firewood

firewoodI’m writing this now because I want to grab a hold of these feelings while they’re still fresh and new, while I can still grasp them at a moment’s notice and feel them well up inside of me, full to burst. Right now, the reflection comic I’m working on is piece-meal—thumbnails scratched in the margins of my work notebook (before you scold me, mainly during lunch! But sometimes during meetings. Don’t tell my boss), a few proof-of-concept approaches, but not much else. I’d love to have the comic done by the end of September, but looking over at my calendar shows that practically every weekend is booked this month, so we’ll see what happens.

I initially wasn’t going to go to MaxFunCon East, to be honest with you. It was a lot of money, I had already planned multiple other trips and expenses this year, and frankly, I didn’t feel like I deserved to go: I was (at the time in June) a recently unemployed artist/designer, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life, applying to job after job with no avail. Which is ridiculous in retrospect, but I felt like I had to do something in order to earn the right to be in a room with a bunch of other artists and creators that I greatly admire; something big. It was my mom who convinced me to make the trip, despite her not entirely understanding what it was. I guess she saw, somehow, that I needed it.

During the whole week building up to it, I was a constant ball of nervousness and worry. I barely slept, I spent my workday jittery and anxious, drank way too much coffee in an attempt to focus on things that needed to get done, scarfed down meals and immediately jumped into illustration work the minute I got home (I had known I wanted to make gift art for months, but with other convention prep bogging down my schedule previously, it got pushed off till the last minute, like you do). Thursday night was spent sitting on my basement floor, punching as many buttons as physically possible as podcasts I had already listened to three or four times mumbled in the background.

This was also the first time I was doing anything big like this totally by myself. Other events and conventions, I was a part of a group of well-known friends, but this? One solo ticket, please and thank you.

It was a six-hour drive to the Poconos, and I spent it with my brother, who—due to both of our lives being ridiculously busy—I don’t get many opportunities to have good conversation with. I think the trip alone was worth it for that drive: being able to talk with him about workplace efficiency models, social issues, video games, and everything in-between was a blessing. It wasn’t until the last 15 minutes of the drive that all of the anxiety hit me square in the stomach, and I was positive I would spend most of MaxFunCon East hiding in my room, too afraid to talk to anyone.

Being an early arriver meant that, while festivities hadn’t officially started yet, there were groups of people congregating at the hotel bar—a place I’ve never felt comfortable at, let alone by myself. I hung out in the lobby, checked my phone, doodled in my sketchbook, pulled up Pokemon Go (which I hadn’t done in weeks, so I knew I was reaching at that point).

How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That's a cool thing to do.
How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That’s a cool thing to do.

Alright, Kardamis, I thought after what felt like an eternity. Suck it up and get in there.

The second I stepped into the bar, I was greeted warmly by a bunch of people I had never met before, and that overwhelming wave of anxiety reduced to a mere drop as I ordered a drink and broke the ice with a prepared moment that I milked the whole weekend: “Hey, um, do you guys want Adventure Zone buttons?”

(On a side note, that hard cider I bought was SIX FIFTY and it was only a WOODCHUCK CIDER. I can get a six pack of that here for six fifty. Highway robbery, that is.)

As Friday progressed, I felt more and more comfortable with this group of strangers: it was like we had all known each other for years, but had just never met face to face. My roommate Whitney and I finally located each other at the welcome reception (she was looking for me too, asking everyone she talked to if they’d seen an Emily around), and we hugged jubilantly—you would have never known that the only words we had exchanged previously were a few emails earlier that week.

It was Justin McElroy’s benediction that made everything fall into place.

I’d hate to try to paraphrase it, because I don’t feel like I could do his words justice, but it turned into a resounding theme for the weekend: believing in people—even when they do terrible, terrible shit—is a choice; a kind of faith, if you want to call it that. I thought about that a lot as we had quickly built up a small group of us that met for lunch and dinner in between classes on Saturday, seeing the constant assurance that people were ok and comfortable throughout the weekend, everyone making sure those who needed water after that wild party Saturday night had it, the beautiful feeling of being welcome that soaked into the place, making it feel like more than a maybe-haunted inn nestled away in the Poconos, but a home.

He cracked a bottle of brandy and addressed the crowd: “I know when John Hodgman does this, he normally gets the expensive stuff—“ as the bottles started to get passed among us. With my incredible coordination, I poured maybe half of the swig of Paul Masson I took onto myself and quietly choked down the other half (smooth, Emily. Also: pretty sure this was the first time I ever had any amount of brandy, and I’m kind of glad it was from a shared bottle with a room full of other amazingly lovely people). And while I was already a little misty-eyed from his speech, Travis approached from the side of the stage with a guitar, and Justin continued, “So, I’d like to play my favorite Regina Spektor song.”

The opening chords to Firewood started, annnnd yep, whoops, full-on crying. This is why I don’t wear mascara, my dudes.

I’ve been to a lot of conventions, had a lot of opportunity to meet people who have made things that have influenced my work and my life, and let me be honest with you: a lot of them sucked. I hate how uneven those moments feel, that weird interaction that happens between fan and artist, especially when you’re a fan who is also an artist. I never know what to say, never know how to express my appreciation, because what I really want is to feel equal. I want to have a conversation, I want to acknowledge that, despite my knowing of their work and it affecting me deeply, we’re all just people who are trying to figure out how to fly together in this huge and confusing world.

There’s some quality about being an artist (and I’m using this term broadly, way more broadly than any of my art professors would appreciate, to describe anyone who makes things) where you know you can fly, and the goal is less about showing off that ability, but showing other people that they can fly too. The sky is a very lonely place when you’re up there all by yourself.

MaxFunCon East wasn’t like other conventions. Was I nervous when I stayed after the Adventure Zone live show to give them the gift art I had made? Absolutely. But there was something magical about that moment, because suddenly, the mysticism was shattered (I was also mainly thankful I didn’t trip on stage), and everything was just…normal.

