I have just finished reading this graphic memoir – there is something very unique to the genre, an emotional depth that exists because of the cartoon images, rather than despite them. Anyway, I’m sobbing*.
It seems from what I have found so far that literary studies have given a good amount of time and acknowledgement of the genre, that medicine is starting to acknowledge what a powerful empathic tool it can be, but the social sciences less so, though gender and feminist scholars have some work on them. Psychology even less, though I did find one health psychology article that specifically addressed the graphic memoir.
I think there is a lot to explore here. Anyway, I’m sobbing.
*I’m not much of a sobber. I mostly cry when I’m very angry, which can be most unfortunate.
Like I said, given the choice I would stick to what I’ve already started, so that’s still Plan A (or B, or C, I lose track).
But, if I do have to think about years of managing neuritis I may have found a reasonable solution that will not only allow me to finish the PhD, but give me the mental energy to carry on with some marking and tutoring, both of which are also important to me. It isn’t the solution I was going to write about yesterday (but includes a lot of the best elements), because after I wrote that post I just kept thinking – if drawing doesn’t exacerbate the pain and helps me feel mentally much better, I should really find a way to draw?
So I went searching this afternoon and found that graphic memoirs, especially illness memoirs, were a thing. Who knew? There is some research done on different aspects of these kind of narratives but (having only spent a few hours on it so far, don’t quote me) a wide open space right up through the middle of them to conduct further research. I am wondering about a combination of analysis of other’s work, and drawing a memoir of my own research (and how it came to be my research) to sit along-side that analysis. There could be a lot of different aspects to it, looking at visual storytelling as a research method, how illness is represented in these kinds of books, the point of representing illness in these kinds of books, and as a possible way to translate academic findings into something more accessible. To name a few.
Ultimately, our sense is that graphic memoirs of disability, illness, and other types of difference share many characteristics with more traditional, exclusively textual life writing forms, though in graphic life writing the visual dynamic—involving the connections and disconnections between the verbal and visual—produces specific engagements with disjunction, complexity, and the ineffable.
I don’t know about you, but the words disjunction, complexity and the ineffable get all my artsy researchery goosebumps going. And yes, it’s kind of the Master’s thesis redux, where blogging is swapped out for graphic memoir, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s building on what I already know and making use of what I have already done.
Other Things to Like About Plan H (or D or E, F, G, I lose track):
I could further the research on the idea of small freedoms that I introduced in the Master’s thesis. I think it’s a really useful idea in all different kinds of resistance, and I didn’t get to explore or explain it in enough depth. I could look into that more here.
It allows for the possibility to include humour*. I find a difficulty with a lot of memoir, and research, and illness narratives in general is how seriously they take themselves. Life is funny, even when it’s hard, and sad. I think so. Super Adequate Woman thinks so. It would be very satisfying to bring some element of humour into my research.
It could also include ideas of the beautiful awful, the social gaze, protest art, to name a few of the previous incarnations of Ideas I Have Had. They can all be part of both researching and creating a graphic memoir. In Search of The Green Man has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Oh yes, and mythology! I was so keen to use mythology in the Master’s but never could quite make it work. It could work here.
As above, it very much ties in to the book that got me all excited about artifacts of loss in the first place. In the interment camps, the Japanese American’s used what was around them to create art and crafts to brighten their tiny homes, to bring some joy into their lives, to feel more human. I can see this as a way to use what I can still do (again, yes, let’s hope it’s temporary etc., and so forth) to contribute to the field of critical health psychology, and bring some joy into my life while I am doing it; a creative artifact of my own loss. Did that make sense? I will be able to explain it better when I’ve thought about it more, but I know there is a link there. Oh, probably they are both examples of small freedoms inside the generally restrictive world of habitus. All my roads seem to lead to Bourdieu.
I probably haven’t explained what it is about the current research that I feel unable to do? It’s all the travelling and the interviews – the thought of driving all over town and giving the kind of sustained and empathetic attention the participants deserve – it sounds pathetic, and I loathe writing it, but as things stand I’m not up to being able to do all that very well. The driving alone will kill me.
