S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: This is what I love about trying to make stories out of the real material of my life is that it’s this endlessly absorbing puzzle to find a narrative there. And the hardest part of any narrative, I think, is always the ending, because endings are always at some level about not just finality, but really the ultimate finality about death.
S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Ramona
S1: Lum, and I’m your other host, June Thomas.
S3: And the voice that we heard up top belongs to Alison Bechdel, who’s both an artist and writer. As anyone who makes comics is. I don’t know if Alison really requires an introduction, June, but maybe you’d like to walk us through her biography of it.
S1: Yeah, absolutely. So Alison started Young and has just kept making incredible work our paths. I’ll just make this about me. Our paths first crossed in the mid 1980s when Off Our Backs, the feminist magazine that I worked at ran her comic strip Dykes to watch out for. And I just cannot imagine changing my view that Dykes to watch out for is the most significant piece of art to have appeared in my lifetime. It’s just an incredible, beautiful, funny chronicling of lesbian feminist life over a 25 year period from 1993 to 2008. And I always thought that that would be, you know, the thing that she was known for. But then in 2007, she released her first graphic memoir, which is to say, a graphic novel in the form of a memoir or a memoir in the form of a graphic novel. It was called Fun Home, and it was about her relationship with her late father, who was, well, bisexual or gay. It’s hard to know which label to apply exactly. And it was a huge success and later became a Broadway musical, a Broadway musical that I absolutely love. And in 2012, she published another graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? Which was about guess what, her mother and her new book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is this week.
S3: I mean, to hear you give that sort of capsule biography. It’s really interesting to talk about Dykes. To watch out for a serial comic strip is a significant work of art. And then to talk about Ellyson kind of topping herself. Yeah. In her subsequent work. It’s also clear in this conversation that Alison is a friend of yours. You know, I have in the past on this show has spoken to creative folks who I know a little bit like the poet Javier Zamora. Not to get too meta about it, but I’m wondering how your own knowledge of your subject as a human being informed the interview that you put her through.
S1: So as you said, Alison, I have known each other a long time and we are both dykes of a certain age who love our community and our people, but also like to observe their, let’s say, idiosyncrasies. But I don’t want to make it sound like we’re in each other’s houses every week. You know, Alison lives in Vermont. I live in Brooklyn. In normal times, we see each other maybe once a year and we correspond a little bit. But I know her and I’ve known her a long time. And I think perhaps that makes me worry about her. In her new book, she writes a lot about her working habits and their bunkers. You know, there are times when she describes working for days at a time without sleep or hardly any sustenance. And, you know, different people will respond to that in different ways. My response was to feel concerned about my friend, even though I have known for decades that she is, let’s just say, not very good at taking time off.
S3: Well, that promises a conversation that is both about her new work, but also about her working life. So it’s kind of she’s the perfect guest for a show called Working Right. I personally have always thought graphic novel is an unwieldy term. Right. Because to start with, it’s a misnomer when we apply it to bettles books, including this new one, which these are works of memoir. Now, here’s an impossible question to answer for any book, but what is the secret to superhuman strength about?
S1: Yeah, well, first I would say that Alison usually refers to herself as a cartoonist and Furnham had a fantastic subtitle, A Family Tragicomic. So she is always kind of danced around that whole graphic memoir, graphic novel thing herself. And yes, I’m trying to avoid having to summarize this book because it is definitely not easy. So I will try and put it as straightforwardly as possible, which is that the secret to superhuman strength is about Alison’s lifelong obsession with exercise, but it’s also about work and creativity and sort of transcending the confines of one’s own body. And ultimately, I think it’s about figuring out how to be happy. And I know that sounds like a lot and it is a lot more.
S3: We’re going to snoop on this wonderful conversation between friends. But before we do, I have to point out that this week our Slate plus listeners are getting something that I consider pretty juicy. Would you like to give us a sneak preview on that?
S1: Yes, we talked about Alison’s feelings about the thing that she has maybe most known for at this point, the Bechtol test.
S3: So just as a reminder for what Slate plus is our slate. US members enjoy exclusive content, zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But of course, the most important thing is that Slate plus members support the work that we do here at working. It’s one dollar for the first month to sign up. You just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus. So let’s listen in to Jones conversation with Alison Battle.
S1: Alison Bechdel, welcome to working, thank you.
S2: You know, I’m very happy to be here with you.
