This post describes the thinking and feeling behind our new zines Welcome Monster Feelings, and Welcoming Your Monster Feelings.
It takes the form of an interview between the part of me who created it – Fox – and another part – James. If you haven’t read one of my plural blog-posts before and aren’t sure who these people are, feel free to check out our Plural Selves zine, and our free book about Plurality. But hopefully you don’t need to get that part in order to find the content here interesting.
Location: Fox’s favourite cafe.
Food: Halloumi tomato pesto sandwich, OJ.
James: It’s my great pleasure, today, to be conducting an interview with the artist behind the new zine Welcome Monster Feelings. Thankyou for taking the time to speak with me today Fox.
Fox: You’re welcome.
James: Would you like to begin by telling the readers a little bit about who you are?
James: Well this is getting off to a great start.
Fox: I think it’d be more fun if you say who I am and I’ll say who you are.
James: Oh go on then. How best to describe you?
Fox: It better be good.
James: No pressure then.
James: I would say that you’re the youngest child part of our plural system. Or rather we tend to think of you as who we might have been without all the rules we learnt about who it was okay and not okay to be in the world – without our developmental trauma. You are the most able of all of us to just be in the moment, to find delight and wonder in things, to move through the feelings you have rather than getting stuck in them. How am I doing?
Fox: Why do we call me Fox?
James: Because you often feel more like a creature than a human: a wild little thing.
Fox: Heh I like that. Okay I’ll do you.
James: I’m not sure it’s regular to introduce the interviewer.
Fox: I’m gonna anyway. You’re our James. We call you lots of other names like Old Man and Saint James and Captain Admin and ruder ones.
James: Captain Admin is pretty rude. I don’t just do admin.
Fox: That’s why it’s funny. You are the one of us who does most of the everyday life stuff, particular the bits that the rest of us find boring or scary like emails *shudder* But you’re also the main one who looks after the child parts of us: me, Morgan (aka Beastie), and Robin (aka Tony). You’re really good at that.
James: I’m not sure how Morgan would feel about being called a child part.
Fox: She’s not here!
James: I mean technically, given that we share a body…
Fox: If she was properly here we wouldn’t be doing this interview coz it’s not easy for her to do this kind of thing. But we’ll get to that.
James: Is that enough introductions then? Am I allowed to start the interview proper?
Fox: It’s about time!
The aims of the zine
James: *shakes head* Okay then. First question. What were you hoping to achieve with this work Welcome Monster Feelings?
Fox: Two things I think. The main one was I wanted to help the other members of our system – particularly Robin and Morgan who carry most of our trauma – to find a way to be with their most painful feelings. We’ve been in this big trauma period for the last few years, so our feelings can be very overwhelming at times, especially for those two.
The other thing I wanted to do was to find a way back to drawing. We made quite a few zines and comics a few years back, but it was something we found much harder to do during the trauma time.
James: Why d’you think that is?
Fox: Well Morgan’s trauma often comes out as being an inner critic – so it’s very hard for her to let us draw without feeling it’s not good enough, or comparing it to what other people do, even though she also really wants us to be creative. Robin’s trauma comes out as fear and shame so it’s scary for him to put stuff out there in the world, in case people are mean about it. Also it’s just generally pretty hard to sit down and draw – or do anything much – when you’re feeling that bad.
James: I think it was a genius move to find a project that we could do even when we felt rotten, in fact tough feelings were kind of a bonus.
Fox: I know right? And – as we say in the companion zine Welcoming Your Monster Feelings – the practice of making the monsters often helps overwhelming feelings to calm down a bit. So you gradually get this knowing in your body that making a monster will make you feel better, which makes it easier to do it the next time you feel rough.
James: Positive reinforcement.
Fox: Right, and I love that it showed Robin and Morgan that they were vital – to the project and to us. They can both so easily feel that they are ‘bad parts’, or ruin things for the rest of us, and that they should be cast out again – as they both were for so much of our lives. But I couldn’t have done this project without them. It was their feelings I was drawing most of the time.
Also when we showed our friends, and they found it helpful and said they felt similar things, that helped Robin and Morgan to feel seen, and less alone, and like they were being helpful to others.