I know there were other things I wanted to briefly note, but I’ve hit my concentration limit and have forgotten them all, and none of this might ever be needed in any case. I’ll close the laptop now and pop off for a cup of tea and a bit of Netflix. I’m expecting to hear from the neurologist again this week, and once I know what she has to say about next steps, I can decide whether to jump the current ship or just keep rowing.
Supervisors willing, of course*.
*I made this graphic in photoshop one day when I was at my worse and couldn’t even sleep, before I was prescribed suitable pain relief (which I have had to stop for a while so I have the thinking ability to mark essays, because I tried to mark a few last week and just couldn’t tell what was good or bad about them, despite being sure I would be able to. Essays are easy! Bugger that to all damnation. So, now the pain is creeping back – Scylla and Charybdis, etc.) She (I forgot what name you gave her, Veronica?) still makes me smile, every time I look at her.
**I think I can hear Kerry grumping*** at how I am wasting time writing about all this palaver when I could be getting on with the research we’ve already started. Fair enough too. It’s just – I’m sad. Not depressed, not anxious, not panicking. Just very sad. And this cheered me up enormously, so a Sunday afternoon well spent, I think.
***My apologies if I can’t. I’ll write out the sentence ‘I mustn’t put words in my supervisor’s mouth‘ a thousand times in penance. Well, I won’t, but I could download the Dragon software you suggested and recite them instead if you like.
It’s been a very long while. A disconnecting kind of long while, where ideas are lost and threads broken. But Spring has arrived and popped her sweet little face around my front door and reminded me that if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.
I’ve been both idle and busy, and in a state of distracting pain or terrible fatigue, depending on whether I am taking my current gazillion drugs for pain relief or not. I find it hard to function in either case; more precisely I find it hard to think. It’s hard to Ph.D. when you can’t think. It’s hard to do anything when you can’t think*. A lot of what I like about myself has been tied up in my ability to think, and not being able to do that very well has been, without an ounce of exaggeration or self pity**, desolating.
Except for drawing things. I can draw without pain or fatigue for hours at a time, lose myself in the dance of line and curve, colour and movement. It’s deeply joyful and a place where my otherwise dumb-head thick-brain can still flourish. Which is odd, because drawing was always my least favourite art activity before now. Life, eh? What a twisty-turny mess she can be.
But you can’t draw a Ph.D. (or can you?) and even if I can fully recover from, significantly improve, or just learn to work around this current state of zombie-being, I’ve already lost months to whatever currently anonymous disease this is, and I can’t afford to lose many, any, more.
Enter the Green Man.
This is an MRI scan of two of the inflamed nerve roots in my cervical spine, the C6 pair. They are the worst two of eight inflamed nerves, but that is not the point of this story. The point of this story is one of my friends thought this could be a picture of a mustachioed goat, and the other chimed in, no! That, my dear, is a Green Man!
I didn’t know what a Green Man was and so I asked Uncle Google who told me of the Green Man’s widespread mythologies spanning thousands of years and various cultures , all of which might be summed up with this one idea: Green Man brings birth from death, renewal from desolation.
And I have one inside of me.
I didn’t look at the author’s name when I started reading this book but I made a bet with myself a few pages into the first chapter that they were almost certainly male and white, which, according to the author’s picture on the back cover, they most certainly are. It wasn’t so much the central idea of the book that made me think so, a critique against standards in autoethnography and memoir, some of which I wholeheartedly agree with, it was the sense of unironic condescension I found in the way he writes this critique: “…the battle is with autoethnography and memoir as these have become deployed in the idle, the self-deluded and the faux.”
Goddam those faux! And the navel gazing emotions that muddy the pristine waters of clear information. Also, mediocre artists, writers, post-graduates and the plebs who think their ordinary stories worth our time and attention, let them eat cake whilst keeping their self-deluded mediocrity away from all of the rest of us, where even are the standards anymore?
I may have turned mildly pissed-off bemusement into fury when he started using as an example the evils of the ‘near-manic’ rise of the ‘Momoir’ – “… in many cases empathy is skewed into the type of contemporary indulgence that every day is a victory over the travails of ordinary life”. Keeps your hands off the keyboards, ladies (unless you are Susan Sontag), we are not interested in your stories of the diapers.
I am interested in your stories of the diapers, and I think that the travails of ordinary life can be the site of some of our hardest won victories. (But of course, I would. I’ve never done anything to earn the right to memoir, having never accomplished anything noteworthy***).
