Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Harvest

The last time I wrote on this blog was around Spring Equinox. Now it’s nearly Fall Equinox, which feels like a poetically appropriate fallow period.

It turns out I have a lot going on in the next few weeks. Seeds that I planted a long time ago are coming to harvest. I have three new comics coming out this fall! I’ll bring them to two shows! My goodness. Like suddenly finding myself overrun with gorgeous carrots, I am a bit surprised, even though I’ve been nurturing both the comics and the carrots along all summer. Raised beds helped with the carrots. A GAP grant from Artist Trust helped with the comics.

Here’s a sneak peek:

Coyote and Butterfly Woman // art by Noel Franklin

WA state ID for Coyote

This is a good example of Noel’s attention to detail.

Luminous artist Noel Franklin draws this tale of the Nez Perce Coyote coming to Seattle and encountering the murderous Butterfly Woman. A trickster tale for modern times. You can buy her other comics on her Etsy.

 

Shorbat Rumman // art by Ted Closson

A tale from The Arabian Nights, retold with Iraqi immigrants in Portland… Food trucks, family, and intrigue. Drawn by acclaimed artist Ted Closson. To check out Ted’s work, take a look at his website or pick up a copy of Beyond, the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Anthology. Beyond won a Lambda Award and was nominated for an Ignatz Award.

Cover for Shorbat Rumman: title and two steaming bowls of soup with spoons

The Old Lady’s Skin // art by Ben Horak

comic panel by Ben Horak

Here’s a taste!

Ben Horak and I, who have collaborated in the past, are producing another comic. I like working with Ben because whenever I find a particularly bizarro tale (like this one, which has an old lady skin suit as a plot point), I know I can get Ben to draw it.

This comic is a retelling of one of the more bizarre tales from the already weird collection Italian Fairy Tales retold by Italo Calvino. This tale puts a…old lady flesh suit-y twist on the “I love you as much as salt” tale, which is also the plot of King Lear. Yep, Shakespeare retold fairy tales, too. Hoorah.

 

You can buy these comics from my at Short Run in Seattle on November 5, 2016.  You can also, if all goes well, buy all of these from me at New York Comic Con in October, where I’ll be tabling alongside Mikeatron! at table C7. Whichever coast you’re on, come say hi!

Also, this is my literal harvest. Those purple carrots are delish.

Also, this is my literal harvest. Those purple carrots are delish.

Sow What You Plant

Or, some ways that being a freelance writer is a lot like gardening.

image: raised garden beds and containers in a front yard near a street

My actual vegetable garden. Definitely not my freelance writing career.

But, like, high stakes gardening where you don’t have a grocery store, so what you sow is what you harvest, and that’s both what you eat and where you get your money from.

And maybe you can do some trading with other farmers so you don’t have to, like, raise a cow if you were really just trying to focus on vegetable gardening. And sometimes you have a pretty well-balanced garden, but sometimes you’re like, hey, I have zucchini…and…zucchini. And then people are like “do you know how many people in this town have zucchini? I could definitely find someone to sell it cheaper than you’re offering.” But then, you can’t lower the price of your zucchini or give it away for free, even if people are like “but I’ll give your zucchini to such a big audience! It’ll be great exposure!”

image: zucchini growing in a gardenAnd in general you have to remember to do succession plantings or else your crops will all ripen at once and you’ll have like two hectic weeks where you make a ton of money, and then a huge dry spell where you have to wait for the new seeds to grow. And you have to pay attention to your garden every day or else some connections will run dry and some of your crops will die out, and you’ll have to plant them all over again. You have to pay attention to your garden every day. Weekends? What are weekends? Plants don’t recognize weekends.

And the thing is, you only have so much time and space to garden, and even if you have extra seeds, there is only so much space for them to grow. When your beds are full, they’re full! And if you’ve chosen to grow something that’s not a particularly good crop, or a crop that takes up a lot of space for a low yield, then that’s what you’re stuck with, and that’s the money you’re going to make.

And there are definitely seasons: sometimes some crops just don’t grow as well. There’s usually something you can grow to make it through, but sometimes taking care of the garden will take just a little bit of time and then you have a whole bunch of extra time on your hands to plan the next season or to feel a sense of existential guilt because your career path doesn’t look Normal. Sometimes everything is ripening at once, and you’re run off your feet.

