Plus ça change — except they really do

Good nails, not great much else
Good nails, not great much else

This photo is a year old, which means that last year right now I was also sick with Whatever Is Going Around. The timing is awesome (well, extra awesome) because despite earlier reports, the coldest day of the season is actually going to be this weekend, with polar vortex-esque temperatures and all that attendant fun. My decade-plus in Chicago has prepared me well for this terrible time, but it’s sort of a no-brainer solution: hiding in my apartment, chugging down tea and cold medicine, paying huge tips to delivery guys if for some reason I run out of food.

Well, you say to yourself, this could be all right. You’ve run out of Parks & Rec on Netflix and you could really use this time to focus on self-improvement fun. This is always true! I keep having books I could read for pleasure, food-and-travel shows I could bask in and Hamilton songs to finally learn. I have a lot of practice in all those things. I’m an expert in many kinds of loafing.

Except here’s the thing. Last week I finished up Summer Pierre’s online comics-making course. Short version: It was wonderful. Making comics with no pressure to be perfect, surprise surprise, makes it so much easier to get in there and actually make comics. Can’t recommend the course enough, it starts again in April, you should definitely do it if you’re curious but think you can’t. It has nothing to do with drawing ability, just a desire to do it.

That’s actually really good for me to relearn. See — surprise, surprise — I’m a lifelong perfectionist. I keep forgetting that everyone is a beginner at some point, and that you get good at things by experimenting and practicing, not by doing it really well out of thin air or panicking if it’s something you have to work at. Somehow this is not obvious to me, but luckily my therapist is very patient about it. Summer’s comics course is wonderful because she insists on using the most low-stakes materials right out of the gate — some index cards, two pens and a cheap composition notebook for drawing in (so you don’t get caught up in the fear of ruining the pristine perfection of a brand-new fancy blank sketchbook — how did you know, Summer? it me!). That’s it. You just throw yourself into it and don’t give yourself the time to get caught up in your head.

My favorite for practice is the list comic (see also: Nine TV Shows I Love to Rewatch, Nine Things I Miss About Chicago). If I accidentally leave a page blank in my daily planner, it’s just the right size for a simple grid of nine and either organizing some organizables or observing what’s around you. I used to draw all the time as a kid, and I probably fell out of it because I didn’t think I could catch up to the people who were really good, even though every other class I’ve ever taken post-college — singing, social dancing, improv — has been about embracing your beginner status and rejecting the idea that you’re “bad” at anything you don’t know how to do.

One of the amazing things about Tumblr, probably my favorite time-waster, is getting to see all kinds of incredible art all the time. I really love it when these artists share progress updates — this is how far I’ve come in a year. If you just discovered me, I’ve been growing a lot, and you can too!

I want to make comics a habit. It’s an art form that’s excited me my whole life, and actually sitting down to try it, to experiment with visual language and challenge myself to use fewer words, is exhilarating, actually. Getting stale is the worst. Trying new things is great. So, without revealing too much about the process (take the class!), here’s the rough draft of the final, real, nine-panel comics story that I made, with thanks to Virgie Tovar and Agent Carter:

Her name is Merle Van Der Ellis, and she’s a fashion designer. At least, she started out that way. Turns out I made some discoveries when asked to play around with her. My improv teachers would be so proud!

And here’s what happened when I sat down, smoothed it all out and… actually made a comic, ohmygod:


I know I’ve literally blogged before about how buying art supplies will not make me an artist, but I’m not going to lie: Yesterday I went to Dick Blick and bought some slightly heavier drawing paper, because printer paper was making me nervous about erasing too much and I have all kinds of things I want to keep making and trying. I resisted all the gorgeous pens and colored pencils, but the notepad, I think that’s a good present to myself.

(Sidebar, for real: Summer’s class is a great present to yourself. She’s warm, welcoming and so, so good at what she does. I’ve been admiring her from afar ever since her book The Artist in the Office saved me at my first desk job, and I’m so glad to have gotten to learn from her and my amazing fellow classmates. She makes comics so accessible! Look at me — Miss Perfectionist central, and I’m all ready to keep scribbling and developing my style and skills. Like a beginner. Which is a pretty good place to be.)

This item will give you talent!

One day, all this could be yours.

Most of the tabs I have open right now are for drafting tables. I am not allowed to have one, but I can’t stop myself. Looking at drafting tables gives me wild, extravagant dreams of using drafting tables, and these days I have one ambition above all: I want to draw comics.

Not just any comic. I want the comic that is the movie I will never get to make. I want the comic about Telemachos, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who I feel has always gotten short shrift from others who love the Odyssey. I can see it all now: it’ll be so good! Gunnerkrigg Court good! Dare I say it? Sandman good! I have devoted years of my life to this story already, and maybe, just maybe, having all the stuff one uses to make a comic will enable me to churn it out myself.