Look. I’m not a party person. I’ve never been. My definition of “party” in college was a couple bottles of cheap wine, drunk games of Ticket to Ride and Super Smash Bros, and Chopped reruns.

That party Saturday night was one of the best nights of my life.

I danced like an idiot. It wasn’t even that I didn’t care if anyone was judging what were likely the worst dance moves on the face of the earth: I knew no one cared. Myst was being projected on the ceiling, the music and dancing was so ridiculous that the floor was shaking down the hall, there was a conga line, an Under the Sea singalong, the most uproarious rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve ever been a part of (someone stepped on my foot during that bit, and I didn’t even care. The bruise is still there, and it’s pretty nasty, but it’s a badge of honor, honestly). I worked up my nerve enough to talk to Justin after the crowd cleared out a bit—as festivities had started to move to the aforementioned hotel bar—to tell him how much his benediction meant to me (confirmed fact: Justin McElroy is one of the best huggers), played a rousing game of Codenames in the game room with people I felt so lucky to call friends: people who were strangers twenty-four hours ago. It was surreal and amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole night.

I keep thinking about these little moments from the weekend, little gestures that stick out like lit torches in a dark cave: conversations, promises, mementos that mark an unforgettable experience. Some of these I want to keep for myself (or, rather: brag a little bit about during conversation with friends) because they’re reminders of the kindness in this world, even when it seems bad sometimes.

There was a time in college (and right after graduation, only a year ago) when I was in a really, really rough place. I’ve talked about it here before, I’ve written comics about it, I got my first tattoo to commemorate stepping up and taking control of my life.

There are only so many moments you get, only so many memories you can make in life. I made a promise to myself in deciding to go to MaxFunCon East that I would take any chance I can get my hands on, but more importantly, appreciate and love all of the people I meet along the way. And the little hint of melancholy that’s welling up in my chest as I write this tells me I stuck to it, because I already miss the amazing people I met and the moments we shared.

“Uh, this is a little weirdly personal,” I found myself saying to Griffin McElroy on Sunday, “but I just wanted to say, I’ve been going through some rough shit, and um, the podcasts and everything, they really help. So thank you.”

“That’s good to hear. Uh, not that you’re going through shit—”

“Haha, no, yeah, I get ya.”

There’s always going to be hard days. There are going to be days where getting up out of bed seems like an insurmountable task. But you keep going, because there are only so many moments. And sometimes you need help from people to light those moments up when they seem darkest.

Believing in people—and by extension, believing in yourself—is a choice. It’s a choice you make every single day you wake up and face the world at your doorstep. And sometimes, it’s a damn hard choice to make. But moments like MaxFunCon East make it hell of a lot easier.

Everyone knows you’re going to live. So you might as well start trying.

(And hey. See a bunch of you at Candlenights at the end of the month, eh?)

rain: and, a Hometown Ghosts postmortem

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I think what sucks the most is that I don’t feel like I belong anywhere at the moment.

The sun isn’t out this morning, replaced by a gray wash of clouds and a gentle drizzle making a syncopated rhythm on my windshield. I turn the wipers on as I pull out of the driveway. It’s seven thirty AM, Eastern Daylight Time.

I’ve been living at home for a year now. Saving up. Trying to find a stable job so I can actually have the security to move out into a place of my own. I’m getting there: I now have a part-time job at a local university, doing web design. My own job, not through a temp agency or anything. I have business cards, a placard on my desk. I don’t feel like the hired gun in the workplace for the first time in my professional career. I’m still doing temp work on the side, which results in ten- to twelve-hour days at times, and I’m feeling physically and mentally exhausted, but it’s getting there. Slowly, like I know it does.

At my last job (temp, design agency), people in the office would have parties and I wouldn’t be invited. At all. I didn’t even know they were going on half the time: I would just look up from my work and realize the entire office was empty, except for me. Here, it’s different. People learned my name immediately. I’m starting to feel like part of a team, finally. There are still some hurdles to overcome: I’m the youngest in the office by about seven years, so that’s a weird feeling, but I’m treated as an equal despite that, even if some of my coworkers have kids who are my age.

I turn onto the road that runs through the local park system. It’s not the fastest way to get to work, but I like it more than hopping on the freeway. Plus, work is only fifteen minutes away; the freeway wouldn’t even shave that much time off.

I’m terrified to let my roots grow anywhere, let myself feel like I belong, for fear that the second I do, I’ll have to rip them up and start fresh again. Plus, I know myself all too well: I don’t handle isolation great. If—when—I move out, I need to have a roommate, or else I will very likely hole myself up and become a miserable hermit who is convinced that everyone hates me. Hi-five, anxiety, thanks for showing up to the party today.

A lot of people have moved on from this city, understandably so. One of my best friends since childhood has lived out west for going on three years now. My best friend from high school is off in the service. A good number of us are still in the state, at least, but even being an hour apart is a struggle to coordinate our lives to meet up.

Memories associated with this place feel weird and overlapping. I vividly remember small moments that weren’t significant at the time, like sitting in the living room of my friend’s childhood home as a big group of us watched a poor-quality subbed version of Kiki’s Delivery Service that we had to stream from his computer, but scarcely remember things that should be important, like my high school graduation. I couldn’t even tell you who I was sitting by, but I can tell you that the group of us watched Clue more times than I can physically count, and could quote the entire movie at will.

Now, there are moments that exist here that are outside of that “high school” narrative, and there are days where I feel like I’m stuck in a time warp alongside days where I don’t even recognize the city I grew up in. They demolished the old middle school a few weeks ago, built a fancy new one behind it. They’ll be demolishing the middle school I attended sometime next year. I haven’t driven by the high school in years: the thought makes me reel. I’m done with that, part of me thinks. That story is done, and I have to live in this one.