And you’ve got to make sure that you’re talking to plenty of people around town who have a keen interest in vegetables. Sometimes you get a gig with some bigger institution like a restaurant, which is great because they’ll order a lot of vegetables from you. But sometimes you’re selling veggies to individual people.

Some lucky people have made this CSA site called Patreon work out for them, but you’ve got to be a specific kind of gardening operation for that to work.

 

Anyway I was going to write about freelance writing, but whatever.

On the Nature of the Soul, and Writing

I’ve been rapping for about seventeen years, okay? I don’t write my stuff anymore, I just kick it from my head, y’know what I’m sayin’? I can do that. No disrespect, but that’s how I am.

-Young Churf, from Ratatat’s “Seventeen Years”

I was rooting around in my basement, and *finally* found notes from my first advisory group with Rachel Pollack at Goddard College. And dang, there’s a reason why the lecture she gave had been sticking in my head for almost four years now.

“Here are three models of the soul and the body,” Rachel told us, seemingly apropos of nothing, after a brief discussion of writing habits. Such an arcane occult topic might seem unrelated to writing, but no. They were intimately connected.

fireflies in a jarThe first model she described was a divisive model: body vs soul. It’s the idea, perhaps spawned by Democritus, that a soul is like a tiny atomic particle rattling around in a body.

“Think of the soul,” Rachel went on, “as the essential quality of the story, while the body is the content and form of the story.”

If I think of writing this way, I imagine times when a single idea has carried into a variety of forms until it found the right one. Perhaps this is like how I function when I write journalistic articles: I query, and when an editor is interested in my work, I then flesh out the piece tailored to the market.

Consider the next soul metaphor: Instead of the body being a container for the soul, the soul instead secretes a body around it during the nine months of pregnancy. An accompanying Talmudic idea is that upon death, the soul is released and can move on to secrete a new body elsewhere.

What this means for writing, Rachel explained, is that what you want to say should be inseparable from the form in which you say it. I’m not sure if this is always true for me, but I like it as a goal. I like the idea that what needs to be said will secrete its own best form. When I am doing my best work, I feel this happening.

Rachel’s example here was Phillip K. Dick: his lifelong obsession over what is real and what is not, i.e. the soul of his work, kept secreting different bodies. So while he wrote a lot of different novels, many if not all of them shared the same soul.

Rather than focusing on What You Want To Express, Rachel suggests, you can open yourself up and let the story be primary in order to short circuit your own authorial control. I think this could be particularly salient when trying to fictionalize stories that are heavily grounded in your own life.

Rachel’s third soul metaphor was this: The soul is larger than the body. The body moves through life to give expression to the soul. “Allow the story to inhabit something larger than itself,” she said. And every story we tell is a part of a larger cultural tale that goes untold much of the time. So when I speak, I hope I am helping to tell a story about not only the time and place that my body is moving through to give expression to my soul, but about a time and place that’s bigger than my one body’s journey. Long story short, I think this is one reason why I write about fairy tales?!

Let me know if this makes sense or not. And what you think of it. If you want to read more of Rachel’s smart occult writing or science fiction/fantasy that busts open the mystical mysteries of the everyday world, check her out.

Jackie Ormes: activism through comics, resistance through fashion

File this one in the “cartoonists those jerks at Angoulême should have known about.”

Zelda “Jackie” Ormes was a pioneer of American comics and the first black woman to have a syndicated comic strip.

Jackie Ormes at her drawing board

Jackie Ormes syndicated several strips from 1937-1956 in African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pitsburgh Courier. She drew several strips, either in the romance-adventure genre or single-panel subtle political cartoons. Her first notable strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, was about a young, glamorous woman traveling to New York City to seek her fortune. Torchy Brown was a fashionable, smart young woman who wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get what she wanted: love, a dance career, and great clothes.

paper doll of Torchy Brown with several high-fasion outfits

Many of the Torchy Brown strips came with a paper doll section highlighting seasonal fashion.

Why was this a big deal? Particularly when written or drawn by white people, black representation in comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s was often limited to racist stereotypes. Ormes sought to break these down through her comics and later, her dolls. She portrayed real people rather than caricatures.

Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem stopped being syndicated in 1940, but returned later in the strip Torchy in Heartbeats, which focused more on Torchy’s romantic aspirations, but also touched on themes of environmental justice and Torchy’s career. Romance comics were the rage in the 1950s, and Ormes’ work is a good example of the genre.

Torchy in Heartbeats comic stripAside from romance comics, Ormes also drew single-panel cartoons. Her most famous is the humorous political strip Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which ran from 1945-1956. Every strip is some sort of witty banter between Patty Jo, a little girl, and her teenaged sister, Ginger. Like Torchy Brown, Ginger is a fashion plate: always in fantastic, fashionable outfits. She never speaks in the comic, and plays the “straight man” to Patty Jo’s witticisms. Patty Jo is smart and pulls no punches.

Patti Jo n Ginger comic, the caption of which reads, "It would be interestin' to discover just which committee decided it was un-American to be Colored?"

“It would be interestin’ to discover just WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED?”

Patty Jo is the epitome of speaking truth to power. She takes on racism, sexism, and injustice, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly.

Patty Jo, dirty and unkempt, holds a football. Ginger watches in horror.

“What’cha mean it’s no game for girls? We got feet too, ain’t we?”

In this 1948 comic, Ginger is holding a pamphlet and pledge cards for the Negro College Fund, a scholarship fund that helped students get into historically black colleges:

Cartoon: Ginger holds Negro College fund pamplets; Patti Jo raises her hand and speaks out.

“Gosh–Thanks if you’re beggin’ for me–But, how’s about gettin’ our rich Uncle Sam to put good public schools all over, so we can be trained fit for any college?”

After the 1955 lynching of teenager Emmett Till, who had reputedly whistled at a white woman, Ormes posted the following cartoon:

Cartoon: Patty Jo has walked out of the kitchen, and is wagging a finger at Ginger.

“I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject…but, that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!”

Unsurprisingly, Ormes’ work was not syndicated in white newspapers.

Never once was Patty Jo asked to silence herself or rein herself in: the strip just served as a place for her to be precocious, i.e. smart and politically incisive. Rebecca Onion of Slate describes Patty Jo as a “spiritual ancestor of the radical Huey Freeman of the comic strip Boondocks.”

Jackie Ormes made a Patty Jo doll with the Terri Lee doll company in 1947, which was a sixteen inch tall plastic doll with “playable hair” and a variety of fashionable outfits. It was a huge commercial success, and is now a collector’s item.

Patty Jo doll, hair coiffed like in the comic, wearing a yellow dress.Check out more about Jackie Ormes in the only (!) in-print published collection of her works, and at her biography site.

Failure and its Opposites

I’ve been taking a fantastic improv class through Seattle’s Pocket Theater. Each class we touch on an essential concept of improv, and a couple of weeks ago we did a whole class on failure. It was wonderful.

blog-circusbow

A classic failure bow

We started out talking about how we deal with rejection, all fifteen or so of us, sitting around of the wood stage. Overall, we seemed to deal with rejection…poorly. And it was kind of a relief to hear, honestly. It validated that I’m not the only one who feels sore disappointment or frustration at rejection. Most of my rejection is professional: the lot of a writer is to offer up things constantly and have them rejected in a not-always-timely manner. One woman talked about how she tends to minimize rejection and pretend like she didn’t want the thing as much as she actually did. And, whoof, I feel that one. I realized that in familiar territory, like submitting short stories, I am quite comfortable with rejection and easily able to move on the the next step. But in a less comfortable context, like sending out pitches for articles and interviews, suddenly I’m afraid and uncomfortable. Several folks talked about dealing with rejection through avoidance, i.e. through not trying in the first place, and not risking rejection. One cannot avoid all rejection, of course–we need jobs and the occasional other human beings to function. But the scarier, more life-affecting the potential rejection, the easier it is to avoid.

The improv class continued on with a frank discussion of failure. “You are going to fail today,” said our instructor, Kathleen. “It’s okay.” In fact, it was important. Kathleen taught us to do a failure bow: little bow or a curtsy or an arms-rasied-by-the-ears gymnast’s flourish. At the same time, we practiced saying, loudly and enthusiastically, “I FAILED!”

