Serial Monogamists of Making Stuff

Dames Nation!

We’re Katrina and Jess, Serial Monogamists of Making Stuff.

Today, we want to boss the internet about what that means. We boss each other around all the time (“read this!” “listen to this! (at 58:16)” “look at this!” “drool over this!” “NOW.”) and are, right now, bossing each other about how to write this very sentence…. so we have some practice.

First, a definition:

Serial Monogamists of Making Stuff (SMoMS) commit themselves to a medium until they’ve squeezed it like a lemon leaving pulp and dry rind. Then they move on to make something else, often in a field or medium they’ve never tried. With equal devotion, they dive deep, reverse engineer the work they most admire, and make new stuff. Then, after seven years, or ten years, or thirteen, or more, it’s time to begin again.  

Take us: In past lives, we’ve made plays, blogs, academic papers, dances, essays, interviews, articles, performance art, radio, lesson plans, songs, news reports, book reviews, websites, digital art, comics, recipes, talks, videos, audio books, and photographs.

Most recently, we made books. (Katrina: The Sound of Silence. Jess: Stir.)

Being SMoMS means moving between states of terror and elation. We get to fall in love with a project and follow it wherever it goes! We get to realize on the reg that we don’t know what we’re doing and feel like crappy makers! We are at once useless and peeing rainbows.

The trouble with being a constant beginner is... that you’re a constant beginner. Your bowls are lopsided, or your sentences are, or your cakes. You wonder, who gave me permission? Am I even allowed to be a potter, writer, baker? The world wants to know what you do, what you are, and frankly, you do, too.

We bet some of you dames know exactly what we’re talking about and might, like us, need a boost sometimes. And so for us, for you…  



US National Archives animated GIF

Let us begin with the patron saint of creative serial monogamy, Miranda July.

Last week, Jess insisted Katrina listen AT ONCE to this interview with Ms. July on How To Be Amazing, because this:

Being a beginner, again and again, that's a good feeling to me. It makes it feel like each time the medium is being invented. The feeling of being a pro, a master of this particular thing ... that whole thing sounds nice. I'd love the respect part of it. But it doesn't sound fun creatively to me. It doesn't sound like actually a livable life.

Yeah!! This made us want to beat our chests.

More from Jess:

1. On figuring out what you need to know and how to get started knowing it: A piece that I’ve returned to time and again over the years is Tad Friend’sNew Yorker profileof Pixar’s Andrew Stanton. I even wrote lines from the piece on index cards and taped them all around my computer screen when I was writing my book! (“Finish the sentence.” “Be wrong fast.”) Get a load of this amazing nugget:

When Pixar began developing “Toy Story,” its first feature, in the early nineties, Lasseter brought in some Hollywood screenwriters to shape the story. Feeling he could do better, Stanton quietly versed himself in the discipline: one shelf of his home office is filled with classic screenplays—“Ryan’s Daughter,” “Schindler’s List”—that are scored with a yellow highlighter wherever he spotted a lively verb, a tone seized on the wing. He read and reread Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” which taught him to distill movies to one crisp sentence before making them. For “Finding Nemo,” it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for “Wall-E,” “Love conquers all programming.”

2. On our constantly-in-flux identities, and the problem with our emphasis on “self discovery” [hint: the phrase implies a singular self]:

“It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow ... ​As Xunzi reminds us, nothing is natural. The talents and weaknesses we are born with get in the way if we allow them to determine what we can and cannot do. The only thing you really need to be good at is the ability to train yourself to get better ...​ Don’t try to discover your authentic self; don’t be confined by what you are good at or what you love. And do a lot of pretending. We could all benefit from a little more insincerity."    

[Full essay by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh here.]     

3. On following your bliss, or whatever: Chew on this from Jeff Goins’s essay, When Your Calling Seems Vague and Unclear You’re On the Right Track:

A calling is the accumulation of a person’s life’s experiences, skills, and passions - all put to work.

That’s a spot-on definition, I think, because, as the author says, “We don’t often know what we should be doing until we start doing it.”

4. On becoming someone new through the process of making something new:  In this video over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains:

I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take. And hoping that you grow some new muscles. It’s not really that mystical. It’s repeated practice over and over and over again, and then suddenly you become something that you had no idea you could really be.

