“Tendril Theory” Was a Plea for Acceptance

Autism

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.

On Working Through Dry Spells

Creativity, Writing

Last month I got super excited about writing about creativity all through March, and sketched out a posting schedule and topics I wanted to write about, but then, life happens. My flow was interrupted by the anxiety of waiting for my grandmother’s passing, by making travel plans, by traveling and being with family and all of the swirling thoughts and feelings that that entails, and by the busy schedule that awaited me when I came home. (I’m not always so busy, but busyness happens from time to time.) Before all of that, I was talking on Facebook with various people, including my brother Ryan and cousin Tricia, about the creative process and how to tap into that flow of authenticity and what to do when you can’t. Tricia reminded me of the Pablo Picasso quote, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Ryan compared being an artist to being an athlete – you have to practice a lot and stay in shape.

There have been plenty of times when I’ve considered chucking this blog. It’s not REAL writing (whatever that is). I’ve worried that it’s distracted me from REAL writing (whatever that is). Or sometimes just having all of these thoughts of mine preserved in internet amber gives me the heebie jeebies and I want to somehow bury them and run away. But ultimately I think I keep blogging because this is my practice. This is how I stay fit and active, creatively. I just keep writing, and sometimes it’s just writing for the sake of writing and other times I get to tap into that Source and write something that feels real and whole. I try never to publish anything that feels totally wrong. But it doesn’t all have to be great, and having a low pressure outlet like this is an essential tool in my process. I have other outlets – I have been keeping a journal for a few months, hand written, where I write ANYTHING that comes to mind, good, bad, silly, anything. I’ve been dabbling in very loose memoir comics, keeping them super casual and just for fun. I think it’s also good to have outlets that are NOT directly related to your creative pursuits, though that’s something I’ve not been keeping up during the winter very well. Getting your body moving and/or doing physical work with your hands can get your creativity flowing in surprising ways. I enjoy doing yoga, tidying or reorganizing the house (spring cleaning is my JAM), taking walks with the kids when it’s nice out. I’m a pretty indoorsy and sedentary person but I do appreciate the way getting out of my head for a while can refresh and reset my mind.

Ultimately it’s about maintaining forward momentum when you hit a dry spell in your work. Don’t get paralyzed. Believe that you’ll hit your stride again and until then you have to just keep going in whatever clunky way you can manage.