Behind The Muzak

The one thing I didn’t really consider with the slow motion collapse of Twitter that’s going on is that the company doesn’t just own Twitter, but Revue, the platform I used for my shorter-lived-than-intended newsletter at the start of the year; if Twitter collapses, so does the archive of Comics FYI, as well as the mailing list attached to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those are two things I’d like records of for posterity, for my ego, and just to be utterly cynical, for potential further use should things go suddenly wrong with my day job and I need to think about alternate outlets again.

Back when I started it, Comics FYI was my attempt to inoculate myself against the freelance life in some way, by having something that was mine and therefore couldn’t be pulled away without notice — or, maybe worse, with notice, as happened at THR, leaving me an anxious wreck for a month, scrambling to try and argue my value to executives who really didn’t care one way or another. The newsletter was mine, and that was genuinely thrilling, and that freedom was something I felt both an excitement from, and pressure of, every time I sat down to write an installment.

What it didn’t do, however, was pay.

Something I honestly hadn’t really considered in any appreciable manner about the newsletter was how effectively it would act as an advertisement for my writing skills, but within weeks of it launching, my freelance career — which had been slowly but clearly dying throughout 2021 — was more active than it had been in years. So much so, in fact, that it would eventually bring me a full-time job offer that came with a non-compete clause that only had so many cutouts available. Figuring that Popverse would give me the opportunity to do the same kind of work as the newsletter, but also pay me for it, I signed up and quietly folded the newsletter.

That said, I’m going to keep hold of the mailing list for the future. Just in case.

Have You Ever Considered…?

It’s almost the holiday season again, somehow — a realization I came to, as so many are these days, because of work, as we start to plan coverage that includes gift guides and Best Of lists. (It’s beginning to look a lot like Listmas, as the song almost goes.) 

That this is what you do for the end of the year isn’t anything new to me; I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s not only second nature by this point, but almost a nostalgic tradition in and of itself. There was a period of a few years where the end of the year meant coming up with Best Comics Of The Year lists for both Wired and The Hollywood Reporter more or less simultaneously, and still trying to ensure that I wasn’t entirely repeating myself. They were for two different outlets with different audiences, I’d tell myself, and therefore what met the criteria of “best” was different.

By now, then, it really is as much a part of the end of the year to think in terms of this kind of writing as listening to Christmas music, putting lights around the tree or stressing that I’ve not gotten the presents right for whatever reason. It’s a comfort, in some kind of a way, if I’m honest: a familiar landmark that lets me know where I am in terms of the year, and reminds me that, before too long, the whole thing can be packed up and put away as we look to the new calendar with no small amount of hope that surely, surely, this one will be better. 

I tell myself all of this as I sit here, thinking about my work to-do list for the day, trying to find the piece of surprise, curiosity, and “new” — the novelty — that gets my fingers on the keys and my brain in gear, that makes the work happen every day.

A Personal Announcement

So, last week I started a new full time job; my first in more than a decade. I’m both excited and nervous about this.

Excited because, well, it’s exciting: I’m somewhere I want to be, working on material that I want to work on, and with editorial support to do what feels like it’s going to be good work. And it’s a staff position, something I haven’t had for more than a decade at this point — although both THR and Wired were long term freelance gigs that felt like staff positions, in their own way — which brings with it not only a sense of security and stability, but also a guaranteed income on a monthly basis, healthcare benefits, and paid time off. Even just typing that, I can feel the tension of the freelance hustle fading off my shoulders just a little. That, in itself, is exciting.

I’m also nervous, though, because it has been more than a decade since I’ve been staff, and because being staff has responsibilities and requirements that I’m not used to at this point, not just yet. I’m nervous because I want to do a good job and convince those who hired me that they made the right decision, and because I want to do a good job just to do a good job, that that’s a reward in and of itself. (Of course.) I’m nervous because this is, ultimately, something new and uncomfortable, and no matter how exciting I find it, anything new and uncomfortable is almost certainly going to leave you a little bit nervous if you care about it in any way.

2022 has been an entirely unexpected year in countless ways so far, and we’re barely halfway through. This is just the latest twist I didn’t see coming just a couple months ago, but it’s a rarity in that it’s not a disaster that I have to survive and recover from. Or, at least, I hope it isn’t.

Don’t Fence Me In (The Self-Indulgent Version)

It’s a sad reality of my career that I’ve learned to work through emotional distress and trauma; a sad reality of my life and previous marriage, as well, in that work became a respite and relief from a relationship that was not good for me, yet I felt locked inside.

There used to be a skill — a term I use loosely, and arguably utterly incorrectly— I had, wherein I was able to tune out everything bad around me and just concentrate on the words in front of me, anchoring myself in whatever deadlines I had and whatever the subject matter I was to focus on no matter how turbulent all the other stuff was.

I was thinking of this almost wistfully last week, writing in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling and end the national right to abortion. It was news I struggled to come to terms with — intellectually, sure, I understood what was happening, but as soon as I tried to comprehend what had been taken from people, and the pain and misery that would come from the decision, my brain started to swim — and, try as hard as I might, I couldn’t stop it from taking over my brain and preoccupying me all day.

