I Don't Know What This Substack Is About
Highlights include: the first page is always the hardest, quarter-life crises, an ode to N.D. Stevenson, and hopefully a conclusion that ties it all together.
I have no idea how to start this post.
If one was to Google, “what should my first blog post be?” they would get a mix of results—including a concerning amount of ads for AI software that will “run your blog for you,” so I’d like to say upfront: that will not be happening in this house. But the gist of it all is that your first post should serve as an introduction to your project; it should answer the question: “why are you here?”
Why am I here?
The short answer is: I just finished my MFA and I don’t know what to do next. The longer answer is: I just finished my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (because apparently I hate stable career choices!) and I’m starting to confront What The Hell Happens Next, and it might be misplaced nostalgia but I miss the freedom of running a blog as a teenager and I may as well start “getting my name out there.”
But the complete answer requires some backstory, so I’m going to tell it to you now in two websites, three books, and a cartoon series—and the queer artist who paved the way for me to understand myself, my work, and what I want to be when I grow up.
A Diversion to Wax Poetic About My Favorite Artist
Part I: My Tumblr Youth
When I say, “I was raised on ND Stevenson,” I’m not exaggerating. I made my first Tumblr account while I was still in middle school (for folks’ wanting to do the math, that would have been c. 2010), right around the time Stevenson was gaining a following as gingerhaze, posting Lord of the Rings comics and fan art.
Tumblr was a special place in the early 2010s. The whole concept of “social media” was still young enough to be innovated, and the community of Tumblr-users small enough to maintain a distinct character for the platform. This was a place for socially awkward people; for fans of anything under the sun; for small artists to gain a following; and for misguided 14-year-olds to post their shitty poetry. As I came of age, my Tumblr came with me, evolving from a hodge-podge of memes and text posts to a book blog, then a Supernatural fandom blog, about a year as a Homestuck fandom blog, then a landing page for unsolicited essays on cultural occurrences no one asked me about, a brief stint as a Twin Peaks nostalgia account, before blessedly fading into disuse when I entered college and decided I needed a fresh start.
Fast-forward to 2015, and I was working as an indie bookseller when a familiar name made its way onto the finalist list for the National Book Award. Nimona was Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic novel about a spunky evil sidekick who could shapeshift into pink animals. Even though I’d never read Nimona, I was excited to see it doing so well. I’m not a sports person, but I think it must have felt like watching your home team make it to the Big Game. This was a win for Tumblr Teens everywhere!
Part II: A 4-Year-Old Helps Me Come Out
When I was 14, my mom and step-dad had a baby. Which meant that for a majority of my Tumblr Teen years, I spent my weekends blogging and babysitting. Despite the age difference, we actually had a lot in common. For example, we both liked Wonder Woman, bugs, and puffy stickers. Whenever we were in public, someone was bound to mistake me for her parent; I’d correct them by saying, “nah, I’m just her sidekick.” It was an honor.
Because she spent so much time with me, she picked up a smart mouth and twisted sense of humor early—and because I spent so much time with her, I started paying attention to the books, TV shows, and movies being made for her demographic. I found that some had a universal appeal—even as a nasty teen, I could appreciate the artistry behind Sesame Street, or the obnoxiously-catchy mantras of Daniel Tiger—while others fell flat, like that p-o-s Caillou.
I was nothing if not a teenage critic1. I didn’t like how much of children’s media was focused on teaching some kind of Westernized, moralistic “lesson.” It felt patronizing—my baby sister was smarter than that! I got choosey with what we watched and read together, taking care to find stories that balanced emotional complexity with concepts accessible to young kids.
My sister is practically a teen herself these days, so I have to be careful not to get overly sentimental here lest she find this account and die of mortification (you know, like 12-year-olds do)—but leaving her behind was undoubtedly the hardest part of moving away from home.
