wasn’t sure it was going to get better.

It worked because I survived. Books have been my safe place since I was a little kid. I always prided myself in the story that I found the library the summer after second grade and proceeded to check out a pile of books every single week…but now I wonder if that’s just where I’ve been hiding and numbing all my life.

This summer, I was getting to a point of not recognizing myself. 

And it makes sense that I was running and hiding in my books — it was a very childlike response to my new schedule which mirrored childhood rhythms, alongside the reintroduction of my childhood language. I was falling apart in a new city where none of my normal support structures were in place, so I (re)turned to those old(est) habits that had always worked before. The reasons these self-care practices need to be habitualized and routinized and ritualized is because the stresses of the circumstances that cause you to need them zap you of the very energy needed to pursue them. It’s much more likely that I’ll find myself doing the physical activity that keeps me sane if I know the bike route to the climbing gym, and have biked it a million times before, and the membership is already pre-paid, and I have a routine of doing it every Tuesday and Thursday before lunch. If I find myself in a new city, trying to get used to driving again without any incentive to purchase a gym membership for the 3 short months that I am here, it makes sense that I might find myself sitting at home most days and not having moved much for an entire week…which will eventually lead to a deterioration in my mental and emotional wellbeing. And by the time your legs start to itch that they want to move and you remember in the back of your head that maybe you should go for a run or something?…you may have already built up so many unreleased stress chemicals in your body, that you feel too leaden and weighted down and heavy to even get out of bed.

(But then you get a notice that they’ll be working on the electricity upstairs and that there won’t be any power in your house, so you leave and find yourself hiking through the desert at high noon before making your way to lunch and a library and the chair that has been waiting for you next to the MEMOIR section next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s book.)

What’s hopeful and illuminating is that these support structures can be small actions, like baby steps. And that I can build them back up, one by one, for myself, into practices: find the library, bike to the store, call a friend, take out your yoga mat in the mornings and do just one something, figure out where the ice cream is, look up a hike, go for a walk, subscribe to a local mailing list, listen to that podcast which reminds me where your obsessive-curiosity lies, talk to the people who share your heart’s language, find your local book store, find your tribe…Breathe.

The small actions that I can do for myself that sends a message to my…brain/heart/soul/body/all of the above?…to my self that I matter and that I value myself and that I want to take care of me. 

I need to start infilling my life with these other pillars of care and support, so that I can get back to making art in a more carefree way.

So that it no longer has to bear the weight of serving as a lifeline and can return to being a tool for understanding and curiosity and synthesis and freedom and play.

Because of course I went to a different library today and of course I found a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which reminded me that:

  • Your art doesn’t have to save the world. In fact, when your quest with your art is to help others…as Katharine Whitehorn says “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” Write to save yourself, to heal yourself, to satisfy your own curiosities, and to follow your own fascinations.
  • “Do whatever brings you to life…The rest will take care of itself.”

 

FOOTNOTES

Becoming an Artist in 2015

In some ways, I became an Artist with a capital A in 2015. It wasn’t intentionally planned, but it’s been a long time coming. Both are true: I have been an artist my entire life, and I will struggle with being an Artist (with a capital A) for the rest of my life. It’s also not over yet. You don’t just “become” and be done with things.

As 2016 begins in earnest, I wanted to take a little time to be grateful for some of the phase-shifting experiences I had this past year.

1
While I was working in Seoul in the spring, my roommate came for a visit and booked us a temple stay at Myogaksa Temple. Upon arrival, we filled out some simple paperwork: name (Christina), age (31), country of origin (United States), occupation (designer). Upon departure, we were asked to fill in some feedback forms with a few optional fields: name (Christina), occupation (writer).

In the quiet of the weekend, I had gone from designer to writer. My roommate had gone from college administrator to yoga teacher.

Thanks roomie.

2
In the summer of 2015, I fell in love. Hard. With neofuturism. We made art babies. I wanted to tell Facebook but didn’t know how. Facebook wouldn’t have understood.