Then we played a number of games designed to make the participants eventually fail. For example, we played Overwhelm, a game where one person mirrors another’s movements while simultaneously answering question from a third person. Eventually, a fourth person was added, who would say numbers that the person in the hot seat was expected to count up from. (“Five!” “Six.” “What did you eat for breakfast?” “Eggs.” etc.) This and other games gave us a chance to practice failing and acknowledging failure in a safe environment. I found it hard, during Overwhelm, to admit that I was overwhelmed. It was easier to let the numbers go–to ignore them and focus on the questions and movements. This may be a metaphor for some larger aspect of my life, but I am not sure what. Hopefully not my business and accounting skills.

After the games, we were invited to consider (via journaling or quiet contemplation) the following questions:

  1. What is the opposite of failure?
  2. What do you associate with failure?

The first layer that occurred to me was that success is not the opposite of failure. Another woman in class put it really well: If you’ve just produced something that’s wildly successful, you may be struck with the sudden fear of making the next thing–or more specifically, failing at the next thing. So success and failure aren’t exactly opposites, even if they are related in some way. I have heard the truism, “failures is not the opposite of success; it is the gateway to it,” which is beautiful and true and exactly what I don’t want to hear when I’m in the throes of rejection.

So what else, then, might be the opposite of failure? The best I could come up with that day in class was stasis–never trying anything, therefore never experiencing failure. I get that same sinking stomach disappointment feeling when I’m a) being rejected and b) realizing my window for trying a thing has passed. But as much as the physiological feeling is similar, I think the two situations are fundamentally different. In the case of realizing it’s too late to try, I have that sick regret in stomach, but also a secret relief because the risk has passed–things will be the same–I won’t have to try out a thing and risk rejection. In the base of actual rejection, I am disappointed, but not with myself in particularity because I know I’ve tried. That I did something.

I lift weights, including Olympic-style barbell lifts. If you lift weights, you learn warm-ups and form and how to protect yourself as you lift–but you learn something else, too. You cannot lift your maximum wights, or establish how strong you are, unless you are willing to fail. Failure is an active process for lifting barbells. If you are squatting a weight and realize it is too heavy to stand back up, you ditch the weight by hopping forward and letting the barbell slam to the ground behind you. If you are deadlifting a weight and it is too heavy, you don’t sacrifice your form and strain your back, you drop it. Likewise with the clean, where you bring the barbell from the ground to a front rack position, holding it across your collarbone and on your fingertips. If you can’t get the bar lifted to that point of momentum-based weightlessness that allows you to drop under and catch it, then you left you and step back. The weight drops to the mat. It’s loud. It thuds.

Anne catches a barbell in front rack position, while doing a clean

Me, working up to failure. :)

The first Olympic lift I learned to ditch was the clean, and I had to get over an awkward clump of embarrassment. “Oh no!” my reptile brain screamed. “I made a loud noise!” But then a calmer voice, outside of the moment said, “Anne. Are you actually worried about making a loud noise in a gym filled with sweaty people whoa re all also lifting heavy barbells?” No, I realized. My instinct, conditioned in a world where taking up space while female is frowned upon and failure is outright condemned, was to be polite and quiet and not risk to the point where I had to bring attention to myself: I failed! Take a bow! Once the thought, “You don’t have to be polite in the gym” was planted, once I saw people stronger than me ditching weights, then it didn’t feel panicky or odd to let the weight thud to the ground. And I found I could improve my lift maximums significantly in way I wasn’t able to before failure became a part of my routine.

My goal is to take this practice of active failure and apply it to my creative work. I do already in some ways. I often show up to my writing and comics groups whether or not I have an idea or feel confident. And sometimes it feels like an awful slog, but occasionally I surprise myself and come up with something just by giving myself time and space. The more chances I give myself to fail, the more I give myself chances at all. So I’m endeavoring to fail early, fail often, and as Beckett reminds us, fail again, fail better.

What do you think the opposite of failure is? How do you deal with rejection? How do you seek or avoid failure?

Prettiness, Confusion, and Bunny Lee’s Confusing Costume

18 year old white woman with long hair, wearing jeans and a plain brown t-shirt

Me, circa 2002. I wouldn’t have thought of this outfit as camouflage at the time, but in a way, it was.