The summer before I left for college, she had started showing a passive interest in reading, and lo and behold, ND Stevenson’s name popped up again as part of the perfect series to cultivate that spark. I figured Lumberjanes would make good before-bed reading, and I told her I would read the dialogue if she could read the sound effects (“BOOM!” “CRASH!” “BANG!”). Night after night, I’d perch on the edge of her itty-bitty bed with the comic spread out in front of me. I developed distinct voices for Mal, Molly, Ripley, April, and Jo (Ripley reminded me most of my sister, but April was her favorite).
This was a time in my life when I was just only beginning to understand my queerness, and with Lumberjanes being such a queerly enriched story, it felt like it gave my little sister a way to understand me when no one else could, when I could hardly understand myself. She would ask me hard-hitting questions like, “what’s ‘bi'?’” and, “am I bi?” (I told her maybe, but she could figure out for sure when she got older).
Part III: Shark!
I finally got around to reading Nimona my freshman year at Emerson College2, when a girl in my WR102 class lent me her copy. That night I read it cover-to-cover for the first time (I have lost count of how many times since).
In it’s pages, I found the first representation of an adult gay couple that didn’t end in death or queer-baiting. I kept waiting for Blackheart or Goldenloin to fall on their respective swords for one another, their impossible love reaching its inevitable conclusion in death, because that was how I’d been taught stories about gay people always ended. We were a doomed people—if only the world had been ready for our love! But in the world of Nimona, it was.
I also found a story of a girl who hid all her anger and her fear beneath a thick layer of humor and spunk, and it felt like taking an arrow to the chest. In the years since, ND Stevenson has written about how Nimona was always an allegory for the trans experience, before he even realized it. I can’t help but wonder if that was part of what drew me in, the sense of understanding even without the words.
There were so many things I didn’t let myself think about, back then. But you know that thing in Into the Spiderverse, whenever one of the Peters Parker senses another spider-person and the color scheme changes and he says, “whoa, you’re like me.” That was what it felt like reading Nimona, only instead of spider-men, we were eggs.
At this point, Stevenson had been cemented as an auto-buy storyteller in my mind. So when Netflix’s She-Ra launched in 2018, I drove home for the weekend to binge the whole thing with my sister. She was instantly obsessed in the way only small children can be—it was an uncomplicated, excited love. And once again, Stevenson was providing me with a way to share queer culture with the younger generation without any of the homophobia, bigotry, or enforced gender roles I had been subjected to as a kid.
Part IV: A Look in the Mirror Makes You Queerer
I apologize for this section title.3
In the years that She-Ra ran, I graduated from questioning my sexuality onto questioning my gender. In 2019 I came out as nonbinary, but only to a group of close friends. It still didn’t feel like a part of myself I was ready to explain.
In 2020, Stevenson published a graphic memoir titled The Fire Never Goes Out—centered around the central metaphor of Stevenson coming to understand the fire that has always lived within him. Some of it was familiar to me from his blog over the years, but most parts I had never seen. I found myself once again staring into a mirror on the page—don’t you love when a book makes you feel that way?—especially when the same lyrics4 I had broken my own heart over as a lonely undergrad were quoted in the margins of a love story between two of my favorite artists.
From ND Stevenson’s Twitter, I learned about something called TransTape, cluing me into two things: 1) this person might not be cis, and that is very exciting for me! and 2) Maybe I don’t have to suffer in a binder for the rest of my life5. This eventually led to a realization that should have been obvious—I wanted top surgery.
I won’t let myself get lost in the sauce of that particular journey6, but I want to be clear that this was not an easy thing to want, perhaps particularly because my gender presentation was so androgynous. My parents’ reaction didn’t help. They were certain it was a mistake, that I’d come to regret it, etc. Surely this gender nonconforming stuff was just a phase, and when I awake on my 30th birthday with some desperate longing for a husband and children, it will be too late!
Not long after all that drama, I learned via Instagram that ND Stevenson had ALSO recently opted for top surgery and was feeling great. It was starting to feel uncanny.7 How could this one artist always come in at just the right time to make me feel understood?
Turns out, he was just getting started.