A plural project
James: Just brilliant! So it sounds like you see this as a plural collaboration, even though you were definitely the one leading on it.
Fox: Absolutely. Robin and Morgan mostly had the feelings, and told me about them, and then I found the way to draw them that felt most right. But we also got everyone else’s feelings in there somewhere.
James: I particularly like the holding and hearing monster towards the end…
Fox: That’s you! And he looks a bit like Sully from Monsters Inc because that character reminds us of you, and his full name is James P. Sullivan.
James: I also helped as Captain Admin right?
Fox: Yes! You did all the scanning and the making it a pdf, and learning how to make a pdf small so people can download it, and putting it on our website, and all kinds of things that I find an-noy-ing!
James: And conducting this interview of course.
Fox: Of course. Next question.
Feelings, art and monsters
James: Well I was interested in exploring with you the links in our life between feelings, art, and monsters. I know you’ve been reflecting on that.
Fox: I have. It feels like we’ve been trying to do this project our whole life, and it involves going back towards these three things that were all kind of crushed in us.
James: Do go on.
Fox: Well we’ve written before about how we weren’t allowed ‘difficult’ feelings as a kid. People at home and school tried to train us out of them with punishments for unacceptable emotions, and rewards when we made it through the day or week without crying. That’s part of the reason that Robin and Morgan got disowned. They held all the least acceptable feelings: fear and anger, but also loneliness, sadness, jealousy, pride. All sorts.
James: Right. Our feelings get so unbearable during the years in our life when PTSD hits because we’re feeling all the things that were locked inside Robin and Morgan.
Fox: Feeling the feelings they held for us our whole life. That’s it.
Another thing that got pushed out of us in a similar way when we were small was art. We LOVED drawing. We drew all of the time. Our bedroom wall was full of our pictures. But gradually people around us tried to make us draw the kinds of things they wanted, and to draw in the ways they wanted us to.
James: For example?
Fox: Like being asked to draw pictures as a present for people’s birthdays. And they generally wanted things like landscapes or still lifes or whatever, which isn’t what we enjoyed drawing. Also when we did art at high school we were shocked because we had to draw things from real life rather than out of our imagination – as we’d always done before.
James: What did we enjoy drawing?
Fox: Mostly people and imaginary creatures. And we drew to tell stories from our fantasy life, or to get down feelings that we couldn’t talk about or express in other ways. But eventually we learnt that wasn’t how you were meant to do art.
James: So, not only were both feelings and artistic pursuits suppressed, but those two suppressions were also related. Losing the ability to draw from our imagination and feelings denied us an important outlet for emotions we weren’t supposed to have. How do monsters fit in?
Fox: Monsters feel like the third leg of the stool somehow.
We were always fascinated by monsters. Our favourite TV shows as a kid were Rentaghost and Dramarama. Our favourite books were pop up ghost books. Later we read true haunting books over and over and over. We were addicted to Ghostbusters – one of the first movies we saw at the cinema. When we got to choose our own topic to do a project on at school we did dinosaurs every time.
James: We had a huge collection of plastic dinos too didn’t we?
Fox: Yes! Dimetrodon was my favourite dinosaur, but they don’t think Dimetrodon was a dinosaur any more!
James: This may be a tangent.
James: How did monsters relate to art and to feelings?
Fox: Well they relate to art because a lot of what we wanted to draw was mythical creatures like dragons.
They relate to feelings because, when we reached double figures and things got really bad, we started reading authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert. We thought that reading horror books would help us to be less scared in our real life – like maybe we could get used to facing frightening things by reading those books, and become braver.
James: And did our monster love get suppressed too?
Fox: I think so. We once tried to do a book review of a horror book in school and they didn’t like that. It wasn’t a proper book like the ones you were meant to read. When we studied psychology at university – and afterwards – we were always drawn to monster-y topics, like the paranormal, and why people do evil things, and the meaning of fairy tales. But those things were always looked down on as not proper, so we wound up doing our projects on other stuff – somehow making it acceptable.
James: And yet our PhD was on loneliness, our first paper was about goths and Pagans, and the first conference we organised was about vampires. We kept finding our way back to feelings and monsters didn’t we?