S1: So working is a show about the creative process and we will be talking about your creative process. But I have to say that having recently finished your new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, I wish I could just interrogate you about it, because it’s a book that left me provoked in the sense of being full of questions that I then wanted to interrogate within myself. It was unsettling in that regard. So first, I’m curious how you describe the secret to superhuman strength.
S2: Well, you know, it’s based on this ad I saw in a comic book when I was a child and, you know, I was always very tempted to send away for one of these crazy devices that would build your shoulders or weight gain drinks that would make you bigger. And I did finally succumb to an ad that promised me the secret to superhuman strength. So that meant something very different to me at age nine. And it does now, but it has remained somewhat of a preoccupation over the course of my life.
S1: And how do you describe what this book is about?
S2: I’ve honestly had a bit of trouble not showing this book. But, you know, one of the things it’s about is the creative process so that the exercise is just kind of a lens or a surface layer to look at many different aspects of life, one of which is creativity.
S1: Yeah, yeah. This book feels to me like it’s your it’s a kind of a chronicle of your process of figuring out on the page why you do things, including why you work the way you do. I have to say in the book, and I’ve thought this for many years, but in the book you really show yourself always going for the kind of highest possible degree of difficulty you’re weaving together a lot of stories and sources. You’re writing very concisely. You’re drawing and then coloring first, I guess. How do you respond to my claim that you always take the hardest route to your destination?
S2: I sort of do. You know, it reminds me of actually, I went through a phase of hiking with people who were a little slower than me. And I would I would put rocks in my pack. I just kind of
S1: your Virginia Woolf tribute.
S2: Yes, I do have some compulsion to sort of work at full pitch. I don’t quite know. I think maybe in some prior existence I was a Sherpa, perhaps, and I just like being in that full exertion mode, whether it’s creative or physical or something else.
S1: When you sit down to work on a book like this, what comes first for you?
S2: I had a slim notion that I wanted this book to be about my exercise life, it’s just like I felt like honestly, I had run out of material I had written about, like the big stories of my life about my parents. And the next thing I could think of was, you know, that I felt passionate about was my physical activities, which for me are very bound up with, as I said, my creative process. So this sort of quasi spiritual quest I’m on to like escape the confines of my small, separate self.
S1: So you think of an idea and then kind of what comes next, I know that’s a very big question, but given again that there’s so much you know, there’s writing that’s drawing. There’s.
S2: Yeah. So I allow myself a certain amount of free association. And I must say that my books take me a really long time, perhaps because of this technique. So I I love doing the research, you know, whatever I’m writing about, even if it’s my father or my mother, my research takes me into these other avenues. In the book about my dad, it was exploring his favorite authors in the book about my mother. It was learning about psychoanalysis, like giving myself a tutorial on psychoanalysis. And for this book, the one sort of point of entry that I had was Jack Kerouac’s book, The Dharma Bums. And I know it’s very odd that a middle aged feminist woman would be writing about Jack Kerouac, but I always loved this particular book. I honestly haven’t read much of his other work because I can’t stand it. But the Dharma bums, there’s something really magical to me about the way he wrote about his backcountry adventures in the High Sierras and the Cascades hanging out with Gary Snyder, where they would both do this physical experience of a hike and talk about the universe together the way people do when they’re out hiking. Yeah, that was my entry point. I knew I would use that book in some way. I wasn’t quite sure how, but that book led me to other writers in the same kind of lineage, like the Transcendentalists Emerson and Margaret Fuller and the writers who inspired them, the British romantics William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth. And all of these people were not only writing about nature, they were really out there trekking and tramping and walking. And that was very interesting to me, especially because they were doing it before they had, like, you know, cortex boots.
S1: It’s. So, yes, you have this these wealth of sources, I mean, again, as you mentioned in Furnham, there was a lot of Ulisses that you were kind of grappling with and engaging with. It was D.W. Winnicott and some other psychoanalysts in Are You My Mother in this book? It is indeed these people that you’ve just described and the Buddha, I would add, and some kind of commentary on Buddhism, but just just a lot of stuff. And I wonder, like how you process your sourcebooks. Do you have any particular, like, thing that you do? Is there a program you work with to just kind of figure out, OK, what am I going to take from these people or do you just kind of marinate in it?
