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Alison Bechdel: “I’ve Always Known Physical Exertion and Movement Are Vital Somehow for My Creative Process.”

Alison Bechdel: “I’ve Always Known Physical Exertion and Movement Are Vital Somehow for My Creative Process.”

Interview: Alison Bechdel.

I'm a huge fan of the work of memoirist and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which I only recently discovered (though people had been telling me to read her books for years).  I love her two graphic  memoirs:  Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Amazon, Bookshop) which was adapted as a musical that won a Tony Award for Best Musical, and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Amazon, Bookshop). She was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Award.

Now she has a new book, The Secret To Superhuman Strength (Amazon, Bookshop), a  graphic memoir of  her lifelong love of exercise, set against a hilarious chronicle of various fitness fads.

I couldn't wait to talk to Alison about happiness, health, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Alison: Running. Going for regular runs achieves all of those things for me. And nothing could be simpler. Just put on your sneakers and head out the door. (Well, okay, you also have to put on your sports bra, which can be its own workout sometimes.) I ran a lot when I was younger, but quit in my thirties. Then several years ago, in my mid-fifties, I got back to it and it was really salvational for my mental health during the chaotic news cycle of recent years.

Gretchen, I’ve heard you talk about how one way to give yourself a jolt of instant happiness is to just jump up and down a bit. I love that! And I think that’s the secret of why running is such a transformative experience—running is really just a process of leaping, with both feet off the ground at the same time, over and over again.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

You can’t be happy unless you can also be sad. If you’re defended against feeling pain, those same defenses shut down your access to joy. You have to let everything in.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

As a memoirist, my research has been pretty much all about my own life—I’ve spent a lot of time reading my old journals and datebooks, for example. As I worked on this book about my exercise history, it was interesting to see what was else was going on in my life as I went through various fitness phases, particularly my creative life. I’ve always known physical exertion and movement are vital somehow for my creative process, but it was interesting to see the patterns: When I was studying karate, I became committed to cartooning as my calling. When I was studying yoga, both my writing and drawing got more realistic. When I undertook a bodyweight exercise regimen, I was finally able to begin the family memoir I’d been wanting to write for many years. In recent years, learning to walk on a slackline with confidence and flow feels like it has directly fed into my ability to experience those things in my work.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Getting back to the healthy habit of running helped me to break the grip of a bad habit: drinking. That wasn’t my intention when I took up running again in my fifties. And it was not an overnight change—it took several years. But slowly I noticed that my general level of tension was going down, as if my idle speed had lowered. I no longer needed a slug of scotch to calm down at night. Eventually I was even able to stop drinking wine with dinner every evening. Over the years, that had become a habit I didn’t think it was possible to break. But I did, and it was hugely liberating.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m definitely an Upholder. At first I wasn’t sure about the “making a commitment to myself” part. I certainly have written up my goals, and made mission statements at certain points in my life, but I haven’t thought of those things in terms of commitments to myself. But maybe that’s because the behavior is ingrained so deeply that I don’t see it. My unrelenting expectations of myself are the air I breathe, invisible. I like the word “relentless” in the description of Upholders. I also relate to the word “rigid.” I wish I could be more easygoing about plans changing, or trying new things. I should add that unlike the typical Upholder, I have a real problem with procrastination.

I don’t think I’ve ever finished a deadline early in my life.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Travel has been a big problem for me. In order to quiet my mind down enough to think and write and draw, I need wide swaths of time in which nothing is expected of me. The constant upheaval and uprooting that travel entails just wrecks me, and even after I get home again it takes a while to recover. It’s like a silty sediment gets stirred up, and there’s no way to rush the process of it settling back down.

I went through a phase when I was traveling a lot, and struggling with my work. Then at a certain point I felt my concentration returning. After studying my datebook, I could see that my newfound focus coincided with the first time in several years that I’d been home for longer than thirty consecutive days. The pandemic has actually been a kind of boon for me because of the impossibility of travel. It’s been amazing to just stay put for a whole year straight. I’m hoping that with Zoom and all the other online meeting tools we have now, I won’t have to go back to being on the road quite so much.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Reading Diet for a Small Planet (Amazon, Bookshop) when I was 21 made me immediately go vegetarian. The author talks about how it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of global problems, to just disengage because it seems like change is impossible. Then she writes, “Changing the way we eat will not change the world, but it may begin to change us, and then we can be part of changing the world.” That kind of stunned me, that link between personal change and societal change.

I have to confess that after two decades of being a vegetarian, I lapsed back into eating meat (albeit local and humanely raised) for a decade and a half. But when the pandemic hit, my partner and I used the general upheaval as a prod to clean up our act and get back to a more plant-based diet. I feel really good about that, not just physically, but knowing that I’m living in a more sustainable way. It’s even been helping me to face some of my grief about what’s happening with the climate. I feel like I’m less in denial, less checked out, because I know I’m at least doing this one small thing.

Like I said above, if you can’t feel joy if you can’t feel grief. I think really letting in the pain of what we’re losing as the planet warms oddly makes room for joy. And if we can savor all the beauty that’s still here, we’ll take more active steps to save it.

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