I turn onto the street the university is on, and wince as my car wheel bounces in and out of a pothole in the road. They’re supposed to be resurfacing this street soon: right as students return to campus. Fantastic timing, as always.

I’m filled with an unfulfilled feeling of wanderlust. I feel like a ball of potential energy that’s just waiting for a spark for it to explode into a thousand lights. It’s a similar feeling to how I was right after graduation, like a skier on a hill waiting for the signal to start, but not quite the same, and I can’t quite place why. Maybe time has made a difference, maybe life experiences.

I realize this is probably what spurred on Hometown Ghosts in the first place: a perfectly-timed listening to Subdivisions just pulled all of those feelings up to the surface, shoved them in my face and made me look at them dead-on. And I—like I am wont to do, apparently—poured those feelings into a comic in an attempt to process and cope with them.

I didn’t go into making Hometown Ghosts thinking it would be a cathartic release of some of that energy. It started with a walk around my neighborhood, Rush blaring through my earbuds, and the thought: I feel like a ghost that haunts these streets, this city. It was going to be an exploration of that idea, both metaphorically and literally. It was going to be a horror comic at first, believe it or not. There were going to be literal ghosts in it.

As I wrote it, it quickly became an exorcism of sorts, a way to communicate the frustration and futility I was feeling that was running a through-line in my daily thoughts. Some of the original inspiration kept its ground in the finished product: the wall was an idea that appeared during that initial walk, and while the metaphor is heavy-handed in retrospect, there are days where I feel it in my chest (and, in turn, days where I can feel it crumble, little by little).

They’re still not done with the parking lot by the administration building: the building where I work. I turn down a side street and keep driving toward the student union so I can park there. It’s a walk, but it’s not terrible, even with the rain.

It’s sometimes hard to explain why I make these sort-of-auto-bio comics a lot. Some people get concerned for me when they read them, friends I haven’t talked to in months texting me out of the blue and asking me if I’m “ok”, and I get it (even if it is, in some respects, infuriating): comics are one of the few places where I don’t dilute what I’m feeling and what I’m saying, and that can be startling, especially to people who only know me on a certain level. But I make these things, these “sad comics”, to cope. I draw them on the page so they’re not floating around in my head and weighing on my chest every day. I make them physical so I can look at them and know that I can make it through this. It’s why I made Paper Cranes. It’s why I make practically all of my work, now that I think about it, no matter how removed from reality it might be. I see those elements in the lighthearted fantasy work I make, the goofy slice-of-life comics. It is a fundamental urge that drives me to create. And when you give an intangible feeling physical form, suddenly it’s a lot less scary.

I pull through into a parking spot. My stereo is loudly blaring a song from Rent: La Vie Boheme. Mark loudly declares through my speakers, “The opposite of war isn’t peace: it’s creation!” It’s still raining. The song dies as I click the keys into the off position, and I start digging around my front seat to find my umbrella.

I have a convention this weekend: Matsuricon, my first three-day convention as an artist. I’m a little nervous, a little excited, a little thrilled just to be able to spend time with friends who have been so amazing and supportive and encouraging and I love them very, very much. I’ve reached the point where what’s done is done in terms of merch and prints to sell: the rest of my week leading up to it will likely be filled with eight-hour days at the university, followed by freelance design work at home. Two weeks from this convention, I’ll be up in the Poconos mountains trying to convince myself that I belong in the same room as a ton of other really cool creative people who make things that I actively enjoy on a day-to-day basis (did I mention that a good chunk of time working on Hometown Ghosts was spent listening to The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother and Me? Because, hah, hahahaha, hahahahahah, oh god what am I doing).

I feel both absolutely detached from and exactly like how I felt two months ago when I made Hometown Ghosts. It’s unsettling and confusing. There are days where my identity and personality feels muddled and lost in a fog, trapped behind a wall. I worry about how I appear to other people, how I present myself, how I’m perceived. I don’t remember having any of these anxieties at this level during my senior year of college. What happened to the confident person who stood in front of a panel of professors and convinced them that an experimental interactive visual novel could be presented in a gallery?

It takes a minute of searching before I realize my umbrella is still in my bag from last Thursday; I had never taken it out and placed it back in the car. I chide myself and pop it open as I step outside, fumbling with keys in an attempt to lock my car. I push the Night Vale Community Radio tag out of the way to press the lock button on my key fob-actual key combo. The locks click and the car beeps complacently. 

Hometown Ghosts wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. I had initially planned an extremely dour ending to the short comic, one that suggested lethargy and complacency, instead of the promise of a wall that, even though looks insurmountable, will be destroyed with enough effort. Maybe that’s why I was surprised when some people responded with concern when they read it: the ending, in my mind, was hopeful, much more hopeful than I had initially felt when I had the idea. I think, despite everything, I’m an optimist at heart. I have to be.

I cram my keys into my pocket and start walking. It’s not too hot out, not unbearable. The rain relieved some of the oppressive humidity from the weekend, but my hair is still frizzing out and suddenly I’m Hermione Granger, and all of the effort I put into getting my hair straight this morning is gone in an instant. A few raindrops sneak under my umbrella as I walk down the street. I smile.

If you haven’t read Hometown Ghosts yet, it’s up on Gumroad for free download. Check it out. It means a lot to me.

about moments

I’ve been meaning to write about IndyPopCon for a week or so now, and this still isn’t that, but it is gonna be something.

It’s been very difficult to write lately. Not only have I wanted to reflect on the convention, but I posted my latest finished comic project, Hometown Ghosts, earlier this month, and I’ve wanted to sit back and reflect on that as well, but every time I sit down to write about either of those things, I draw a huge blank.

It wouldn’t even be accurate to say I feel like a mess, or frustrated, or unmotivated: I just feel capital-H Here, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that.