S2: You know, I wish I kept a commonplace book, I wish I used index cards, I never learned how to do that, but it would really help me if I were more methodical about that. What I did use was Scrivner do is that program. Yeah, yeah. I love Scrivner because it’s basically just a way to organize your files. But I have such a hard time thinking in terms of the big picture, in terms of my outline, that that’s basically what I use Scrivner for. I would just throw everything in there, pictures, pdf of articles. I’d read my own ideas, transcriptions from my diary, and then I could move them around in the you know, I could look at the file architecture and it helped me a lot to organize my ideas.
S1: And then, of course, there are all these other strands, your relationship to your body, your birth family, your romantic relationships. Did you kind of treat those personal things in the same way as the kind of the texts that you were working with?
S2: Well, I should say that I’ve kept a diary all of my life. And that’s that is one of the texts I was consulting a lot of know biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was looking at my own endless, endless record of my own life. And that was actually really fruitful for me because I was able to start seeing patterns. And, you know, I know that I studied karate in my early twenties, but I was starting to see the other things that were going on for me in that period of my life and throughout my life. I was seeing these, you know, intersections of things between my personal life, my athletic life, my creative life. And that started to help me build the spine of the book.
S1: So cartoonists have to be incredibly concise, like there’s just not much room for words. Have you been doing this for 40 years now? Like, has it become easier or even instinctive to boil incredibly complex things down to just a few words?
S2: Yeah, it’s become somewhat of an instinct, but I should say that for a cartoonist, I’m still quite wordy. You know, there’s a pretty high word to picture ratio in my work because I just really love words. And, you know, often, you know, people say that thing about a picture is worth a thousand words. But so often words are really much more efficient way space wise, you know, to convey something. So, you know, I had it. This book is like two hundred and twenty five pages. If it were all text, honestly, I could have gotten a lot more in, but yeah, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.
S1: I had a funny experience in the in the reading the first bit, and I hope this doesn’t sound like a negative because it was just like an awareness that I kind of enjoyed. But in the beginning is kind of an intro you talking about your life and and while you’re sharing information in the panels, that is to say words, you know, you’re showing yourself doing stuff. And it almost felt like the kind of the pictures, the images that you see in a in a pharmaceutical ad, you know, like when they have to they have to give all of the all of the words like they’re obliged to they have to tell you those awful things. But they also want to show you something nice. So I’m guessing I’m guessing from your response that that was not in your mind as you as you approach that that section of the book?
S2: Well, no, I was not envisioning it as a pharmaceutical ad, but I really did have a certain amount of information that I needed to impart in that introduction. And so that’s what I did. So you’re
S1: right. OK, so I’d like to talk to you about the style of art in this book. Over the years, it has felt like your drawing had kind of reached a certain stage of like photorealism or photorealistic perfection. But you’ve tweaked the artistic style a bit in this book, including presenting some spreads in a slightly different style with like a broader line that doesn’t feel quite so cartoony. And I don’t mean cartoony in a negative way. It’s just different. So can you talk about the look of this book?
S2: Yeah, the book is mostly in full color, but there are occasional scenes that are rendered in black and white. And not only are they black and white, they’re done in a brush with a brush instead of a pen. So it’s this very different technique. And it’s it’s you know, it’s my attempt to do something like SUMAYA, as I have discussed with Rosemary at length, we’re both big fans of Sumida, although she’s an actual practitioner and does such beautiful work. I’ve never learned properly, but I always hope that one day I’m going to sit down and do it. In the meantime, I’ve done these kind of fake smeet drawings in this book, which are done with a brush and just shades of black ink, you know, watered down black ink. And that was an attempt to capture some theme of the book, which is the the way that there are these sort of two registers of reality. This is as mystical as my book gets. But I do believe that beyond are this everyday world where things have sharp edges and nice clean black ink outlines, there’s a another. Kind of reality, where things are not so distinct, where things blur together, where things are sort of one thing. And so that’s what I was trying to get at and those brush drawings and also they had to be created. In a spontaneous manner, well, an ink drawing is a very laborious process for me. I’m doing sketches, many layers of sketches until I get to the final version, which I’m tracing a pencil line. And you can’t do that with a brush drawing. It’s got to just come right out of you under the page.
S1: Alisyn, when you referred to Rosemary, you are, of course, referring to my partner.
S1: Also, I have to say that this book is brighter, you colored it in a different way from your two previous graphic memoirs. So I’m curious, first of all, why it’s different and why you decided to use this particular style.