(That Chloe was visiting family at the time didn’t help; I wanted to be there with her as she processed the news, too, I wanted us to process it together, to talk about it and get angry and sad and scared together. Doing it alone and through texts and calls felt unnatural and awkward.)

I tried to compartmentalize, and put everything in a box as I met my deadlines, and I couldn’t; it wouldn’t fit. It wasn’t just the Supreme Court news, really, but the accumulation of everything that had been happening in the past few weeks. I tried to eke out what I could to meet my deadlines, but my heart was barely in it.

It’s an evolution for me as a person, this new inability to shut away unprocessed feelings; it’s something new that I know is good in the long run. It’s just not particularly good for my workload.

FYI, FYI

By this point, I’ve been doing the Comics, FYI newsletter for close to six months; it’s not something that’s necessarily turned out exactly as I expected, but in ways that have been more rewarding, and in entirely different ways than I’d anticipated.

The origins of the newsletter were somewhat diffuse: I missed writing regularly about comics, and in a relatively self-directed fashion. (At THR, I’d basically had my druthers to pursue what interested me, as long as I could sell my editors on it; Aaron and Erik were particularly good at helping me pare down what was, and wasn’t, interesting in the end.) I’d spent much of 2021 promising myself that I’d start a comics website of my own, only to hold off for the simple reason that, deep down, that wasn’t really something I felt ready for; a newsletter, though, felt like it could be fun, if done right.

Throughout the whole process of thinking about it pre-launch, I kept remembering a conversation I had with my friend Lucy (Hi, Lucy!), wherein she joked that she didn’t really pay attention to comics news and just needed someone to summarize the important things for her every now and then. That was always the North Star, when I was working out what I wanted to do. If I could basically write about what seemed important to me, and explain why in such a fashion that anyone could get it, then I was doing something right.

And, of course, I wanted it to earn money for me. After all, paid newsletters are a thing, now. Surely, if I got enough readers, then I could make money from it, right…?

Spoilers: I’m still not charging for it. By this point, I probably never will. The newsletter has become rewarding in its own right, and my career has picked up elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to charge for it anymore, per se. Doing so feels almost the opposite of the “information for everyone” mission that the newsletter has evolved, and almost self-indulgent and greedy at this point. Maybe my thinking on that will change again at some point, but for now, the newsletter is my version of comics journalism public service, being curious in public and inviting others to join in.

It’s become a highlight of my week, every week, even when it’s stressful and not coming together in time. It’s something I can’t imagine not doing, anymore.

The Right Length

One of the things about having been an online writer for as long as I have is the number of white hairs in my beard. No, wait, that’s not what I meant to say at the start of that sentence. (I do have a lot of white hairs in my beard, though; I guess the last year has been particularly stressful?) What I meant was: After doing this for close to 20 years now, it’s strange to be able to recognize trends and attitudes towards particular things change, evolve, or simply upend themselves for whatever reason.

What’s brought this to mind is, simply, word count. As part of my new work reality, I’m writing a lot more long form pieces than I used to; at THR, the majority of my work was in theory short news bursts with the occasional long form op-ed or explainer. In terms of word count, that would translate at something roughly 300-400 words for news, and 800-1000 words for long form.

Nowadays, I’m seeing long form expectations start at 1000, and go up to 1500-2000, depending on outlet and story. Initially, it was a significant shift in thinking — I was used to compressing everything down to its tightest, most abbreviated form, after all — and something I really struggled with; I felt as if I was filling time aimlessly and trying to find something, anything, to fill the space.

What’s surprising, though, is how quickly you do adapt, though. Your rhythms change and you find the way to work through the space you have, fast enough that when presented with the old limits again — Wired still asks for pieces around the old definition of long form — that that becomes the struggle instead. I’d just gotten used to going on at length, and now I have to be brief all over again? Heavens to Betsy, who has the brain space to juggle all of this on an ongoing basis?

Don’t Call It

I can already tell that time is of the essence for the next few weeks. It’s a dizzying, unsettling feeling. It’s also a somewhat thrilling one.

In terms of my workload, this year is easily the busiest I’ve been in years. Part of that is, thankfully, that I’m simply finding work again after two years where it seemed as if no-one was particularly interested in what I had to say. Last year, especially, was one where I had a number of opportunities and potentially exciting gigs either disappeared entirely in circumstances I still don’t understand, or were taken out of my hands due to budgets being cut or redistributed elsewhere. It was a rough year for both my ego and my bank balance, and one that I came through mostly through a mix of stubbornness and stupidity.

So far, this year feels the exact opposite, at least in terms of the number of outlets I’m currently writing for and the (exciting, surprising) opportunities I’ve been able to accept and embrace. I’m very grateful for all of it; I’m also very aware of just how much work lies ahead in the next few weeks, especially. It’s more than a little scary.

This is, as much as anything, my telling myself to pace myself and not burn out. (That is, worryingly, a possibility; I’m so busy that I’ve created a schedule of deadlines that currently stretches into July, shockingly — I check in with it occasionally in fear.) I’m trying to build in time to refresh my brain and find ways to recharge and not get burned out, just constantly working and producing, over and over. My old work patterns won’t support me in this new reality, because my workload is different enough to make different demands on me.

