Who ARE We?

boy have i got a story for you

Hey, There,

Circumstances have kind of converged lately to give me a whooooole lot of solo time to wander around inside my own head. As an exercise, that can have, uh, its pluses and minuses, but it’s a good way to wind up thinking about the kinds of questions that more traditionally require a dorm room, a bong, and a clock reading 2 a.m. to get to. What I’m saying is that in the weird-ass time of the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we really know who we are. In other words, I’ve been thinking about identity.

And I know, that at first sounds like a weird direction to go in an art newsletter (hey, I always said this thing would be working from a broad definition), but the thing is, I think it slots right in. Identity came up over and over when I was in grad school, and even ended up being one of the core topics of my thesis.

Julia Wertz tells us who she is in the space of four panels.

 The big argument of my thesis was that independent DIY comics gave women (and people in general, but I was focused on women) a new, clear channel to tell stories about themselves and, in doing so, to establish their identities. I think I’ve talked about that in this newsletter before, but I’ve always focused on the independent/DIY side of it because, well, that’s kind of my life obsession. But the other half, the identity half, is just as important. Consider Joan Didion’s most celebrated line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She’s written a lot of crucial, perceptive things in her life, but as far as useful observations go she’s never going to top that one.

I mean, think about it. In your head, you’re carrying around a conception of every person you know. And those conceptions are heavily, heavily based in stories; arguably, that’s all they are. Your uncle is a funny guy because he told you jokes when you were a little kid. That’s a story. Your friend from high school is dependable because she was there for you when your parents split up. That’s a story. On and on. And—and here’s where the past few days of mental head-wandering come in—at least on the conscious level, the same thing works for ourselves. You have a conception of yourself that’s a collection of stories you tell yourself about yourself. I’m a good guy because I always do what’s right. I’m a piece of shit because I never get enough exercise. I’m morally superior because I go to church every week and don’t swear. Whatever the stories are (and it’s always multiple stories, and they’re often at least a little self-contradictory), you’re telling yourself a bunch of them right now. I was going to write “because that’s how we know who we are,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more like that’s just who we are. We are those collections of stories.

So this is why I was so het up about the way independent comics gave the women I was talking about a way to take control of their stories; your story is who you are, and to have some control over the story the world tells about you is to have some level of agency over who you are. Really, I think this is the central goal of a lot of art (/music/literature), really: for a creator, consciously or not, to try to get some fragment of a story about themselves out into the world, even if it’s just a story about how cool they think a particular bird is or something.

Don’t know if this adds up to anything. Maybe it doesn’t. But if nothing else, I guess it’s a report on the graffiti on the inside of my head, which, of course is yet another kind of story I’m telling about myself.

Right on. Be safe.


OK, this is a very niche recommendation, but: we got the Criterion Channel in December and have been loving it. One of the many rad things they do is suggest double features, and the other day one made my jaw drop: pairing Dr. Strangelove with Fail-Safe. Strangelove is what it is, and basically needs no introduction. But Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe is kind of a wild thing; released a few months later, it tells essentially the same story as Strangelove, but played straight. I always used to dismiss it as the square take on nuclear annihilation, but I guess as I get older, my tolerance for the square take grows. Fail-Safe’s a remarkably well-made movie, with visuals that are similar to Strangelove’s but actually a little more striking in some instances. It’s not a comforting, escapist movie, but it’s a fascinating one.


My pal Costa Koutsoutis is a writer and editor with a pretty wide portfolio of great projects around the internet. In this distraction-seeking time, you might dig The Means At Hand, a site he runs that collects writing about about mystery, noir, and crime writing.

Or if you want a simpler type of distraction, you could just watch bears catch salmon on this live webcam.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!