S2: I knew that this book had to be full color, mostly because I just as you observed at the beginning, I like to make things difficult for myself. And full color is really hard. It’s much easier now, actually with digital technology than it was in olden times, but I still just don’t really have the bandwidth to do it. I don’t know how cartoonists like Chris, where do that incredibly beautiful, nuanced color work on top of the line art that they’re creating? So it was trying to figure out a way that I could make this book in full color that wasn’t going to be too complicated. And I. I weirdly sort of. I retro engineered a strange technique for this book, which ended up being the way they used to do color for like the Sunday funnies for or for comic books where there was a cyan magenta and a yellow layer with little dots of differing intensities, and you’d combine those layers to get different colors. And I thought this would make things easier because I’d only be dealing with three colors and three layers, but. In fact, I actually farmed out this work to my partner, Holly, because I was it was clear that I was not going to have time to draw this book and color it. And fortunately, she stepped in and saved the day. But for her, it meant working with grey ink, with tones of grey ink on five layers per page and figuring out how to get green if you only have yellow and cyan and magenta or how to get brown. And it was crazy and not fun.
S1: So, you know, my response to this and it looks great. So that’s that’s one wonderful thing. But like, surely it would have been possible to do this with a computer. Like, I know that you use you don’t have to draw the letters anymore. So I know that you’re willing to take on some, like, computer testing.
S2: But we just absolutely have have done this on the computer and it would have taken a lot less time, but she would have been on the computer 18 hours a day, which is a really unpleasant this way. She was actually using her hand on a piece of paper with water and ink. And it’s that’s just much more pleasant and it looks great on the page. There’s an organic washy quality that even the most carefully designed brush in Photoshop would not give you.
S1: I thought that it was effectively like watercolor backgrounds. You know, that’s how it looks like kind of watercolor washes.
S2: It does. And it would have been much more pleasant for Holly to do if she’d been using, like, you know, blue paint to paint the sky and not write grey.
S1: So you mentioned that this book is largely about your creative process. Could you talk about some of the realizations that you had about your work while you were working on it?
S2: You know, I don’t know if I’ll be able to articulate them. I think part of what I was able to do in this book, since it’s a comic book and I’m using visual language, is to just sort of show stuff. And I talked before about the black and white images in the book, as opposed to the bulk of the book, which is in color. But when I would cut to these black and white scenes, it’s usually a moment where there was some kind of breakthrough or insight or just pivotal experience that was happening. Like, for example, at the end of the of my 30th chapter, when I’m about to turn 40. The final image of that panels is of my my house at night surrounded by the dark forest, which is an image that I had just read in a book about Dante’s Dark Forest in the middle of our life. And this was the middle of my life. This was my 40s when I was really starting to grapple with the fact that my life was finite. And then I couldn’t, you know, part of the fantasy of working all the time whenever I felt like it was that time was infinite. I had all the time in the world. And I I didn’t have to adhere to schedules or, you know, the hours of the post office. I was just free running in my own world, but I was starting to face that. All of this was going to end, so that’s just, you know, that’s a and just trying to show the impact of that realization in my life.
S3: We’ll be back with more of John’s conversation with Alison Buchtel. One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether that’s a question about productivity or a specific inquiry, like the best way to get a comic strip to look on the page, anything, send it to us at working at Slate Dotcom or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s return to Jeunes conversation with Alison Buchtel.
S1: In the secret to superhuman strength, you quote your ex army saying your work is like a substance that you abuse, which first of all, amazing line. And I’m so glad that you included that because I had been thinking that, like, in a really cool it way. Yeah. Like, what are you doing to yourself? Like, you know, I mean, partly because we know each other and I have concerns for you as my friend. But like, I think if you had not been a actual human but a character and invented character, I would have felt that way. So this book is, among other things, a chronicle of a breakthrough that you had of understanding some motivations and habits and behaviors. But you also show yourself unflinchingly doing some like inadvisable, I guess, things, you know, and I want to be clear, like mostly around work and just kind of complete dedication to work that affects your health and your relationships and so on and so forth. Did the realization that you portray or chronicling it in the book like change the way you work?
S2: Well, I have to say, I have had breakthroughs, I’ve had many breakthroughs on this problem, but it doesn’t mean I’ve solved it. You know, I still I still grapple with these issues. You know, it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to take Sunday mornings off Sunday mornings. And then I moved on to all day Sunday and then moved on to weekends. What? Yeah, like that was really hard for me to figure out. Wow. It’s because my work is so much about my life. It’s so interwoven with my life and I’ve made it that way. But I also very much have used it to keep to keep my partners at bay, to keep everything at bay, you know, and just like be left alone in my little borough, which is not good.
