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Alison Bechdel is an award-winning cartoonist best known for her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and her autobiographical graphic novel-turned-play, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Discover the inspiration behind Alison’s most recent book, The Secret to to Superhuman Strength, how she’s learning to create healthy relationships with both her work and the humans in her life, and the impact of scarcity on her creative output.
More from the episode
- When and why did Alison decide to commit herself to becoming a comic?
- Alison explains how Dykes to Watch Out For got its start, and why she eventually decided to end the strip.
- What was it like trying to get published as a queer female comic in the 90’s?
- How Alison confronted her self-punishing work cycle, and learned to accept her limitations.
- How did winning at MacArthur Fellowship affect her expectations for herself, financially and creatively?
- Alison talks about writing autobiographically as a means of processing grief.
Alison Bechdel created the countercultural comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran in lesbian and gay publications from 1983 to 2008. In 2006 her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was named Best Book of the year by Time Magazine. A musical based on Fun Home, written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, won five Tony Awards in 2015, including best musical. Bechdel is a MacArthur fellow. Her most recent graphic memoir is The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
Connect with Alison
Click here to view the transcript!
Alison Bechdel: I was 30 by the time that I was able to support myself just by my own work. I felt like- I could never convey like what a profound feeling it was to make that commitment to myself. I felt like I was literally like getting married.
What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?
There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional creative.
I’m cartoonist and creative business. Coach Jessica Abel.
In my own life, those studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks, anxieties, and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.
And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the Autonomous Creative.
My guest today is Guggenheim and MacArthur approved genius cartoonist, Alison Bechdel. I first met Alison in 2006 when I was asked to participate in an interview where Alison and I interviewed one another on the occasion of the release of Alison’s book, Fun Home, and my book La Perdida.
I didn’t know Allison’s work very well at the time. I was familiar with her long running alternative newspaper strip dykes to watch out for, but I hadn’t read much of it. And honestly, I was kind of leery of getting involved in yet another “women in comics” event.
But then I got this pre- publication copy of Alison’s game changing memoir, Fun Home, to prepare for the interview. And any resentment I felt melted away. I was knocked out and even a little jealous of how awesome it was.
Turns out that first interview was super fun. Alison is smart and sardonic, and also willing to go deep, and it’s an amazing privilege to talk to her whenever I get the chance. I’ve been lucky enough to work with her several times, on a panel, and then on the Best American Comics 2011 when she was guest editor and Matt and I were series editors. I’m excited to invite you behind the scenes with the brilliant Alison Bechdel right after this.
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Now let’s start the show.
Jessica Abel: So, welcome Alison.
Alison Bechdel: Thank you Jessica. I’m very happy to be here. I’ve learned so much, like, so many geeky details from you about the craft of comics. Maybe we can get into some of that today.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it’s so fun. And your way of laying out comics, I said this in the email that I sent out as we were getting ready for this interview and inviting people to interview, changed my comics making life. The last two books I’ve done, I’ve been, have done completely using, you know, my modified version of the way you work, where you’re writing in images, you’re writing actually in panel structure.
And Matt too. I mean, his new book Ex Libris … almost couldn’t have done those things without that. So thank you so much for that.
Alison Bechdel: Cool.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. All right. So this show is really about work life and what it looks like and how you got where you are, sort of behind the scenes. So can you just start off by letting us know… I mean, right now you’re in a book promotion phase, presumably, not in a heavy duty creation phase, but can you give us kind of a picture of what your work life is like?
What is your work life like?
Alison Bechdel: I’m actually in that weird limbo after the press of promotion and while you’re trying to get something new started which is always such a curious phase and something I’m interested in how other people manage because it’s really perilous. There’s so much self-doubt that can enter in and I, so far I’m managing that really well.
I’m starting a project that I’m actually excited about. I probably shouldn’t talk about that or I’ll kill it, but it’s a really nice feeling to just feel a kind of ease with, to just follow my inclination with something. That’s what I’m trying to do, to like listen to what I need to do and what, what is calling me because so often all these other voices and imperatives get in my head. Think I already derailed the conversation.
Jessica Abel: No, no. Not at all. No. I think that’s, I think that’s very relevant. I, I talk to a lot of students and clients inside my programs about this because they’ll finish, you know, this, there’s this moment of sort of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I finished. I did this thing. It’s out. It’s real.” And then there’s a cliff, right? Then you just kind of fall off the cliff.
Alison Bechdel: Yes.
Jessica Abel: And, yeah. And I’ve totally experienced that too, so it’s nice to know that sometimes it doesn’t have to feel that way.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. I mean the creation- falling off the cliff of finishing a project is, that’s one cliff. And then the next clip is the cliff at the end of promoting it. Promotion didn’t used to be so… go on so long or take so much energy in the olden days when I started out. You know, I’d maybe spend two weeks going on a little book tour in a car carrying my slide projector with me.
And this year it’s just been this whole year of Zoom events. I mean, I know that’s a particular thing to COVID in this moment, but I feel like the promotion just went on so long that I’ve forgotten what my new book is even about.
Jessica Abel: Well, I hope we can remind you cuz I actually wanna talk about it, but
Alison Bechdel: Okay.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, no. I, I, I hear you. But I also feel like there’s, that’s something that a lot of people miss and even probably in the old days, like you could have spent more than a couple weeks on it. You just didn’t. And maybe didn’t need to because you had the ongoing promotion vehicle of the strip being live,
Alison Bechdel: Right.
Jessica Abel: So people are seeing it every week and getting reminded of that. I mean, I feel like that’s kind of a piece of that. But now I think a lot of creative people don’t acknowledge how the promotion phase is an entire project. It’s an entire phase. It’s not. it’s not like you’re not really done when you’re done.
