Smile Politely

Zed Talks offer advice on the ups and downs of making art

It’s been well over a year since I talked with author Z Snyder about their book series, The Witch.  And to say that a lot has happened since then is beyond an understatement. Yet, in spite of the challenges of living, and creating, during a pandemic, Snyder has managed to carve out a DIY multimedia, multiplatform presence that is uniquely their own. Zed Talks, a series of bite-sized videos tackling the types of issues many creatives face, but few talk about, upend the creativity myths we measure ourselves against (and often leave us feeling less than). Whether taking on deeply rooted issues like self-sabatoge, and the inability to accept praise, or offering practical advice about process, self-promotion, or creating with limited resources, Snyder speaks honestly from lived experience and with a rare blend of wisdom, warmth, and hilarity. With a typical five-minute runtime, the healing power of Zed Talks is fast-acting, long-lasting, and deeply comforting. It’s like Facetiming a friend for a much-needed pep talk, but with way cooler visuals. I reached out to Snyder to find out what inspired this series, to confirm rumors of a podcast, and to beg for teasers about the second book in The Witch series. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. 

Smile Politely: What was the inspiration for Zed Talks?

Z Snyder: Lots of things! Mostly I wanted something to offer my Patrons, and also something to allow people to be able to visually connect with me as opposed to the writing I had done online. I wanted a way to talk to folks so that they got a sense of the real me, the real Z.

One the pandemic hit I think I wanted to connect with people in a different way. Losing jobs, losing income, losing the world existing as it used to was a big deal for a lot of people. I just wanted to make something that folks could connect with, because I think we all need to feel connected now more than ever.

SP: For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of attending a Zed Talk how would you describe the series?

Snyder: “A Series of Unfortunate Vlogs ” (Kidding). I think for me, it’s a bit of a process that’s ongoing. A journey of growth, if you will. For anyone who hasn’t seen them, it’s me discussing ways that I have felt stunted, or like I don’t fit, in the art community. I have in some ways directly talked about writing, but I work in visual media as well as fiction and non-fiction writing, so I really want anyone doing any sort of creative endeavor to be able to feel seen and heard in what I’m putting out there so I try not to be too strict in the type of art I discuss specifically

SP: I haven’t seen a lot of content creators of any genre talk about the creative process the way you do. You take a very honest and personal approach in your videos and share a lot of your own lived experiences. What has been the hardest subject to vlog about and why?

Snyder: The hardest vlog I’ve done so far is the one about success and what that means. I break down and cry in it, because I think it’s just a really difficult subject for me. I constantly feel like a failure, but those are just bad thoughts and not always the truth. I know other folks see me as far more successful than I see myself, but in a lot of ways success is just a facade! Financially speaking I’m a huge failure artistically—going by likes and follows and interaction I have very little success in my career thus far. But, for what I make and the effort I put into my craft I am proud of the things I’ve accomplished, so what does that mean? The only thing that might change if I suddenly became rich is that I’d probably move into a place with way more space to create. It was a really tricky video to film, but it’s raw and I wanted to be honest. The main focus in what I’m making is to allow people not to feel alone in what they struggle with, and I think hiding when things are difficult, hiding when things aren’t perfect, or hiding anything about the difficulties of making art would just be disingenuous to the entire point of Zed Talks.

SP: The talks may be short in terms of minutes, but they cover a lot of important ground and often go deep. I feel like you’ve hit the sweet spot in the Venn Diagram between practical advice for creators and cognitive therapy people that are artistic/sensitive/living and working through trauma. It’s especially helpful for those of us trying to create in quarantine. Was that the idea all along? What kind of feedback have you received from viewers? Do they ever request that you take on certain topics?

Snyder: Honestly I’ve received very little feedback! I don’t usually get much feedback from folks in general, so I am never quite sure if what I’m doing is hit or miss, or how I can do it better… but, mostly I just wanted to do something that made people feel less alone. This whole quarantine has been a mixed bag, and a lot of people have discovered all kinds of aspects of themselves that they just didn’t have the mental space or energy to even think about before.