Things are shaky right now. I suppose not “shaky” in a terrible, life-threatening way, but just in a personal way. I’ve picked up some freelance work recently. The same-old same-old job application grind has been chugging along. I haven’t halted my life because of these things: I’m still making plans for the future, still taking advantage of the flexibility I’ve been granted in my life. In August, I’ll be tabling my first three-day convention, and I’m going to MaxFunCon East in September (which is, in retrospect, both very exciting and very terrifying). But I feel stagnant, and frankly, a little helpless.

When I was younger, I had the tendency to take the world’s problems on my shoulders. It often led to snowballed thoughts that drove me into isolation and often physically exhausted me. You have to pick and choose your battles, as my mom would tell me: whenever I found myself starting to do that, I would focus on the things I could change, the people I could reach out to and let them know that I cared.

I don’t post on social media about current events at all. Partly because I don’t know what to say, sometimes because I don’t feel like I’m right person to say it, mainly because I just can’t. It takes so much out of me, to constantly feel like I have to make these Public Statements when I’m basically dealing with a sensory and emotional overload from a second-by-second news feed. I have to unplug, I have to find something or someone tangible so I can ground myself. I’m sure some might say that this is deflection, or ignoring the problem, but not posting on social media doesn’t mean I don’t care. I have to cope in my own way, with my own circle of support.

I’ve been getting into podcasts a lot again. If (somehow!) you were following me back in 2012 (Y I K E S), you know how into Welcome to Night Vale I was. My recent archive dive has been My Brother, My Brother and Me (as well as the whole McElroy family of podcasts), which is what I’ve been describing to friends as “a comedy/advice podcast by these three brothers from West Virginia”. I forced Alex and LiZz to listen to some episodes on the way to IndyPopCon, so, needless to say, I haven’t been able to shut up about it and I’m sure my friends are exhausted of listening to me yell about it/draw fanart.

While it is typified as an advice podcast, and things often aren’t taken too seriously (I actually started listening to it when I was at my second temp design job, and probably often worried my co-workers by trying to suppress my laughter in my cube), but that doesn’t mean that the conversations don’t get very Real sometimes, which I honestly really appreciate. Ever since moving back home and being separated from people I built a life with for four years, it’s been difficult to find that grounding element for me again.

And it’s not like I don’t talk to people or anything, don’t get me wrong! I am painfully aware that I am both privileged in my situation and blessed in my access to instant communication with people across the globe. But there’s something about having a physical community that can’t be replaced, and I can’t help but feel isolated in this place that was once home for me, and is a way still is…but isn’t.

But more importantly than my instability, more importantly than my fears and my hopes and how goddamn scared I am, all the time, is this moment. This moment, right now. Because nothing is promised. So all I can do is grip firmly onto this moment, onto the people who love me, the artwork I create, the things that make me happy and sad and make me think, because it’s all there is.

Right now, the sun is starting to set. My windows are open, there’s a cross breeze drifting through. I can see the clouds moving across the sky, the trees swaying in the wind. The tv is on downstairs; the vague sounds of baseball broadcast softly settle into the house.

Spread positivity, any way you can. Tell someone you appreciate them. There is so, so much shit in this world, so we have to do all that we can to be kind to each other and spread love.

in the eye of the hurricane

At some point, someone’s going to tell me to shut the heck up about Hamilton, but today is not that day (and even if it was, I wouldn’t listen to them anyway. I’m passionate about what I’m passionate about, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead).

It’s strange, in some respects, how this musical—or really, my relationship to it—has grown in me over the past couple of months. The fact that I find new threads, new pieces of myself within these songs that have had many, many rotations in my car and otherwise tells me that this, this is really something else. And sure, the public has expressed that as well, in the adoration for the musical and the fact that tickets are literally impossible to find, but I’m talking about the personal here, about me. Egotistical, I know.

It’s almost been a year since I’ve graduated from college and I still feel in shock from the whole thing: I feel like a year has passed and nothing of consequence has been accomplished, despite evidence to the contrary (lines on my resume, files on my computer, a comic that I’ve done a pretty dang good job at updating weekly). I still feel like I’m drowning: like all my life I’ve had this bar to reach, to surpass, and now the bar is just my own expectations for myself, which are unfairly high.

I’d like to think, to some extent, that I’m a determined person. I’ve had many people in my life tell me that pursuing art—pursuing comics, especially—is a fool’s errand. I’ve even had people in comics tell me that I wasn’t doing it “right”. And those words have always spurred me to action, not defeat. I have to keep going because I have a lot of people to prove wrong, as the saying goes.

Lately, some of that spark has dwindled. It’s not gone by any means—it’s just quieter now, under the pressures of realism. And when it comes down to it, I’m terrified that my prideful “I have to succeed to prove them wrong” attitude is a fatal crack in the foundation of my being. That it’ll be the point that causes everything else to crumble.

It’s a fear I’ve always had: what if this decision prevents something amazing that could have happened, maybe I’m making the worst mistake of my life with this decision, maybe I really don’t have it in me to succeed, so on and so forth. I’ve tortured myself with the plethora of possible futures that I’ve destroyed and created with every choice I’ve made.

I woke up this morning with “Hurricane” stuck in my head. For those not familiar with Hamilton, it’s one of the few introspective moments we get in Act 2: it’s this sweeping look at Hamilton’s past, his motivations, the core of who he is…and the moment where all of these things end up leading him to a decision that not only destroys his life, but the lives of Eliza and his family.

And it’s strange, because there are moments in “Hurricane” that resonate with tons of people (myself included) as positive. It’s Hamilton talking about how his determination—his skill and tenacity—lead him through his life, off of his home that was devastated, through revolution, into love, through establishing a new nation: a message that feels right, that feels like us looking back at what we’ve survived through and realizing what we did to get us through it. But it’s right in the end where we see the crack in his foundation: that moment where he and his mother were sick, and she died, and he didn’t.