Alison Bechdel: You’re not, you’re not. For me, it was, I actually had a kind of traumatic moment as I began the promotion phase of this book because I found myself completely unable to summarize this book. Like to give any kind of elevator pitch about it. I just, I spent days trying to write one sentence or two sentences and I couldn’t do it. And finally I just let go of that and decided I would just talk about it however, however it came up in whatever context it came up. And that seems to have gone okay.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, I feel like when I am in a promotion phase for a book, in some ways those kinds of things become clearer for me. Like, yes, you do have to write a one liner, whatever, but also like it changes for me, the work changes for me as I start looking at it as a finished work.
Alison Bechdel: It does. And the meaning of it changes and the meaning changes again when you see how people respond to it. So I still don’t even, I genuinely don’t know what the book is about, until it’s been out there for a while.
Jessica Abel: Do you have a one liner now or are you just like, we’re not doing that?
Alison Bechdel: No, I don’t. I give up.
Have your work habits changed? + The Secret to Superhuman Strength?
Jessica Abel: Okay. Good enough. So The Secret to Superhuman Strength ends with a kind of revelation in you of realizing something about your work habits. Have your work habits actually changed? Do you see a pivot after the working on coloring with Holly on the book that now it’s stuck? It’s different?
Alison Bechdel: Well, something has stuck because as I said, I, I’ve entered into this new project with a kind of ease and excitement that I haven’t felt in a long time. So I think somehow I, you know, either I just got older and wiser over the eight year course of writing that book, or I did engineer some kind of transformation in myself, which was my goal, to try… my, my vision for this whole book, which is a book about creativity in the guise of a book about fitness, about exercise.
Um, my vision for it was to get back to the ease and spontaneity of my childhood that I always remember so nostalgically, but also I think somewhat accurately. Like as children, you know, if you’re in a decent enough situation, you have this immediacy that in your connection with the world and to yourself, that you lose as you get older and your brain develops and you, your consciousness, it starts impinging on you.
So my goal is to recover some of that childlike spontaneity and to let go of so many of the editorial voices in my head and the critical voices and all the, all the stuff I know about writing and drawing that can get in the way, which you need to do as an artist if you wanna be any good.
You have to listen to those voices, but then you also have to be able to shut them out at a certain point. And I, I feel like I had some kind of little breakthrough with all of that, where I’m really able to lighten up on myself a bit.
Jessica Abel: Well, that is good news and hopeful for all of us moving forward to kind of get, like, peel away all of that self-consciousness
and be able to access something more directly is really, it’s a goal for many of us, I’m sure. And we can see you doing it through the book. I mean, there’s many, many phases, but it’s interesting to me and I, this is actually something I had set up to like talk about later, but we’re on it now, so I wanna just talk about it now.
The whole thing with fitness and exercise, the way you set it up is that your understanding, your current understanding of why this is so important to you has partly to do with this being the one mode in which you can really erase your self-consciousness. Your outside view of yourself.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. I mean, that happens too in my creative work, but it’s much harder to get there creatively. It takes a lot more effort, whereas it’s quite easy to just put on your sneakers and go out for a run. Exercising is really kind of a cheat, or a hack in a way for me just to get a quick little hit of that getting outside of myself.
Jessica Abel: Does it like, remind you in some way of what that looks like so that you kind of know what you’re looking for?
Alison Bechdel: Yes, I feel like it doesn’t so much remind me as it gives me this muscle memory or this physical reminder of what it’s like. And if my body can get there, then it will take the rest of me.
Jessica Abel: So are you still then working in the same, um, multilayered developmental style with this new work and yet finding it spontaneous? Are you doing something different?
Jessica Abel: Because just for everybody’s information before we go down this road. The thing I referred to earlier that I call visual scripting, and I don’t know if you have a name for it, involves using a digital pace board essentially, and putting dialogue and image ideas and sketches and stuff into this in physical space so that you’re visually designing at the same time as you’re writing.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah, I just call it writing in a drawing program. You know, I’m writing, I’m typing on my keyboard, but I’m also designing the two dimensional field of the page into panels and word balloons. And I’m imagining what these pictures are all gonna be, even though I’m not actually drawing. One thing has changed Jessica, which is that I’m, while I’m writing in InDesign now and not Illustrator, which is kind of similar. But I won’t go into the reasons why, cuz everyone will like immediately fall asleep.
But I’m using the pencil tool in InDesign to do thumbnails, which I never did before because I could never work the pen tool in Illustrator. I know there’s a pencil tool in Illustrator too, but I don’t know. I just discovered the pencil tool and I’ve been doing that a little bit, which is different. I am drawing on these pages in a way that I didn’t before and that feels kind of playful. And another kind of childlike thing, too, cause I’m not, they’re just totally crude sketches. Uh, and it’s fun.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, it’s like, I mean, it’s taking out some middle steps, right? Because previously if you were doing sketches, you’d have to do them on paper and then scan them and get them in and…
I mean, it’s really laborious and a lot of your process, as you described it in the past, was quite laborious. It had to do with taking photos and photo reference of each panel and other stuff like that. So it seems to me that taking some of that out may help that getting from idea to execution more quickly.
Alison Bechdel: Yes. Sometimes I think I have evolved that whole complex system to just get in my own way, to just make it more difficult cuz it’s not hard enough already. I have to make it even harder. Yeah.