5. On making stuff… now! Also about failure, and the importance of heart: Mike Birbiglia in The New York Times. (And if you haven’t seen Birbiglia’s latest, Don’t Think Twice, you gotta.)

6. On being a truck driver turned bounty hunter turned acclaimed opera singer (for real!): This interview with Carl Tanner on my favorite podcast, How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black.

7. On imposter syndrome: Katrina’s going to say some stuff about this in just a minute (See her #12, below). As for me, I bring you a tweet by the brilliant, hilarious, maker-of-so-much-awesome Jomny Sun that pretty much sums it up for me:

8. Finally, there’s nothing like a glimpse at another artist’s physical work space and creative process to remind you that, gasp, books (and paintings and music and plays) are actually made. They don’t come into the world fully formed. These images of author Robert Caro’s work space have stuck with me since I first saw them a few years ago. (For more on his writing life, see the accompanying article, here.)

Over to you, Katrina!

From Katrina:

And these are eight of the multitude of reasons why I love Jessica Fechtor. Because even though she’s sent me the Pixar link at least three times, FIVE of them are brand new to me. Which leads me to:

9. On girl gangs: I believe in, depend on, and relentlessly rep my girl gang. (Aspiring to be Las Brujas.) Jess and I talk frequently about how good it is to be *in the mud* with each other’s work and freak out over each other’s accomplishments (ahem* New York Times Bestselling Author, Jessica Fechtor).

In my copy of This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage that Jess gave me, she pointed me to pages 46 and 47, where Ann Patchett writes about her friendship with the equally amazing Elizabeth McCracken:

Sometimes you don’t realize what’s lacking in life until you find it. That was the way I felt about Elizabeth. I had plenty of friends, and a few extremely close friends, but I’d never had a true reader, someone who didn’t automatically love everything I did, someone whose criticism and praise were always thoughtful and consistent...Whatever I gave her, she read immediately, which is what every writer desperately wants, and she brought the full weight of her talent, and intelligence to bear on all of it. I tried my best to do the same for her.

Patchett’s girl gang also famously includes Lucy Grealy [insert link to T and B] (despite accusations that “The Love Between The Two Women Is Not Normal”), and Elizabeth Gilbert. In her clouds-of-cynicism clearing bookBig Magic, Liz Gilbert talks about her magical friendship with AP (I saw AP recently in Marin, and she said that everything Liz Gilbert is true but also that she lives in a world with way more magic then AP).

And because how can you not represent, I want to tell you about how Natalia Zubko, my longtime accountability partner, the woman who you want making the light sculptures at your not-a-wedding-wedding and one of my best dames who makes art like a BOSS even when she’s holding eleventeen other jobs and even when Galleries Are a Man’s World.

merylrowin feminism emmys trans rights transparenttv

Natalia’s work is “LIKE ENTERING INTO A WARM HUG” says the coolest 10-year-old boy ever. And part of supporting your people is shoving them into things that they really think they don’t want to do, but should really do. So I bugged her and bugged her until she finally did a Kickstarter (launching October 6th-- you can tell how much we laughed while making this video). So that after a LIFETIME of paging through National Geographics, she can make an art experience that brings the Aurora Borealis to you (or localized to your kitchen). It’s like dreaming of being an astronaut and then going to the moon. Help send her there please. As JR Thorpe said:

Every time you buy a book by a woman, a painting, a ticket to a show, an LP, a piece from a gallery opening, a zine, you're participating in an extremely long discourse about women's artistic talent, biology, and the quest for artistic greatness.

Listen to JR. Support women artists.

10. On the wand of legitimacy:

harry potter rip alan rickman severus snape raise your wands

Amanda Palmer is captivating especially when she’s fucking up. As she says:

When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.

This makes me beat my chest as my heart explodes. Her bookThe Art Of Asking is best appreciated on audiobook (with original songs). Watch her with my other favorite, (see girl gangs), Maria Popova, as they talk about all the important things.

11. On using other people’s work as a life raft: I return to Sarah Manguso’s "The Grand Shattering". So much so that I even copied out this bit so I can look at it every day on my desk. (It is next to an early poem of mine: "I am butful. My sister is. Butful."):

I want to read books that were written in desperation, by people who are disturbed and overtaxed, who balance on the extreme edge of experience. I want to read books by people who are acutely aware that death is coming and that abiding love is our last resort. And I want to write those books.

Because I need to hear that every day. I need that rallying cry where my identity as an artist is fortified rather than diluted by my identity as a mother.