I think that’s what Zed Talk is for me. I realized that I really love and miss working with video —I like editing and piecing stuff together and making things look interesting, putting bits of humor in for levity. I felt like I had all of these aspects of creative ability that I wasn’t able to put on my resume because I had no reference that was appropriate for public consumption! With Zed Talks I can just say—see. I can work with video!. I might not be the best, but everything I’ve done has been completely self taught, so that’s another aspect of pride for me. Ultimately tho, in most of everything I put out there, I just want to allow people the opportunity to feel seen, heard, and not completely alone. Especially right now.

SP: In addition to your approach to the subject matter, your visual style is extremely unique. You can definitely see the influence of your “fauxtographer’s” eye at work. What has influenced your aesthetic?

Snyder: I think a lot of things, actually. It was really a whole process for me to get to the point I am now, especially visually. Lighting is key! Honestly if you have good lighting you can work with some less than great camera equipment! It took me a while to get where I am visually— for a long time I had really terrible lighting and just used point and shoots, and that’s great! I had a lot of fun discovering my craft using beat up cameras and such. But, there was a lot of gatekeeping in the sense that I was treated like I didn’t know what I was doing, or that what I made wasn’t up to some ridiculous standard that I wasn’t actually holding myself to—I just wanted to have fun.

A lot of my early work was just me working w what very little stuff I had available to me, I didn’t use Photoshop or anything like that, and I didn’t have a phone with an app or anything of the sort. I learned a lot of things about what was considered “good” photography and then I kind of chucked it all out the window and decided that having fun and being happy with what you put out there is actually way more important than anything else you do artistically. I think people get caught up in wanting perfection and I just… don’t? I mean, I do obviously, but I also think perfection doesn’t exist so striving for it is pointless. Basically, I just do what I like and what makes sense to me, my aesthetic has just been a matter of throwing a bunch of things in the air and whatever sticks is what I use, haha!

SP: Are any of the topics you’ve covered or will cover in Zed Talks things you’ve overcome in your own work in The Witch book series?

Snyder: Well, I can’t necessarily say I’ve overcome anything with confidence, but I will say that I think it’s made me want to write a lot more. I have done a lot of writing in the past six months especially, and I think just trying to talk about the expectations we have just on ourselves that really don’t exist for people consuming our work has been important for me. I think admitting that I struggle has also been a really big step for me, it’s not easy.

I wrote an essay right after I put The Witch out (the article is available on medium), about how watching Dr Christine Blasey Ford testify and confront the person who assaulted her in such a brave way really changed the way I looked at my own work. I doubt I will ever out the person who assaulted me because that is complicated, but I realized that I had been hiding a lot of myself, and my work, from the world because I was afraid of him. I was scared of ever feeling that powerless and so I was keeping The Witch tucked away and hidden and it was just mine and no one else’s and therefore it was safe, right? So, I was watching Dr Blasey-Ford just be so brave, and I decided in that moment that I was going to do this thing. I just had to get to a point where I let myself acknowledge that I was hiding from something, and letting fear keep me from being creatively as open as I could be.

I realized in working out the story for the future books and connecting a lot of dots that a huge theme in the series is dealing with trauma. And I think there were things I’d experienced that I hadn’t really dealt with emotionally, or faced yet, and I had to get to a point of being able to open up (even just to myself) about them before I was able to really continue with writing The Witch. I had to confront some really intense fears and face them, and it was really hard. I’d like to talk about trauma in future Zed Talks for sure, but I think it’s also tricky because it’s a very personal thing and I’ll have to be extra kind to myself about that one!

SP: What’s the best writing or creativity advice you’ve gotten? Or, put differently, since we are often inspired to create what we’ve searched for but couldn’t find, what is the advice you most wish you had received earlier?

