Art vs. Revolution
Last week I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast Commonplace, featuring a conversation between host Rachel Zucker and poet and activist Juliana Spahr (if you don’t already listen to Commonplace, I highly recommend it). I always find Zucker’s conversations interesting and enlightening, but this one has stuck with me a bit more than usual because a large part of the conversation had to do with something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for the past two years: the limitations of art as a means of protest or activism.
Almost exactly two years ago, just before the inauguration, I found myself distraught, feeling helpless and looking around for anything to do. I’d always had strong opinions about, well, everything, but I’d never been motivated to do more than just talk about the ills of the world. Talk and, I suppose, vote every other year. But suddenly I was faced with the reality of a Trump presidency and all I could think was that my life of complacency had in some way contributed to the horror we were now in. That just talking or writing or making photographs about injustice wasn’t enough. I ended up joining a grassroots organization and becoming something I never thought I’d be, something I’d even explicitly disdained in my youth: an activist.
Two years in, I’m still an activist. I’m also still an artist. (I’m also tired, all the time.) Often times I feel a tension between these two roles—any time spent on one is time not spent on the other, and I nearly always feel that loss. I want to do both, and more besides, but it’s just not physically possible. And so I wonder, over and over again, what can my contribution be? What ought it be? What must it be?
In an interview in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut talked about this very question. His response—delivered with all the sardonic wit that we expect from Vonnegut—has since become famous: “When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.”
Is he right about that? Well, yes and no—at least, that’s my opinion. If I’ve learned anything in the past two years it is that there is no substitute for actual organizing. Less than an hour before I sat down to write this, the Senate passed a bill to re-open the government after the President finally backed down. The only reason that this happened is because of two years of consistent progressive activism, two years of marches and phone banks and visits to Congressional offices and voter registration and community outreach and knocking doors and getting out the vote. It happened because people got up and made it happen, flipping the House of Representatives and holding their elected officials accountable and never letting up the pressure. And there is simply no way that art, alone, could have accomplished that.
But it’s also not true that art has no place or function in activism. To paraphrase something that I once heard activist Mariame Kaba say, if politics is about achieving what’s possible, then activism is about changing the limits of what’s possible. Or, if you prefer, “rebellions are built on hope.” Art and literature are engines for building empathy, giving us opportunities to understand and feel an emotional connection to people whose life experiences are different from our own. It’s that connection that allows us to expand the boundaries of what we imagine for the world. It’s that understanding that tells us what to fight for and why.
This is why I reject the notion that we have to make a choice between art and revolution. We need both. We need art and literature and creativity to teach us, to stoke our passion, and to keep us going when we get discouraged. But once we’re motivated, we have to follow it up with action to actually achieve the changes we want to see in the world.
Now, some people are going to have the time and resources and ability to do more than one thing, and to the extent that you’re able to be both an artist and an activist, that’s great. But it’s also important to recognize that movements are bigger than any one person, that no one should or even can do everything themselves, that we all have a role to play. Not everyone can grab a bullhorn and lead a rally. Not everyone can write a poem that makes the reader understand our shared humanity. None of us should be complacent, but all of us have specific strengths and skills we can offer. I believe we can change the world, each of us, and all of us together.
Dear Evan Hansen
Note: I will be discussing the plot of the 2016 musical Dear Evan Hansen in this post. If that sort of spoiler might bother you then it might be best to skip this one.
For Christmas this year J got me tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen. After hearing people talk about that show for close to two years I finally started listening to the soundtrack a few months ago, and it's been in pretty heavy rotation ever since. Last weekend we drove up the coast to Costa Mesa, the closest city to us on the show's national tour. It was a lovely evening—we drove by some familiar places from our Orange County days, ate a delicious meal, and the show itself was amazing. The music, the staging, the performances—it was all just great.
Still, as much as I have loved and still love that show and particularly its music, I couldn't help but have some misgivings about the story. If you're not familiar with the musical, at the beginning of the show we meet Evan Hansen, a socially awkward and isolated teen who desperately wishes he could have some friends. The title refers to an assignment he receives from his therapist, to write himself motivational letters. After a classmate, Connor Murphy, kills himself, Connor's parents find one of Evan's letters in Connor's pocket, mistake it for a suicide note, and assume that Evan and Connor must have been friends. Caught up in the moment, Evan doesn't deny this, and by perpetuating that misunderstanding finds himself gaining popularity at school, a girlfriend in Connor's sister Zoe, and a second family in Connor's parents. This goes on until eventually the lie is revealed, and it all falls apart.
