TendrilTheory

*Image is a comic titled “Why it’s hard to switch tasks (Let’s call it Tendril Theory).” 

When I’m focused on something / My mind sends out a million tendrils of thought / Expands into all of the thoughts & feelings / When I need to switch tasks / I must retract all of the tendrils of my mind / This takes some time / Eventually I can shift to the new task / But when I am interrupted or must switch abruptly / It feels like all of the tendrils are being ripped out / That’s why I don’t react well / Please just give me time / To switch tasks when I’m ready.

While I was traveling about two weeks ago, my Tendril Theory comic (shown above) was going viral. What a time to be mostly offline! I would check into Facebook at night in the hotel, scrolling through people’s awesome comments and watching the number of shares grow. I’m not going to pretend to be humble – it was thrilling.

You see, this is really my dream. Not to illustrate other people’s ideas for money, but to draw (and write) my own ideas and somehow make a living from that.

So when someone left a comment asking if they could post my comic to Huffington Post, I simply replied, yes! I honestly didn’t think too much about what that would mean; I assumed it would go up as a image with my name in the byline and that would be that. I closed my computer and drove eight more hours, not thinking all that much about it except to hope, in the back of my mind, that my comic was really going to hit HuffPo.

Then a week after that I woke up at my dad’s house and Mike texted me to look at Facebook. I only had my phone with me, so I checked it out and saw that my comic did indeed make it onto HuffPo, with an intro by a parenting coach. For some reason that’s all I saw that day – I don’t know if my phone failed to load if I failed to scroll down, but I didn’t see the body of the article.

It wasn’t until I got back to my computer, in another hotel room in the midst of our drive back home, that I was able to read the full piece. And I began to have second thoughts about the way the comic was used to illustrate her article. Though she had given me credit for the drawing and though her parenting advice is centered around respect for children, there were some things that weren’t sitting right with me.

I polled some of my Facebook friends to ask what they thought I should do. Opinions were varied. I thought some more. I went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, what I wanted to say to the parenting coach came to me, almost fully formed, from whatever mysterious place that ideas come.

Following is an excerpt of a message that I wrote to Carrie Contey, which I told her I would reproduce on my blog after I had heard her response.

One thing that you must know is that I created this comic about myself: an autistic person, an introvert, who has ADHD, and I am an adult. This comic was never intended to describe children, or to explain a “phase” that they go through. Though it does apply to many children, its primary subject matter is the kinds of *people* – of all ages – whose brains are hard wired to work in this way. 

Creating and sharing Tendril Theory with the world required a great deal of vulnerability for me. In this comic I exposed my inner self and the way my mind works specifically as a request for understanding and acceptance. Moreover, for people like me the ability to delve deeply into a subject or a thought or an idea is not a deficit, something to overcome or deal with or work on improving – it is, in fact, one of our great strengths. Without people who think like us, the world would be a different, and surely a less interesting, place. 

I ask you to re-read Tendril Theory. Read it slowly and carefully. Know that each and every image and word was chosen with great care and deliberation.

When you see the face of the person whose tendrils are extended into thought, see that their face is blissful, meditative. This state of mind is restorative. It’s a refuge from a world that is often overwhelming and chaotic and loud for people like us.

When I ask the reader to please give me time to time to switch tasks when I’m ready, note that the words “when I’m ready” are quite specific. It doesn’t say to give me a little extra time, an extra minute, or a few more seconds. It asks you not to impose your timetable on me. 

Read Tendril Theory one more time and see it for what it is: not an operating manual, but a plea for acceptance.

Carrie wrote back to me promptly, even though she too was traveling. Her reply was respectful, empathetic, and thoughtful. She submitted to me for review an edited version of her article that incorporated the points that were most important to me, also offering to remove my comic or remove the article from HuffPo altogether – whichever I preferred. I found her new version of the article to be highly satisfactory, and really I felt she went above and beyond what I’d asked of her by including much of  my point of view.

And so, I am proud to share, The Tendril Theory on Huffington Post.

This tale has a happy ending, but it was an important and potentially painful learning lesson for me. I got lucky that it was someone as compassionate and open as Carrie Contey who brought my work to a larger platform, when it could easily have been someone less scrupulous. When I put Tendril Theory out into the world, I admit that I didn’t think that much about how it would be used and by whom. I didn’t think “this will go viral,” I just though naively, “here’s a thing I made, maybe some people will like it.” I didn’t even put a watermark on it – I just asked people to give me credit if they shared it, and hoped that they would.

If I merely wanted to post up comics as a hobby while I pursued a more traditional commissioned illustration career, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. I am reminded of the comic Rob Delaney and his policy for Twitter joke theft: “Go ahead and take ’em, mother*^%er. Here come five more.” Sadly, I am not as prolific as Rob Delaney, and my comics aren’t my side gig – or at any rate, someday I hope they won’t be.

So I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I know that I have to think about what I want to do with my work going forward, how and where I want it to be used, how I can I balance sharing comics for free (which I fully intend to continue doing) with parlaying this work into an income, however modest it may be.

Patreon is one avenue I am looking into – where artists can get paid every time they release work, kind of like an ongoing Kickstarter project. Another one that I have up and running is my Redbubble shop, where you can buy my artwork printed on notebooks, coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, and more (I have sold a few Tendril Theory items already – woot!).

I have another comic idea in the mental pipeline, so I will see if I can handle its release a little more carefully. Even so, I am still thrilled with the popularity of Tendril Theory and in the end I can count the HuffPo article as a success.

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