Fox: All the way through. Like we did the A levels that people said we should do, instead of the ones we really wanted to do (drawing and stories!) But we spent the whole summer after we finished those exams painting our room with a giant dragon, even though we were just about to move out of there. Then after our PhD we started writing fiction. We were going to do a whole collection of alternative fairy tales and take a creative writing course, but we didn’t get accepted. For a long time we’ve had an idea for a book called Everyday Horrors: a mash up of horror fic and self-help.
James: It seems like we’ve been trying to make Welcome Monster Feelings our whole life, and finally, we’re making it, now that we’re nearly fifty.
Fox: Speak for yourself old man!
Reclaiming lost things
Fox: It’s like reclaiming isn’t it? By reclaiming art, and reclaiming monsters, we’re also reclaiming those feelings and the parts who hold them. No part gets left behind.
James: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And I suspect that many people have a similar history – at least with feelings and with art. The world, and the people around them, tell them that they mustn’t show their feelings, and that they ‘can’t draw’.
Fox: That’s why we love Lynda Barry, who we mention in the zines. She says that most kids just naturally tell stories with pictures, but then they get taught proper writing and proper drawing, and they lose all that. Her books and resources are all about getting it back, by playing with it, using wax crayons, drawing quickly, colouring in, that kind of thing. And lots of drawing from the imagination!
James: I notice that when we can allow you – Fox – to just draw from the feeling (with the odd bit of help from Google images to see what certain things look like) it just comes out looking right.
Fox: It’s amazing. Morgan is often sure there’s no way it’ll come out looking like we feel it, but it really does. It’s all about keeping it simple, not trying too hard, just getting the feeling down.
James: I think Lynda Barry is helping people get back to the child part of themselves who can draw that way, and tell stories too. The part like you that perhaps everyone has somewhere inside.
Fox: More questions please!
James: Well you’ve mentioned Lynda Barry. Can you say something about your other inspirations for this project?
Fox: I guess there are two kinds of inspirations: other people who’ve used monsters as a way of exploring feelings, and other people who have come up with practices for welcoming feelings.
For the first one we’re super inspired by Pixar movies. They are something we watch a lot of because they are so gentle, and we generally need that in the evenings. Inside Out and Monsters Inc are the obvious ones, but lots of the Pixar shorts explore trauma and plurality too. Far From the Tree and Twenty Something are great examples.
We also recently watched the movie A Monster Calls, which is all about monsters and fairy tales as ways of dealing with huge tough feelings. Hannah Eaton’s graphic novel, Naming Monsters, is about that too.
We really love this Zen Pencils comic version of Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, by Gavin Aung Than. That poem captures the whole idea of welcoming feelings better than anything else, which is why we included it at the start of the zine.
James: What about the practices for welcoming feelings?
Fox: We wrote about focusing and Pema’s F.E.A.R. practices in our Staying With Feelings zine. Those are about feeling feelings in the body. Our therapist helped us towards the idea of visualising feelings. She suggested imagining the feeling you’re having as just one cell of the body, and picturing it outside of yourself, describing what it looks like: its colour, texture, that kind of thing. That helps it be more manageable – it’s not all of you, just one cell, and it’s outside of you so you can approach it curiously.
James: Externalising the feeling, so it doesn’t feel like all that you are and all that you’ll ever be, as traumatic feelings often feel.
Fox: Right. But cells aren’t much fun. I think that imagining feelings as monsters makes it more playful. And you can do with a bit of lightness and humour when you’re dealing with something that hard.
James: Agreed. And that makes it a bit more like the Tibetan demon feeding practice that we’ve written about before.
Fox: Except in that practice you don’t tend to draw the feelings. Lynda Barry adapts a Zen practice where you draw your demons in her comic One! Hundred! Demons!
James: It’s so cool that you’re now part of this group of comic and animation creators who’ve explored monsters in this kind of way.
Fox: I know, I love that. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
James: We found our long, slow way towards art, monsters, and feelings, didn’t we?
Fox: We sure did!
Monster feeling practice
James: I know that you’ve also made a companion zine called Welcoming Your Monster Feelings. Do you want to say something about that?