This kind of story of a mistaken identity and false relationship is one that's been done many times in theater and film. The 1995 Sandra Bullock movie While You Were Sleeping comes to mind, for example. In fact, I think a lot of older movies and plays have turned on this sort of plot device, and it's usually played for laughs and everything winds up in a perfectly happy ending—when Peter Gallagher comes out of his coma in While You Were Sleeping there is some climactic drama when Sandra Bullock's lies are revealed but in the end everyone forgives her and she winds up marrying Bill Pullman and everything is great. Dear Evan Hansen definitely treats Evan's lies with more gravity—Connor's parents appear to ultimately forgive him, but he's still left relatively alone by the end of the show, though having grown and learned from his experience.
The question I keep coming back to is whether the show means to say that Evan's growth and learning make all of his lies and the harm he causes worthwhile. J thinks not, because of how the show ends on a bit of a bittersweet note with Evan alone. I just don't know, though. Certainly we get much more about Evan's sorrow and regret over having lied (as expressed in the climactic song "Words Fail") than we do about how the Murphys process that revelation and come to a place of forgiveness (which occurs off stage, between scenes). And in the last scene, when Evan tells Zoe that her parents didn't have to keep his lies a secret, she tells him that this experience saved them.
On the drive home, J and I talked about this. She felt that perhaps I was being overly critical, not having enough empathy or consideration for a character that was clearly suffering from depression and anxiety, and who as young person wouldn't have had the life experience or tools to properly deal with the situation he found himself in. Which is a fair point, and certainly I think that if the show ended by punishing Evan like some Greek tragedy, that would have been profoundly unsatisfying. The thing is, Evan's not a real person, he's a character who was written. And I just can't get past wondering why he was written this way, why the show's creators wanted to tell this story in this way.
Then again, it's really difficult for me to get away from myself and my own biases and insecurities and fears when judging a work of art. I don't think anyone really can, nor do I even think it's necessarily something one should strive for. Really, the thing that's most likely driving how I feel about this show is how much I can relate to Evan. When I was in high school, I was lonely and felt isolated, and out of that isolation I acted in ways that sometimes hurt other people. Not to the same degree as here, but hurts are real even when they're not catastrophic. Seeing a story in which a sad, lonely boy is, if not redeemed then at least extended compassion, is something that immediately feels validating and comforting to me. And that's always a response that makes me start asking questions. I did it quite recently with Sarah Rees Brennan's YA fantasy novel In Other Lands. And now I'm doing it here.
As humans we are so strongly wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That in itself isn't a bad thing, it's basic to survival. But it can become a problem when an unwillingness to endure discomfort blinds you to the ways in which you might be harming other people. Ideally, we'd all be able to do both, to be able to both be gentle and compassionate towards ourselves while also admitting and correcting our faults. There's such a strong pull toward excusing oneself, though, and away from an honest assessment of one's flaws, that it can be very difficult to find that balance. And as easy as it is to snuggle deep into the blanket of denial, it's just as easy to overcorrect and swing into self-loathing. I'm not really sure where I am on that continuum right now.
There's so much I love about Dear Evan Hansen. The music is just phenomenal, soaring and lifting as it does. And hearing the message that no one deserves to be forgotten, that we will all be found, that in truth we aren't as alone as we feel—it feels good. I just always come back to this question: at what cost does this good feeling come? Maybe I am being too critical of this show, and I'd love to hear about it if I am. But I think that this is a good question to ask.
Word for 2019
Last January I chose the word Grace as my word for the year. I had spent much of the previous year pushing myself to do more, more, more—the world was in crisis and I had worn myself out trying to fight, to resist, to endure. I knew that what I had been doing was not sustainable, that I wasn't built for rage or conflict, that I needed more flex and more give in my life and my approach and my interactions with other people. I needed to find more acceptance, of the world and of others and of myself.
I returned to that word, Grace, over and over again throughout the year. And really, as a guiding principle it was a successful one. I think that I spent more of my time being present and aware, being kind and generous—really, being the kind of person that I want to be. Keeping that word close to me is something that I want to continue doing for the rest of my life.
Still, in thinking about where I was at the beginning of 2018, I can't help but wonder how much of my choice to orient myself toward acceptance and even a certain passivity was driven by fear. By the fear that no matter how hard I struggled, it would not be enough to effect the change that I felt I needed. That perhaps obscurity, invisibility, was what I'd end up with, and indeed what I deserved.
