I was just listening to Liz Gilbert’s Magic Lessons #207 with Neil Gaiman (who apparently is my Jungian Archetypal Muse of choice, about which more in a moment) for the nth time while also trying to plan out a project that I am terrified to begin.
I’ve always been a reader and writer–you know what I mean, because you probably were, too. I was the kid who checked out three books from the school library in the morning, read them under my desk, and exchanged them for three more the next day. Growing up, I was most passionate about Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Duncan, Stephen King, Meredith Ann Pierce. Words were my thing, even while I dabbled in painting, drawing, sewing, and collage. I wanted to be a writer, a creator of books like those on the library shelves. There was nothing more important, more beautiful, than the written word alone and the ideas it could express, the aspects of humanity it could illuminate.
Then, in 1991, I walked into a comic book store and my life changed forever.
The first thing that drew my attention was called Black Orchid, because (a) it featured a female protagonist who was not wearing spandex, and (b) was illustrated in a style that felt more…authentic? Outsider? I don’t know. These were not cartoonish panels; this was something else, pencils and pastels, soft and beautiful. A melding of illustration and text that spoke to me of the possibility of the medium. The publisher was Vertigo, a still new-ish imprint of DC. The art was gorgeous, but the writing was something I could identify more directly with, and having loved Black Orchid, I then devoured everything else the writer had out; namely, Sandman, which tickled all of the right neurons and completely re-wallpapered my gothy little brain. I was 21 years old, newly married, broke, and pregnant, and my life’s goal was to write for Vertigo, and then-editor Karen Berger.
And I tried. My then-husband and I bought 50 comics we couldn’t afford every single month. I studied. I drew. I wrote Sandman fan-fiction comic scripts.
Then I had a baby, and a divorce, and complicated things further by discovering a thing that Gaiman had previously done with Black Orchid artist Dave McKean called Violent Cases (which I must have encountered in one of its re-releases, as it was in color and it must have been 1993 or 1994 when I found it). I read it, cried a bit, read it again, and then despaired, because frankly, they’d done it. They’d made the thing I had wanted to make, but they’d done it better than I could ever hope to. I was a single mother living in poverty. There were rats in the apartment and childcare to pay for. The comic I’d always wanted was in the world; why bother making anything else? I had more important things to worry about. So I quit.
Several years later came a second marriage, and a second baby, and long nights up with my new daughter, and I remembered. I started again. And I had a dream:
A night street, a corner under a street light. I’m worrying about the comic I’m writing, or trying to write, which I’m supposed to pitch to someone in the dream-building across the street; a portal fantasy about two sisters based on my daughters, which I’ve titled “Keys.” How to fill 26 pages with panels and beats and a splash page and tight dialog; I just don’t know enough. Out of the mist walks a dream-Neil Gaiman, hands in the pockets of his signature black leather jacket, who pauses beside me for only a moment. He doesn’t even look at me, as if he’s addressing the street light, or the moon: “Not twenty-six. Four pages. Start there.” And he walks away.
I took this to heart. Four pages. How do I write a story in four pages?! I came to understand that I needed to learn more: plot, character, voice, and most importantly, how to finish a story. I was now 30 years old, and I’d learned a few things about life, such as: When you want to learn how to do something, seek out people who are doing that thing, and do what they did.
So I learned to write prose, from people whose work I admired, and from workshops and conferences and online critique groups. As luck would have it, my favorite author had started one of those new-fangled “web-logs” as he worked on his next novel, which would be called American Gods. I looked to his blog for advice on creativity and drive; I looked to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for advice on craft and the business of publishing. And I had another dream:
A loft; red brick walls; clearly something I got from television or film, since I’ve lived in California all my life and spaces like this one just don’t exist here. It’s a party, and in the corner is none other than Dream-Gaiman, surrounded by friends and admirers. Someone beside me encourages me to approach him, and assures me that I can ask him absolutely anything in this moment: any advice, anything at all, and he will definitely answer. I approach, nervous, and he looks at me, expectant; I freeze, and realize that there’s nothing he can tell me at this point, because I already know what he will say: Make mistakes. Finish things. This time I’m the one to walk away, leaving him to his people.
Eventually I finish things; I make any number of mistakes. I start sending my stories out; eventually some of them are published; a few get a little bit of attention. Anthology invitations and reprint requests come. I volunteer for a magazine, in an effort to study and learn the difference between mediocre stories and great ones. (Eventually I meet Neil, and he even does me a favor as a friend-of-a-friend, a favor related to someone else’s dream of him, which makes all of this feel even weirder.) Eventually I edit an issue that champions women in the science fiction field; the work wins a Hugo and a British Fantasy Award, which I am very proud of.
None of which, you may have noticed, is making comics.
Now I’m 46 years old, and I’m working on a novel, which is the thing that we who come from short stories are all supposed to do. Life has been generous enough to arrange itself so that working on the novel is my job. I love my novel. It’s fantastical and sexy and gothy and grotesque; it has science and magic and politics and passion. I’m deeply attached to it; I’ve put countless hours into it. I think it has great promise.
But lately I’ve been thinking about those comics I started all of this in the service of. Those four-page comics that my Jungian-Neil Muse told me to start with. I’ve started thinking about how some of my shortest stories might fit into that format. I’ve started gathering materials: paints, papers, fabrics, beads, embroidery hoops, broken glass, chalk, rusted nails and paper dolls (things comics aren’t typically made of, but I’ve always thought they SHOULD be made of, things Dave McKean convinced me they could be made of). I’ve started sketching panel layouts.
And then, last Tuesday, I had another dream, the details of which don’t matter. Just Dream-Gaiman, who looks up briefly from what he’s doing and says:
“You know, I’m still waiting for you to show me what you’re capable of.”