I avoided prettiness for a long time.

I know why. It’s a matter of adolescent trauma, that I can sort out objectively in my brain. I grew up attending a homogeneously white, middle-to-upper-middle class private school, i.e. a hotbed for bullying and relational aggression. We had the standard cool kid/not cool kid groups. And the cool kids were pretty. And I was neither cool nor pretty. I spent a year as The Target. It was vile. As an adult, it feels cliche and silly to be like “pretty kids were mean to me, so I hate prettiness” but at its heart, that’s what it was. Something particularly about the relational aggression and backstabby bullying I underwent seemed to mesh thematically with the idea that pretty people were false, wearing a facade and ready to betray you.

Later, of course, I engaged with prettiness in a more complex way. For one, my lovely partner Mikeatron values appearances a healthy amount. He’s got great fashion sense and helped me talk through some of my issues. I also sat myself down at some point and sussed out some of the internalized misogyny I’d been holding on to. Again, this comes back to the dang bullying: pretty girls were my tormentors, so for a while I not only rejected pretty, but also girl, or at least girly.

At this point in my life, I’m rather at peace with my own femininity, but I’m still trying to figure out what aspects of appearance and expression (gender expression, self-expression through appearance) resonate with me. I know adornment and expression go way beyond “pretty,” and that prettiness in itself is not a problem. I know I love messing with gender presentation and gravitate towards androgyny. But in what ways am I still limiting myself?

All of this is to say that Bunny Lee‘s new zine, Confusing Costume: Liberated Fashion Zine, is a breath of fresh air.

Confusing Costume coverLee’s zine is one part delicious fashion manifesto, and one part powerful call to action. “Life was vexing before I learned how to speak through fashion,” she says. Dressing up, i.e. fashion, is a way for her to physically make “accurate visual representations of my soul.” Tall order, yes? But Lee’s art and exuberance show all kinds of possibilities. Her goal? “Each of us is morally compelled to be confusing!” When dressing in a way meant to shake up the “assumptions other may make about you,” we can help bust not only those assumptions, but perhaps even people’s tendency to make assumptions in the first place. “We must be shaken daily from our tendency to simplify the Other!”

Speaking of dismantling misogyny, one section of the zine is devoted to building “The Army of Men in Skirts”, i.e. embracing femininity outside of the boundaries of gender–confusing! Vital! Great! She includes instructions and safety warnings, as femininity is dangerous enough that when men take it on, they can we seen as targets.

Confusing Costume inspires me to make more radical choices with my own adornment and costume. Instead of being frustrated at appearances existing and the physical existence of my body, I can return both to the innocence of playing dress-up, and the experience of deconstructing people’s assumptions via confusing costume.

If all this weren’t enough to make this a deeply satisfying zine, there are also coloring pages and a mix CD. <3

confusing costume mix cd

(Coloring my own bleached bangs with magic marker in college was one of my first real steps towards reclaiming my own appearance, so that song has a special place in my heart.)

You can get your own copy of Confusing Costume at Push/Pull in Ballard, WA or by emailing Bunny at bunnyleedesign@gmail.com. You can see her costume blog at confusingcostume.tumblr.com.

***

white woman with short hair, exciting glasses, jacket. looking upward

Me, circa 2014. While I am not (ever) in my final form in terms of appearance, I like where I’m headed.

Freak Out in a Moonage Daydream

GIF of Bowie's personas

art by Helen Green

When I woke up this morning and looked at the internet, I wasn’t prepared to go through various stages of grief, starting with a rock-solid denial: what? David Bowie isn’t dead. David Bowie cannot, in fact, die because he is a magical space being. Right? But no, it turns out he had cancer and died two days after his 69th birthday and final album release, which makes his album and his Lazarus video 1000% more badass.

So this morning, while I mourn the man who brought beautiful weirdness into a lot of people’s lives, I want to celebrate some of the damn important lessons I’ve gotten from Bowie’s work and life:

1. Create with your whole heart.

If I don’t put my all into something that I’m writing, I inevitably feel regret.”