This past fall at a photography festival, I was talking with a friend after we'd both finished having our portfolios reviewed. She asked me how I thought they went, and I said something like "Oh, they went well, but then they usually go well. People were very complimentary about the work, but nothing's going to happen with it. And that's OK. Maybe I don't even want anything to happen with it." It's not the first time I've said something like that. For a lot of my life, I've struggled with a fear of success. The thing is, I know just how lucky I've been, how much of what we think of traditionally as "success" is mostly a matter of having an advantage that you didn't earn. Growing up, neither I nor most of my friends had a lot, and the fact that I now live a fairly comfortable life has at times struck me as something shameful, not because I haven't worked hard but because I know how little hard work matters without opportunity. My wife calls it survivor's guilt, and perhaps she's not far off there.
Looking back at where I was a year ago, I think about how much time I've spent trying to convince myself to want less. I might dress it up in language to make it seem profound—noting, for example, that Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of suffering. Or I might chalk it up to something culture, perhaps the Japanese idea of the tall nail being hammered down. But if I'm being honest, it has a lot more to do with that shame than with anything else.
Looking forward to 2019, I'm realizing that I have desires and ambitions, and that I want to engage with them instead of trying to ignore or disavow them. It is and always will be important to me to be of service to others, to maintain a sense of humility and gratitude and grace. And I never want my success to come at anyone else's expense, nor to make anyone else smaller by my taking up more space in the room. But in my best moments I believe that it's possible for me to help make the room bigger so that all of us can breathe more easily, that if I had a bigger platform I could use it to do more for other people than what I'm able to do now, and that as long as I know what my values are and remember to live by them, there's nothing that need be shameful about success. The word I'm choosing for 2019 is a reminder of all of that.
My word for 2019 is Growth.
53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.
In Other Lands (But Mostly My Own Insecurity)
(Just a quick note: there will be some spoilers for Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands in this post.)
I finished reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands last night, a novel that made me just radiantly happy. That was not, however, the reaction I expected when I started the book.
About twenty pages in, I took to Twitter to ask the two friends who’d recommended the book to me whether the protagonist would get less obnoxious, or whether I’d be stuck for the entire story reading about a character I hated. Said character, Elliot, is a snide, condescending teen boy, instantly and needlessly cruel to those around him, constantly pitying himself while simultaneously telling himself (and others) how much better he is than everyone else. Both of them told me that his arc would wind up being satisfying, so I stuck with it. I was skeptical, though, because I was fairly certain by that point that I already knew what his arc would be—Elliot would be shown to harbor a deep pain, his abrasive behavior would turn out to be a defense mechanism, and he would ultimately be redeemed, learning to become vulnerable and to be a good friend. And that is, indeed, more or less what happens.
Thinking about that character arc made me viscerally uncomfortable there at the beginning of the story. I wanted to put it down and go read something else. The thing is, we've had so many stories about the inner struggle and ultimate redemption of misunderstood young men. Misunderstood men of all ages, really. And this is both a consequence and a reinforcement of how privilege and power work. Through the choices of which stories we tell and which perspectives we tell them from, we are given every opportunity to empathize with and understand characters who represent the mainstream, the privileged, the default. The people who most need more empathy, those who are kept at the margins of our society, are the people whose stories are less often told, and certainly not in their own voices.
Do we really need another story about a shitty boy? I asked myself. Yes, he has his pain, but so does everyone, and not everyone chooses to deal with their pain by inflicting it on those around them. I didn't want to empathize with this kid. I just wanted to read about somebody else.
I'm glad I didn't, though. In Other Lands turned out to be a sweet and tender story, one that surprised me in how maturely it presented sexuality and boundaries and consent and violence, all while being fun and funny, too. The day before I started reading In Other Lands I tweeted “I want to read something happy. Or beautiful in a way that isn't painful. Or at least in a way in which the pain is not enraging or despairing.” And it was that. And I was happy reading it.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, it occurred to me to look at my initial reaction more closely. Not because the reasons for my discomfort were invalid, but I wondered if they were incomplete. I wondered if it might have to do not only with my desire for justice in the world and in art, but also for my unwillingness to let my younger self off the hook. At the beginning of the book, Elliot is thirteen years old. At thirteen, he is wounded and sad, and he hurts the people around him in order not to let them hurt him. He treats everyone like they're stupid, all the while also telling himself that he is fundamentally unlovable. It's not too far off from how I was at thirteen.