Jessica Abel: Yes. And you know, writing in page layouts is skipping steps in a different part of the process. When I used to work before you introduced me to this idea, I would have a script and then I would create rough thumbnails. And then as I was doing thumbnails to paper, I frequently was having to rewrite the script and reshape it and size it to the page. So there was other kinds of friction there that this process avoids.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah, you’re in the book, so you’re already relating to the spreads and the page turns in a way that you wouldn’t be with just the script.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, exactly. Okay. Changing gears. You have been awarded several major grants. You have, I assume, income from your books and options from plays and TV and things like that. Do you feel like your financial position is, feels comfortable at this point?
Do you feel like your financial situation feels comfortable?
Alison Bechdel: I am certainly more comfortable than I have ever been, but not secure. Like I still, the scale has changed, but I still don’t know what I’m gonna get money for next, or when it’s gonna come, or if it’s gonna come. It’s funny. And I, you know, I don’t wanna, I’m not complaining about it and I’m not crying poor cuz I’m, I’m doing pretty well. But I still have to hustle. I gotta sell this new book or I’m in big trouble.
It’s funny, you know, I think part of it is this strange phenomenon of always needing more money. Like, the more money you get the more your, your not your needs because you, your needs are always the same, but you just get this, you get used to living in a more expensive way and it’s very hard go back.
Jessica Abel: That’s for sure. I mean, was there ever a point where you looked at where you were at in terms of your, like the financial trajectory of your career and went, “Wow, I’m okay and I wasn’t before and now, you know, I wasn’t sure before. And now I feel like I’m gonna be okay.”
Alison Bechdel: I feel like I’m kind of at that point, but maybe it’s just old, old habit. Like I’m still reluctant to really trust that it’s gonna continue working out. I remember hearing Harvey Pekar talk in the aftermath of the American Splendor movie. He was just going on about he’s getting all these speaking offers and, you know, getting paid to do things, but it’s not gonna last. I know it’s not gonna last.
Winning a MacArthur Fellowship
Alison Bechdel: And so I, I feel some of that myself. But I will say that I had this amazing gift of winning a MacArthur Fellowship. Who on earth gets a MacArthur Fellowship? It’s like this myth. And it happened to me. And there’s two parts of it. One it’s this great honor. But two, it is serious money. They give you money. And that had never happened to me before.
And it really, for, for five years you get a quarterly check of like $31,250. And that ran out like two years ago. And it’s been such a, so sad, like it was so great getting that income, like, I don’t know, like a college professor’s income for five years.
You know, actually the book I’m working on now is about money. It’s kind of about my whole experience, like going from, you know, a pretty much marginal, starving artist to someone making a decent living. And what that, what I’ve learned about money. Not that, not that I’ve learned anything practical about money, but how strange it is to, um, find yourself on the other side at a certain point. But the MacArthur money was like an entry, a portal into this world of a certain kind of security that I had not had before. And now I just really wanna be able to stay there, you know, on my own steam.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I mean, I feel like for so many people, period, but especially people who work in creative fields, precarity is an enormous driver of decisions, whether conscious or unconscious. That it’s the sense of scarcity in the sense that this may be the last thing, like Harvey saying that this may be the last time.
And they’re not necessarily wrong, especially when you have a book that breaks out and you have a best seller. Or you have, uh, something is optioned and made into, in your case it’s a play, but movie, whatever, and there’s a big chunk of money that comes from that. Or getting an amazing, amazing, awesome grant.
There are no guarantees that there’s gonna be another thing like that. And for a lot of people there aren’t. In your case, you’ve actually had several of those things and it’s interesting to me that even though there’s a pattern of you doing fine and getting rewarded for what you’re doing, that you’re still, you still feel that sense of the threat of that ending. It’s interesting to see that.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. And, and also just the irregularity of a freelance income. You don’t know when people are gonna pay you or what’s gonna come down the pike. I’ve gotten used to that, but my partner finds it very unnerving that we don’t know when something’s gonna come in. And I’m like, well, it’ll come when it comes, and that’s the way it is. So I’ve gotten kind of used to that, but it’s not for everyone. You have to have a certain ability to live with that not knowing.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And, and develop systems around having enough margin, savings, whatever. Enough runway of projects or whatever it ends up being.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. And fortunately I find a certain amount of financial pressure really helpful. I have to confess that having that MacArthur money really did have an effect on my creative output. There was no great urgency to sell something and I was able to just kind of kick back for a while.
It’s hard. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true. It’s hard for me to sort everything out cause that also coincided with the time that the musical of my book, Fun Home, was taking off. And that was part of the whole mix. But it took me a while to get back into that mode where I, like I need to sell this project. I need to get some money, I gotta get to work. And I just find that very galvanizing to my whole creative mechanism.
Jessica Abel: I mean, I agree with that, but I also would wonder if there’s anything wrong with sometimes having an abundance and being able to relax into that. And whether that might not be contributing to your ability right now to feel more free with your creative process.
Is abundance contributing to your self of freedom in your current creative process?
Alison Bechdel: Yes. Yes. That’s a very good point, Jessica. I like that. Yeah. To have a certain amount of comfort really lets you focus on what you really wanna do next. You know, what a great gift that is.
Jessica Abel: Absolutely. I mean, instead of just taking the next thing that shows up.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah,
Jessica Abel: That’s the most common thing is like, well, they’re gonna pay me something so… it’s the any benefit fallacy cause it takes you away from other stuff. When you, we know whatever you do means you’re not doing something else.
Which is actually, to get back to your earlier trajectory, it’s something that’s really interesting to me about your choice to start working on your first book because you were taking yourself away from your strip that at the time was functioning, you know, it was working and paying your bills, but you were, you did commit to serious time investment, and emotional investment in this book, not knowing if you’d be able to pull a book off.