I’m lucky to have lived a relatively happy childhood, and while I don’t have moments as tragic as Hamilton’s, I can easily recall events or things that have been said to me that have defined certain elements about myself. I am often terrified at the passage of time: I feel the need to get things done, I have the driving hope that I’ll achieve even a sliver of my goals so that I’ll have the opportunity to give back to all of the people that I love and who have supported me all of my life. Many days I feel powerless and lost, because there is only so much I can do, only so much I can control. And in the times where I can allow myself introspection, I am scared of what it may result in. Will this decision become my Reynolds Pamphlet?

Logically, I know the likelihood is slim: I am thankful to be surrounded by people who understand me, and who can help me through these thought spirals. But, in those liminal spaces of the night, in the eye of the hurricane, I can’t help but see the approaching storm and wonder how I’ll come out the other side of it.

old college try

Another year, another introspective blog post. What can I say, I’m a creature of habit and bad luck.

You see, I totally had plans for tonight. For the first time in years I had plans for New Year’s Eve. The most I’ve ever done for New Year’s Eve was that one time a friend stayed over my place and we just watched let’s plays until we were stupid tired. But, where my social schedule finally threw me a bone, my body decided to play its own game and get sick. So, once again, I find myself sitting by a record player listening to Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats (I don’t have a vinyl of The Sunset Tree, else that would be on constant repeat until I passed out from the Nyquil).

Tallahassee is a weird album for me. It reminds me so much of a specific time; my second semester freshman year of college. Those cold winter mornings walking to my 8am class, trudging through snow to the dorm building across campus to go to the class that basically sparked my entire body of work throughout my time at university.

And now it’s done. Well, not like “gone” done or anything: college has shaped who I am today, is responsible for some of the best friends I could ever ask for, and some of most amazing interactions and learning experiences. It will always be with me, but it can never exist again. I’ve thought about visiting campus, but a pit in my stomach tells me I don’t want to, because it’s not mine anymore. It’s someone else’s. The sidewalks that I walked every day, and the walls that I knew, they belong to a new bunch of students who will make amazing memories and create beautiful art that I can’t even imagine.

But I miss it. I miss those walls. I miss our laughter echoing off of them.

I miss walking across campus in freezing temperatures just after the sun had risen to meet a professor for coffee. I miss trudging back from class into the worn-and-lived in dorm and walking into my room. I miss the cheap wine and tuna noodle casserole dinners.

I feel lost, a mix of identities. I moved back home after college, the home I spent middle school and high school in (and college breaks). Who I was. Who I am now. Who I will become.

It sucks, because this year wasn’t bad in a lot of respects. I graduated from college. I started my first “real world” job. I went to Disney with two of my best friends. I generally gained a lot of confidence in my voice and my work. I even got a tattoo! It feels at times like three years shoved into one with all the stuff that happened.

But, graduating set a lot of things spiraling off in my brain. With the end of one ticking clock, the bigger one became even louder. Sometimes it’s not too bad, just an undercurrent, but other times it’s a cacophony of noise and the only thing I can do is buckle down and bare the pain.

I have a lot of hopes for 2016. I want to make more art, especially more art for myself. I want to make more memories with family and friends. I want to live life without being afraid, of the future, of what people might say.

Here’s to the new year.

non-stop

I’ve been bombarded for the past month or two now with gifset upon gifset and photo upon photo of the Broadway phenomenon that is Hamilton. Somehow, I’ve put off listening to it until last week, which is weird, because musicals + historical narratives + diverse cast is usually a textbook recipe for “well, here’s a thing Emily will probably like and think about non-stop for weeks on end.”

Spoiler alert: it is totally that thing I just said.

First off, if you haven’t had the absolute pleasure of listening to Hamilton, oh god please do that as soon as you can. Don’t make the mistake I did on putting it off for months. Just, ok, stop reading this, go on Spotify or Google it or something, just please take a few hours out of your day to listen to this musical.

Did you do that? We’re gonna roll with the honor system here and I’ll assume that you did that. Moving onwardly.

So, here’s the thing: I was initially gonna write about narrative, the need we have to control the stories we allow into our own narrative and canon, and how that desire turns ourselves into storytellers without even meaning to, but instead I want to talk about something a little more personal, probably a little more rambly, and likely very much more scatterbrained.

You see, I haven’t really been in the best of spots lately (“What else is new,” a chorus of people who even vaguely know me as well as my own self-deprecation yell. “Get a different blog post, assholes,” I yell back). I’m working a less-than-fulfilling temp job that leaves me drained and exhausted, I give myself an hour to relax and eat after I come home from a lengthy commute, and then work on my own stuff (comics, illustrations, scripting, the list goes on) until I pass out around midnight everyday, wake up at 6am, wash, rinse, repeat. Despite working myself to the point of physical fatigue, I still feel like I’m not doing enough. If everyone is giving 110%, I have to give 120%, and then 120% isn’t enough, it has to be 130%, and what am I doing stopping to spend time with friends, that’s valuable time being lost on this project or that script or looking for a full-time job or trying to get more freelance work. I’m not quite sure how many times I’ve thought “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” seriously these past few months, but it’s definitely probably way too many (one is probably way too many, if we’re being honest here).

The thing is, I only do this to myself. Anyone else who pushes themselves to this kind of brink, I’m immediately concerned for. “Take a break! Rest, you can’t work all of the time, you need to take care of yourself too,” I find myself saying to friends. I remember a college friend of mine getting repeated cases of mono because she would pull all-nighter after all-nighter painting, and I never chided her for “not working hard enough” (In fact, we were constantly concerned for her, and it took two months of our nagging for her to finally go and see a doctor for what turned out to be the second case of mono). And yet, the standards I hold myself to are absurd and, frankly, dangerous.