David Bowie never hesitated to be his own exact flavor of weird. And he inspired a lot of other people to do their own weird thing, too. As a magical space being of weirdness, though, Bowie was also very studied in a wide variety of disciplines and had some pretty coherent creative processes. He was about actually creating things: he cited his futurism as a response to hippie-ism of the 60s. In this 2002 interview, Bowie states: “God, I hated the hippie period. They talked about being so creative, but there was so little creativity to it. Glam really did plant seeds for a new identity. I think a lot of kids needed that that sense of reinvention. Kids learned that however crazy you may think it is, there is a place for what you want to do and who you want to be.”

2. Reinvent yourself.

Bowie played rock, soul, R&B, new wave, electronic, glam, also acted in both theatre and film, studied mime, painted, and of course costumed himself in a variety of signature styles.

He also accumulated personas like other people accumulate accessories: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Alladin Sane, and more. He never let his art stagnate, and did the work necessary to keep himself from merely riding the fame train without also constantly innovating.

3. Let the personas that no longer serve you die.

David Bowie did a lot of cocaine in the 70s; for a while he lived on a steady diet of red and green bell peppers, milk, esoteric magic, and mostly cocaine. In his late 20s, though, he felt like he might die and started down the path to get clean. Part of that path, for him, was to retire Ziggy Stardust and effectively put to rest the much-beloved persona that spurred his drug use. At the height of his cocaine use, he also lived a persona who was effectively his shadow self, the Thin White Duke. This persona, too, Bowie put to rest once his usefulness had passed.

While I don’t expect everyone to live their lives through such carefully costumed personas, I do think that everyone who creates has personas attached to creating. As a freelancer, one of my frustration is that I’m not always sure where Work Anne and Writer Anne and just Anne overlap, or don’t. But I know that any persona I accumulate or story I tell myself doesn’t have to be permanent, and I can let them go if they’re no longer serving me.

4. Meet death head-on.

Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, is a “carefully orchestrated farewell” to his fans. He was very private about his cancer; he knew he was dying and made art accordingly. I imagine making Blackstar was a way for him to also bid farewell his all his personas, and himself. In a culture that fears death and does not speak of it, such work is impressive and beautiful.

My aunt speaks of “aging on purpose”…I think Bowie died on purpose. Which is the best one can ask for, really, out of life.

5. Contribute to the culture.

I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go.”
Despite being fearlessly original, David Bowie wasn’t an island. His work with other artists and his keen sense of where cultural trends were headed and what’s important within all that both served to cement his place in music history. He helped us all be a little weirder, and kept thinking about how he and art and culture all fit together.

 

RIP, David Bowie. I am inspired by how hard-core you were, to the end:

And finish things. Then start new things. Then finish them.

That’s the advice Neil Gaiman wrote down for me in a little blank book.

every damn day01

It’s good advice, particularly in combination with Terry Pratchett’s advice from the same book: “30 minutes every day! Every damn day!”every damn day

The last several months of last year, i.e. the time I wasn’t updating this blog, feel like a bit of a blur. I’m not sure, on first mental glance, what I spent those months doing. I did quite a bit of teaching. I did half of a NaNoWriMo and got 26K words before sputtering to a halt. I really like the story I’m working on, I just…stopped. I’m not sure why, or what I was doing. And instead of over-analyzing what happened, I’d like to get back on the horse and ride. For half an hour. Every damn day.

Aside from writing, I’d like to actually commit time to reading paper books, rather than assuming it’ll just happen by osmosis like it does for reading online articles. Much of this blog may just end up being me responding to reading and/or highlighting craft techniques from books I’m reading. In my MFA at Goddard, we had to write a seemingly infinite of short papers, called annotations, wherein we picked out one craft aspect of a book and did a close study of how it worked. Some found annotations tedious, but I thought they were incredibly useful. At the same time, they’re nothing I’d really choose to do on my own without some external something, i.e. grad school. Or a blog. There are a lot of books, furthermore, that I started in 2015 and didn’t finish. So I’d like to finish those. And then start new ones. And then finish them.

So here I am, again making my way back to the page with my tail between my legs. It’s easy to beat myself up for taking a fallow period because beating myself up about stuff feels very Useful and Virtuous, when in fact it is neither. The page isn’t judging. Or going anywhere. That’s the beautiful part of a writing practice: you can always come back. You can’t go home again, as they say, and you can’t cross the same river twice…but you can always come back to the page and finish things. Then start new things. Then finish them.