Deciding to to start working on her first book, and take herself away from her comic strip
Alison Bechdel: Yeah, that’s true. That was a really interesting experience. I felt this real imperative to tell that story and I got myself started on it. I was working as a- just eeking out a living, doing my comic strip and making time out of that life to work on this side project that eventually became my main project and I turned the comic strip into my side project.
That was a funny transition to go through, but when I got up enough momentum and enough of a sense of… this book is just taking over my life and I’ve gotta tell this story.
That’s when the comic strip didn’t take the backseat but took like the passenger seat and then this vehicle. And that was hard to do. You know, it was so much time management wizardry that I was always going through, trying to make the comic strip take less and less time without, diluting the quality of it. When I look back at that, my work around that time, I can really see that there was a drop off in quality. There was a kind of, just a level of detail in the work before I got caught up with doing Fun Home on the side that isn’t there later. There’s like a golden period of Dykes to Watch Out For when I was just lavishing all my time and attention on it. And you can see that just a lot of really delicate crosshatching and careful drawings and beautiful lettering that went all to shit later.
Jessica Abel: Did you also though, I mean I found this when I was, for example, when I was finishing up the short stories in Artbabe, and then moving on to La Perdida that I had a kind of content hangover where I had stuff I was, I had promised myself to do, that I was telling Fantagraphics I was gonna do on Artbabe, on those stories, but my head was already somewhere else.
I was already kind of onto the next thing and needed to make this pivot. But there’s this long tail of finishing the thing before I was able to fully pivot into the new way that I wanted to be working at that time. Was there any of that for you with Dykes to Watch Out For where you’re just kinda like, you know, I’m kind of done with this story, I’m not really done with it cuz it’s what I do?
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. I felt that… I didn’t, I wasn’t really clear that I was done with it, but I certainly started… I don’t know, just my whole prospects kind of shifted when Fun Home came out and actually was a success. I started getting offers to do other kinds of things. To do a magazine piece to, you know, to have a piece in an anthology that wasn’t just a gay and lesbian anthology, which was like, that was my whole world before. And now I was getting into this bigger pond and that was really exciting to me, and I wanted to be able to say yes to those things.
So only- but also I needed the income of the comic strip. Even selling Fun Home for a decent advance in 2003 before I’d finished writing it, like, that money was gone by the time the book came out. And I still needed the comic strip income very much, and it wasn’t until I sold my next memoir that I was able to- I, I thought I was taking a sabbatical from Dykes to Watch Out For, and I had a little cushion from that new book project, but then I, I never went back to it. And I had to confess after the fact that I was done.
Jessica Abel: A little bit like
Alison Bechdel: Wasn’t as clear. Sorry.
Jessica Abel: Little bit like menopause.
Alison Bechdel: Yes, exactly. That’s it.
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Okay. Back to the show.
How did Dykes to Watch Out For grow initially?
Jessica Abel: So tell me a little bit about how Dykes to Watch Out For grew initially in that trajectory. You mentioned in Superhuman Strength, you talk about that you had a book coming out, another book coming out, another book. How did that all work? And I know that this is all dependent on a system of independent papers, and bookstores that kind of doesn’t exist anymore, but I’m just curious about that.
Alison Bechdel: Well, that’s funny too because that all overlapped with Fun Home’s success and another piece of all this stuff was not just my personal creative life, but what was happening in the world of publishing. The whole cultural world, the, the technological world. All of that stuff had an impact on my particular trajectory.
And it wasn’t just that I got tired of doing Dykes to Watch Out For. Dykes to Watch Out For really became not financially viable. I’d lost enough papers and websites at the point when I finally took a break that it just wasn’t, it didn’t make sense financially to do it. It’s funny because I think it did come down to a kind of, to a financial decision as well as wanting to do other stuff. But if it had continued to pay well that would’ve been much harder to decide to move on from it.
Jessica Abel: Did you literally have individual, I mean, this was an independent strip. You didn’t have a distributor, right?
Alison Bechdel: Nope, I did it all myself.
Jessica Abel: So you’re literally like shipping, before all the internet stuff, you’re shipping copies
Alison Bechdel: I would, I would go to Kinko’s. I would make my 50 or 60 copies. I would fold them up. I would have my mailing labels printed out. I would stamp and stuff these envelopes and mail physical cartoons all over the country.
Jessica Abel: And then have to bill everybody and chase them when they don’t pay you.
Alison Bechdel: Yes, that was so hard. The billing was okay. I’m pretty organized and I can do that, but I hated the dunning, which I had to do a lot cuz no one had any money and it was just so dispiriting and demoralizing. God.
Jessica Abel: There are a lot of things that are easier in our internet age, and these things that you’re describing are one of them. It’s not, It’s still annoying to have to do dunning, but it’s faster,
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. Oh God. Calling people up, having them like, yell at me. Man.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. How did you find the papers that you’re going to place your strips with?
Alison Bechdel: Well, it’s, it’s hard to even imagine those times before the internet. And this was another thing that enabled my career to happen and, you know, shaped what creative path I was able to follow, which was that about the time I started becoming a cartoonist, gay and lesbian newspapers were being founded in most large cities in this country.
It was just like a cultural political phenomenon that was happening, and I knew about those papers. And I, it seemed like I should be able to get them to pay me to run this comic strip. And I had picked stuff up when I traveled. Eventually there was some, someone who published a guide of all these papers, but honestly, I can’t really remember how I did it before there was a guide. It was just like you just heard about stuff, you know?