But anywho. Back to Hamilton. It’s a normal Thursday night and I’m working, enthralled by this very human musical about people and a time that to most only exists in three or so paragraphs in a high school textbook, and suddenly, the end of Act 1 hits me like a freight train. Non-Stop makes me stop dead in my tracks. I had to pause before I started Act 2 and have myself a good cry because I couldn’t remember the last time something resonated with me so profoundly, on such a core level.

Also, I cry a lot. I’m sort of self-conscious about this fact, because some might use it to say that my feeling aren’t valid (“Well, Emily, you cry at everything”), but it was one of the most therapeutic cries I’ve had in a long while.

I’ve definitely been working excessively to cope with (or, in many cases, entirely mask) some of the fears I have. If I’m exhausted from a full day of work, I don’t have to lie awake at night and worry about the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. I throw myself into organizing Etsy inventory on the weekends, plan comic schedules that are so rigorous that I can’t stick to them and thus get even more disappointed with myself, take on more work than I’m being paid for in order to keep myself busy, because busy is fulfilled, even though it’s really not.

I know I’m young, I know I have so much life ahead of me that I can’t even begin to imagine, but I can’t drown out that deafening tick of the clock that is my own heartbeat. I’m only 22, and yet I already feel like there’s not enough time.

If you had told me I would have found myself relating to a founding father, I would have laughed, but now those words just repeat in my head like it’s an echo chamber.

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

Why do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?

Why do you write like you need it to survive?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I’m not sure if I will.

But even though Hamilton made me stare my pride and my fear dead-on, there is comfort in that connection. Because my immediate thought, after the shock had subsided (and I cleaned my glasses cause they got all fogged up and smudgy), was “man, how do you know?” For a moment, but one with long-lasting effects, like a lightning strike, I didn’t feel alone. Because here was someone who got it. And I know a lot of people probably get it, but it’s something that’s so hard to put into words, so you feel very isolated and very alone, and anything that breaks that barrier is a godsend. Your brain feels like a cacophony of sound and ideas and fears and stress and it’s so loud and you don’t know what to do with any of it because it’s so overwhelming, so you work and you work just to try to make sense of any of it, because to make sense of even one little thing, that would be enough.

(Ey, see what I did there? I didn’t even mean to do that, it just happened.)

I wish there was a way to properly say thank you. Being in the mid-west, New York is an unfortunately long ways away to make a quick weekend trip to, and even then, my luck at lottery has never been great (though, one time I won a plastic dinosaur at a raffle. That’s like Hamilton tickets, right? Right? Wait where are you going).

Though, let’s be real, if I did live in NYC, I’d probably be at every Ham4Ham show, even in freezing temps. Especially in freezing temps. You don’t know freezing temps till you have to walk through foot deep lake-effect snow.

But, I guess this is my weird, drawn out, very personal thanks. Well, between this and what will likely be tons of fanart that I’ll draw and post over on my art blog.

There is so much I want to do with the fleeting time that I have on this earth. And I know I will not be able to do even a fraction of it.

But, with the people that I love, I can damn well try, and whatever I do will be meaningful because of the people I do it with and for.

one thousand

At the end of last year, I made a video game. Some people might argue that it’s not really a game, and at the time, I would have nonchalantly told them that I honestly don’t care about what the proper “definition” of a video game is, and in fact, here’s a ton of research I did about video game development functioning as art therapy that explains how putting walls around those concepts is, for lack of a better term, elitist bullshit.

These days I’ve become much less confident on the matter. Call it what you will, imposter syndrome or what have you. Maybe it’s that age old issue that every artist has: distance (in time) makes the fondness for old projects wane, because you increase in skill, so you look back at old work and think “man, I could have done so much better.”

I had worked up the courage—after Paper Cranes went live—to email some people about it. It was a long shot: in this day and age, who’s gonna answer an unsolicited email from someone asking them to look at the game they’ve made (especially since it’s such a common scam tactic on social media now). But wouldn’t you know it, the one person that actually responded to me was probably the one that had the possibility of mattering the most: David D’Angelo from Yacht Club Games. You know, Yacht Club Games, the people who made Shovel Knight? Yeah. It was a big deal to me. Still is.

You see, last summer, I picked up Shovel Knight (they were playing it on Game Grumps, and I thought, dang, this game looks amazing!) and it rocked my world. I was coming off of an extremely rocky semester, I doubted everything I had been aspiring to become, I doubted if college had even been the right decision, and Shovel Knight turned everything upside down. I fell in love with that game, with the music, the characters, the feel of it. But more importantly, something clicked in my head when I played it. Something in me looked at Shovel Knight and thought, hey…I could do this! I could be a game designer. I could be a part of the world that captivated me all of my life, that basically fueled my entire artistic aspirations.

So here’s this guy, who was a part of the thing that basically made me realize that game design is a thing people do, is a thing I could do, who took the time to play my game and respond to my email. And I couldn’t believe his response, because he told me it was good. He told me that, if this was the first game I had ever made, that I was on my way to making better games than them. I was floored.

I don’t think I would be able to have the courage to send that email now.

Shortly after I finished Paper Cranes, I felt a massive disconnect from it, and from a lot of my work thus far. It’s the reason Dream State has been on a long-term hiatus: I just feel entirely detached from it. They both feel lifeless to me, even though it was me writing everything, drawing everything, working from those deep places because that’s just how I communicated at that point. It feels to me, in some respects, fake.

Around the same time, I read The Last Unicorn. There was a forward in the version I had, and it struck me hard:

For all that spontaneity, the truth is that The Last Unicorn was a grubby, sweaty, joyless job of work, except now and then. It was squeezed and twisted out of an imagination that never felt as though it had very much to give. I went through black cycles of depression and self-disgust, lightened by occasional periods when I felt that the book had been a bad idea in the first place, and at least it wasn’t as though I was messing up something pretty. But most of the time I knew that the unicorn, Schmendrick, Lír, Molly Grue, and all the rest were alive, and that I was failing them. I don’t know for sure that that’s the worst feeling an author can have, being still new to the trade. But it’s the worst one I know so far.

