EXCEPTIONAL NEGRESS IN THE SECOND DIMENSION (WHY I CAN’T CHOOSE WRITING OVER ART OR ART OVER WRITING)
Dec 30, 2021
Should you say anything? Do it. Do it. Who cares if you sound stupid? You have a question. You have a question, so ask it. Stop making this a big fucking deal.
These are the internal deliberations and self-flagellation that swirl my mind one Saturday afternoon in one moderately sized ballroom. I’m in the audience of a moderated author discussion at my city’s annual literary festival.
Suddenly, I see myself walking toward the mic stand placed in the center of the room. I have a vague idea of what I’m going to ask. It occurred to me 40 minutes earlier. And, in the time since, I’d only been half-listening to the discussion. The other half of my attention, fixed on mentally rehearsing my question in the event I could muster the courage to ask.
But, now I hear my voice reverberate through the PA system. My words hit my ears and judge them in real-time. All those uhs and umms. The upspeak and the vocal fry. I sound like an insecure valley girl and not the grown woman that I am. But the fact that I’m using the phrase “valley girl” in and of itself should clue you in on my actual age.
Eventually, I squeak the question out and scurry back to the outskirts of the room.
What was that? The author I’ve posed the question to didn’t hear me? My marble mouth has vexed me once again? I have to go back to the mic in the middle of the room and restate my question more clearly?
It comes as no surprise. I’ve always been a lackluster verbal communicator, and through the years I’ve unconsciously developed other ways to express my ideas.
As a kid, I was always doing all sorts of crafty shit for fun. I would decoupage old shoe boxes with magazine cutouts of roses or attempt to fashion dollhouse furniture out of toothpicks, cotton balls, and denim scraps.
For school, of course, I had to write. Much like the experience of writing this essay, I had to browbeat myself into initiating the task. Still, I had a knack for it and my writing usually garnered good grades and head pats from adults.
I realize now that I’ve honed these skills subconsciously — writing and art-making — to compensate for what I perceive to be speaking deficiencies. These days, I feel at home in the second dimension with my essays and my illustrations. I can tidily express abstract concepts. I get to use the backspace button, I get to erase the line until I say it just right. On this flat plane, no one can tell that my mouth won’t ever be able to keep up with the intricacies of my thinking. In a society where many think little of me and others who also exist in a Black, feminine vessel — the second dimension provides safe harbor, where I can truly demonstrate my exceptionality.
Because you see, seated at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, I seem to have developed a gnarly insecurity complex.
To combat this issue, I’ve done what any other well-adjusted person would — relentlessly seek a constant stream of external validation.
At first, I thought I would just write. It requires fewer tools than artmaking but it also demands that I be clear on whatever message I’m trying to communicate. I aim to leave as little room for ambiguity in my writing as possible. And though the process can be painful, I am always fully engaged with my reasoning. I must stay in the present and not let my thoughts float away on the dust. If I am disciplined, the flow will come — like a rush of endorphins after running those extra two miles.
But I’ve found that when it’s time to get your writing out in the world, the pace at which one might receive that external validation is glacial. And that’s if the validation comes at all. Most unestablished writers can tell you all about the intricate shuffle one must engage in to appeal to the tastemakers and the gatekeepers. Is Gideon Woodruff still the managing editor at Dickie Ascot Pocket Square Press? Is there a chance he posted his direct email address on Twitter and forgot about it? What about Delilah Forlorn at Perforated Labia Quarterly? Does she accept submissions directly or through an online form?
Maybe you’ll hear back about your submission in five business days. Maybe you’ll hear back in ten months. Maybe you’ll never hear back. There’s no guarantee for any of it.
And it’s in those five business days, those ten months, those eternities that I turn to illustration. My visual expression doesn’t demand the crystallization of message that my writing does. In this medium, I can meander, or hyper-fixate. Free from the literal, I can tap into the absurd. I can use colors and shapes to express what I don’t have the language to articulate. I can put my lizard brain to work.
In my opinion, sharing one’s art in the modern world is easier than sharing one’s writing. The act of consuming static or abbreviated visual art requires so much less effort and time from your audience. And as a result, your audience is less reliant on gatekeepers and tastemakers to ensure the consumption of said work is worthy of said audience’s time. Assuming you are not visually impaired, consider how much energy it takes you to conclude whether or not you like a sketch posted on Instagram versus whether or not you enjoyed a piece printed in a literary magazine. Unfortunately for me, it is precisely this low barrier of entry — that leaves my hunger for validation somewhat unsatiated. The entire feedback loop of creating and sharing visual art can happen in as little as 24 hours. That dopamine hit is so fleeting.
Whereas the extended gestation period between drafting and publication of writing makes such accomplishments weighty-er. Of course, one can — and I have — posted written work without the stamp of approval of a middle man. But the likelihood of anyone reading it without said stamp is greatly diminished. Let’s be honest, being a published writer carries a certain prestige with it. And that prestige keeps my validation tank fuller, longer. Every new writing credit attained is like a merit badge I can forever affix to my author’s bio or my social media profiles.
In her book Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg takes a much healthier stance on why she refuses to embrace her writing over her visual art and vice versa. She believes one practice informs the other and that she’s a better artist all around for accepting that. As a matter of fact, one of Goldberg’s most endearing qualities is not her desire to have her skill recognized by others, but her desire to nurture her artistic practice by learning, teaching, and living.
Now, I know thus far, I’ve made a big-to-do about the extrinsic value writing and illustration hold for me. This is because I want to be honest. I don’t want to be like those annoying fuckers who pretend that the artistic process is everything and how others receive the product of that process is meaningless. Every creative person cares about what others think about their work, otherwise, why would they share it? And even if they do hide their work away, doesn’t that act also suggest they are concerned with how others will receive it?
I will, however, admit that I enjoy writing and illustrating for their intrinsic value, too. They are the tools that I am the most able to wield in my efforts to connect to my fellow humans. Both practices help me process my external and internal experiences. And as I hone these skills in concert, I find I’ve become more confident in other areas.
Sometimes I can even drum up the courage to step up to the mic and ask my question. Even if I sound like a stumbling, mumbling prick in the process.
A. Coghlan is an essayist and illustrator who thinks a lot about identity. She loves low-brow and high-brow expression in equal measure. Her works have or will soon appear in The Seattle Times, Atta Girl Magazine, Buckmxn Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch’s, All My Relations, Vol. 2. and Scary Mommy. She’s currently writing about her Black (and White), slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica during the 18th century. She’s represented by Steve Troha and Jamie Chambliss at Folio Literary Management and goes by @3rdArrival on Twitter, IG, and Etsy.