Snyder: You can’t please everyone—that’s a hard one, but it’s important. It’s been one of the biggest hindrances of writing for me. I’ve had some pretty awful experiences of cruelty towards things I’ve written and I just internalized a lot of it. No one was really there to tell me that people can help you grow artistically without tearing you down. If the only advice you’re getting is that you suck then you’re probably getting bad advice. If no one has anything to offer except criticism then they’re likely not coming from a genuine place—but that is very hard to accept once you’ve been through people just tearing you down for the sake of it.

I think it’s important to be careful who you share your work with. Don’t just join a writing group cos it’s available, make sure that it’s what you need, and that the people in it are going to actually take care of each other and nurture each other’s creative goals. A lot of folks confuse critiquing with criticizing and it’s important to know the difference. Critiquing offers help and guidance, while criticism will just tear you down and offer nothing to build you up. One is helpful, the other is hurtful. It’s kind of why I hate the term “constructive criticism”, because people often just leave off the “constructive” bit of it and just tear you apart. What good does that do anyone?

I think a lot of the things I’ve learned have come from learning to ignore bad advice, honestly. Don’t listen to people just cos they’re being the loudest person in the room!. Lean into change. Don’t be scared of it. Don’t gatekeep. Be open to new things, and things changing. Something becoming easier doesn’t mean it’s not special, but rather that it’s more accessible —that is a very good thing.

And, I’m gonna say it—men don’t own a monopoly on art. Art exists outside of the male gaze! Cis men will try to gatekeep the shit out of it, but art doesn’t exist to please them no matter how much they think it does.

Figuring out what works best for you is a process, and it can change through time. What helped you creatively as a 22-year old might not work for you as a 40-year old. And what works for you now might not work in ten years. The creative process is just that: a process, and there’s always room for a process to grow and change and get better as time goes on. There’s no one right way, and what might be right for one person won’t necessarily work for you. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, or doing something wrong, it just means people get built different! Trust yourself.

And lastly—just do the damn thing. If you wish there was more x, y, z in media—make it yourself! Don’t wait for someone else to do it, just go ahead and create that on your own. It’s far more fulfilling than just waiting for someone else to do something that you are very much able to create! You’re far more capable than you think and if you need to ask for help, or don’t want to do it alone you don’t have to—but don’t be scared to just make the things you want.

Video installment of  Z Snyder’s Zed Talks on YouTube

SP: What’s the worst writing or creativity advice you’ve gotten?

Snyder: Honestly, anything unsolicited. I’ve had people tell me I’m doing things incorrectly, without actually knowing what I’m doing. There’s that questionnaire that asks “does this need to be said, and if so, does it need to be said by me”, and folks just… don’t pay attention to that kind of thing when offering unsolicited advice.

I think there’s an expectation of doing things the same as everyone else, and that’s just never going to work for everyone. There is no one right way, or one wrong way—there’s lots of paths and it’s about finding the right one for you specifically. Folks really want there to be one way and that way is usually their way and if you do things differently than they did then you’re just wrong! The world doesn’t work that way. I think anything that expects you to do something the “right” way without any exceptions is likely just ableist, classist, racist, etc.

For me, anytime I think that I should have done it the same way others have done it I think about it long enough and remember why I did it the way I did it. It was for a reason, and that reason is valid. Doing things on your own terms doesn’t make them wrong, and it isn’t a recipe for failure. But, I will say this: doing things your own way and not the way everyone else is doing also means your success is going to look very different from other people’s success, so making comparisons will never feel good!

SP: What’s the biggest myth about creativity that you’d like to see busted?

Snyder: I think there’s not just one myth about creativity that’s harmful, or that I’d like to bust!

Separating the art from the artist is bullshit. If an artist is an abuser and continues creating content and people support that “art,” the artist is absolutely benefiting from it. It’s a huge myth to think that you can support the work of an abuser without supporting the abuser. It’s beyond just a myth, it’s actively harming the people that they’ve abused to support abusers and I’d love to see people stop spreading around misinformation that states otherwise.

You don’t have to go to college to become a “real” artist. Needing a college education for art is very classist. If you want to go to college that’s totally fine! But, art isn’t strictly academic. Full stop.