I agree on – advocate passionately for – the need for craftmanship in research. In all areas of research. And I can also agree there is a danger for both autoethnography and memoir to turn to self-indulgence, even, horrors, badly written navel gazing. But I think this author may have mistaken the ordinary for the mediocre, and I found it hard to listen to what he had to say over the continued smell of meritocratic asshattery.
Look, the thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to get better, I don’t know if I can Push Through and Carry On this time. I just don’t. I’ve been struggling a great deal, one way or another, since the middle of my Master’s when the neuritic problems first showed up. I just want to sleep. Sleep, and draw, and moan a bit because what’s a pain for if not to moan about? And sleep. I really don’t know what to do about any of it anymore, other than invent comic heroes through which to laugh at myself, which, I must say, was a really very excellent thing to do.
But I do think there might be a way to create a research project that ties all the things I have done toward this PhD already, in a way that will mean if I stay a drugged-up dumb-head thick-brain for the next few years it won’t slow or halt the research. A project that takes the idea of portraits and the social gaze, of shadow objects and familial relationships, of the beautiful awful; that uses and furthers some ideas in my Master’s, and pokes big old fun at the navel gazing of self-indulgent memoir in a way that both embraces and subverts creative methodologies, and makes use of the Green Man in my neck and all his promise. One where the whole of the last year becomes useful and relevant, rather than something to regret and put behind me. Yes, even the self-indulgent navel-gazing embarrassment that was my Summer of Prednisone Anxiety.
Such a creature exists. I’ve even met her, and she’s epic. Perhaps super-adequate. In any case, definitely good enough.****
You’ll have to wait for another day for a better, more detailed, summary*****. This post has already taken weeks longer than it should, and now I have essays to mark, and my nerves are fucking killing me.
But still, in conclusion and PS: I really don’t know if this is a sunrise or a sunset on my currently much-too-brief academic career; only time will be able to tell me that. I hope sunrise. But for now, for today, the more important thing to understand is that Winter has once again rolled over into Spring, and if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.
*But you could concentrate long enough to write a blog post? Well, yes. Ish. It took over two weeks though.
**Okay, sure, maybe a few ounces, here and there.
***A quote I stole from said author, who is quoting another author, but we’re all just being mostly tongue-in-cheek, such a laugh, hahaha!
****My preference would be to stay the current course, actually. And maybe I can, it’s just taking forever for answers so I am starting to think I need a back-up ready to go in case this pain is going to stick around for a while, that’s all.
*****Much sooner than another three months, I promise. Next weekend. Let’s make a date.
As modern as collage is, encaustic is equally ancient; used by Roman era Egyptians in the first few centuries A.D. to create funerary portraits that they would then fix to an enshrouded mummy. These are three examples of many that have been found (images taken from the British Museum), the beeswax and resin used in the process provided their remarkable longevity. If you don’t expose encaustic artwork to excessive heat or freezing temperatures, they’re reasonably indestructible.
Encaustic is not a popular contemporary fine art technique, though it is enjoying (I read somewhere) something of a revival. A famous example is Jasper John’s mid 20th century iconic Flag (above), or his equally famous, and I think supremely unsettling, White Flag (below).
I’ve never seen either in person, but I would very much like to, so that I can see for myself the collaged pieces of newspaper and other quotidian detritus he used as background before painting on the wax.
Here it is in closer detail. I love that. Though I suspect if a female artist had done it, it would have been categorised as craft rather than art, but I’m just a little bitter because 44 years of living as a said female does that to you on some days. It’s a fabulous piece of art. I believe it is also a more fragile one than the ancient encaustic examples because Jasper did not mix resin into his beeswax, oops.
I like that as a technique it was developed to enshrine portraits of the dead, and I like that it will leave me with my own set of reasonably permanent research relics that my children will then have to decide what to do with after I am gone; their inheritance a story of other people’s ghosts.
Apropos of nothing, I have set myself a task of reading half a novel tomorrow. Over the course of my Psychology studies I’ve lost something of the concentration span needed to enjoy novels, especially the more literate ones, and it’s to my regretful loss – Kerry once asked me if I read everything, and my current reply would be that I used to. I did make the rookie mistake of asking my much more literate friends for a recommendation, however, and now have an enormous book mountain sitting next to my bed. Bummer that I also have a new semester about to start.