S1: Yeah, no. I mean, I was going to say that it’s almost funny because you acknowledge your profoundly dysfunctional work style and then you present you and Holly, Holly Taylor, your partner, effectively working like medieval monks to finish the book. And, you know, you called into our recent episode about how people stayed creative during covid and said that you had worked 18 hours a day on this book. And like that doesn’t feel like a good way of working. I’m not saying this to, like, get on your case. It’s more just like we are in this show about working and how people work. And I want to kind of I get why you do this. And I’m kind of envious of it in certain ways, you know, that kind of focus and just, you know, the passion that it comes from. But do you have any advice for people about kind of getting a grip on work and its intensity?
S2: Before I try to give advice, I just want to say that working working on this book with Holly was such an ecstatic experience. Like it’s I love that phase of intensity of a project anyhow. But yeah, I’m usually somewhat alone in it. And yeah, for this, it was so great to have her there with me. I can’t really explain it like there was just a lot of we had to keep track of so much of this workflow and these files and what had been scanned and what had and it’s very lonely doing that by oneself and at last with someone in it with me. And that was really amazing. Yeah. She would be nervous if she heard this conversation because she would be worried I was going to try and make that happen again.
S1: So advice about kind of dialing it back and scaling back the the kind of constant intensity.
S2: I mean, for me, the the first step was really trying to learn that my work is not my life, that those things are not coextensive, even though I know intellectually that that’s true, I still kind of feel like my life and my work are one thing. But teasing those apart is step number one, harder to do when you’re a memoirist than if you’re a bank teller. So that’s that’s my main issue.
S1: Some of these realizations that you had, you know, you frame it as a way of like, oh, my God, this is better for me and my mental health to, for example, not be working 36 hours straight to take weekends off. Did it also have a beneficial effect on your work?
S2: That’s the dark secret of all this, is that it’s really just to go back into the work and to make the work better. Yeah, if I don’t work all weekend, I’m much sharper on Monday and I can do much more. I don’t know what to really do with that because, I mean, it’s also true that I really am taking the time off.
S1: You have very, very effectively made your life your subject, and yet I was really aware, like it is obviously an intensely structured the time line of the book, the way you bring people and places back into the story. And you know that the control that you have over is really masterfully done. But you’re also telling a story from your own life and you have to have an ending, which has to be a satisfying ending. I doubt that it’s kind of accurate to say it’s lucky that you had this wonderful realization at the end. So you had this nice, you know, conclusion. So can you talk about how you deal with figuring out how to end the book when you’re telling a true story where being truthful is very important to you, but it’s from your own life and the end of the book is not also the end of your life. So that must be really hard. And how do you how do you manage that?
S2: Yeah, it is hard, and this is what I love about trying to make stories out of the real material of my life is that challenge. It’s a it’s this endlessly absorbing puzzle to find a narrative there. And the hardest part of any narrative, I think, is always the ending. You know, I would struggle with the endings to my 10 panel comic strips because endings are always at some level about not just finality, but really the ultimate finality, about death, about being done with a thing. And that’s that’s hard. You want to you want to go out. On a good note, this book had its own it was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my fifty ninth year because each decade its chapters about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960, I was born in that nice round numbered year, and it enables me to break the book down by decade like that. But this book was taking me a long time, as all my books do, and I finally realized, well, it’s a good thing it’s taking me a long time because I can’t it needs to really fill up the 2010s like it needs to run through the 2010s. I you know, I had a different ending. I had I had sort of finished the writing last spring and the spring of twenty twenty just before everything went crazy. Before the pandemic, before the election, you know, before the whole campaign season. So as I was working on the book. The outside world was going through these spasms, you know, the George Floyd protests, all the world was just in an upheaval. Well, I was quietly at my little monks drawing board, trying to put this thing all down on paper. And I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t I can’t read the book until I know what happens. So it was really when Biden was finally acknowledged as the winner that I was able to end this thing so that a different sort of false endings up to that point.
S1: Has writing these graphic memoirs gotten easier with practice?
S2: No, to me, these books all all feel sort of impossible at the outset. And which is why I want to do them. You know, I’m trying to figure something out. And if I already had it figured out, there’d be no point in doing the book.
S1: Throughout the book, there are references to obsolete technology, but some funny little notes that I won’t spoil. But I wonder how different was the process of creating this book from, say, the early dykes to watch out for books or even fun home?