Gatekeeping art doesn’t create better art, it just puts it in a vacuum. At some point everyone will just be making the same thing and then it’s boring. You have to allow for change and growth, even if you’re scared of it.

Also I think hustle culture has really harmed art a lot. It’s come to a place where if an artist doesn’t get enough likes, or have enough followers, then they think they haven’t worked hard enough and it’s just not at all true. We have learned to equate success with social media interaction and it’s something we really have to unlearn and disconnect from. I am just as guilty as anyone in this! We all deserve rest, and we don’t need to earn it.

SP: I’ve heard that you and your partner have been inspired by your shared love of movies to start a film review podcast?  What are some of your favorites? Have any influenced your own visual aesthetic? How has it been working only in audio? How are the best parts of the collaboration?

Snyder: During the last year of quarantine my partner and I moved in together and have watched literally hundreds of movies together (not to mention the handful we’ve watched on our own as well). We’d wanted to do a podcast together for a while, but it took us making a list of all the movies we’d watched in 2020 and seeing how ridiculously long that list was for the gears to get turning. Really, Keith just makes me laugh so much that I wanted people to be able to see that. We watch movies and take notes and get so into it. We generally record two at a time and usually our throats hurt by the end of it! Luckily Keith has been doing the mixing and editing of the pod, mostly because he’s much more familiar with straight audio than I am (the theme tune for the pod is his track Moebius Rip from his album Anticiquated that you can find on spotify!). I was nervous at first because I usually hate the sound of my own voice, but I keep listening to them and just cracking up so hard.

We mostly watch 80’s/90’s movies, partially because there’s just a feeling of nostalgia in those movies. I find I have so much more 90’s nostalgia than I ever thought I would! We watch way more movies than we podcast about, because some movies just don’t hold the same weight. But it’s been a lot of fun to watch movies and just take relentless notes – one of my absolute favorite things to do.

It’s interesting you mention aesthetics, because only very recently have I started to try to incorporate the aesthetics of some of the films I’ve been watching into the visual media I make! I watched The Cell and just adore Vincent D’Onofrio’s range of characters in that movie and attempted a “look” inspired by it—it was a lot of fun, and I really want to try to do more with that. I think it’s a fun gender-expression tool to try and make myself up as characters regardless of their gender. It doesn’t end up on the podcast too much, but I do address some of it. We mostly focus the podcast on anything we can do or say to make each other laugh!

SP: Any updates on The Witch book two? Any teasers you can share?

Snyder: Well, I had a fright a couple weeks back when my hard drive crashed and I totally lost all of the writing I’d done for the past couple of years. Luckily my partner was able to retrieve it and I got it back, but that gave me quite a fright! I was so scared to even attempt to open my writing after that! But, luckily it didn’t impede my writing too much. I need to finish book two soon though because I’m already getting pumped for book three.

My Zed Talk about self sabotage through perfectionism is really just about me and my struggles with finishing the second book! I had convinced myself that I would just be absolutely despised for The Witch and when it was met with so much more positivity than I could ever imagine, I kind of got scared that the rest of the series would fall flat for folks. Book one really is just laying the groundwork for the rest of the series, but it’s all already written in my head. I’ve known how the books would end for years and years and years, it’s just a matter of getting it onto paper—and the thought that people who love The Witch, might absolutely despise the rest of the series can be very overwhelming at times. I get scared and then I self sabotage (I’m sure no one is able to relate!) I have worked really hard and the way I get things done is just by saying “It’s okay if everyone hates it, the story belongs to me.” And it’s really just about me getting to a place of wanting to tell a story about these people who are in some ways superhuman, but in other ways, just like everyone else just trying to navigate through their own trauma and heal from that. It’s a horror series about witches and supernatural things, but it’s also just about not being afraid to be yourself and to allow yourself to grow and become better for your own sake as much as the sake of those around you.

