In this second and final part of our conversation with the How I Made it to 18 author, we discuss the early days of Web cartooning, approaching autobio as fiction, and what’s it’s like to write a book as a 17-year-old.
It sounds like you hit the ground running with digital comics. How long did it take between picking up the tablet and actually having your work appear online?
Well, we were publishing, I think bi-monthly. We had issues. We were all in school and we were all working, so it was like, ‘let’s just do these.’ It’s a a Website called “Girl,” which still exists online. We sold it out of school, and I just started making my own site, in ‘97/’98.
What was the subject matter of the early strips?
Same thing, autobiographical, strips about the universal thing we all go through in life. And we always though that “these are going to go to teen girls, and teens girls are going to have the crappy computers with the slowest modems. How are we going to do stuff that they can access quickly?” So we put up that first issue, and we were getting e-mails from all over the world, saying, “oh my god, that’s so funny. I can totally relate.”
It was great. And you have to remember, it was Netscape 1.0—it was really powerful to see how you could reach people, and how quickly you could go.
Were you consciously attempting to create storylines that were as universal as you could make them? Or did you put yourself out there and people happened to be able to relate?
No, I think I try to think about the things that we all deal with. It’s a very conscious decision—especially with Girl, where we were thinking it was for young teens, 13 to 16, probably. “What are those first experience?” The first kiss and getting drunk for the first time and smoking for the first time.
So you weren’t worried about keeping it too wholesome?
No, no. Gosh no. In fact, it was quite the contrary. I felt like—and I still feel like—a lot of content for teen girls is so sanitized. And it is so wholesome. That’s not the world. You go through all of these experiences, but you don’t have references to them in media that are real or realistic. That’s always been my goal, to offer something that’s real and realistic.
Have you had to tone it down, since you’ve started working with a publisher?
No [laughs]. Not at all. I guess I could have, but I’ve always thought that I’m just going to write what I need to write about. I’m thinking about the audience, but I’m not thinking, “is a librarian not going to stock this book if it has a word in it.”
What do you mean when you say “need to write?”
Whatever the story is that needs to come out.
And in 15 years or so, you haven’t run out of any stories?
It sounds like they’re largely from a very specific time of your life.
They are, but you go through so much in that specific time of your life. How I Made it Eighteen, while it’s based on the time I spent in a mental hospital, there is also fiction in there. I don’t think you can run out of things, because there are always people and life happens.
Is it easier to deal with more sensitive subjects when it’s under the guise of fiction?
Yeah, but it hasn’t been that. It’s actually been autobiographical, up until this moment. I’m really at peace with everything I write about. It’s not therapy for me. I’ve already done the therapy.
That’s one of the main benefits I hear from autobio writers—they say it’s such a cathartic experience.
Not for me. It’s a fun experience and sometimes it deepens my understanding of a situation, but I’ve already totally resolved them. Otherwise, I don’t feel like I can really write about them.
Are you ever uncovering new memories as you’re writing about these event and looking for new source material?
Yeah, I definitely am. And memory is so subjective, and you forget things, but you never really remember things exactly the way they happen. If you ask different people, they’ll all say something different. So, I had to look through my hospital records, I talked to my therapist that I used to see before I went into the hospital. I interviewed my friends who knew me then, one of them who was in the hospital with me.
And they shared not only their perspective, but their memory, including some things that I still don’t recall.
So you’re still finding things out about yourself.
I was finding things out about myself, but at the same time, because I was already at peace, it wasn’t like, it’s shaking my world and I don’t know what to do.’ It was just a lot of things that I didn’t realize I had done and people I didn’t realize that I had hurt. I did some messed up stuff, and I didn’t realize it.
Are there things that are still too painful to write about?
So far, no, but maybe I haven’t remembered the most painful things [laughs]. Maybe they’re so buried. But I will say that I do struggle with some things that I feel like that, while resolved, are still too personal to write about. Even though people say that I write about personal things, they don’t feel that personal to me. But there are still things that feel too personal to write about.
Do they feel less personal because of the time that’s elapsed?
Maybe a little bit—I’m sure that with some of those early teenage experience, it’s that enough time has passed, but a know a lot of people who still won’t talk about theier early teenage experiences. So I think there still has to be something that happens within yourself where you feel okay with what went on.
Given what’s ostensible a limited amount of source material, do you ever find yourself revisiting the same stuff?
I do. But it pops up in different ways. If I’m using the same material, I’ll look at in in a different way. And I’ve mostly focused on my early teen years, but there’s still the middle and late teen years that I haven’t really done.
Is that on the horizon?
Yeah, I think so. Now that I’ve done the book, I want to do another one, and I think those experiences will be a little later. How I Made it to Eighteen is a little bit later—I hadn’t really looked at those things before—and I think that this next book will focus on that, too.
To circle back around, you were telling me on the panel that the reason the book had to be re-written is that the narrator can’t be looking back on the events.
The protagonist has to be 18.
That must have completely changed the story for you. Is it easier for you to write from the point of view of an adult, looking back?
Actually, yeah. It was a really different way of writing. And I think that, if I had to re-write all of the comics that I have online now on Traced, they would be totally different comics. And even though it’s the same material, it’s a totally different comic, because I don’t have the hindsight. And everything I’ve written online has the hindsight.
So you’ve actively thought about what that experience would be like?
Just when you’re saying it now, and I’m thinking about it, they would be totally different. When I wrote How I Made it to Eighteen, I had to get intot he mindset of being 18. It’s a different mindset. It’s angry, it’s depressed. Now I’m an amazingly happy, well-adjusted person. I don’t know how it happened.
When you’re heavily into the writing, does it ever affect your daily thought process?
Like, “fuck everything!”
Yeah, do you go into 18-year-old mode?
You know, it put me closer in touch with—not the memories, which I’m always in touch with—but the emotions, for sure.