There’s a snag, of course. I have no experience either writing or drawing comics, and supplies do not an artist make. Not all is lost, though. I do have one thing on my side: I love this story more than I can possibly say, and I think loving the story will compel me to learn how to tell it in a new medium.

When I think about it, this has already been the case in my life. I was introduced to the Odyssey when I was 7 years old. We were on a family car trip, and my mom got the audiobook from the library. I was enthralled from the get-go. The Odyssey is an oral poem, meant to be heard more than read, and I was introduced in the best possible way. When we got to the end of the tapes, I promptly asked to hear the first cassette again. I wound up renewing the audiobook so much that the Athens Public Library banned me from borrowing it, and my parents had to buy it for me.

Some fruits of a lifelong habit

Two things happened. I began seeking out other books related to Homeric epics and Greek myth, and I began writing my own related stories. Hardly a day passed when I didn’t have my nose in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or Black Ships Before Troy or The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on the Iliad. This last I must have read two or three times a year from the time I was 8 until I was a teen. Meanwhile, I was working on my first chapter book. I had been writing little stories since I could type, and making them up since I was much younger. Theatride’s Odyssey was my own sequel, in which the goddess Athena gives a long-lost daughter of Odysseus a magic ring. The ring enables Theatride to turn into any animal she wants, and will aid her in her quest to defeat a far-off tyrant.

I was devoted to that story. I kept a notebook where I jotted out plot ideas and scenes and characters. I wrote it out longhand and then typed it on a typewriter, to make it more official. I even provided a few illustrations. The whole thing lived in a crisp new folder specifically for the story. It wasn’t short, either — by the time I finished it, I think I had twenty-five double-sided sheets. I’ve been writing epics ever since. (Somewhere on an old Macintosh Performa may also be my attempt at epic poetry, a Redwall-style story called Lilywood. The prose stuck more than the poetry, but it was also a direct attempt to mimic Homeric texts.)

The Odyssey was also my gateway into academia. It’s the reason I got into my major at school (we called them concentrations), and I wrote my junior paper, the equivalent of a senior thesis, on Telemachos and why he is both a worthy successor to Odysseus and his own person within the poem. My junior paper remains the hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece of nonfiction. I had never bothered as much as I should have with things like revisions and multiple drafts, so on a technical level, my advisor demanded much more than me just coasting by. Trying to please her made my writing much better, but it was in conversation with her that I truly learned how to analyze and argue. I remain incredibly proud of my junior paper. As I reread it recently, I found myself missing that kind of rigorous engagement. If Homer becomes the reason I go to graduate school, I will laugh.

Telemachos gets me where I live. His story has always been the one that’s moved me most. Odysseus and Penelope may speak to me more when I’m older, but Telemachos is the child of two famous parents who has yet to define himself. He must take control of his actions and his place in society, and he must leave home to do it. Over the course of the poem, we watch him grow up tremendously, and when the poem ends, he is faced with enormous ethical and political questions, not to mention adjusting to a life with his absent father at home. There is nothing dull about him to me, and I am champing at the bit to share that with other people.

Two weeks ago, I wasn’t nearly this passionate. But, as the Homeric poet might say, the god intervened. As I was walking up Broadway with a friend, I spotted the spine of a familiar book on a sidewalk sale cart. It was The Firebrand, which I hadn’t read since I was 12 or 13. I had exact cash in my wallet. I was doomed from the start.

Communing with my childhood

Rereading The Firebrand has been an experience, and a story for another time. I still see why I loved it, and I also catch things that went over my head as a kid. This was the first time I’d encountered a transformative account of the Trojan War, one that didn’t take all the heroics and myth at face value. Achilles is a petulant, amoral brat; Odysseus is a low-class pirate; centaurs are just wild men on horses, and women rule their city-states as Queens with upstart consorts. Our narrator is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, whose prophesies of disaster always come true and are never heeded.

At one point, Odysseus relates how he was conscripted into war against Troy. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae himself, came to Ithaka to fetch him. Rather than leave his wife and young son for a war he wanted no part of, Odysseus feigned madness. He dressed in rags, harnessed an ox and began plowing a field in crooked, erratic lines. Agamemnon was brought to see proof of Odysseus’s unfitness for himself. But he was no fool either: he scooped up toddler Telemachos and set him in the path of his father’s ox. Odysseus had no choice but to swerve, proving him sound of mind. He left for Troy that very day.

Wow, I thought as I read this, what an opening shot. It was totally involuntary. That was the moment it seized me, this need to make this story into a comic, which wouldn’t require all that a filmed version would. The next weekend I found myself in a Border’s liquidation sale, shelling out for huge sketchbooks and a truly lucky find, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, a fabulous textbook for a comics-making course. It’s reading through this that’s made me want a drafting table. I’m dreaming now of t-squares and Ames Lettering Guides. But I’m holding myself back, and not just because I need that money to eat and do laundry.