Fox: Yes. We wanted to find a way to share our practice with people, in case they might find making monsters about their feelings helpful too. We were going to finish the Welcome Monster Feelings zine with a few pages about how to do it. But our friend H said they thought we shouldn’t do that, because it should stand on its own as art!
James: What did you think about that?
Fox: I think they were right. Because we still struggle to see ourselves as someone who can legitimately draw pictures or tell stories, we often want to wrap those things up in a kind of self-help project, like we used to do with academic projects. Publishing Welcome Monster Feelings as a standalone book of our art felt really important. But we did still want to share the practice, so I made an extra little zine about that.
James: And do you describe your process in that zine?
Fox: Not exactly, because I know that not everybody will work the way that we do. The zine explores all kinds of different ways people might access their feelings and turn them into monsters, and the different reasons they might find that helpful.
James: Can you share a bit more about your process here then. That’s something people often want to know about artists.
Fox: Heh that still sounds funny – artist. What I do is I sit down, usually with Robin or Morgan. That means that we’re… what is it?
James: Co-conscious. That’s the word for when two parts of a plural system are foregrounded at the same time, like you and I are right now.
Fox: Cool. So the other part really tunes into their feeling, and kind of shows me and tells me what it’s like. Sometimes we feel it inside our body, and sometimes we have an image. Like that last feeling in the book from Morgan – we got a strong image of that classic Peanuts comic where Lucy pulls the ball away from Charlie Brown.
After they’ve shared the feeling, I find a way to turn it into a monster picture. And I draw, with a mechanical pencil, whatever comes out. I like to draw in this sketch book we got from WHSmiths, it has a hard cover so it looks like a proper book. And that means you can’t just rip out pages if you don’t like it. It feels important that we keep them all – however they come out. That’s part of the welcoming.
Once it feels like I’ve got the sketch right I go over the pencil lines with drawing pens. I like the ones that have several different sizes. Then I rub out the pencil lines, and we do the colouring in. That’s very soothing and often we do it together. I like these felt-tips which have a brush end and a fibre tip end. It feels good to use felt-tips because that’s more child-like than pastels or pencil crayons or paints I think. And I like the bright colours.
James: We might need to get you some more of those felt tips for your birthday. We’re close to using some of them up.
Fox: I’d like a bigger set because there’s only one grey and it doesn’t come out great on the scanner. There is a really big set you can get, just saying.
James: Heh, that is a whole lot of felt-tips.
Trauma, shame and monster feeling practice
Fox: Can I ask you a question?
James: Unconventional, but fire ahead.
Fox: Well you’ve written a graphic guide about trauma and mental health, which goes pretty well with my zine, right?
James: I guess I was the main author of that one – on behalf of the whole system and what we’ve just been through. It’s like the grown up version of your zine in some ways – except not that grown up because it’s still a comic with lots of superhero references. Hopefully Jules will be illustrating that one this year and it’ll be out in 2023.
Fox: Grown up books take a lot longer it seems.
James: *grin* I do think they go well together though, you’re right. What was the question?
Fox: I wondered why you think monster feeling practice is so helpful, given all the stuff you’ve learnt about trauma.
James: Ah yes, I do have a few thoughts about that. One thing that we explore in the graphic guide is how trauma is often the result of violence combined with silence: painful things that happen to someone which aren’t heard or held by anyone around them. We realised that many of the things that help with mental health struggles – like meditation, therapy, or activism around social injustice – are about the opposite of violence and silence – they are about kindness and honesty. Make sense?
Fox: Kindness is the opposite of violence, and honesty is the opposite of silence.
James: Right. And drawing monster feelings is all about being more honest with ourselves about what our feelings actually are, and more kind around them – that gentle process of drawing them and colouring them in, and the whole idea of welcoming them rather than trying to eradicate them.
Sharing those feelings with ourselves is also a great way to connect more with the different parts of us – to really hear what it’s like for them and to hold them in their tough places.
Fox: The holding and hearing monster! Kind holding and hearing the truth.
James: Yes! The zine also helps us to connect with other people when they resonate with your drawings. That’s a way of healing the disconnection (with self, others, and the world) which lies at the heart of so much trauma.