On a last-minute impulse, I attended a day-long writing workshop with the SF Neofuturists. We learned about the aesthetic (on stage: you are who you are, you are where you are, and everything you’re doing is real) and the format (30 two-minute plays each week, all written by the performers, running the gamut from comedic to political to serious to wacky experimental). We did exercises, and came up with impossible tasks, and wrote plays, and performed plays, and collaborated, and played. I was swept off my feet. Twyla Tharp talks about a creative DNA, and Jessica Abel talks about your personal creative rhythms…well, neofuturism fit me like a glove.

So on an even impulsier impulse, I ended up auditioning because I wanted to do the 2-day workshop that was callbacks. And I made callbacks! I got to spend a blissful weekend with the current cast and 12 aspiring neo’s writing and performing and playing and learning more and putting myself in the vulnerable position of being judged on the merit of my art. It was exactly like falling in love, complete with the sleepless nights, inspired energy, big smiles, obsessive thought spirals, and warmth.

Needless to say, I was more than a little heartbroken when I didn’t make it into the cast. But I did make some amazing new friends, and my lessons from the auditions led me to dive into so many other fun new adventures during the remainder of the year: dance and improv and finding my voice and taking up space and seeing my creative work in a new light. I can’t really say I regret any of it, not even the no.

And like all love, it spread. It spread to infect my brother (who took a workshop when the NY Neo’s visited during Out of Bounds Fest) and all the friends or dates I’ve been able to expose to their first experience of “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” If you haven’t already checked out the show and you live in Chicago or SF or NY…Go. Enjoy. Art.

Thanks Norna: for telling me about TMLMTBGB. Thanks Donna + Ahran + William: for experiencing that first show with me. And thank you Neo’s: old, new, and aspiring.

3
I’ve been making comics for awhile now, more seriously for the past 2-3 years, squirreling them away on a secret tumblr, experimenting, freaking out when my brother posted one to Facebook and asking him to take it down. I wasn’t ready yet. They weren’t ready yet. No one could read them yet. Even after I started letting people read them here and there, I called them visual essays for a long time. I didn’t think people would get it (them)(me).

2015 was the year I came out of the comics closet. 2015 was the year I let people read my comics in earnest. 2015 was the year I actively started telling people to “Hey! Go read my comics!” 2015 was the year I started sharing new ones on all my social media channels. Even Facebook! 2015 was the year I made a public site for my comics. 2015 was the year I (eventually) linked to them from my main hub at sodelightful.com. 2015 was the year I started a newsletter, and serialized a comic, and connected with readers for 8 Sunday evenings in a row. 2015 was the year I printed little books and sold them at a real-life legit Zine Fest and on consignment at a real-life local brick-and-mortar store.

2015 was the year I connected with new readers and deepened connections with old friends and started hearing from people that my comics had moved them. It’s all too easy in our data-filled lives to obsess over stats, pageviews, subscriber counts, but those numbers do not tell the full story of the “hidden effects of our work.” That is why I am so grateful for every small note anyone has sent my way. Putting the work out there is vulnerable and scary and hard (every single time, it’s hard). So to hear that they’ve connected with someone or resonated with their experiences or helped somebody feel something they needed to feel…well, that is why we Art.

Thanks Michelle and Donna for Zine Festing with me. Thanks friends who have supported and encouraged me along the way. Thanks Xerox machines for still existing within big box office supply stores.

Most of all, thank you, readers. <3

4
And not trivially, 2015 was also the year I did all of the inner work that was required to be able to make and finish Release and Aging and Closets. Still working, still practicing, still struggling with the same old stuff, but lemme tell ya…that’s some major leveling up in that them pages there.

If you’ve been along for the journey, you know who you are. Thanks. (Even if you were one of the people who were sent into my life as a trigger for change and didn’t necessarily know your role in the journey…thank you. Actually, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.)