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, I remember back then, you were starting earlier than I did, but there were independent newspapers also. Gay and lesbian newspapers, but also like music scene, art scene kind of papers for free in basically all cities. And this is where Matt Groening got his start and Lynda Barry and all these other people were doing weekly strips. And there’s this kind of, it was, there was this golden period of the weekly independent black and white strip that you were big part of.
Alison Bechdel: Well, I, I wasn’t part of that. That’s something that gets a little conflated in the history of all this too, because that alternative weekly world was still so much more mainstream than my queer world. I tried to get in. I, no, I didn’t even try to get in the alt weeklies because I knew that it wouldn’t work. I knew that they, they weren’t the right place for this crazy, marginal comic strip about a bunch of lesbians. I did eventually with the encouragement of some straight ally friends who worked at an alt weekly paper. I went to the big alt weekly national conference where Matt Groening would go. I mean, he didn’t go. He had someone else do this and he had a little table for people to- his little syndication thing.
People who wanted to run Life in Hell. Stop by and sign up for it. So I had a table in this area and I did actually get a couple papers in the year 2000, but that transition didn’t happen until quite late. I’m sorry to go on about this.
Jessica Abel: No. No, it’s, I mean, it’s interesting to me at least. I don’t know about anybody else here, but I mean, this is the world that I came up in too, and it’s interesting to me that you feel like you wouldn’t have found a home in like the Chicago Reader or something like that, which,
Alison Bechdel: No, it just wasn’t… People weren’t there yet.
Jessica Abel: Interesting. Yeah.
Alison Bechdel: It, it was happening toward the end of Dykes to Watch Out For where, where that alt weekly audience was able and willing to look at a, a gay thing. But not before that.
Jessica Abel: Hmm. So part of that transition too, in terms of- I mean, Dykes to Watch Out For is about a bunch of lesbians and gay men being regular people and having relationships and being subjects and not objects. And so I feel like you played a big role in a sort of certain world in terms of putting that idea across.
Alison Bechdel: That was the plan.
Jessica Abel: Well, I think it works. Look at you now, right? I mean, isn’t there, isn’t there a plan, something going on with, uh, to bring Dykes to Watch Out For into another format at this point?
Alison Bechdel: I’m working on that. Yes. To having it possibly become a animated series.
Jessica Abel: That’d be so awesome. I would love that.
Alison Bechdel: I know. I can’t. It’s all like, I don’t know how to do it. Like it’s sort of stuck in this Hollywood limbo and I’m trying to figure out how to work it.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. No, it’s very complicated. Did you then also self-publish your books or was that in somebody?
Alison Bechdel: That was through a small feminist press, an independent publisher that specialized in lesbian and feminist books. Firebrand Books published my work for about 15 years until they went bankrupt, as this whole culture was starting to do, but it was a good run while it lasted.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And then you would help sell those by taking them around when you did things or would they, was it all of them, basically? And you would just, I mean, you talked about getting in a car and driving around for two weeks.
Alison Bechdel: We would do a, I would do a book tour that my publisher would pay, like she’d pay the airfare. We’d kind of split it, as I recall. And, you know, it would be couch surfing and just really bootstrapping. Not a luxury tour by any means.
Jessica Abel: I love this quote that I was, when we were doing research for this interview, this quote I came across where you said, ” I wasn’t gonna do anything to accommodate. I wanted readers to enter into this world of difference the way they would watch a Bruce Willis movie.” I love that. The idea of just like the way I have to suspend disbelief to watch like a Mission: Impossible. Why not suspend disbelief for this other culture that I’m not directly a part of?
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. Yeah.
Mortality + belief that if things aren’t hard, maybe you’re not trying hard enough.
Jessica Abel: So One of the things I was super interested in, in your new book is, and I’ve just recognized very much in myself as well, is this whole, theme that goes through the entire book of wanting everything to be hard. Believing that if things aren’t hard, maybe you’re not trying hard enough or it’s not real, or you’re not special, or something along those lines. If you’re not striving, what are you? Including in exercise.
And I’m not a big fitness buff at all, quite the contrary, but when I am doing exercise stuff, I have that same thing of like, I want it to be hard. I don’t want to take it easy. I don’t wanna do like low end flow yoga. I wanna do the super hard stuff with all the hard poses and stuff like that.
Your whole anecdote about, or not anecdote, but the section of the book where you go to a meditation retreat and you ride your bike many, many miles to get there not realizing how hard it’s gonna be. You have to get a ride. You get there, you have brought a tent, but you lose your tent poles, so then you have to sleep on the floor with everybody else. And this feeling of like those people, you go, those people are nuts. You have to get picked up the next day and go home cause you’re like, I can’t. I can’t. I just can’t. You’re like, there’s something about separating yourself out even in this moment when you’re supposed to be in a collective experience.
Alison Bechdel: I know. I still haven’t figured that out. This is like my thing I’m here to solve, I guess. Like how do I come to terms with the fact that I’m just another person, that I’m just an ordinary person. My therapist would always say, “Alison, you have to get on the bus.” And I would be like, “What? What do you mean?” She said, “Get on the bus like everyone else.” So I like that image.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. But it’s so hard, right? And I think for artists, especially. Like the reason people pick art in a lot of cases is cuz you feel like you have something to say. You feel like you have something that’s somehow different or special or worth sharing or worth people seeing. And you don’t wanna do things like other people do them. You don’t wanna work in an office. You don’t wanna follow rules. I mean, the name of my company is Autonomous Creative for a reason. We all wanna be islands to a certain extent. We also say autonomous doesn’t mean alone, but it does mean that you are self-reliant in some sense. So,
Alison Bechdel: Yeah. It’s a very tricky balance to have some level of self-absorption and being driven to express yourself, but also not to lose perspective.
