Twenty-five "Issues"

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This being Issue 25, I thought I'd reflect on the question, 'Why the hell am I doing this Rabbit Hole thing?!'

The activity that day was abseiling—you know, scaling down a rock face with nothing but a harness and rope. We were in a disused quarry. There were eight or so boys and two adults. I was the youngest—no more than eleven or twelve.

Most of the other boys had taken their first turn. I was second to last. I’d been watching from the bottom, and it looked terrifying enough from there, but being nearer the top revealed how flimsy the whole setup was—a single, worn rope tied to a smallish tree above a 50 metre sheer drop. I watched that grey rope twist and stretch as the boy before me went down, and way too soon it was my turn.

The instructor put me in the harness and I felt all my blood rush away to wait for me at the bottom of the cliff. He was talking, but I didn’t take in what he was saying. It was waffle in my ears. He might as well have played a trombone stuffed full of cotton wool for all the sense it made to me. My attention was on the harness straps digging into the backs of my thighs, the slippery dry red dirt beneath my sandshoes, and the tufts of dry grass that grew around the cliff’s edge, which were too short and rough to hold onto if I fell.

All there was between me and death as a bloodied mangled heap was that rope, and faith that these people knew what they were doing.

The instructor got me over the first lip of the drop and that was enough—I freaked. I couldn’t do it. After anxiously batting away their reassurances, I must have managed to impress upon them that I wasn’t going to be doing this today, 'no way,' and being the youngest they let me go back up.

I hadn’t got as far as being able to see the sheer drop beneath me, but I just knew what it was going to be like. I knew I would feel even more freaked-out. It’s like I panicked to get out of that situation before the real panic set in.

Trust? I had none—in the rope, in them, or in me.

Later, back at the bottom of the hill, I felt humiliated. I wandered away from the rest of the group. I could hear the whooping and cheering each time another boy made it down the cliff, and I was jealous and angry. I knew if I’d just been a little braver, I would've been sharing in that feeling of accomplishment—that rush of facing fear, doing it anyway, and coming through the other side.

Instead, I felt a great sense of loss that I couldn’t share in what I imagined everyone else had found in themselves that day—a flicker of faith that could lead them through any future adversity.

I kicked at a pile of nearby rocks, upsetting them and a small cloud of dust.

Art shakes its fist at death

In my experience, once you leave childhood, making things and showing them to people is exactly like being on that cliff. There’s this threshold you have to overcome to be able to do it.

Making art is as unnatural as abseiling. Putting words on paper is a risk. Making marks on canvas too. Standing on stage is a big one—the stuff of nightmares—and standing there and singing is even worse. And then you might be there to sing a melody you wrote, or words you poured your heart into—all so a half-drunk, half-asleep, half-couldn’t give a sh*t audience can leer, jeer, think they can do better, or worst of all, be completely disinterested. And it’s the same for anyone who does creative work. Why would you do that to yourself? Why take the risk?

The thought that always plagues me is: ‘There are heaps of people out there who can do what I do better than me. Why would anyone care about my poultry contribution?'

(Yes, I wrote poultry not paltry. I feel like it intensifies the… well, the bald, plucked, naked, ‘poultry-ness’ of how I sometimes feel about what I make.)

And yet, it rolls around to Saturday or Sunday and I get antsy.

Something’s flipped in me. I’m no longer scared of writing and showing people; now I’m scared of not doing it.

My worry is if I stop doing it for a week or more, it’ll be too hard to summon the courage to take the risk again.

So since the start of this year, I’ve been writing an issue a week, and I don’t feel I’ve accomplished something until I’ve done it. Every weekend I struggle and think, ‘Nup. This time, this one really sucks'. And every week so far I’ve closed my eyes and coaxed myself over the precipice. It's like I have to hit this point of hopelessness—this point where I tell myself:

‘I don’t give a f*ck what anyone thinks anymore, I just wanna finish something so I can feel like I’ve moved one step beyond where I was yesterday or last week and get on with the rest of the weekend ‘cause Monday’s gonna roll around and I’ll have to drag my sorriness out of bed and go to work, and if I have to step one foot in that place without at least doing one small itsy bitsy thing that gives my life some semblance of joy, some semblance of something interesting, some feeling of shape and contour—if I haven’t a least made a modicum of effort towards my emancipation from the endless merry-go-round of the wage-slave-work-week—(deep breath), I’ll f*ckin scream!’

You know, 'that feeling.'

So, as I said, Saturday rolls around and I get cranky. I’m irritable. I’ve got to get past the stage where I care if anyone likes this thing because I made a promise to keep going until I get better at this.

It all started with something Ira Glass said. Ira—the founder and presenter of the fantastic radio show This American Life­—explains in a series of videos about the thinking and philosophy behind what he does:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Which is why I decided to number each issue of Rabbit Hole. Most weeks, in order to short-circuit the second-guessing, my only goal sometimes is just to see the number tick over.

And then there’s Austin Kleon's advice in his book Show Your Work that I’ve mentioned before, where he says:

“The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning in front of others.” (19)

So, for me, there’s the stoic Ira Glass thing of ‘just keep going and expect to suck for years until your output matches your expectations’, and there’s Austin Kleon’s ‘show people while you’re doing it and give yourself time to grow,’ and then there’s one other thing I want to mention that I also saw in Kleon’s book. The quote was by essayist Colin Marshall:

"Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide."

(If this were a radio show, a workshop or a lecture, I'd put a little pause right here to acknowledge the abrupt left turn we just made.)

"Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide." Since I read it, that idea has stuck with me like spinach in teeth on a blind date.

This is what I've been doing for a lot of my life—avoiding embarrassment. We all do by varying degrees, I guess. Suppress, contort, hide parts of ourselves away until we no longer recognise who, what and where we are. So, I guess with these essays I wanted to “Pull on trouble’s braids” as Tom Waits says—take myself out of that place of comfort; put something at risk.

This desire is like what Hélène Cixous talks about in her mind-blowingly good essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Although Cixous’s essay is a much needed call-to-arms for the social and political advancement of women’s writing and creativity, I can identify with it in my own way. I can see that creative ‘chicken-ness’ in myself that needs to be overthrown:

“I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn't open my mouth, I didn't repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What's the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? Where is the ebullient infinite woman who...hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a ...divine composure), hasn't accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn't thought that she was sick? Well, her shameful sickness is that she resists death, that she makes trouble.” (876)

But I’m not quite there just yet. That’s why Rabbit Hole is semi-anonymous—I never mention my name because if I did, some part of me would constrict and I couldn’t do it.

I need Rabbit to be Batman to my Bruce Wayne.

‘Issues’ and 'episodes' in ironic ‘scare’ quotes (also ironically cited)

It’s always been funny to me that we call serialised stories, articles or comics ‘issues.’ It’s the same with 'episodes' of TV and radio shows. Both 'issues' and 'episodes' have a connotation that is linked with mental health—we all have issues; we’ve all had bad episodes in our lives.

So to have 25 of them voluntarily in a year and three months has been no small thing. Each ‘episode’ confronts an ‘issue’ and the worst issue of all for me seems to be shame.

Why take the risk of failure, ridicule, or indifference? Well, you need a pretty strong set of rewards that outweigh those fears. For me, overcoming that threshold and getting good at circumventing shame would be the best reward of all.

If you have a project to start or continue working on today, and you need a pick-me-up bit of encouragement, listen to Ira Glass say that stuff about 'fighting your way through' in the clip below.

And also, f*ck those scary heights! Do it anyway.

You may feel terrified at the time, but you'll feel excited and a lot better afterwards.

Rabbit