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is my relationship to success and ambition. Over the past couple of years of therapy, I've come to realize that being of service is one of the most important things to me, that I want to be able to help others. And in the past month or so I've had the thought that if I had a bigger platform, I'd be able to do more for more people. But this is a thought that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not that I think that in a fair world, no straight, cisgender, able-bodied men would be successful or powerful. It's just that in the real world, such men have had such a disproportionately large share of success and power that any time a man says “Yes, but I'm different,” I become skeptical. And that includes myself. The privileged classes take up so much room in the world, and maybe the best or even the only way to make more space for marginalized people is for those who have privilege to choose to step aside.
I think this is all valid reasoning. Yet, here again, I have to pause and wonder how much of my feelings are driven by a positive desire for justice and how much is just sublimated self-loathing. I think it's important and necessary to be willing to look at oneself honestly and critically. But it's also worth considering that beating yourself up can also be a form of narcissism.
Here's where I'm trying to get toward: that I can make room for others and lift them up and be helpful and useful, and I can do that while also pursuing my own successes. That I can recognize and atone for past mistakes without letting those mistakes define who I am and who I will be. That it's good for me to remember I don't deserve more than anyone else, but that's not the same as saying that I deserve less. That everyone can have their needs met, including me. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.
Last week I was talking to a coworker about the books the two of us had read so far this year. He had mostly been reading historical nonfiction and contemporary political biographies. I admitted that nonfiction has, for the most part, been too much for me lately. This isn't entirely true—I've actually read quite a bit more nonfiction this year than I usually do, much of it relevant in one way or another to the times we're living through right now. But for the most part, what I've found myself longing for is fiction, which I suspect is motivated in large part by a desire for escape.
It's interesting, because even the fiction I've been reading this year has often touched on the very same social and political issues that I spend so much of my time on, and which I am ostensibly trying to get away from during my down time. Somehow, though, presenting the same ideas in fiction makes them feel less stressful, or perhaps less threatening. The fact that it's something that might happen instead of something that did happen provides enough of a remove that I'm able to interface with them more easily. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, really.
The last book I read—which I finished this past Wednesday—was the fifth and final chapter of an epic fantasy series that I started reading eight years ago, when it was recommended to me by the same coworker I mentioned above. Since then, I've learned a lot about representation and literary tropes, which is to say that I noticed things about this story that were most likely problematic in one way or another, which I wouldn't have noticed before. I couldn't enjoy it in an uncomplicated way anymore, which on balance I think is a good thing—I'd rather be more aware than less. Even so, there was something seductive about the experience, something that brought me back to my youth in a way that I found familiar and comfortable, which makes me think there's something worth interrogating there.
I read a lot as a kid, and the overwhelming majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and really a lot more fantasy than science fiction. Books like The Lord of the Rings and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story are probably two of the most foundational texts of my life. There are a lot of reasons I've come back to those stories over and over again throughout my life, but something I've been thinking about for the past few days is how fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is a genre in which stories are built around a certain fundamental conservatism.
Epic fantasy is, for the most part, a genre about war. The stories are usually set in a world that is some mythical analogue of a real historical period—often, but not always, European. There's usually some sort of a hero's journey, and the central conflict usually pits a few heroic individuals against some ancient evil in order to decide the fate of the world. There are exceptions to all of these, of course, even in just the examples I named before—in The Neverending Story the "villain" of the first half is more or less human disillusionment, and in the second half it's the protagonist's vanity. But genres are more defined by their centers than by their boundaries, and for the most part we recognize fantasy by its most common tropes: swords, sorcery, and a battle between good and evil.
Lately when I read epic fantasy, whether it's a contemporary novel or a classic of the genre, I find it an intensely nostalgic experience. And I think this is something that's kind of built in to the genre, perhaps in a way that wouldn't have been as potent for me when I was a child. There's something seductive about a simple story with clear, simple morals. And even though fantasy authors have for decades found interesting ways to complicate their heroes or villains or conflicts, ultimately most of these stories still come down to a fairly uncomplicated moral binary. It's comforting, being able to read a story and just go along for the ride, without thinking too deeply about whether or not we really want the heroes to win. Or whether scenarios with clear winners and losers are even something we ought to be rooting for in the first place.
I suppose the easy thing to do here would be to turn this into some sort of sermon about this kind of nostalgia and escapism being bad for us, but I'm not going to do that. We all talk all the time about self-care, and choosing to spend your leisure time reading comfortable adventure stories is as legitimate a way to unwind as most other methods we might come up with. Still, it's on my mind that tomorrow we will be deciding again how we wish to be governed, and that the rhetoric we use to talk about elections is generally one of binaries, of good and evil, of winners and losers.