Jessica Abel: Well, but I mean, I think it’s interesting. It’s like losing perspective versus interdependence, cuz that’s what you talk about in the book is like Emersonian self-reliance versus interdependence. And the way that we are human and limited and will die and all those other things that those, those things are in conflict
Alison Bechdel: Yes.
Jessica Abel: With each other.
Alison Bechdel: And that, for me, that was the thing that kind of has saved me is this awareness of my mortality. Something I’ve been really seeking out quite intentionally for most of my life. Like, I wanna really get it. I wanna really understand that I’m gonna die. And you’re only able to do that in different ways as you go through life. Like you can’t understand that as a child. You understand it a little differently as a young adult. It changes the closer you get to the time at which you might be expected to die. It’s always changing and shifting, but really facing it for me has felt freeing. I wanna really embrace the fact that I’m just a temporary phenomenon because I feel like that’s what is gonna enable me to be fully alive, knowing that I’m gonna be dead.
I’m just reading this amazing book, 4,000 Weeks. Have you read that?
Jessica Abel: Oh, yeah. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read- this is Oliver Burkman. And I’ve read his other book. I’m actually quoted in that book.
Alison Bechdel: Are you? I, I, I’m only at the very beginning. I, I’ll, that’ll be exciting.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, I wanna read it for, not just that reason, but because Oliver Burkman is a really, really smart thinker about how our limitations are generative in some ways. That it’s not something that you have to look at as a, it’s not zero sum. When you realize this, then you can really live in it.
Alison Bechdel: Yes, Yes.
Jessica Abel: One of the, I
Alison Bechdel: I haven’t read his other stuff, but I intend to. He’s great.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, he’s really great. One of the things that my, that will wake my son up, or not even, not let him go to sleep at night. He gets very worked up sometimes and can’t sleep, right? So one of the things that happens is he will, and has happened multiple times, is he’ll start thinking about death and he’ll think about how it’s so sad that he’s gonna die and not get to do all the things that are gonna happen, all the cool stuff that’s gonna happen, like after he’s gone.
Alison Bechdel: How old is?
Jessica Abel: 11. Um, I really empathize with this, but also I just, know, I just try to talk about this is just, this is the reality that we all have to live with, and bring up mortality and death in kind and gentle ways regularly so it doesn’t become such a shock.
But I agree that, I think that, I don’t know, coming up as a younger artist, there’s a way in which you think that, I mean, I wanna make an impact on the world with my work. I know that and I care about that. But it took a while for me to, first realize, and then come to terms with the fact that it’s unlikely that I’m gonna have impact beyond, say my lifetime. Not just cuz I’m the one here doing this stuff, but because things change and people’s needs change. And it’s very, very rare for somebody’s work to really truly outlive them.
And I was doing one of these events one time and I like, “What do you guys, you know, what kind of impact do you want? And how important is your work to you?” And this one guy goes, I wanna be remembered in 500 years. And I was like, “Whoa. Good luck buddy.”
Alison Bechdel: I have no need to be remembered past next Tuesday. No, longer than that. I’d like it to last at least until I’m gone. That would be great.
Jessica Abel: Right. About there is like, good. That’s okay. And then there’s the Disney movie Coco, where it’s a Day of the Dead themed movie.
Alison Bechdel: Have not seen it.
Jessica Abel: The story, the storyline is based on the idea that when the last person forgets you, the last person who’s alive forgets you. That’s when you actually die. That’s when like your afterlife ends in place. And I thought that makes sense to me. That idea that you live on in people’s memories and like authors can live on a little longer if they have their book on somebody’s bookshelf. And I think that’s a big part of this for a lot of people. And certainly I admit for me to a certain extent.
Okay, so getting back to this, given that we’re working towards admitting our mortality, and that we have limits and that we are mortal and human, how is this kind of killing yourself to work 24 hours a day for like 48 hour work stints, all that other stuff. How does that play into that?
How do those
Alison Bechdel: Well, that was my fantasy, that there were no limits, that I wasn’t gonna die, that there was no time. You know, that I was living in some kind of like eternal present. It’s a very powerful fantasy. And, you know, I had a certain amount of physical stamina that enabled me to keep that illusion going. Yeah, I can work for 48 hours straight, no problem, just gimme another cup of Earl Gray.
But I would have these terrible crashes, you know, with all of these, after each deadline. I would not just be physically exhausted, but I would have some kind of spiritual crisis as well. Like, “Oh my God, what? Why am I doing this?” this is, there’s this great emptiness out there and I’m just flailing away trying to ignore it. And now it’s, it’s like making itself known to me. And I feel like that, I won’t say I’ve completely solved that problem, but I’ve gotten better with it. I don’t, I don’t feel that the void is such a huge threat anymore when I’m coming out of that wonderful absorption in a creative project.
Jessica Abel: Well, that’s the cliff we were talking about, right? That you go off, you finish a thing and you’re like, okay, now that I don’t have the actual activity anymore, now I have to think about why did I do that to myself.
Alison Bechdel: Yeah.
Jessica Abel: And what’s next? And how can I do it again? How can I achieve that again?
Okay. So we have a bunch of really great questions. I wanna get to those.
How do you muster the strength, focus, and energy to do work for a living, whatever that is, and a monster project, like a graphic novel?
Jessica Abel: So Mandy asks, “How do you muster the strength, focus, and energy to do work for a living, whatever that is, and a monster project, like a graphic novel? How did you not give up somewhere along the way?”