There’s no sense in buying all the supplies before I know I’m going to use them. I hope this isn’t just a flash in the pan, but I have to earn these things with a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes before I invest in them. Even the storytelling, something I have a lot of practice doing, will need some adjusting as I figure out this new form. If I can make drawing and lettering and panels and ink a regular part of my life, if it becomes something I will do consistently, then maybe we can talk materials. First step: closing these tabs and breaking out some pencils.

I’ve got this, though, cheesy as it might sound. I love this story. Hopefully, when I’m finished, so might you.

July 10, 2034

I Have a Great Imaginary Life But Sometimes I Need Things to Happen for RealOne of my dearest friends recently posted a meme that started, in its present iteration, with author Catherynne M. Valente: List 25 Things I Want Before I’m 50. I saw Cat’s list (which seems to be gone now, or at least no longer public), with some of her items already crossed off or progressing, and felt very insecure and unaccomplished. Seeing my friend’s list made me want to do it. Maybe it’s easier not to quail when your friends share extravagant dreams, and maybe it’s more thrilling watching someone you know be so deliciously ambitious.

I’m sure this is a twentysomething thing, but I have many days where I can’t shake the feeling that, even as I push and act and do, I’m still waiting for something to start. My list seems full of novice things, and there are days when I wilt, comparing my life to others’. Of course, one of my most salient, obvious features is being terrifically hard on myself. Clearly one of my less concrete goals is to shed that tendency as much as I can.

Putting this list together was hard. I am not good at planning for the future, and never have been. The exercise was a good one, though, because I began to see patterns in the things I want for myself. All my angst about finding a career especially becomes a little funnier, because it’s obvious to me that I have a career: it’s just one that’s tremendously hard to get hired for, in effect. My career is storytelling. It’s my day job that I need to solidify.

These are in no particular order, other than the first one.