A perfect companion essay that is in many ways about the decision not to have children, comes from another writer whose books I savour, Rebecca Solnit in The Mother of All Questions:

People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity, in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.

For me, I read it as permission to be consumed by my creative work as well as by the sweet lisp in my toddler’s voice when he takes my hand and says, “Come on, love.”

12. The Toast was insufficiently profitable for one reason and one reason only: they were paying me $1 every time I shared Everyone Has Imposter Syndrome Except for You. Given the opportunity I will insist on reading it aloud to the person who most needs to hear it. I will read it to you and we will start laughing so hard that the words will get garbled. And this physical release of laughing so hard will remind us that though we still a little bit believe that we are imposters, at least we are believing it along with everyone else.

13. On being yourself We begin with July, we end with July. Here’s my all time favorite mash-up of journalism and performance art Miranda July’s interview with Rihanna (who just became Global Ambassador of Education), she offers the perfect antidote to imposter syndrome: “How To Be Yourself in the Presence of Rihanna.”  (And co-writing this newsletter has been an exercise in exactly that. It was a struggle not to become Jessica Fechtor. The result I was 90% Me. 7% JF. 3% Miranda July. Crushing it.)


Also on Our Minds This Week


1. The Woman You Want to Be is Rich. I can’t stop thinking about this piece. On the one hand, yes, wow, brilliant, totally. On the other, there’s a splash of ick in my heart as I contemplate that thing women too often do to other women, “blaming” others’ success on some kind of unfair advantage. As one thoughtful commenter named Amanda put it, “I believe that we can acknowledge the privilege of [the presumably rich, successful, happy, well-rested, fulfilled woman’s] position without having to pretend that what they do is effortless or that they've gotten it because of some man.”

Perhaps this would be an appropriate time to mention that #imwithher.

2. Rachel Cusk slays in her essay, Making House: Notes on Domesticity.

3. I can’t wait for this documentary on the development of Merrily We Roll Along, the musical about chasing your dreams by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. "I've never been happier rehearsing actors. I've never gone home surer that a show was going to be a success. I thought, this is just it,” says Sondheim. But when the show opened on Broadway in 1981, it flopped. Big time.

4. I watched Iris on an airplane last week. Good stuff, and Katrina, can we please go shopping for costume jewelry? 

No, you do, Iris.

5. Finally, guest editing this newsletter and loving every minute of it (Thank you so much, Sophie and Margaret!!) has me thinking about this piece, Blogging gave us everything we love - and hate - about the Web, by Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker. One thing I know for sure, I’m digging it here on the return-of-the-newsletter frontier.     


Apart from being completely heartbroken....

Alfred Olongo on Tuesday. Terence Crutcher, father of four. And so many names we aren’t even hearing. Apart from being completely heartbroken, I am seeking inspiration from Dame Nation on small everyday actions to take in the face of the pure physical terror and violence erupting daily on a street near you. Write me please, and tell me about your small acts of revolution in your teaching-artmaking-techie-human lives.

I utilized my personal emergency phone tree and started asking my people what we could do. One simple response was “saying hello and good morning to all.” Or what bell hooks calls “embracing civility”. It’s exhausting that this even needs to be said. That the act of greeting people of color (especially in white spaces) would be, and is, an anti-racist “strategy of resistance”.

Awesomely Lurvie offers these 9 places to start for white folks. Her #1 and #2 are Listen and Amplify.

... wants to make an attempt at being a Human Megaphone:

Katrina also begs to state: This is why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Buy diverse books and give ‘em to everyone you know. (Especially during banned books week.) K.T. Horning reminds us that the conversation about inclusion has been happening since the 60s. Gift books to the kids in your life that tell Stories of Protest.

Add more diverse books to Atlas Obscura’s Real-Life Homes of the Heroes of Children’s Literature, which stopped my heart with glee. (But wait, Harriet lived on the UES?) Let's stop #KidsBooksCanonSoWhite.

In closing: I, Katrina, love making work that connects strangers. I’ve been sitting in the Luggage Store, a gallery on Market Street, and pouring tea and sharing mochi cakes with folks who come by (which I'll be doing again 3-5pm on Friday and a closing party 5-9pm on Saturday for you Bay Area Dames) , talking to people who are homeless and people who have homes about what home is for them.

For a breath things feel almost okay