Three Little Words / #MEawareness

It’s ME Awareness day. I’ve had ME/CFS for over twenty years to a mild-moderate degree, since I had Glandular Fever in 1993. I’ve had better years when I’ve almost felt normal, but it’s always been lurking. I’m only as well as I am because I’ve been lucky enough to be able (just) to pay for tests and treatments unavailable on the NHS (I have regular B12 and Magnesium injections from a private GMC-registered doctor of environmental medicine.) Others are not that lucky and the NHS still does not provide adequate treatment for this illness.

This blog is about attitudes and what to say – I’ve put up with some rancid comments over the years, not least when I wrote for Guardian Comment is free under the pseudonym Jayne Austin about ME and welfare benefits. Last night, I made a very quick and messy little comic to celebrate ME Awareness day, and to suggest how easy it can be to say the right thing (with a nod to Schulz, Peppermint Patty and possibly a few others – what can I say – it just came out!) TLW_web1_PaulaKnight TLW_web2

FFI: http://www.meassociation.org.uk/      http://www.actionforme.org.uk/

 

Heredity

Here is a comic on the theme of heredity that I did a couple of years ago. It is part of my collection, X Utero (A Cluster of Comics) available from my shop, at Orbital Comics and Foyles in London.

It was a way to process the knowledge that, not having had children and not having siblings, family traits will die out with me. Quite an egotistical thing to be concerned with, really, but one that people who haven’t had children occasionally think about – possibly because they are glad or sad that they won’t be passing on their DNA! Rather than being too concerned about my own DNA coming to rest, I was more sad about the prospect of family photos becoming obsolete – so I made a comic with them for anyone who ‘cares to take a look’. It might have worked a little better if I’d been able to find a photo of my dad as a child wearing glasses!

And, this week, Andy Oliver has reviewed this comic along with my other comic of a graphic medicine flavour, Spooky Womb, in his Small Pressganged column on the comics news site Broken Frontier. You can read what he has to say here.

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A New Lyrical Ballads

Last night I went to this poetry event: A New Lyrical Ballads, part of Bristol Festival of Ideas’ season of talks exploring the connection between Bristol and The Romantic Poets. Twenty-three poets were commissioned to write new works ‘in the spirit of romanticism’.

I must admit that I haven’t read much poetry since studying for A Level English Lit, and I haven’t strayed far from Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land since. More fool me. My husband convinced me that this event would be a corker – he’s the poetry buff in this household and writes prose poetry. Several of his favourite poets would be reading.

The idea of ‘lyrical’ attracted me because lyrics were the first type of writing I ever did, and that led on to writing picture books, which require a similar type of structure and rhythm. Indeed, some of the poets last night spoke of the ‘economy of words’ in poetry, which is also an important facet of writing picture books and graphic novels (my current work in progress). I’d also stumbled over the Romantic Poets in the course of researching my book – the Romantic era being a period when motherhood was much sentimentalised in literature.

Although poetry is not usually a medium I read, I found much to offer here and ‘discovered’ some poets’ work I’d like to read more. In my drawings of the event I became interested by how each reader held their paper – aloft and confident, tentative or grasped. Ian McMillan introduced each poet, so bits of him are dotted around. It was dark, and I found it hard to focus from bright lights to shady page, plus I need to get this middle-aged eyesight situation sorted!

Graphic novel progress

Here’s a timeline and brief diary for my graphic novel, The Facts of Life, to date. It’s been a case of ‘comics interruptus’ so far for all sorts of reasons, but it’s gathering speed now and I’m ‘in the zone’:

2006: After reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, I realise that it’s possible to be a middle-aged woman writing memoir using the medium of comics. Can I play, too? Seeds of idea for a autobiographical graphic novel germinate. Start an alphabetical card file of memories. I begin to sketch memories and draw my first comic strip How a Baby is Made. Tentatively show one or two amenable friends who emit positive noises and suggest I go for it. I go to a comics convention for the first time but feel that neither myself nor my story fits somehow, and leave discouraged. (It would be a long time until I discover the the indie self-publishing scene).