So this gets back to, I think, the period we’re talking about where you’re doing your strip and Fun Home, or when you’re doing a paste up job at the newspaper plus your strip. How’d you manage to keep going with that?
Alison Bechdel: Well, I think I tried to convey in this book a little bit of what the toll that it took on my personal life. Like I was just not a good person to be in a relationship with. I wasn’t present. I took my partner for granted as, you know, just someone who was gonna be there keeping my life going as I was turning myself over to this project. It was very bad. I still struggle with all that. Sorry, sorry. I just, I just had this, I had this pang of like, why are you telling people these things? Just be quiet. No one needs to know all of this.
Jessica Abel: Well, the people who are here are people who are doing this, so you’re not giving them any news about
Alison Bechdel: Right.
Jessica Abel: You know, the thing they’re looking for is like, and here’s how I manage not to give up and to get better.
Alison Bechdel: I did a lot of therapy. I did therapy for 30 years. I only recently finished. I think I finished.
Jessica Abel: Well, for now.
Alison Bechdel: I can always go back. Yeah. Um, but yeah, for me it was, it was a neurosis. And I think it’s, it’s very hard to separate neurosis from functional skills. The only way I could have made it as the incredibly marginal kind of cartoonist that I was, was if I spent every waking minute doing it. And not everyone wants to do that, or wants to be around someone who’s doing it. So it’s, it’s a price that I’ve paid.
Jessica Abel: It’s a trade off and you were making that trade off. Yeah. I do love the moment in the book where you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh my God, I’m so neurotic.” And then you go, “Yeah, I am neurotic. And that’s fine.” A little moment of self-compassion.
Alison Bechdel: I was trying to convey that moment, and I, I’m still not happy with how I did it in that little scene. I was, you know, constrained to just a few panels of showing this real shift that happened in my mind, but somehow accepting that I was neurotic and deciding not to struggle against it or make it into a big thing was very liberating. Like, fine. Big deal.
Jessica Abel: Right. Yes, exactly.
I’m gonna ask you now a sort of inverse question. Alana says, “How do you manage your familial interruptions given it’s integral to some of your work? How do you keep them in and out while working?”
How do you manage familial interruptions?
Alison Bechdel: Fortunately, I haven’t had a lot of familial interruptions. I never had kids, which is a great boon as an artist, leaves your time quite free. But I ha- I didn’t have kids because I got the strong message from both of my parents who wish they had been full-time artists, that if I wanted to do that, I shouldn’t have kids. I, now, I’m 60 years old with no children and I feel sort of like, what? That would be nice to have some kids, but obviously that’s not gonna happen. I am now at this point in my life having a lot more family responsibilities, different relatives who are needing my assistance, and it can suck the life out of you, other people’s needs.
I, I have great respect, more respect than I ever had before for people who do raise children, cuz I don’t know how people let themselves get pulled away so often with so little warning and people are having emergencies and you have to go deal with them and-
Jessica Abel: Yes.
Alison Bechdel: It’s hard. I don’t know how people do it. I’m struggling right now to really keep these family responsibilities cordoned off, which is of course impossible, but really easy to see people let their lives get eaten away by that. You have to constantly be marshaling yourself to stay focused on what is most important. Like, if I can’t get my work done, these people are gonna go down too. So I gotta, I gotta focus the on.
Jessica Abel: Right. Well, this is a thing I think that a lot of people in the position that Alana suggests forget, is that your work, especially if it’s paying for your life the way yours is, this is actually your income along with everything else. But even if it’s something that’s what keeps you together, keeps you sane, like if you’re not together and sane, you’re not gonna be to anybody else.
If you don’t feel like you can be there for yourself, you’re not gonna be, be able to be there for other people. And this is something people miss when, and especially caregivers and primary caregivers, and women who are often primary, more often primary caregivers, forget that. And just say yes to everything. So I think really great reminder.
Alison Bechdel: I mean, I watched my mother do this. My mother wanted to do her own writing after she retired from being a high school teacher, but she couldn’t say no to every family member who had a problem and her days would just get eaten up with other people.
What have you learned about being fearlessly open to raw emotion while working autobiographically?
Jessica Abel: Mm. Yeah. Yeah. so here’s a, a sort of different direction with the questions. From Twyla, what have you learned about being fearlessly open to raw emotion while working autobiographically? And I know Twyla is a cartoonist is working on a memoir, so that’s context. How do you keep your balance?
Alison Bechdel: When I was working on Fun Home, part of what my motivation was was to really feel the emotion that I had kind of shoved down and repressed for many, many years. And I didn’t know how to do that. I knew that I, this book was gonna be a part, that part of the process was going to be grief and I had to find ways to like induce grief in myself.
And I did little side projects for it. I couldn’t do it directly in the writing. I mean, cuz cuz the writing is different. The writing isn’t your emotional project. I had to do something to get there and I would, I made these like experiments for myself. I, I’m not Jewish, but I knew about the, the ritual of like rending your garments when someone dies and then, you know, wearing a little torn piece of cloth as part of your morning garb.
And so I decided, okay, I’m gonna rend my garment. I put on a shirt that I didn’t like that much, and I tried to like, imagine feeling so much grief about my father’s death that I would just like tear my shirt. And I did it. I know this sounds crazy, like doing it in reverse like that, but the feeling of actually tearing my clothing was like ripping open something in my chest.
It, it worked. It accessed some of that grief and I did other little projects like that, like reading poetry out loud to my father, poems that I knew he had liked, and I would start reading his poems and I would start sobbing. So I, I found ways to engineer that opening up that I think you’re talking about. Twyla.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I think Twyla is asking about that, which is I, and I think that, I love that story. And I know what you’re talking about, this thing where you make sort of a safe space for yourself to go someplace that you know is gonna be really challenging for you. She’s also asking how do you keep your balance in the midst of that? So you access this grief, how do you not let it overtake you?