Part V: We Finally Make it to Substack
For the last few years, I’ve been subscribed to ND Stevenson’s Substack, where he posts frequently about transitioning, aging, creativity, mental health, and a lot of other things. A few times a month, I find myself absolutely decimated by his words and illustrations because he put it in words! All the twisted-up, complicated feelings I’ve had throughout my transition Stevenson manages to portray succinctly and artfully, with a level of compassion I never imagined offering myself until I found his work.
So, what am I doing here? I’m certainly not ND Stevenson. I can’t draw, for one thing, and I struggle to express an idea in 1,000 words or less (see: this post).
Last week, I graduated with a Masters degree in writing for children. I have so many stories I want to tell, and my whole life ahead of me to tell them. But right now, in this moment, I have no idea what I’m doing.
Last month, my friends and I screened Netflix’s Nimona, an animated adaptation of Stevenson’s graphic novel that very nearly disappeared when Disney shut down Blue Sky back in 2021. I had mourned this movie before even seeing a trailer, but boy did the trailer get me excited. It was clear from the first ten minutes of the film that this was a different version of the story; this was Stevenson as a Real Adult, looking back on a character and a world he had created as an undergraduate with a very different understanding of his identity. The ending of Nimona the graphic novel is open-ended, with the light air of tragedy. There is hope, but it is hope for the brokenhearted. Because the movie is still new, and I highly recommend the experience, I won’t go into any real spoilers here. But know that Netflix’s Nimona is different in a way that matters. In a way that, I believe, makes it a better8 story for its target audience.
I was advised to start creating content online, to get my name “out there,” wherever “there” may be. In theory, I could share my academic writing, transform essays into lectures and post them on Youtube, start a Patreon, get teaching gigs, run my own online workshops—a tiny Alex Abraham empire if you will. But like the first page of an empty journal, a career is a terrifying thing to begin.
“What would I even write about?” I asked a friend.
“What do you want to write about?” my friend shot back. Check-mate, I had no idea. Luckily, my friend is great in these situations. They pivoted. “What type of writers do you want to emulate?”
That one I could answer without missing a beat.
Okay, if you made it this far—I’m impressed. I promise to stop talking soon.
I have no idea what this newsletter will be. I have only the lightest of plans. I’ll probably start by recycling some stuff—old things I wrote from my blog days, reworked essays from my time as a grad student, musings and opinions on whatever nonsense is going on, and probably whatever other random ideas I convince myself are good ones in the middle of the night. But whatever this Substack turns out to be, I hope it’s fun. I hope you learn something. I hope I help other creatives spark some new ideas. Most of all, I hope you get some laughs out of reading it. Laughter is good medicine.
Welcome to my quarter-life crisis. I hope you stay awhile.
It might go without saying, but this investment in my little sister’s media consumption is absolutely what led me down the path I’m on today. I write and study children’s literature because I had the unique pleasure of knowing a really special kid at just the right time, and that made all the difference.
I include the name of the college to set the scene for those in-the-know about what Emerson-life is like, but I didn’t stick with the school. Another L for another time.
Bird, that one was for you.
John Allison Weiss. Particularly, their 2013 album Say What You Mean, which I had first discovered as a bi girl in college. If you know, you know.
TransTape is an awesome product I would recommend to anyone curious about giving it a shot. Unfortunately, I was too well endowed for it to conceal much of anything, and in an aggressively “I’m 22 and still living at home” moment, I tearfully regarded myself in the mirror and knew with certainty that as long as I had boobs, I could not feel comfortable in my body.
Not right now, anyway. But maybe someday I will feel brave enough to write a whole post about it.
I’m not even going to mention the fact that for the past two Halloweens running, the Stevenson-Ostertag household and mine have done the same couples costume. I swear it was not planned. When my roommate shoved a picture of them as Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard in my face (after us having done Gideon the Ninth and Harrowhark the year before), I was shittin’ bricks.
If you want elaboration on what I mean by “better,” you should totally subscribe to this newsletter.