I guess what I'm saying is this: we all love stories that comfort us and tell us the things we want to believe, especially the things we want to believe about ourselves. And in and of itself, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I think we have to be willing to look more deeply at our stories and ourselves if we wish to live in a real world that's just, and that works for everyone. I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.
In about two hours I’ll have my final portfolio review of the weekend. I can never help feeling apprehensive ahead of these things, a bit anxious. I think that’s more instinct, impulse than anything else, though—at this point I’ve shown my work enough not to take it personally when someone doesn’t like it. Some people may find a piece boring, others may find it resonant. It’s the same work; the only variable there is the viewer.
I should back up a bit, I suppose. I’m attending the Medium Festival of Photography, part of which involves a sort of art speed-dating. Eight times over the course of two days, I get twenty minutes to show my work to some curator or gallerist or publisher, introduce myself and my work and hope that it lands. It doesn’t always, of course. Reviewers are like anyone else, they have their tastes. The main difference is that a reviewer has the vocabulary to tell you why it doesn’t land. Usually.
It’s sort of a fraught relationship, really. As emotionally and physically exhausting as it is on the artist’s side of the table, the reviewers are doing a lot of work as well. And, of course, they have their own agenda. They have their own businesses and projects they need to support, so of course it will be on their minds what you can do for them. I think asking otherwise is kind of unreasonable.
Still, there are good reviewers and bad reviewers. I always appreciate when a reviewer will take the time, not just to look, but to understand at a deeper level than what’s immediately obvious. That’s actually surprisingly difficult given the format—some work just doesn’t reveal itself in twenty minutes, and if you’re trying to show more than one body of work, the difficulties only increase. Getting depth from this sort of review requires either a lot of effort or an unusually high degree of perceptiveness and ability to articulate on the part of the reviewer. But you do get that sometimes. The best thing a reviewer ever told me was in my second year reviewing. After a full day of hearing, at best, “This isn’t ready yet,” I asked him what he thought I should do differently. To which he replied, “It’s not for me to say what your work should be, or how to make it be what I would like it to be. All I can do is tell you what I see in it.”
The good ones do that. They take the time to understand what you want to do, point out where you’re doing it well, help guide you through the places where you lose your way. (We all lose our way from time to time.) Many people will prefer to tell you what they would have done, though. It’s not a particularly useful form of feedback, but it also doesn’t accomplish much to take it personally.
The thing is, the deeper a connection you make with your artistic community, the more you will find yourself in a position to dispense advice. That is, in a position where people will ask for your opinions. (Unsolicited opinions are rarely useful.) And in these situations, you kind of have to decide who you want to be. I always have an easier time offering praise for the parts I appreciate, even if I don’t particularly like the work overall. But often people want more, and so what I always try to ask is, “How can this work become more itself? More what it needs to be?” I don’t know that I’m always successful at this, but I try.
I guess it’s just on my mind, what it means to be a good artistic citizen. What it means to be a good friend. There are people who feel that not being blunt is a failure of honesty, but to me this often feels unnecessarily cruel—no less so when I’ve done it, myself. You can be honest and offer critique, and still be kind.
In any case, right now I’m in a pretty good place with my work and my creative life. I feel at peace. I hope you do, too.
Scattered, vol. 2
- There’s a period at the beginning of a story where I am, as a reader, lost. This is just how sequential narratives work—at first, I don’t have any context for the events and characters I’m experiencing, and it takes a little while to get there. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and I nearly always find it a bit unsettling, like being adrift. I haven’t wanted to admit to myself that I enjoy novels more than short stories, but I do, and I think this is part of why. I get more time before I have to feel that floating sensation again.
- Last week, a friend of mine commented on one of my Instagram photos (a high-contrast black-and-white image) that he “liked my high-con work.” It’s nice to get compliments, of course, but it’s that word “work” that caught me. I tend not to think of what I put on Instagram as my “work.” Rather, I think of it as “the screwing around I do instead of my actual work.”
- I had a similar thought about my podcast about a month ago. I spend far more of my time far more regularly recording and producing my show than any other creative endeavor I’m engaged with, but I always think of it as something I do on the side, rather than my actual work. Part of that, I think, is that I don’t know how I would feel about thinking of myself primarily as a podcaster, instead of a photographer or writer.