Fox: But why is it so important for us to be able to feel the monster feelings?
James: Ara and I explored this a bit last year in our Staying with the Big Feels blog post. One reason is that it’s hard for a person to be authentic – to be real about who and how they are – without all of their feelings. And it’s hard to have real intimacy – or good relationships – with other people too if you’re still hiding some of your feelings from yourself and/or from them. Being able to be yourself, and having good relationships, are both vital for mental and physical health.
Another thing is that the feelings that many people, including us, most often avoid or repress are the most vital for self-protection and for caring for others. Robin has held much of our fear, and Morgan much of our anger. We’ve realised recently how those feelings are so important for keeping ourselves safe-enough and for acting with integrity.
Fox: The integri-tree!
James: That’s right, you drew a few pictures relating to this. Robin’s fear of shame – when it isn’t unbearably intense – helps to guide us in what we take on, and what we don’t, recognising when other people are trying to pull us or push us into things, or when it’s coming from a dodgy motivation inside us. Morgan’s anger – when it isn’t twisted into confusion – helps us to state our needs and boundaries, as well as seeing other people more clearly. Your anger sunshine picture captured this beautifully.
James: There’s lots more I could say about this, but the point is that without access to some of the supposedly ‘negative’ feelings, it’s very hard to empathise with others, to recognise danger, and to value ourselves equally with other people, rather than seeing ourselves as worse-than, or better-than.
Fox: For us it’s often worse-than. That’s why a lot of our pictures are about shame.
James: Mm, and it’s very common for shame to be at the heart of people’s tough feelings as Brené Brown has pointed out. We’ve been reading a lot about shame since we did a workshop on the topic last year, linked to the shame and medicine project.
The book we’re reading right now says that it’s very hard to express shame verbally because it’s often non-conscious and not available to the language parts of the brain. So perhaps you’ve really hit on something with these drawings – giving us a way to communicate feelings that would be impossible to express in any other way.
James: I know right? And it’s vital because so much of what people do that hurts them and others is an attempt to avoid painful feelings – particularly shame and the fear of shame. If we were able to get to a point where we were okay with all those feelings – where we could weather them, if not actively welcome them – then potentially we wouldn’t do those hurtful things. It’s a lifelong journey though, as Pema would say.
Fox: Life long, and many books of monster feelings!
James: That’s a great segue to the final question I have for you. Where are you hoping to go next in your creative pursuits, now that you’ve got us here.
Fox: Well I’ve already started Welcome More Monster Feelings, so that we’ll keep going. Most of the monsters in the first book were Robin’s ones, partly because he was foregrounded for a lot of the time we were making it, and partly because Morgan initially didn’t want to do her feelings because she struggles so much not to be critical of them.
James: She really didn’t like the volcano drawing you made of her rage.
Fox: I knew that would happen! It’s the only one where the colours ran, and you can’t see the face very well. But then I did the one of her snake-eating-its-tail, and the sunshine anger, and she loved those, so I think she’s on board now. She has quite a few more monsters to share.
James: Anything else you want to do, or is it all monsters all of the time?
Fox: I would like to make more plural zines now that we all know each other better. I’ve started one about how people can learn to love their different parts, and there’s another one to do about how they can communicate better between them.
But I also want to listen to H and do some more stuff that’s just about our own experiences – not trying to be a self-help thing. Maybe I could do more plural comics like the Chalk Board one. Also I think Morgan would love to write about our journey of embracing our inner critic, perhaps with fairy tales!
James: It would be great if she could feel free enough to create herself. She has such a powerful and tender voice when she can find it through all the horrors she’s experienced.
James: Okay. Well thank-you very much for sharing some of your precious time with me today Fox, and for joining me at the keyboard instead of the sketchpad for once.
Fox: You are very welcome. I expect extra cuddles later.
James: You got it. And I hear there’s a new Ghostbusters movie…
Find out more
- For more on this topic check out our monsters and feelings zines, and our workbook with Alex Iantaffi, Hell Yeah Self Care.
- Patreon link: If you enjoyed this please feel free to support our Patreon.
- Plural tag: This post was by Fox and James.
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