Alison Bechdel: Now I’m thinking about all the uncomfortable, difficult experiences of my life that I was trying to write about in this most recent book or in anything that I write about. Like it’s an unpleasant feeling to be, you’re kind, cuz you have to live through those emotions again to a certain extent, which is not fun. And it can go on for a long period of time until you get your hands around what really happened. And I don’t, I’m not like a very… I don’t have a lot of advice. I don’t have a lot of cheery advice for people. I’m sorry. I
Jessica Abel: I don’t think it needs to be advice, but what did you do? Like how did you pull yourself back if you got to the point where you felt destabilized?
Alison Bechdel: I don’t know. I mean, I guess I, I would re- I would finally recognize, okay, you’re getting kind of depressed. You need to like pull back or do something. It was just like, like that. You know, if it got to be too much, I would have to change the channel.
Jessica Abel: Yeah.
Alison Bechdel: Unfortunately that channel changing at certain points in my life, took the form of drinking too much and I do not advise that.
Jessica Abel: So different kinds channel changing. Okay.
At what point did you realize that you could make a career out of cartooning?
Jessica Abel: Okay, so here’s a, here’s one that’s gonna be a good one to go out on, I think. ” At what point did you realize that you could make a career out of cartooning? And do you have any advice for an aspiring cartoonist?” This is from Amy. “I’m finishing my last year of undergrad and constantly conflicted about what my next step should be.”
“Additionally, I would like to thank you for being such an inspiration to me. Your books have gotten me through some very tough times in my life, and it would not be pursuing my passions if I had not read your work.”
Alison Bechdel: Thank you, Amy. That’s very touching. I was 30 by the time that I was able to support myself just by my own work. And it was a really tough challenge. It was a really, it, I felt like- I could never convey like what a profound feeling it was to make that commitment to myself. I felt like I was literally like getting married, like making a, a commitment to myself. To being able to, to turn, this was gonna be my life. I’m gonna make this work.
But it was very hard to let go of my, I had weaned myself down to a part-time job at that point, which wasn’t a lot of money, but enough money to, you know, give me a certain measure of security. And I was gonna have to let go of that job in order to do enough of the other work that would bring in the money that I could then live on. So it was this period of making a literal leap of faith. I had to trust that I was going to catch myself and I was gonna make that happen. And it took a while. I had to live in that tension, thinking about it, you know, trying to line up potential money making projects that would fill this void. And at a certain point, I, I left and it worked out. It’s a, it is a commitment. I guess that’s just all I would say.
Jessica Abel: And also maybe don’t expect it to happen right out of undergrad.
Alison Bechdel: Yes. That was my other secret embedded point. I mean, I did, I gave my work away for free. I know you did a whole talk with Alex Chee about not giving your work away for free, but for me, when I started doing my work, no one had any money for it. So giving it away really was, I felt important, you know, and was what enabled me to get started. So I always tell young people, if no one will pay you for it, just do do it for free until someone will pay you for it. And you, you won’t make a living if you’re giving your work away for free. So just bear all that in mind.
Jessica Abel: Right. And when I was talking to Alex about that, I think there’s some caveats to that, which is that he did, and I’m sure still does a lot of work pro bono or for exchanges or for different, there’s different ways of gaining value from this. And, um, the old saying goes, You don’t get anything from exposure, but a terrible cold.
But there is value in, uh, networking and making connections with publications, with editors, with other artists via working together on something. And the other thing is that I personally don’t think anybody gets anywhere without just doing the thing first. You don’t have to, and you, you cannot wait for permission to make the thing.
This is a question I didn’t really get to ask you for time reasons, but you just started. I mean, you just started making a strip and you started selling it to people. You didn’t ask anybody, “Well, anybody want this? Can I get a place for it first?” And then when I know I’m gonna be paid and it’s gonna all be okay.
Alison Bechdel: Well, that I think was part of the gift of being so much on the outside of the culture, you know, as, as a lesbian. And at that point in time, it was kind of a big deal to be out and open about that. Like, I was kind of consigning myself to being on the margins. And so, yeah, I didn’t, I was beyond the pale. I didn’t need anybody’s permission. I was just gonna do it. So it helps to be, um, already somewhat marginalized.
Jessica Abel: Well, as artists and cartoonists, we are pretty marginalized, so we can, you know, maybe not that marginalized, but we can take that little piece of, we’ve already made the decision to be this, to live differently and to do different things and just move ahead with it, just make the thing.
Well, thank you so much for being here today with us, Alison. It has been really, really to catch up.
Alison Bechdel: And you’re very welcome. It was fun. Thank you.
Jessica Abel: How can people find out more about your latest book, your new upcoming projects?
Alison Bechdel: I’ve gone underground. I’m not talking about anything anymore. I’m hardly doing any social media. I can’t handle it. So I, I, I, There is no information. Nobody knows about this book at all. Not even my, um, agent. I haven’t, I’m still trying to work on this thing.
Jessica Abel: Well, we know for, we know here. That’s what’s important. I mean, I guess go to your publisher. Go to your publisher’s website and get the book at any bookstore and support Alison’s continued financial stability.
Alison Bechdel: Yes. Thank you, jessica
Jessica Abel: Thanks, Alison. I’m really glad you could make it.
Alison Bechdel: Me too. Thanks Jessica.
Jessica Abel: Bye bye.
Alison Bechdel: Bye
Jessica Abel: Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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