I went to XOXOfest again this year. Like last year, I didn’t go to the conference portion, just the festival part, but I still have some things to say about it. All the other pieces you’ll read about XOXO will mostly be about the conference talks, and you’re probably wondering, how can she write anything about a conference she didn’t attend?
Because that conference/festival is stacked full of smart people doing wonderful creative things for a living that they love, and I talked with a lot of them.
I talked with them while wearing clothing and accessories I made for myself, clothing and accessories I’ve spent years learning how to make. At this point I’m good enough at sewing that I never make anything from a sewing pattern I haven’t self-drafted or altered to fit me. I can look at a sewing pattern and see exactly where it won’t do what I want, or exactly where it won’t fit properly on my body, and if I can’t find the right sewing pattern to buy I will just make one myself. And of course I’ve been making jewelry professionally and personally for ten years.
Someone told me that in her XOXO talk this year, Erin McKean said that it’s really important for her to do something creative that she never has to show anyone. Most XOXO attendees know McKean from Wordnik, but I know her from her sewing blog, A Dress A Day, which I’ve been reading almost since its inception. She was, of course, referring to her sewing as the creative thing she doesn’t have to show anyone. She can throw out a dress muslin that doesn’t work, or she can take apart a piece she doesn’t like and correct her mistakes, or make it into something else entirely.
This is part of what sewing and jewelry-making represent for me as well. My fabric scraps bin is full of clothing parts that weren’t successful, my bulletin board is tangled with jewelry prototypes I’m not satisfied with, and I even have a little drawer labeled “failed experiments.” I didn’t start doing any crafts at all until 2004, but now I don’t know how I ever lived without them as part of my identity.
“Why haven’t you finished that book you were writing about your road trip?” a friend asked me at XOXOfest. We were sitting on the patio at another friend’s AirB&B, and I had just come down from climbing a huge ladder in the yard because I could (more on that later).
“Do you really want to know? I have a serious answer,” I said.
“Because living with depression and anxiety means that I can’t be a person who examines my life in that kind of detail. That road trip was a very emotional time for me, and it’s hard for me to function if I look at it too closely.”
You want to know how I function? I keep the TV on in the background. I make things out of fabric and metal. I read crafting blogs and good novels (but not too good or they’ll make me sad) and overly-deep online think pieces about TV. I avoid certain types of music. While I make things I keep episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” or “The X-Files” on a loop.
I exercise. Hard.
I sleep a lot.
I stay in the shallow end.
This routine is what makes me okay. This routine forms the covering on my nerves that keeps them from getting too raw.
At XOXOFest John Roderick and Sean Nelson did a show where they played a lot of their old Long Winters material. The Long Winters is/was one of my favorite bands, and I’ve always been disappointed that they haven’t put out an album in so long. I arrived at the show 20 minutes early to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
They opened with Carparts, and I cried. It wasn’t a balls-out sobbing, ugly kind of crying, but it was there. I hadn’t listened to that song in years, because it makes me think of one day of my road trip, of driving alone through falling snow from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore the day before Easter, and thinking about someone specific. Roderick and Nelson do such beautiful harmonies, and that plus seeing live music for the first time in forever plus being smacked in the face with that memory, and I was a goner.
They closed with a cover of “The Only Living Boy In New York,” and I cried again. Then I cried the day after I got home from XOXO. Then I cried again yesterday. My sleeping and exercise and carefully crafted non-thinking were not in place in Portland, and my nerves went raw.
I don’t really make things to show other people anymore, at least not on the internet. I make things to sell people, and I make gifts, and “hey, check out this dress I’m wearing! I made it!” is technically showing other people, I guess, but that’s not what I mean.
What I mean is that I used to make things for people to read, but I don’t know how to keep doing that without destroying myself.
Like I said, at XOXOfest I was surrounded by people who make things for other people, and it made me wish I still did. It made me miss that feeling of having said something out loud that I think is true, and hoping that someone else will think it’s true too.
I’ve said before that I feel like not writing in public is like lying to myself in some way, and I still think that’s true too.
Yesterday someone I don’t know said something on Twitter like, I don’t know why @bluishorange isn’t crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now (I am paraphrasing because it was a nice thing to say and I don’t want anyone to go looking for the specific Tweet; if you find it please don’t say anything to them). My Twitter account is private, so I never get mentioned by people I don’t know. I had Twitter open in a tab, so the @bluishorange mention popped up right there in the window, and seeing it felt like my heart had dropped out of my body.
Why aren’t I out there crushing it in a master’s creative writing program right now? Why aren’t I making stuff for other people to see like my friends at XOXO?
I have had other people say things to me similar to that tweet. The best one was, “You don’t have any reason to have as much self-doubt as you do.” The second-worst one was, “Man, when I first read your blog I thought you were going to be a super famous writer.” The worst one of all was when someone came up to me in a coffeehouse in Austin and said, “Hey, didn’t you used to be bluishorange?”
I’ll admit that some of my sadness with regards to not crushing it in a master’s creative writing program or being a super famous writer or being bluishorange anymore has to do with missed opportunity. This site used to be awfully popular, and it isn’t anymore. The landscape of the web has changed, and so have I, and most of that isn’t my fault. But I don’t always remember that. What if staying in the shallow end means I’ve missed my chance to say things to a larger audience?
I’m told that a lot of the XOXO conference talks were about making things through bouts of depression, anxiety and uncertainty. I suppose maybe watching those talks online will help me some, but mostly I just want to ask those people, “Yeah, but how do you DO that?”
I’ve been wondering how I can combine my crafting skills with my desire to make things for other people and have those things say something I think is true, but I don’t know if that idea exists.
Over the past several months I’ve been taking trapeze lessons and doing circuit training, and I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. I climbed the ladder in that yard because it was fun, and also because I knew it was something I would do that nobody else would. If I can’t be a strong person who writes, at least I can be a strong person who climbs things and does flips.