It’s also a notice to myself to appreciate where I am, again, and not take it for granted or be frustrated by my workload. This time last year, this seemed literally impossible; no matter how overloaded and overwhelmed I get in the next few weeks, I should remember how lucky I am that I’m here. Not everyone gets a comeback; I should be grateful for mine, no matter how tired it makes me.

The Takeaway

So, yeah, things are getting busier again for me.

Part of the current flurry of activity for me right now, at least when it comes to work, is trying to consider just how much I can handle, and how to structure my time to help that happen to the best of my ability. This kind of introspection is very much the product of not having been quite so busy for at least the last year, and having fallen out of practice of simply just keeping my head down and producing, without too much reflection of what that means and what costs such an attitude have; nonetheless, it’s still an unexpected level of self-analysis that runs contrary to the story I’d previously told myself, where I could get everything done as long as I just made it happen.

I’m recognizing my limits, as they exist today: the rhythms I’ve developed as to when I’m at my most productive, and the space I need between projects in order to recalibrate my head. I’ve learned, already, the amount of downtime I need at the end of the day, at weekends, to allow my brain a chance to relax, and allow me a life outside of work and simply fulfilling physical needs. The upshot of this is that, as I take note and relearn just what I’m capable of, I’ll eventually be more productive and able to juggle multiple projects again with something approaching ease, or at least easier than it’s been.

Part of all of this, though, is also that difficult thing of realizing that I can’t do everything, and that I’m going to make mistakes or miss deadlines — self-imposed deadlines, at least; thankfully, I haven’t blown any official deadlines yet — and that that’s okay. That’s maybe the hardest part of all this re-evaluation: accepting that, of course, at some point I’m going to fuck up. It’s inevitable, and it’s also understandable, given everything being asked of me, even by myself. It’s also not the end of the world, if handled well and humbly.

Or, at least, that’s the new story I tell myself.

It’s Not The End of The World, No No No No No-oh

It’s either a sign of how lucky I’ve been or, alternately, how particularly unlucky I’ve been in terms of a lack of workload, but when I had a piece returned to me this weekend as being rejected and in need of a line-one rewrite and rethink, it was the first time in a long time that’s happened. Which, it should be noted, sent me into a spiral of self-doubt and recrimination that, if I had more self-awareness and presence of mind, I would probably be embarrassed about in retrospect.

The problem wasn’t that I received such critical notice that my delicate sensibilities were offended, nor than I had done such a terrible job that I got an email savaging my very attempts to put more than three words in order; I actually received a very polite, almost apologetic email that argued in an eminently sensible manner that what I had written was going in entirely the wrong direction for the target audience. Looking back on what I’d written, I have to admit: they’re right! I 100% had aimed myself in the wrong place and just went for it nonetheless. But still, even that realization was enough to sink my self-confidence to near-parodic levels.

I spent the rest of the day managing to convince myself that I had done fucked up in the worst way possible, and that in doing so, I’d demonstrated that I couldn’t do the very thing that I’d been employed to do, and therefore shown myself to be utterly unemployable. I had the sinking feeling in the stomach that comes from that deeply-held conviction that I’d fucked up in an entirely irreparable fashion, and my brain wouldn’t let me rest until I’d written an entirely new piece that I hoped would salvage my clearly tarnished reputation in some small way and keep me from being thrown into a hole marked “never hire, ever again.”

I sent the email with the new version at 9:30 Sunday night. By 6:15am the next morning, I was told there were no notes, it was perfect, and I blushed at the memory of how convinced I’d been at calamity the day before.

How’s Your Mother?

I was on a call earlier today, related to a work thing, when I realized that I was accidentally sounding like a stereotypical gangster, even though the actual intent of what I was trying to say was entirely sincere.

I was talking to a party involved in a particular story, about which I happen to know certain facts even though they would never admit to those facts publicly. (Or, at least, not until it fits into a pre-determined publicity plan, which for my purposes amounts to the same thing.) Said facts, I hasten to add, are good things in the grand scheme of things, and something that would reflect well upon said party if they were to be known publicly.

Which is, again, not what said party is currently wanting to happen.

The problem in this case was that there are rumors to the contrary to the facts going around. Rumors that not only contradict said certain facts, but make the unnamed party look undeservedly bad as a result. So, I’m on a call earlier today which basically consists of me saying, please can I report what I believe is the truth so that these rumors don’t become reported and then people think they’re true, instead, and them telling me, more or less, well, we don’t know… over and over again.

At some point in the call, things got heated and I tried to bluntly say something along the lines of, if I can’t get you on the record saying X, then someone’s going to write the record saying Y, at which point I realized: I’ve basically become a fake gangster saying the equivalent of, “Nice reputation you’ve got here, shame if something was going to happen to it.”

I’d like to say that I ended the call there and then, and withdrew from the entire debacle, but reader…? I didn’t. Instead, I plunged ahead, perfectly aware of the surreal and ridiculous circumstance and trying not to laugh out loud every time I spoke.