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2007:  I enter How a Baby is Made to the first Observer Graphic Short Story prize – but it’s not really a short story. Join Deviant Art as ‘Missnibs’ and post strip there – but I’m not yet au fait with social networking and don’t get very far.

How a Baby is Made 1

How a Baby is Made 1

2007/8: Submit idea to a new comics publisher – initial interest and very encouraging but nothing solid. My proposal is still a little under-cooked. And so am I.

2008-10: Hiatus – all will become clear in book! Discover Laydeez do Comics.

2010: Timeline of memoir ends so ready to start writing – theme of story has changed somewhat due to life events! I go to Laydeez do Comics for the first time and feel more encouraged that there might be a readership for my story. I start to transfer the card file entries to colour-coded post-its, which stay on the wall for over two years until the glue goes crispy and they start to drop off. I use these headings to start writing scenes in words. Join Twitter as a proofreader (my other work) but end up using it to meet comics people instead, thus discovering Graphic Medicine. Further enthused. Sadly, I don’t attend the very first Graphic Medicine conference because I mistakenly think it’s for academics and medics only.

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2011: Get going! Background research and much reading. Enter 17 pages to Myriad Editions’ inaugural First Graphic Novel Competition. It’s good to have a goal. Air project in public for the first time at Laydeez do Comics in May (where I hear about the competition). Attend Arvon Foundation Graphic Novels course where I receive some welcome feedback and meet more lovely comics people – in full flow of quenching thirst from the overflowing cup of comics camaraderie at this point. In November I speak about my project at Comics Forum in Leeds at the Graphic Medicine day. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at an academic conference and it seems to be well received, although I’m extremely nervous. I’ve finally met ‘my people’, professionally speaking, this year! Trawl through old photos.p1_2010_gray

2012: Good news – reach shortlist of Myriad competition! It’s the first time I’ve got so far in any professional competition. Keep in touch with Myriad as project progresses. More research, reading, and story-boarding in between paid freelance work. Make my first self-published comic, Spooky Womb, to dip toe into water. I take it to autumn Comiket and it sells well. My first children’s books as author are published this year, too. A year of firsts.

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2013: More good news! Sign contract with Myriad Editions. Then follows another unfortunate 8-month hiatus. In summer, I speak at the 4th Comics and Medicine Conference in Brighton, which buoys me. Unearth old teenage diaries and letters. Start working on book again towards the end of the year, when I finish the artwork for my prologue.

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2014: Finish first draft of storyboards. Feeding of recycle bin with superfluous splurge. Successful application to Arts Council England for funding to complete my book. Re-read letter to make sure! They definitely said yes. Have a go at making a handwritten font for the lettering – aka a week of faffing resulting in alphabet spaghetti rather than beautiful lo-fi fontage plus sore knuckles from all the gnawing. Begin to make working drawings from the storyboards, which I transfer to Bristol Board for painting and inking. Fonts can wait until patience is restored.

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Onwards: Part three to jiggle,190ish pages of artwork and lettering to draw and complete, and the cover to design. Now working on it for six days a week stopping at eight o’clock most nights. I don’t get out much. I hope friends and family can bear with me for the confinement over the coming year. BBC Radios 4 and 6 are my friends now, plus garden snails and local cats at lunchtimes.

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Graphic Medicine podcast

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Photo by Ian Williams.

Last year, I presented my work at Ethics Under Cover: Comics, Medicine and Society (4th International Conference on Comics and Medicine). I spoke on a panel named ‘Who’s Story is it?’ alongside Peaco Todd, Linda Raphael and Mita Mahato. Here is a link to the podcast (mine is second on the recording): Graphic Medicine Podcast: Brighton Panel 4A

My talk was titled ‘In or Out: Considering the impact on others of writing and sharing graphic memoir’. I spoke about my work in progress in relation to the responsibility for secondary characters’ stories in memoir (those who have not asked to be in a book), especially where medical details are involved. I also spoke about my other comics about fertility, miscarriage and childlessness and the response to sharing that personal work on social networking sites between 2011 and 2013.