And further on:

But I’m with Disraeli when he says “Madam, when I want to read a good book, I write one.” I wrote The Last Unicorn for me to read, and for no other reason that I understand just yet; and when I was through with it at last, and off the tightrope, I couldn’t bear to look at the thing. People whose opinions meant a good deal to me liked it, and I was glad, but it didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t see anything but me hacking away on the text—without grace, without love, without pleasure. Hell of a way to treat a unicorn.

I read this, and I started sobbing. Here, on the page in front of me, was the exact same thing I was feeling about my work, put into words I couldn’t find myself. I went on to finish reading the book in one sitting. It really sticks with me. Especially Molly Grue.

I don’t know who or what Hase and Katz are anymore. To my professors, I played them off as these grand metaphors for two parts of myself, two parts that combine to make a whole, at the end. Some days they feel extremely different, not the yin and yang I once imagined. Most days, they don’t even really feel like me at all. Not anymore, at least.

To date, 78 people have downloaded Paper Cranes. Maybe to some people that’s not a lot, but it’s more than I ever could have imagined during those late nights working away on my laptop in my dorm room, and I am extremely touched and humbled by that. I am also, in some respects, embarrassed by it.

I hope one day I can look back at Paper Cranes and feel better about it. Maybe it just takes more distance. I’ve just never been a patient person.

pomp and circumstance

My dorm room is half empty. It’s mostly quiet: there’s chatter outside, the occasional rumble of cart and dolly wheels smacking on the cracks in the pavement. It hasn’t quite hit me yet: most of my belongings are in a car hurtling back toward the place I call home, but the little personal touches in this closet of a doom room are still here, so it doesn’t feel quite detached as it should be. My Scottish flags are still on the walls—St. Andrew’s cross hanging between small movie posters (for Serenity and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and cards from my twenty-first birthday. The Lion Rampant of Scotland is on the opposite wall, hanging over my bed (which is currently serving its purpose as a table more so than a bed). A drawing of Star that is three years old now is next to it.

My drawings are still on the door and the post-it notes are still scattered around my desk. It’s more spacious without the small appliances, sure, but there are still roots left, at least for this moment. I’ll have to dig them up myself tonight when I pack the rest of it.

It’s been a wild ride, these last four years. I’m not sure how else to put it. There’s been some ups and some downs, some extremes. But so much of what happened here has defined who I am today. The last semester feels like it’s ages away, and yet is was barely six months since I finished my thesis. I don’t think I ever even imagined the things I would do when I was first stepping foot on this campus.

I’ve made some really important changes in my life here. I’ve met some of my best friends, who have helped me through the good times and the bad. Even though we’re graduating, even though things are changing, I’m with these nerds to the end, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve had professors who have challenged me and help me grow. I’ve been through situations and come out stronger because of them. I wouldn’t trade any of it.

Time and change ebbs and flows. Right now it’s rushing, like a white water rapid and I’m struggling to stay on the raft. I don’t have a job lined up for after graduation. I honestly have no idea what I’m going to be doing in the next month. And it’s terrifying and exciting all bundled into one. But the trick is, I’m not the only one holding on. It may be cheesy to think that we’re all in the same boat, but it means we’re not alone, and we’ll have each other to get through the bumps and waves and calm moments.

I’ve been struggling this whole semester with who I am, or who I want to be. I’m not very vocal about politics or ethics because I’m a very inward person in that respect: too often I try to take the whole world on my shoulders and I collapse. I’ve been very anxious and craving validation, not only in my work, but even in my interests, and it’s driving me up a wall. So much is changing, becoming unstable, that I’ve been feeling the need for someone to tell me that one thing or another is “right”, even though no such thing exists.

You can’t change everything, not all at once at least. It’s a long, slow process, and it sucks, but if you focus on the little things, sometimes that helps more than feeling lost and frustrated trying to push a boulder up a mountain all on your own.

So I’m just focusing on this month. I’m graduating on Saturday. I’m going to a cool live show next week. I’m going on vacation with a bunch of amazing friends. Maybe somewhere in there I’ll secure some sort of employment. But all I can worry about now is what’s immediately in front of me. Those are the only things I can affect.

This is a big change in my life, and I’ve never dealt with change well. But it’ll all work out, somehow, in the end. And I’ll have amazing friends to figure it all out with along the way. We may think we’re heading to point B, but life has a funny way of flipping everything on its head, and before we know it, we’ll be miles past point Z.

But that’ll be ok. The less-beaten path is more fun, anyway.

we’ll find another way

If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m the kind of person that jams a lot of meaning into little things. It’s just my nature, I guess: I feel like if I’m making something, I need to just pack as much personal connection into it until its fit to burst. I make the best art that way, I think, and I think the work in which I do that connects with people more.

About a year ago, I thought about getting a tattoo. Me, with the pain tolerance of a tiny child, who never even got her ears pierced! And I decided to sit on it: think about it for a while, and if I still wanted to get it in a year, then it won’t be something I’ll regret or dislike down the road.

And today, I did it.

tattoo1

tattoo2

tattoo3

I’m lucky and thankful to have amazing friends who supported me during it, because even though it was small, holy crap did it hurt. I was bracing myself for the worst, and while it wasn’t that bad, it was definitely something indescribable. In fact, a lot like a needle being jammed into your skin over and over and over again and a rapid pace!