5
This last one is so new, it’s still unprocessed, so I won’t write much. But I had the incredible good fortune and honor to spend the last few days of 2015 in Yosemite National Park with a tribe of people who are all self-proclaimed explorers and adventurers and wonder-seekers and wonder-makers and storytellers and experience designers (in the IRL sense of the word). And it feels as phase-shifting as my stint with the Neo’s. My eyes are opened, my inspiration is fueled, and my connection-meter is glowing.

So thank you explorers for showing me what ‘wonder-ful’ truly means.

6
I am SO looking forward to 2016! Stay tuned!!!

Brainpicker: “I write for me.”

I wrote this Thursday, April 10th…and then never posted it! Ironic, considering its contents. Here it is.

My biggest personal takeaway from the conversation with Maria Popova, AKA the force behind Brainpickings (at the Hattery) was her insistence that she writes for herself, and that her blog is for her and not for us. It is a catalogue of her becoming and the process of her learning. She posts what she finds interesting, what makes her feel alive and the things that make her feel like life is worth living. She posts the things that make her feel smarter and dumber at the same time—the things that make her realize how tiny a part of the universe she is, and yet that much bigger for having understood and digested something wonderful. That gasp of understanding.

It makes pitching your project to her useless, since changing the framing of the thing doesn’t change the substance, and she’ll only post the substance that she finds interesting.

It means she was super broke the first 4-5 years of Brainpickings, eating oatmeal and tuna every meal. She didn’t make Brainpickings to make a living; it was a by-product and not the objective. It felt important to her life at the time, and that’s why she was doing it.

“I write for me,” she said more than once over the course of the evening.

She also mentioned that one of her favorite books is Alice in Wonderland (her other favorite is The Little Prince), and one of the last questions of the evening was why Alice? She recounts the part where the Mock Turtle says “The master was an old Turtle…We called him Tortoise because he taught us.” Maria’s takeaway from this was that we tend to hear what we need to hear based on what we are seeking.

And tonight I needed to re-affirm for myself the belief that artists need to create for themselves and no one else. Worrying about audience or monetization or the medium before the message are all paths to paralysis.

I’ve been fighting “shame gremlins” for the past few months (to use Brené Brown’s language) about my own creative output. I’ve been stifling my own creative energies — haven’t been writing, haven’t been making comics, haven’t been taking photos. And Brené Brown’s research has shown that unused creativity is not neutral—it metastatizes and turns into negativity, resentment, shame.

What has been stopping me from creating? I’ve been paralyzed: worried about audience and caring too much about whether other people care about what I have to write and say. Questioning the worthiness of my own voice in an age inundated with everyone’s voices.

Social media can seem overwhelming these days because everyone may seem like they’re on their soapboxes. My theory is that it’s because a lot of people are posting with ulterior motives instead of from a place of sharing something they’ve created as part of living the life of meaning that they are meant to be living.

Now, that doesn’t mean we always have to be “pure” in our artistic intentions either. That’s unrealistic. Living a life of meaning and making a living are not mutually exclusive. I just think we can tell the difference. We connect more when people are putting work out there that genuinely comes from the space of, “I do this for me.” (Example: Humans of New York creator, who stuck with it through the lonely phases because he “was obsessed.”)

I know I feel it when I’m jiving, when I’m in the zone, when I’m following my gut, when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, when my actions are aligned with the universe’s path for me. Just gotta practice following that more.

Jonathan Harris’s Creative Mornings Talk

A few of you know that Jonathan Harris is one of my professional crushes. I’ve known him for his projects like We Feel Fine and Whale Hunt, and I received his daily photos and stories in my inbox the year+ he was working on Today. I admired his ability to craft data and code to tell stories and craft experiences. At IdeaMensch, Shivani Siroya talked about the fact that one is only able to “connect the dots” of one’s life in hindsight, and Harris uses his Creative Mornings talk to do just that: to reflect on the big ideas (Paint, Data, Life, Me, Tools) that have driven his work along the way, the promises they promised, and the shortcomings they cost.