- I’m attending a portfolio review next week, and I’m bringing five bodies of work. (That’s too many, but that’s another conversation.) All of them began as images that I found without looking, without intending to turn them into anything. Just by letting myself follow my natural instincts and interests. With two of them, I realized that I had something after a while and then started shooting intentionally toward developing the project further. Three of them, though, are series I didn’t realize were “work” until I was done.
- Nearly every “studio” photograph I’ve ever attempted has wound up feeling forced, obvious, or just clunky. They feel like a shout, but good photographs usually whisper. At least, my good ones usually do. And those ones almost never happen when I’m trying to make them happen.
- Writing, though. Writing is always a chore. Writing always starts with an idea of where I am and where I want to get. This works alright with an essay—you can be louder in an essay than you can with a photograph without it feeling didactic. My poems never satisfy me, though, and perhaps this is why. What would it mean to write something accidentally?
- Perhaps the most difficult thing for me, as an artist and just as a person, has been to accept that the things that come easily to me have value. That validity doesn’t have to come from struggle. That play can be as profound as work. That even though it’s good for me to stretch myself and try to improve, the way I am, already, is enough.
- What would it be like if I accepted that, for the most part, my process is observation over invention, presence over planning, play over work? What would my work be like? What would my life be like? What would I be like?
From time to time, people close to me have asked me why I decided to get involved with politics, and what I've told them is that after the 2016 election I was upset and angry and depressed. I was upset with the outcome, of course, but even more than that, I was upset because I knew I hadn't done anything to prevent it from happening. I didn't want to some day be on my death bed regretting not having done something.
As I write this, it seems all but assured that a rapist is going to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and what I keep coming back to is that idea of leaving it all on the field. The idea that you can feel comforted in defeat by the knowledge that you did everything you could. It's that "everything" that gets me, because I know that whatever I have done, I could have done more.
I've had a lot of talks with people over the past year and a half as we've worked together to try to build a movement. At times we all deal with exhaustion, burnout, depression, and what I say to them is this: you have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to stay in the fight. It's not just good to take breaks and recharge, it's necessary. What matters isn't one person's effort, but the collective effort of all of us, working together. You don't have to do everything; you just have to do something. It is, of course, a lot harder to apply that advice to myself than to others.
There were plenty of times where instead of canvassing a neighborhood or registering voters or phonebanking or helping to organize a protest, I chose to read a book or work on an art project or watch TV or something else that feels frivolous on a day like today. In the abstract, I know that never taking time for myself would be self-defeating, that self-care is as important for me as it is for anybody else. I needed some of that time for myself. What eats at me is: did I need all of it?
I'm not so arrogant as to think that one hour more or one hour less of my efforts would have made much of a difference either way, not in a struggle big enough to bind up the entire country. The question is always: what's enough for me to feel OK with myself?
It feels like I'm asking you for something, but this isn't the kind of question that anybody else can answer. No one can give you permission to stop, or absolution if you do. No one can tell you what your limits are, what you're capable of, or how much you need in order to recover. You have to decide all of these things for yourself—which is to say, I have to decide for myself.
I think that being hard on myself helps me go further, but only to a point, and being clear-eyed about where that point is is difficult. I guess that what I hope is not so much that you can tell me what to do, but rather just that sharing a burden might help lighten it a bit. And I don't know everyone who receives these letters, but I've often found that these things go both ways, that when I read about someone else's struggles, I often feel better, too.
So, thank you. And take care.
This past weekend we went up to Anaheim and spent two whole days at Disneyland. You brought one of your best friends, and all of us together walked over sixteen miles over those two days. You also went on your first real roller coasters, something you've been a bit nervous about before now. What I mean by telling you this is just that you're growing up, you're getting bigger and stronger and smarter and braver, and I'm proud of you.
What are some other ways that you're growing up? This year you learned to swim, and you've swum both in swimming pools and in Lake Erie. Your reading has really taken off this year, too, and now you're reading chapter books on your own. And in our reading together you've been asking for longer and longer books—we started the Harry Potter series just recently and you seem to be enjoying it. And, of course, you continue to be very serious about dance, and you work very hard at it.
Just all around, you're a great kid. You're kind and smart and a good friend. You're thoughtful, but you know how to be silly, too.
You've been counting down the days to your birthday for weeks now, and now it's finally here. You're seven! I hope today is a wonderful day for you, my girl. Happy birthday! I love you.
Soundtrack: “Let's Go! (Instrumental),” by FEALS. Licensed from Marmoset Music.