 

I am not Anne Bean, either.

photo of the Goddard College grounds

Pictured: a magical land where I got a lot of things done. (Goddard College)

My wonderful former advisor from Goddard College, Susan Kim, wrote an article on the alumni blog about deadlines. Susan Kim is a New York City television writer, playwright, teacher, and more. She has a zillion fascinating and important irons in the fire at any given time. And she gave me considered, wonderful feedback on the 30-page packets of material I’d send her in like two days. Considering that she was doing this for me and six other students over the course of a weekend along with her other jobs…color me impressed. Perhaps I have put her on a bit of a time management pedestal in my brain…

So in this essay, “Putting the Dead in Deadlines,” she refers to me:

Are you as crushed by time (or more specifically, the lack of it) as I am? From their process letters, 99% of my advisees seems to be or has been… and the 1% who wasn’t was probably Anne Bean, a graphic novelist who graduated from the program a few years ago. Formidably organized, she had created a color-coded flowchart that mapped out every minute she had to read, write, and fulfill her degree requirements; and by sticking to it, she managed to sail through the program like she was piloting a luge.

I am not Anne Bean.

Aheheh. Heh.

Honestly? I am not Anne Bean, either.

Let me take you back to my elementary school years. I went to a Montessori school, which had the following system regarding late assignments: your late assignment was recorded on the Late List. If you accumulated more than two late assignments, you had to stay in during mid-day recess and work on them. I averaged six to eight late assignments, and rarely went to recess. This may have been an instinctive defense against playground bullying, but that’s another story for another day. Point is: time is incredibly difficult for me. I wouldn’t say that I’m not crushed by time. I just write down the nature of the crushing.

The flowchart Susan refers to is my Anal Retentive Spreadsheet (or ARS if you will) that I use to record my time. I have used the spreadsheet on and off since I learned about it from Wendy Call in 2010 or so. When I use it, things generally go well for me. All I do is record, in 15 minute increments, when I have done useful things in a variety of categories (writing, paid freelance work, unpaid freelance work, admin stuff, etc). I can see where I’ve been putting my efforts, where I need to spend hours, and whether or not I’ve done enough self-care lately. (Damn right self-care is on my chart.) I also use Asana, which is project management software, for both my own work and my work with Minor Arcana Press.

AND YET.

When I read Susan’s essay this morning, I was both touched and wracked by impostor syndrome. Oh gods, I thought, I’ve fooled them all. They think I’m this basically organized person who doesn’t binge-watch Netflix instead of blogging and pitches to appropriate markets every Wednesday and generates new work on a clockwork schedule. Instead, I haven’t even started my ARS for October and after binge-watching like four episodes of a TV show that I have already seen, I have spent my day face-rolling over my own keyboard in a futile attempt to craft a decent pitch for various feminist pop culture magazines, while simultaneously second-guessing if this is even the best use of my time. My day has been a melodrama written by time management’s evil twin.

But then I remember the voice of my other Goddard advisor, Rachel Pollack. One time we talked about the concept of the authentic self. “I’m not sure why people put so much emphasis on the authentic self,” she said. “Why not consider what the fraud self has to teach?”

Even if my luge-piloting hyper-organized writing persona is a fraud self, I’m pretty into her. I want to glean her wisdom once more. Susan Kim continues her essay talking about the reality of there never being enough time, about bouncing back and forth between the screaming deadlines and chipping away at the work until it’s done. “As writers, all we can really hope to do each day is generate pages,” she concludes.

I think that’s why I’ve had a growing sense of unease the last month or so: I have been so caught up in minutiae that I have not been generating pages. My graphic design jobs have been waning and my desire to be, say, writing pop culture criticism for feminist magazines has been waxing. The urge to generate pages is strong. My level of organization right now is all over the dang place. And I oscillate between trying to reclaim the systems of organizations and writing in furtive bursts.