Now I better understand his trajectory.
And why the vulnerability of physical art led him to data,
whose superficiality led him to chasing intense life experiences,
whose limited scale and depth led him to recording his internal life,
whose constant documentation hindered actually living,
which refocused him on building tools–software that engineers our lives & habits & cultures, that change our behavior, that exaggerate our urges, that give us our new normals.

His new company, Cowbird, has been designed to counteract the trends he’s been seeing in the way tech has shaped our lives:

He also talks about the need for people working in tech to start thinking about ethics because software are our testing grounds before the technological interventions start merging with our bodies.

Is your company Healing (solving a problem, fulfilling a need, marketplaces connecting people to other people) or Dealing (attention economies, convincing people to spend a lot of time here, using people and their info as currency)?

And in the most refreshing way, he wraps up his talk with a story about turning Cowbird into a company–being on the treadmill, being in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who were all starting their own companies, raising rounds of money…and then pausing, reflecting, realizing this isn’t what he wanted to do, that it wasn’t what was right for Cowbird, and stepping off that path. Cowbird will remain small, they didn’t take the seed rounds, they will figure out how to make some money in the near future without ads, and they will let it grow organically. Allowing this project to teach him and lead him and evolve him as a person–just as he has always done.

Ray Bradbury says: surprise yourself

I posted Neil Gaiman’s speech for artists. Here Ray Bradbury’s speaks to anyone who writes. As expected, both creators value failure and learning from failure. Bradbury counsels young writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories instead of one long novel because it’s a waste to write one bad (unfinished) novel when you could have 52 short stories instead—and all of ’em can’t be bad.

Three themes stick with me from Bradbury’s meandering talk:

One is “live in the library.” Stuff your head with the best fodder, so you may find the right metaphors. (Synthesis!) “I want your loves to be multiple!”

Two is when he says to write with joy, to write for fun.  “Writing is not serious business.” To his mind, writer’s block is when your subconscious knows you’re choosing the wrong subject, that you’re not writing for yourself, that you’re not writing truly. (Brenda Ueland has a thing or two to say about that as well.) He turned down screenplay offers for lots of money because the subject matters didn’t interest him, because he knew he would get blocked right away, because he knew it’d be bad for him to take the money.

Three is surprise yourself. Keep writing, and let yourself be surprised—by your writing and by life. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

[Via this post, which also outlines Bradbury’s advice for writers]

Creativity takes quiet, solitude, slowness

I have a few projects I’m working on right now. One small project is pure graphic design of existing information-heavy content, with precedent and brand standards to work off of. A second larger project includes all new content creation, design of the format and presentation of that information, plus graphic design. Though my main focus was on the latter last week, I was feeling unproductive. I would procrastinate by working on the smaller project or by running errands or by doing dishes. Whenever I sat down to my larger project, I would scroll up and down the outline I had created, tweaking  a sentence here or there, without adding much and without much inspiration.

The well-worn fears cropped up: of not being able to perform, of not meeting my deadline, of not being up for the job, of not being up for any job. I was lazy, I was unfocused, I wasn’t cut out for an 8-hour workday. (Basically, this guy.) None of that is true; it’s all in my head.

And I’m beginning to understand how to deal with the discomfort that comes from uncertainty. Nearly all creative work worth doing comes with discomfort* and uncertainty.

I’m reading If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. (And when she talks of writing, she encourages you to substitute any endeavor or craft or cause which you care deeply about.) It’s revelatory because it’s making me appreciate that service design, interaction design, and program development are just as much creativity problems as visual design problems are. It’s also revelatory because I’m finally making all the connections between all these talks, ideas, and readings I’ve accumulated over the years — and seeing their application in my life in a tangible, doable way. (Which also means this post has lotsa footnotes.)