The conference provided a generous portion of brain food, and I heartily recommend creators with medical/ health themes to their work to attend, or propose a paper to, future conferences. Also, do check out the Graphic Medicine Podcast archive where you will find interviews and talks by many talented comics creators and academics whose work reflects the ‘interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.’ (Graphic Medicine website quote).

This panel took place first thing on a Sunday morning, so I’m sure those delegates who were still wisely tucked up in bed will welcome the chance to hear it. Although I’m still not sure how anyone ever sleeps in Brighton with those tireless over-enthusiastic seagulls.

Fun Fun Funding

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I’m happy to announce that in March of this year, Arts Council England awarded me a grant (Grants for the Arts) to support the completion stage of my graphic memoir, The Facts of Life, which will be published by Myriad Editions.

The grant will provide funding for the artwork stage of my book: It will cover materials I need to carry out the final artwork, a mentor for the duration (Hannah Berry), frames for an exhibition, and attendance at some comics events after the book is published. It also means that I can now set aside other freelance work and focus solely on the book for the next year. I feel very grateful, and fortunate to be doing this work.

Today is the start of my grant period – in celebration of this, here is an almost-complete page (it needs some more seagulls in panel three!) My sketchbooks from the last ten years are coming in handy now – the people on the beach are lifted from them – some from sketches I did on the very beach that this page depicts! Two-hundred-and-twenty more pages to go:

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Thanks to the following people for their statements of support for my application, sage nuggets of advice, and support in kind: Corinne Pearlman, Hannah Berry, Bryan TalbotDavid Gaffney, Matthew Roche, Katy GreenRavi Thornton, Nicola Streeten; and John Austin.

 

The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer

Last year, I was commissioned to create a comic as part of The Phoenix Project: Surviving Cancer, a research project based between the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and the University of Sheffield. Five other comics artists familiar with Graphic Medicine contributed work, including Mita Mahato and Andrew Godfrey – although we didn’t immediately know who else was involved. They can all be seen here.

The project began by looking at issues surrounding cancer, sexuality and relationships. The project team interviewed cancer survivors, asking them about their experiences. Excerpts from these interviews were then given to artists recruited from the graphic medicine community. We showed the resulting images back to the participants and assessed how they addressed their concerns. This work is vital because completing treatment is not the end of a cancer patient’s story: many are traumatised and vulnerable to further medical complications and a host of other concerns. Little is done to address these issues because cancer research focuses on treatment and prevention. These powerful, provocative and moving images have helped survivors come to terms with how cancer has effected their relationships and sex lives. There are many other issues that patients need support with. The Phoenix Project aims to use visual and digital means to address them by developing an holistic package of care, available to all.

(from The Phoenix Project website)

Here is the first page of my response to the brief. The rest can be seen here. PaulaKnight_Phoenix_Normal_p1

The interviews were provided to us as written transcripts, which I personally found challenging to interpret without meeting the people myself. I wonder how much was lost in translation or how much, as an artist, I could have gained in understanding and empathy had I been present at the interviews. Logistically, and for confidentiality reasons, this probably wouldn’t have been possible.

I hope I’ve grasped the right end of the stick with regards to characterisation, for example. I feel that without meeting the people, perhaps there is too much room to subconsciously project self into the interpretation. And, is this a bad thing or a good thing? I might have detected hints of humour in the dialogue of my chosen patient, because that is how I often deal with difficulty myself, and then projected that onto the unseen patient. Indeed, that might also be why I chose to concentrate on that particular patient for the work.

With that in mind, I must point out that I’ve never swung from a chandelier in my life – not for sexual purposes nor to transport myself from one side of a room to another. I doubt the patient has either; it’s meant to make a point – and to provide a little humour and irony when situated with the title ‘Normal?’. And, humour can help with affiliation according to Elizabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures.

My own project is autobiographical with a medical theme, so it was interesting to concurrently tackle biographical work with a medical theme – especially with regards to the confidentiality issue since my story also includes others’ medical narratives.

We have yet to be informed of the patients’ responses to the work, and I am quite nervous, but intrigued, about the prospect of this.