S2: Well, when I got started in the 80s doing Dykes to watch out for it was a completely pre digital universe. You know, I was working in these very simple black and white line art drawings that I would take to the copy shop and mail in the mail and envelopes with stamps to newspapers across the country. Everything was so physical, you know, just so much about paper and different kinds of paper. And I’m getting nostalgic about it. There was something simple and pure about it, but I got very excited about technology as soon as it came along. I loved being able to manipulate stuff in Photoshop. I’ve never gotten into drawing on the screen. I don’t I don’t like that. I’d rather draw an actual paper. But, you know, I now write in Adobe Illustrator and writing on the computer in a drawing program and I use a lot of technology. Yeah. Which makes my work simpler in some ways and much more complex and others.
S1: On the last page of the new book, in the kind of acknowledgements you mentioned, some exercises that Holly came up with to jump start creativity. Are there any of those that you can share for any listeners who may need some some help in yet they’re not really getting inspired?
S2: Actually, tune one of these is kind of you’re doing as well, Holly. And I started keeping a bullet journal like a joint bullet journal, which is something you introduced me to. And we we just did it like to keep track of our life. Like every Sunday we’d sit down and plan out our week together and gradually she started. Telling me things to draw for that week and the first I was very resistant to this and I didn’t like her ideas and I didn’t like being forced to draw and I didn’t feel like drawing, but I always found that her I would end up making a drawing that I never would have thought of on my own. And that was actually kind of fun. And so we started keeping this diary of weekly drawings that I would do. And it happened at a point when I was really not drawing. I was writing this book, but not engaged in the drawing. So I was getting kind of really rusty at drawing and more and more anxious that I wasn’t going to be able to draw when I really had to. So it was a way to get me to get my hand moving and to get back in the flow of drawing. That was really helpful.
S1: At the beginning of our conversation, you said that fitness and exercise in this book acted as a lens through which you got to talk about your life and the creative process. What do you think the parallels are between physical exercise and creative exercise?
S2: You know, I tried not to draw super direct lines between these things because it would turn into, like, you know, a sports metaphor story. But I did learn a kind of discipline doing martial arts that really directly translated to being able to sit down long enough with a cartoon and do it and redo it until it was good, good enough to be printed in the paper studying yoga, really. This was something I, I learned by looking back over my diary at the different things that were happening at this point in my life. But when I got very seriously into yoga and was learning how to observe the pain I was feeling in a pose not as pain but as, you know, very specific sensations. I was also getting better at writing it better. My comic strip was becoming much more realistic, much more about real life in that way, that being able to write about the difficulties of life is a great gift. It’s a way of taking the pain of life and making it into an object of interest. And I feel like I learned that a bit from yoga. So there’s lots of little lessons like that throughout the book.
S1: Yeah. Thank you, Ali. And this is really great. I love the book.
S2: Thank you so much, John.
S3: So June in when I was an undergraduate, I worked at a coffee shop in my college town where we had the Cleveland free newspaper, the name of which I can’t even remember right. Like the alternative weekly that was published in Cleveland and it carried Dykes to watch out for. And that is how I knew her name. That is what I knew of Alison. And it’s so striking a couple of decades on to hear Alison describe herself as fundamentally a memoirist. You know, I know that to be true. I know that she’s published these two previous very highly acclaimed works of memoir. The New York Times gave her new book, The Secret to Human Superhuman Strength, an extraordinary review just last week. But I think of her work in terms of the means, the writing and the drawing rather than the subject, which is the self Ramun.
S1: I think that might be a reflection of your being a novelist, because you forget how hard what you do when in terms of coming up with characters and situations and combining them in interesting and surprising ways. You forget that that’s the hard part of a novel lots of people can write and as well as you perhaps. But the thing that separates people is is the subject matter. So it’s really interesting to me that you focus, as you said, on the means rather than the subject. But yeah, I think that, you know, Alison’s genius was having developed this way of combining episodes from her life with literary sources and philosophical observations. And, yeah, that’s that’s to me, that’s what’s special. I mean, she is a brilliant writer, a beautiful artist. But it’s the special element is is the vision, I think.
S3: Mm. Yeah. Way to be good at two completely different things. Writing, drawing. You know, I think one of the challenges of writing a memoir specifically, which is as we’ve discussed, that is Ellison’s subject that she’s claiming for herself has to be a willingness to really look at that self. Frankly, objectivity is not possible, but scrutiny is kind of demanded, you know, not pulling punches. Do you think Bexell rises to that particular challenge?