Teasers… there’s a new villain in town, and a new good-bad person on Marisa’s team! We find out a bit more about Monique right off the bat, and the book opens with the return of a character who died in the first book! I’m terrible at teasers…

Since Keith and I have been working with audio and feel pretty comfortable with it, we’re planning on doing an audio recording of The Witch, and if that works out okay we’ll likely do it for book 2 in the series as well! I am pretty excited at the prospect.

SP:You basically function as a one-human creative content producer and promoter. You wear a lot of hats. That sounds like it makes it easier to keep things consistent and cohesive (and to, dare I say, `stay on brand,’ but it also sounds hard. How do you find that balance?

Snyder: I’ll let you know when I find out, haha! It’s actually really hard and unfortunately as much as I talk about giving yourself grace and allowing yourself to rest in my ZedTalks, I’m actually really bad at it! Partially because I love creating so much that it’s sometimes hard to know when I’ve hit the wall until I get to full on burnout.

It’s honestly a lot of work, but yeah I am very particular about the way in which I’m represented. I have a very distinct vision and I am really particular about how I put myself out there. It takes a lot of work, and sometimes honestly I have no idea what I’m doing, but at the end of the day I am proud of what I’ve done and what I put out there and I can say that it is absolutely my vision.

SP: What advice do you have for people wanting to create content but not sure where to start, especially if they don’t have a lot of resources?

Snyder: It’s okay if you have limited resources. A lot of times the only thing resources do is just make things easier! Easier is a big deal, though, so of course not having resources is so much more of a strain, but you can’t think of it as the work you’re doing means less just because you don’t have the best computer, or the fanciest camera, or equipment—you’ll get there. What matters is just doing the thing.

A lot of times we convince ourselves that we’ll get things done once x happens, or once y falls into place, but if you can’t do it now it’s likely not going to happen later. I don’t say that to discourage, but rather to encourage. No one sees the process (unless you want to share that part of it, of course), so no one knows you stacked your camera on a bunch of books because you don’t have a tripod, or that you can’t afford photoshop and you’re just using an app on your phone. I promise people don’t know, and people don’t care! I’ve worked a very long time with very limited resources and I absolutely promise you, easier doesn’t equal better.

The person making the art is you. You are the one doing the work, and that won’t change no matter where you live, or how nice your computer is, or what kind of camera you have. You are always going to be the one doing the work, and you are always going to be the one making that effort. And, just because the process might be easier with more resources, it actually doesn’t make the act any easier. I have an amazing camera that I bought myself last year and I still have to work myself up to taking photos sometimes for hours before I can just do it, even once I’m all set up. Why? Because it’s not about the physical, art is in your mind! It exists in your head, and the act of making it tangible, or something that another person can see, or hear, or feel… that’s a lot of really hard work, even if you have all the resources in the world. Art is hard work, and you’re the one doing that work—don’t dismiss that hard work.

In a nutshell: art is hard work, but the only thing that will make doing it “easier” is just doing it.

SP: What’s the best way for people to learn about and support all of the great projects you’re working on?

Snyder: Follow me Z Snyder on: 

SP: Anything else you want to share with our readers?

Snyder: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Get vaccinated if you’re able. Social distance. We’ve hit a year marker in this pandemic and it’s okay if everything feels extra hard right now—I’m feeling it. Remember to give yourself grace, and get through the day however you can. Whatever you need to do to be kind to yourself, do it. Drink water, eat a vegetable every now and again, and rest!

Support independent artists. Follow your favorite artists on social media. Like their posts and subscribe to their platforms, even just the free ones. Be vocal about the artists you love, because to you it might seem obvious that they’re amazing, but they doubt themselves more than you know. Each artist is their own worst critic, sometimes we need a lot of praise to let us know we’re doing a good job. (Even if it’s hard for us to hear…) Sharing the work of an artist, even just with your friends, might seem inconsequential to you, but it’s how folks get introduced to new art—it helps more than you know!

I think that’s all for now, haha!

Top photo is a screen shot from a recent installment of Zed Talks.

Arts Editor

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