The crane just seemed natural; with everything I’ve done, my thesis, how significant it has become to me, I knew I wanted it. The words…the words took some thought. I was worried about them, to be honest. I’ve talked about how music affects me before, and I’ve talked about this song in particular on multiple occasions. But eventually, I decided, it’s not just the song that made me want it: it’s the memory and the feeling it encapsulates, and what both the song and the crane signify together.

This song isn’t just the words and the melody and all that jazz: it’s the moment a year ago when I decided that I wasn’t happy with how things were. It’s the moment where I picked myself up, with the support of so many wonderful people in my life, and decided to get help. Because, for the longest time, I didn’t think I deserved it. My problems were tiny and minuscule compared to other people’s issues, and I knew I was being too hard on myself, and I knew that I wasn’t a failure in any respect, but the part that knew and the part that believed didn’t connect, and I would get trapped in loops of self-loathing and misery and it sucked. Sometimes I get stuck in those loops again, but it’s different now. I know those loops are just lies, just roundabouts in my head that I’ll find the exit from soon enough.

This song is the courage to go to counseling. This song is the strength to pick myself back up again when I feel directionless. This song is that change in my life, one that I can actually see in my art and in myself: a change I made to really, truly, start to love myself again.

And it’s a realization that I never have to be stuck doing something that I don’t love, at least not for long. Graduating with a degree in something doesn’t seal my fate or anything ridiculous like that. There are so many paths, so many different ways I can go in my life, and I’ll never be able to take them all, but I’ll always be able to take one that’s right for me when I need it.

And the crane, the crane probably can never be properly explained, there’s just too much within it. If you’ve played my game, you’d know those three cranes, what each of them signify. Home. Self. Others. The crane is Hase escaping the Cells. The crane is Katz telling Hase that she’s worth it. That I’m worth it. I’m telling myself all of these things. Katz is me telling myself that it’s the people you love that make home, telling myself that I am strong and I can do this, no matter what. And after so much struggle, I’m starting to believe them.

I’ve been really anxious about the future lately: getting a Real Job, going out really on my own for the first time. It’s been really taking a toll on me. But getting this…it just reminds me that it’s gonna work out, no matter what happens.

When I came home from the tattoo place, my dad gave me a gift: a small, ceramic blue paper crane. “If I remember correctly,” he said, “this means you’ll always have a home.” (As you can imagine, there were many tears after that.)

The City as You Walk and the paper crane are not so much a beginning and an end as these moments in time that are forever connected, and will forever be a part of me. So, I wanted that part to show, because I never want to forget it. It’s a gift to myself, at the closing of the only chapter of my life that I’ve known, and onto something new, something that I can’t even predict. And no matter what happens, I know I’ll find my way through it, and it’ll be awesome.

Open your eyes. I believe in what you saw.

White and yellow lights blink off.

I can still walk on.

the light fantastic

It’s strange to me how so many important events occurred that shaped me on such an elemental level in both of the academic “junior” years of my life. It’s even odder to think that soon, I won’t even have that measurement; it’ll just be time, passing as time does.

But that’s another topic entirely.

I picked up my first Discworld novel during that first junior year of my life, the most harrowing and tumultuous time that is high school. There’s not much point in rehashing that mess, because let’s be real, everyone kind of had a crummy high school experience because it’s high school. But this isn’t about a crummy high school experience. This is about The Colour of Magic.

I had never read a book like The Colour of Magic before: a fantasy that was so light-hearted and funny and aware of itself in that most beautiful way where it’s not pandering to the audience at all, but it’s smart, and it’s alive. And it’s not childish: there is a way Terry Pratchett treats his readers, a very gentle way, a way that lets you in on the joke instead of being outside of it. I remember being in Physics class, reading instead of paying attention to the lesson (oh shush, we all did it at some point), and trying so hard not to just burst out in laughter; genuine, meaningful laughter. There was a tone to the work that I hadn’t experienced before: I loved each little tangent in the footnotes, the hilariously-accurate metaphors. I would stand outside of my German class with friends and read them passages out of the book that were particularly great. Even today, whenever someone is looking for a reading suggestion, a Discworld novel is my go to, because there really is something for everyone in them.

And the settings! Ankh-Morpork captivated me like no fantasy city has before it, because it had a feeling that Redwall Abbey, the Shire, or Diagon Alley didn’t have: it felt real to me. It was a real city full of heroes and adventurers and thieves and criminals and it smelled like New York City on a hot summer day, but my gosh, that made it the most wonderful place in the world to me. There’s a moment, and I can’t remember which book it’s in, but Rincewind returns to Ankh-Morpork after his travels, and experiences this utter joy at the grime and the odor and the chaos that the city is, because it’s his city, Ankh-Morpork is his home, no matter how dirty or on-fire it is.

And perhaps it’s my penchant for lanky, inept heroes, but Rincewind was immediately endearing to me. He wasn’t just the underdog, or an unlikely hero, he was just a guy. A failed wizard looking to save his own skin, like most of us are (maybe not the wizard part, but you catch my drift). He almost falls off the edge of the world, pulled into all sorts mischief and mayhem, and throughout the whole thing, he just remains this guy who is torn between wanting to go home and live a normal life, and wanting to prove Something to people. And because of that, the moments where he does something remotely heroic, they’re awesome. He survives by common sense and instinct, not flashy magic and tricks, and that makes him such a great character. I’m pretty sure he knocks a guy out with a brick-sock at one point. Maybe I’m remembering that wrong though. I’m fairly certain there was a brick-sock involved at some point.

Discworld changed me. It changed how I approached fantasy and writing. It made me realize that you can be silly and whimsical and funny and still have those serious and real elements in a story, in fantasy. It showed how fantasy doesn’t half to be these high-brow epics reserved only for the most dedicated of fans: it can be silly and comforting, lighthearted and quiet. It can be home, in the humble and cozy way that only home can be. And he was able to say all of those feelings in a simple sentence.

Thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett. Rest in peace.