S1: I do. I definitely do, especially in this book. And I don’t know how she does it. Like I’m one of those people who’s all too willing to talk about myself, probably a lot more than I should be. But I cannot imagine being able to get to the depth of, like, comprehension of the workings of my mind that can permit that kind of revelation and accountability.
S3: I mean, it’s telling that the subject of her previous work was analysis, right? Because that’s what you’re talking about. Yes. Yes. I really enjoyed how this conversation between you and Alison became about the tension between work and life, not just insofar as people’s work digests and interrogates her life, but in the way that doing that work affects her actual real life. And it’s funny because in the past year that we have been doing this show, it’s strangely a subject that has not come up a lot.
S1: No, it hasn’t. And I think that’s in part because it’s really hard for most people to face that kind of reckoning to say, like for me to do the amount of work that this project is going to require of me. I can’t do like a social thing X or a family thing Y, and not just for a limited period like in the final push, but for most of the time or maybe ever, you know, creative work like it tends to be effectively self employment with no overtime pay. And it consumes people’s time and attention and focus. And then that is not available for the other people in their life. And I think in certain ways, being creative requires behaviour that could be seen as selfish. But it’s also kind of an irrational obsession, and it’s very hard to look at it coldly. And when the work is good, like I’m glad that people were so monomaniacal, even for the most part. I don’t want to think about what it took for them to produce that work.
S3: You also really can’t escape the question of sex when you’re talking about that, because we tend to valorize the mid century monstrous male genius. And in the contemporary mode, we tend to really laud the, you know, for a woman artist to also be a parent or engage in some other kind of care labor. Like it’s unusual for a woman to stand up and say, like, yeah, I have committed wholly to my work, regardless of how that might seem morally to you.
S1: Yeah, totally.
S3: I was. And I share two things that I personally feel are very special. First off, we are both alumni of Oberlin College, but more importantly and more specifically, we both learned about the value of the bullet journal from June Thomas. June, I wonder if you could give me your stump speech about why you like a bullet journal and what effect that might have on one’s working life, creative or otherwise.
S1: I can do that. But first, I just want to note that I think what Alison was saying was that I’m responsible for this book. And possibly what you’re saying is I’m going to be responsible for your next one, too. So I just want to note that
S3: I’ll put you in the acknowledgments.
S1: Yes, I. So to get to the Bullet Journal, I, first of all recommend that anyone interested in bullet journalling go to bullet journal Dotcom and watch the video that the methods creator writer Carol made to explain the concept. He does it really well. But I think at heart it’s just the old productivity advice that you should write things down so that you’re not wasting brainpower on trying to remember your tasks and your obligations. A bullet journal is really just a notebook serving as an undated planner because we don’t need the same amount of space for every day. But write things down, cross them off when you’re done and move on to the next thing.
S3: It’s deceptively simple advice. Yes, write things down, cross them off. The endorphin rush I get when I’m going to Jordan and I are speaking of resumes so I can hold it up and show you the endorphin rush of marking those X’s. It doesn’t. It just sort of doesn’t compare to anything else that’s happening in my life. And the reason being, I think, is that my work, the creative work that I’m engaged in is so formless and so shapeless. And it doesn’t really end until like a book is published. But that’s a long haul. And there are all these little tiny steps. And hearing Ellison just talk about the way she used the word workflow when she was describing a collaboration with her partner, Holly, on the execution of adding layers of color to the panels inside of the secrets of superhuman strength. It’s an extremely telling word. She’s an artist for sure. She’s a certified MacArthur genius, no less. But she’s speaking about the work as a series of discrete steps. And I think that that is really helpful to remember for anyone.
S1: Yeah, sure.
S3: Before we wrap up this week’s episode, we wanted to share something that everyone here at working found really special. Earlier this year, we asked a bunch of our favorite former guests and creative friends to share with us their best creative advice. Here’s what the playwright and composer Michael Jackson had to say.
S4: One piece of advice that really helped me during this time was, you know, weirdly, from Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife, who I found with a clip of her getting an award, and she said something really amazing, which I’m going to let her sort of say it for me. There is nothing in the entertainment world that can replace quality. And the quality is within you. You never settle and never settle for anything but the best you know how to do. Never settle. Just do your best. Can that really?
S3: There’s something so thrilling about getting a voicemail message from a highly acclaimed playwright and composer that turns out to be a voicemail message from the dead. And there’s something just extraordinary about Jane Wyman’s beautiful mid-Atlantic accent. Oh, I’m so curious to hear, June, what you made of Michael’s or maybe I should say Jane’s words of wisdom.