  1. Be widely read. Get published. Do the work and finish things and share them. Make art. Tell stories. Engage with people. Maybe inspire some of them. This is the Thing I Have Wanted virtually my entire life. It’s a little uncomfortable and strange to be so brazen about it, but of all my ambitions, this one is the foundation. I want to talk to people about the world, and I want to do it with art.
  2. Develop musical talent. Learn to sing for real. Play instruments again. When I was a kid, I played piano, oboe and bassoon, and I always loved singing. I miss that, and now that I have a better idea of my tastes (this item could have read “Learn to be Neko Case”), I have a better idea of what to pursue. Someday, Old Town School of Folk Music. Someday soon.
  3. Own custom-built vintage-inspired clothing. I love lines in fashion. I love how clothing of a certain era is both feminine and strong. People often tell me I should have been born for anytime between the ’20s and the ’50s. Personally, I’ll stick with contemporary civil rights, modern medicine and the internet, but oh, do I love those looks. I’m tall, 5’10”, so period clothing rarely fits me. But reproduction designs are becoming more available, and I like the future very much.
  4. Spend a significant amount of time traveling abroad. Take a year and just go. Optimally, before grad school. Leave no room for regrets. There’s so much I want to see, I can’t even begin to get into specifics.
  5. Own a dog. Be a responsible dog owner. I grew up with a basset hound, and before that had wanted a dog almost from the time I knew what they were. It’s a constant longing. I just love dogs.
  6. The Great American Road Trip, at least part of it by train. I’ve done a little of this, and it’s always been the highlight of my year. In 2006, I took the California Zephyr from Oakland to Chicago, and I fell completely in love. (Did you know Amtrak makes a great hamburger, by the way?) In 2007, I outran winter that February and headed south, into Georgia and the Carolinas, and it gave me what I needed to get out of Ohio and move to Chicago. I need more Great American Road Trips, even if they’re only a week at a time.
  7. Take photography classes. I love my camera. I love taking pictures. I would love to be able to justify one of those gorgeous DSLR cameras and get really inventive and attentive.
  8. Take acting classes. I’m not a Theater Person, who lives and breathes the theater and who can devote myself to the stage the way that life requires, but I love acting. I also think, like improv, it would challenge me as a human being, and I think that would help me in a lot of areas of my life.
  9. Find a career. Figure out what to do and how to do it. Go to grad school. As soon as I articulate to myself how I can go to grad school in being Studs Terkel, I will be set.
  10. Be more bodily active. I have a love-hate relationship with sports. There’s some measure of snobbery and shame that I need to overcome, leftover from public school, because I surprise myself with aggression from time to time, and I clearly need an outlet for that. Kickboxing, biking and roller derby all sound kind of amazing to me.
  11. Have a family. It interests me how far down the list I put this, or rather how comfortable I am with bringing it up. I want to be putting kids through college when I’m 50, or at least working up to it. But yes, I do, in fact, want to marry and reproduce. I don’t think it’s inconsistent with any of these other wants.
  12. Live abroad? My ambivalence on this one is also interesting to me. It’s certainly, at this point, more important that I get to move and travel, rather that live somewhere else. I wouldn’t mind it, though. I think I just have to be sure of the circumstances.
  13. Write that book. The nonfiction one, about transformation and war and a few other things.
  14. Have a hand in making a movie. Or a TV series. The most consistently good filmed entertainment is in TV these days. I think it’s more suited to my love of long stories too. My only problem is I don’t think I could bear living in Los Angeles.
  15. Do something drastic with my hair. Cutting it, dyeing it, whatever: I want to challenge myself and try something new and less safe.
  16. Have a writer’s circle that meets in person. Whether this means we’re all local and meet once a week, or whether we communicate online and get together once a year, I would love to have that, a small community of people I trust who want to tell stories as much as I do.
  17. Collaborate more. I am a bit of a control freak, and have not entirely learned how to do collaborative creative projects. I am intensely envious of those who can, whether it be co-writing a story or creating a comic with an artist or doing something amazing and multi-media. I would love to create things in conjunction with other creative people. I think improv gives me a taste of that, and I’d like to branch out.
  18. Lose my fear of bullies. Speak out more and earlier. This is a lifelong thing of mine. I imagine I will write about them a lot, as practice.
  19. Have a greenhouse. And a garden. Alternately, acquire discipline and a green thumb.
  20. Have a rural space I can always come back to. I grew up in Appalachia, and I miss it, dearly. I also have something of a desire to live there again, even given how much I love cities. I’ve seen what it can do, and I know what I get out of it. Someday, hills, I’m coming home.
  21. Learn to dance. Especially swing. I would really love to get out of my head about dancing, because while I’ve long convinced myself that I am awkward and possessed of two left feet, I think I really just need to not be so self-conscious. I also have a secret desire to be part of a group with a dress code and an ethos, inasmuch as you dress up for swing dancing. See #3 for more.
  22. Sort out the place of religion in my life. I’ve been an atheist since I was 4 and realized that Genesis had left out the dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. I am also Jewish, and I consider that a very important part of myself and my family. The atheism and the Judaism are far from mutually exclusive, which is one of the things I love about it. As it turns out, I have opinions on what services should be like, and I would like to find a community I’m comfortable in, even if it’s just for the holidays. (Trust me, no one was more surprised than I was.) So far, no dice, though I haven’t been looking like I could be.
  23. Give. Be secure enough to support the causes I love financially. One of the hazards of working in nonprofits, I guess, is being impressed on the importance of giving. I would love to be a consistent, change-effecting donor.
  24. Be a better correspondent. How much I stay in touch with someone is never any measure of how I feel about them. I love many people dearly that I utterly fail at communicating with on a regular basis, and it eats at me. I never quite know what to say, especially if the silence has been long. I need to get over that, and to make it not be a problem in the first place.
  25. Go whale-watching. The oldest want of all.

A few times, I was tempted to be more whimsical. “Screw world travel!” I thought at one point. “When I’m 50, I want to have gone into space!” A few other times, I thought, “Oh my god, I am only 23 and a half years away from my 50th birthday, I am running out of time.” In both of those instances, I had to stop and laugh. Somewhere on a writing blog, I read a reminder that the Sears Tower was built by lots of little actions, lots of individual bolts and rivets going into lots of smaller pieces of steel. It didn’t happen all at once, but it was accomplished, because of many actions that seemed too small to matter. As someone who works in the Loop close by, I can appreciate the weight of that analogy.

I’m glad I have this list now. I’m looking forward to coming back, maybe revisiting in a year, and crossing a few things off.

Hippos are allergic to magic and other true facts

Friends, I have painted my fingers and toes a deep, sparkly purple. I am ready for anything.

This may become a regular feature of Magpie & Whale — we’ll see if it happens with the same frequency it did this week in future weeks! But once I posted about the need for play, all of a sudden I felt like I saw it everywhere. First it was on the Huffington Post (The Key to Happiness: A Taboo for Adults?), then I rediscovered an Etsy blog post (Fearless Creativity) I had meant to post elsewhere, and then I was pointed by several sources to Make Something Every Day, which is a fantastic idea. Clearly there’s something in the air. (Other than an inspiring young year, that is.)

But this week’s real winner is the little French girl qui a beaucoup d’imagination. This kid is perfect and amazing, guys. This is what unfettered story-play looks like. Let’s hope she never loses it!