These lean more toward encaustic photography than encaustic collage in general, which would work too. The key, for me, is the shadowed, ghostly layer the encaustic process adds. You could get it with digital effects, but it wouldn’t have the same textural quality, the same feeling of both time and memory layered over the original moment, or object, or relationship.
I’m signed up to a 2 day workshop in August to learn the process. Also this coursera course, courtesy of Kerry (say that ten times fast), and I now have (did I say?) the bare bones of the first article I need to write sketched down. It will be about this process, about creating method rather than imposing it, and not just a theoretical argument on why that’s important, or at least useful, but also how that can work at a pragmatic level.
In my imagination, a rather messy and disturbingly random little place, there lives a shadowy idea of how to represent shadow objects visually. It requires found objects, and photocopies of photographs, and beeswax, and painting, and it ends up looking something like this:
It’s perfect. It’s a type of collage, which relates it to my earlier thesis work and to all the implications collage had as a form of visual communication there, but it also has a ghostly opaqueness and a greater material physicality that speaks more to this specific thesis. It’s a highly flexible medium, and, I think, a highly storied one.
Also I get to paint a little bit…
I see a series of encaustic collages grouped together on a wall in an exhibition as a type of visual essay, with perhaps other sensory memories included; a scent, or a song for instance, and again, only where it is an important part of the story. I am keen to add in sensory memories if/when I can, because reasons; and no, the zines are not forgotten, and yes, it will all work together, but more on all of that later – right now I have to drive two children to work. Again.
The standard kind of progress – I’ve read and taken notes on Objects of the Dead* and Loneliness and Longing** – and the Megan kind of progress, where some nebulous kind of idea about the final exhibition is beginning to form in my nebulous kind of head. I see a lot of cross-disciplinary ideas around geography and story, material culture, art and the senses, beginning to emerge and don’t ask me to explain further because I can’t.
The senses are interesting, though, aren’t they? How much of memory and longing is interpreted, remembered, through the senses? Visually, a lot of course – it took me 16 years after my father died to stop seeing his face on random people in the street – but what of touch, and taste, and smell, and sound? Margaret Gibson talks briefly of transitional objects, an item of clothing perhaps, that retains the scent of the deceased that people sometimes keep around to hold the memory close as they move through the intensity of their grief. I remember the specific smell of my father’s top drawer in his bedside table, a singular scent of laundered handkerchief and tobacco. I would go in there sometimes to specifically sniff that scent, and I know I wasn’t the only offspring to do so. Odd. I don’t miss the smell, it isn’t a shadow in that sense, there is no loss or longing involved, but it is a specific and enduring sense memory.
Sense memories could be a kind of abstract shadow object though, if those words are even a thing at all. I need better descriptors, but it’s Monday and I’m already tired, so that will have to do. I’m thinking of the mother of one of my son’s friends, a young man who died recently, not yet twenty, just too sad at what he believed is the state of this world to want to live in it. Some videos of him playing computer games with his friends were posted on his Facebook page, and his mother wrote a not thanking the young man who put them there. She said her greatest sorrow was that she would not hear her son’s voice anymore, and now she could listen to it whenever she needed to. A voice forever caught in that moment in time, but nevertheless. His voice.
I don’t know where I’m going here, I’m just thought jamming. Thought jamming is definitely a thing at all.
*I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. Broad ideas drawn too readily, I think, and a great deal more thematic than theoretical, with too many ideas being squished in. Good books are like a good meal; sure, you could show off by throwing in all the flavours, but the dish will be much the better for selecting a few complimentary ones.
I don’t know if good books are like that at all, I just made it up.
**Mostly written from a psychoanalytic point of view, which is not one I much subscribe to, but some interesting points made in a few essays. The subsuming of longing under the broad umbrellas of depression or anxiety was one of them, and there was something written by an English Professor that was worth the read, if only for the break from over-indulgent academic writing. You know lots of big psychoanalytic words, I get it, but dear authors, do you know how to communicate what they mean?
***Not entirely arbitrary portraits; I am thinking of using photographs of the deceased as part of the doctoral exhibition artwork and have been looking through my own archive for ideas. I seemed to have stopped taking a lot of ‘proper’ photographs around 3 years ago, I couldn’t tell you why.