S1: Well, first, I would never contradict Falcon Crest, Angela Channing. So, you know, that’s that’s just too iconic. But honestly, this is something that I struggle with because I think I’m a settler. Like, I’m picky. I have standards, but I’m also a practical person. And I, I always push past my first. That’s good enough response. But I always worry about this, like I because I sometimes give in to the like the second time I say, is this good enough? And maybe I should push through to the fifth. But, you know, isn’t anything less than obvious perfection just settling. I’m very curious what you think about this remark.
S3: Well, I think compromise is an important part of accomplishing anything, being able to, you know, as we do on this show, being able to get along with you and Isaac and Cameron about our vision for what the show is. It’s important in order to make the finished product. What I understood her to be saying is never settle for what is below your personal standard for yourself and what is within your own control. It’s a little sloganeer, right, never settle in a weird way, sounds like an advertisement for cigarettes from the 1980s, but, you know, slogans are effective for a reason. You know, they’re tight, they’re memorable. They lodged in your brain. And I think you could do worse than having never settle rattling around in your brain.
S1: I have another good message to get stuck in your brain. Listen to working every week. Listen to working every week.
S3: We need to have it done in Jane Wyman’s beautiful old fashioned accent. We hope you’ve enjoyed this show. If you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll never miss an episode. I’m going to give you a final pitch for Slate. Plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any of the Slate podcasts, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But I also hope that you would like to support the work that Slate’s journalists are doing. It’s only one dollar for the first month to learn more about to sitcom slash working.
S1: Plus, thank you to Alison Bechdel for being our guest this week and as always, enormous thanks to our incredible producer, Cameron Drus. We’ll be back next week for Isaac Butler’s conversation with actor Blair Underwood. Until then, get back to work.
S3: Paisley plus listeners, as always, we have a little something extra for you this week, June, I really hope that you used this moment with Alice in battle to ask her about the battle test. I realized that this is a tangent from the primary body of her work. But I do think the battle test is a very significant part of the cultural shorthand.
S1: I agree. And we will get to it later in this segment. And I just want to clarify what the Beşiktaş test is, because I guess there might be some listeners who don’t know. So it’s a requirement that in any movie there should be at least two women and they should have names and they should talk about something together. That is a topic other than men. And it is shocking how often movies fail this test in 2021. And as Allison will reveal, she first established it in a dykes to watch out for strip. But other people kind of discovered it and named it the best daughter. She’s not the person who kind of, you know, sang the gospel of the battle tested. And at other points in time, she had some kind of reservations about it. So I was curious to know what she thinks about it now. So we’ll get to that in a bit. But first, I asked Allison another question about her family. So this is your third graphic memoir. The first was about your father, the second is about your mother. And this is also I hope it’s OK to ask about this. This is also the first book you’ve published since they are both deceased. Did your mother’s death, or rather her not being part of its audience, have an effect on the writing process, do you think?
S2: Well, in one very particular way it did. I I wrote about my mother’s illness, which she would not have countenanced had she been alive. And in fact, for much of the time I was writing Are You My Mother? My memoir about her, she was sick with cancer and was very private about that. And so, of course, there was no way I was going to talk about in the book, which was for me an interesting problem. You know, how do I there was this big thing going on that I don’t refer to in the book, and I have such a compulsion to tell everyone everything that was sort of hard for me. So I found ways to kind of right around it and bring in the intensity of that anxiety about her, her mortality in other ways. So with this book, I was able to talk a little bit about what it was like, you know, to go through my mother’s illness and death, which she would not have liked had she been alive.
S1: So your name is often invoked in a context that is not about your work, but rather a test that bears your name. It originally sprang from a storyline in a dykes to watch out for strip. So, Alison, how do you feel about the ubiquity of the back door test?
S2: I think it’s really cool. I’ve had I’ve had mixed feelings about it over the years, but I’ve come to really embrace it, if only because the world has caught up to where lesbian feminists were in 1985. You know, we knew we were ahead of the curve. This was just the sort of thing we talked about all the time. This these criteria for what kind of a movie you’ll go to see. That was just like a little lesbian in-joke that, of course, there’s no movies about women. And now the world sees how ridiculous that is to.
S1: All right, Slate plus members. That’s it for this week. Thanks for your support. We’ll be back next week.