The basic premise of Brenda Ueland’s chapters are not that earth-shattering in and of themselves. She sets out to prove that everyone is creative, and that we can all open our lives to creativity. She talks about the time and space that creativity need to flourish. This is the opposite of our habitually rushed, productivity-obsessed, goal-driven lives.

Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong…that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: “I am not creative.” They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination: it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by someone else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frighteningly sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine.

…you see the imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.

Of course, ideas and creativity take time, sometimes a lot of time. That time of marination, of non-productivity, of seeming idleness always makes me anxious. I start to think something is wrong with me when I am trying (trying ever so hard, mind you) to work an 8-hour day, and nothing productive has come out of it. But of course creating new content and synthesizing new ideas takes moodling, takes time, takes solitude. And I shouldn’t freak out, fear I’ve nothing to offer, and escape into my Google Reader to calm those fears because this destroys the environment in which new ideas flourish. Instead of staying with myself, with my discomfort, with the present, I go off into places (like Facebook or web comics or email) where I am surrounded by chatter and thrown into the future or past and distracted by other’s stories or their needs of me.

Meditation is actually really good practice for staying in the present, with any discomfort, with myself. I have trained myself to multi-task, to distract myself from uncomfortable emotions, and I am actually very good at these things. So I need to unlearn them bit by bit. I need to train myself to be present and quiet and still and okay with the anxious times when nothing is coming but moodling. I need to train myself to not automatically beat up on myself when it’s just part of the creative process. “You learn to make friends with yourself”–that’s what someone once told me about meditation. I only started to get interested in meditation as a practice this past fall during my sabbatical, and I don’t have a current regular practice, and it’s still very hard for me…but the seeds are all there. The awareness, the presentness, the release, the reminder to breathe, and the intention-setting are always there, available to me whenever I need it or want it.**

And again I tell you this because I want to show you that the creative impulse is quiet, quiet. It sees, it feels, it quietly hears; and now, in the present.

When the idleness and the fears arise, I should accept them as part of the creative process. I should quiet the fears (“Shh, I’m working”) and keep working, a verb Ueland distinguishes from grinding. Grinding means to repeat and refine something over and over again, polishing it to death.

I tell you this so that you will stop thinking of the creative power as nervous and effortful; in fact it can be frightened away by nervous straining. So never bother to grind. Just try to understand something for the time. If you don’t, go on to the next. For if you understand the second or third thing, you will suddenly understand the first.

Working means to be really present, in the moment, open to new ideas, not straining, and continually producing new work without judgment—bolder and braver and more free.

Working always means showing up.*** But it may take different forms at different times. Working may mean sitting at the computer and thinking and being okay with a blank screen. Working may mean creating something new to gain understanding on something old. Working may mean letting the problem go for now and going for a long walk (with absolutely no goal in mind).

I learned from [my students] that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.

I am learning, I am working, I am practicing letting go and staying present.

Of course, I have made more progress this week on that larger project–and it’s because I let myself moodle guilt-free last week.

[Notes]

*John Cleese gave a great lecture about creativity and the 5 factors you need to cultivate creativity in your life: Space, Time, Time, Confidence, and Humor. He also acknowledges that people who are able to tolerate and prolong the discomfort and uncertainty of not knowing the answer yet…they end up with more creative ideas. It’s a funny and insightful speech, so watch it if you’ve got some time, eh? (Hey, look, Brainpicker also links Jonah Lehrer’s ideas about the importance of frustration and disappointment during the creative process.)

**Pema Chodrön or Tara Brach are good starting places if you’re curious about meditation. They offer very human introductions. Listen to one of Pema Chodrön’s talks or interviews if you can. Or jump in and try a guided meditation from Tara Brach’s site.

***Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit offers stories, tips, and exercises for setting up habits that allow creativity to thrive in your life. And Elizabeth Gilbert gave a whole TED talk about showing up.