So reading Susan’s essay this morning, as much as it made me have a moment of flailing guilt for not somehow controlling time and space with my mind, was pretty darn reassuring. It was a reminder to get off the loop-de-loop of time struggle and calm down. Focus on the pages. When I have meaningful deadlines (like, say, a grad school program…cough) I tend to work really well. Deadlines give me strength (sorry, Douglas Adams). I still have my fraud self’s luge, all I have to do is build a track. Quantify the crushing of time. And if I manage to generate pages, call it a good day.

Game Design, Book Design: A Tale of Woe

Last week I was very excited because at long last, the video game I backed on Kickstarter in 2013 was finally coming out. The game in question? Armikrog, the “spiritual successor to The Neverhood.”

cover image for ArmikrogThe Neverhood is a point-and-click adventure game that came out in the mid-90s, and is possibly still my favorite video game of all time (or at least my favorite puzzle adventure game). What made it delightful included not just clever puzzles, but a gorgeous, well-conceived world built entirely out of clay, with Doug TenNapel’s weirdo visual design. Also, Terry S. Taylor’s brilliant soundtrack to the game was the first (!) thing that I ever bought off the internet back in middle school. So. Needless to say, Armikrog had some emotional capital tied to it for me.

neverhoodLike The Neverhood, Armikrog is a point-and-click claymation adventure game. The old creative team came together to make it; however, unlike before when they were backed by Dreamworks Interactive and had a big ol’ budget, this time they used Kickstarter for their funding. And they had a great Kickstarter, raising the better part of a million dollars. They got some A++ voice acting talent in addition to the old crew. Tragically, though, they neglected a vital part of the team, it would seem: QA. QA, or Quality Assurance, are the fine folks who do their very best to break your game so that you can uncover any bugs the developers missed. The released version of the game didn’t run on some systems (fixed pretty quickly with a patch, but still) and was generally riddled with bugs. A disappointment, to say the least. I’ll try playing it again after another patch or two come out.

You might be saying at this point, hey, what does all of this have to do with book design?

Let’s talk about a pair of related design concepts, User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI). These are basically a way of talking about how your user interacts with your game, book, or website (UI), and how they feel doing it (UX). In the case of Armikrog, I felt frustrated, and not in the good “this puzzle is hard” way, but the bad “I am not sure if this is a bug or a puzzle” way. For example, one of the UI problems in Armikrog was a cursor that never changes to indicate if you can interact with an object or not. This contributed to me not being able to tell when I couldn’t do something (e.g. push a button) because it wasn’t connected or powered or whatnot, and when I couldn’t do something because it just wasn’t something I could interact with. There are multiple UI ways that my user experience of “not sure if puzzle or bug” could have been improved. But rather than dwelling too much on that, I’d like to look at how UI and UX apply to books.

Examples of bad experiences readers (users) could have when reading a book:

  1. Hard to read the words
  2. Annoying to physically interact with the book
  3. Feeling of irritation for no easily discernible reason
  4. “Not sure if typo or intentional choice”

Let’s break those down a tad and connect them to some “UI” reasoning.

  1. If it’s hard to read the words, there could be a variety of reasons. A poor font choice can make reading painful. Words on top of an image that do not contrast well enough will be hard to read. Words in a color/background that “resonates” wrong, i.e. makes you feel like your eyeballs are buzzing, will surely be painful to read.
  2. Another way that reading might become difficult is if the margins are too small.
    diagram of a reader's spread of a book
    A small outer margin will mean your thumbs get in the way of the words when you hold the book. If the gutter margins are too small, then you’d have to open the book to the point of cracking the spine just to read the words. If the trim size of the book is awkward, making it hard to hold, your readers will want to quickly put the book down.
  3. If you are reading a book and feeling annoyed, but aren’t sure why, it may be a visual design problem. Particularly in books with pictures, if the designer’s done a bad job, you may see margins that are different on the recto and verso pages, pictures that are poorly aligned, imbalanced, or a number of other visual design sins.
  4. If the book you’re trying to read is riddled with typos (especially ones that are the correctly spelled wrong word), then you’ll feel like I did trying to play Armikrog: annoyed, and occasionally unsure if you’re looking at a typo or an intentional choice on the part of the author.

 

TL;DR: If you’re making a game or a book, you need to think about UI/UX. If you’re making a book, hire a book designer. If you’re making a game, app, or website, hire a UI/UX designer.

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