Alternative title: jumping to the end before I begin…
I don’t know anything about Leonie Brialey’s graphic novel “raw feels” (a.k.a. qualia) other than I want to own a copy, and it was written as part of her PhD project (+ an exegesis, which, thanks to Kerry, I now can’t think of as anything else but an exit jesus). I don’t understand graphic novels, how (or if?) they’re different to comics, but I do love the fact that someone made one for her Ph.D. and that I found it through a friend of a friend of a friend, because that is how I find a lot of my very best most favourite things.
Leonie also has some zines for sale on her site, which interested me because I have been asked by a few people recently to publish some of my random art journal nonsense in a zine for them to purchase. I don’t know anything much about zines, except they have something of a cult following and seem to run the gamut from a few photocopied/stapled pages to professionally printed full colour masterpieces. But it’s an idea I can’t shake, which is not of interest to my research except that I have also been thinking about wanting something more than an photography exhibition as a creative product of the research. I want to recognise the partnership of any future (bless you) respondents in a material way, to bring back something to them in return for sharing their stories of loss and longing.
So, I’m thinking zines, one for each participant, full of their stories and my artwork (photography, yes, but I also think anything else that I might have scribbled or drawn or painted as part of my thinking process.) Different, but related to, the photographic essays, a lot more informal and messy and, um, fun. The participants will get their own copy, but there’ll be more copies for sharing, or even selling, barring consent, of course. Or perhaps a zine of the research process itself? Or both?
I think I just heard both supervisors rolls their eyes so hard they turned a full 360 degrees in their head because my reach is, as always, exceeding my grasp (though Browning says it should, or what’s a heaven for?). But there’s an ethos to zines that I think fits really well with both my personal research philosophy in general, and this research topic in particular. I am starting to feel the beginnings of multiple strands of theoretical and artistic connections forming, in the same way I did when I chose to use collage in the Master’s thesis, and that tells me it’s worth pursuing, even if I’ve just added a heap more work to the whole thing, work that isn’t strictly necessary. It’s not work work, though. It’s joy work. And joy, as Ms Oliver says, was not made to be a crumb*.
*If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Writing seems to be a problem of some kind. It isn’t as if most people can just sit down and start to write brilliantly, get up from the desk, do something else all day, and then, next morning start again without any conflict or anxiety. To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? How should I live? Who do I want to be?
– Hanif Kureishi
I’m reading a book about creative writing*, for two reasons**: I want to push the creative writing aspect in this research project a little further than I did with the Master’s thesis, without knowing what that means just yet, and also because I believe that learning about anything creative teaches you something about everything creative. When I came across Hanif Kureishi’s statement that attempting anything creative is to ask questions not only about the craft itself, but of oneself and of life, I psychically fist-bumped the man. It’s why I’m such an advocate of creative methodologies in research, but more generally, of promoting a creative mindset, because spending time with the questions, I believe, helps us to think critically about the answers.
Hanif had something to say about that too (emphasis mine):
Experience keeps coming. If the self is partly formed from the blows, wounds and marks made by the world, then writing is a kind of self-healing. But creativity initiates disturbance too. It is a kind of scepticism which attacks that which is petrified.
A sort of instability, he called it. In my Master’s thesis I talked about it in terms of Chaos, in the sense that it exists in the gap between possibility and presence, the things which could be and those that already are. Creativity, in writing, in art, in arts-based research, in all different kinds of research, can help uncover the things that can be learned and understood within that gap; it is a way to spend more time looking at what could be, I suppose, than replicating what already exists. Not for its own sake, but in order that new ideas, new points of view, new ways of doing things. new knowledge that can be brought across that gap. A bridge between possibility and presence.
Can I use another quote? I’ll be quoting a lot for a while because I’m at the stage in my research where I need to read a thousand things to understand both my subject matter and my approach to that subject matter, and also I like to quote. This one from Hilary Mantel:
When you stand on the verge of a new narrative, when you have picked your character, you stretch out your hand in the dark and you don’t know who or what will take it.***
I don’t know who or what will take my outstretched hand. But I do know that standing here at the beginning of the beginning and waiting to see what and who and how everything unfolds is my most favourite place to be.