October 2020: Check-in

In the spirit of being more open with my creative efforts (even / especially the messy process stuff), I offer my recent studio self check-in. This will be a lengthy read!

The pandemic has made everything harder, and it has made the good things feel less good. I spent most of March through August surviving and redirecting myself out of crushing depression as best I could. For the time, that needed to be enough.

Thankfully, by September I was ready to move beyond survival and back into the studio more consistently. Little did I know just how much foundational work I would accomplish. I end October in the midst of rewriting my self-narrative, personally and creatively.

At the heart of this change are some recent realizations. First, self-belief is at the bedrock of my creative work and any success I might attain. Second, if my self-beliefs are misaligned with my long-term goals, I will never achieve those goals.

Lastly, throughout most of my adult life, my self-beliefs have been mixed at best. While I used therapy in the past to address this personally, I never leveraged it to process my artistic inhibitions. Despite years of increased focus on my studio life, I created plenty of things but largely failed to make meaningful headway toward my creative goals. I am confident now that my lack of self-belief was central to this.

What has given me the greatest hope for positive change is the concept of “reprogramming” the subconscious, so that it supports the life you want to live and goals you want to achieve. Kaylene Langford (head of StartUp Creative) explains the basics. In essence, the process involves three main tasks: 1) Identify the self-beliefs that harm you, 2) Burn those harmful beliefs away, and 3) Mindfully reprogram your subconscious so that it’s in alignment with your desired beliefs and goals – day after day. one tiny instance at a time.

Committing to this process – and realizing I had started it years ago without knowing it  – has made all the difference since. There’s still much more work for me to do, but the lowest hanging fruits have already borne themselves.

I’ve found that at my worst times (say, during this pandemic) I fall back on an obsession with being perfect, with “winning” the game of being an artist / cartoonist. But the only consistent result has been a troubling, persistent, internal silence – a total lack of creative ideas.

My guess: this self-silencing is meant as a defense against potential rejection or crickets in response to my work. But if I don’t reject my work, what should I care if anyone else does? And silence isn’t inherently negative; after all, reading comics is by default a private affair.

I recognize now the tension between my extro- and introverted drives. I have a strong desire for visceral, immediate feedback – most easily earned through live performance. But creatively I prefer slow, solitary work – hello, longform comics.

The remedy, I reckon, is to either shift my practice toward live performance – currently not my top choice – or stick with comics and find alternate ways to satisfy my feedback needs.

More low-hanging fruit: I realized that despite setting professional goals that I believed in, I still wasn’t clear on my creative motivations. Yes, I want to make longform comics, but why? Why create at all?

By being honest with myself and thinking of peak creative experiences from childhood, I uncovered the motivation. It’s a boring and shallow one, but with it named I can begin to reorient my work around it and, hopefully, derive more joy from the creative process itself.

The bonus of this remembering exercise was rediscovering the feeling of creative self-confidence that child-me felt nearly all the time. He couldn’t have cared less what anyone else thought of what he made. Sad as it may be, I don’t know if I’ve felt that as an adult.

My ethos now is to adopt my childlike way of making and sharing as much as I can, with the addition that I strive not to hurt others and take responsibility for it when I do.

Still more fruit: recent self-honesty has made clear that I am first and foremost a writer. My medium, though I lean heavily toward the visual, comes second. To really own this, I have to give myself permission to define what being a writer looks like for me.

I’ve since identified what my daily writing time should look like if it’s aligned with my goals. (At last, I no longer assume I’m failing if I don’t “Stephen King” my writing practice!) Thumbnailing counts as writing. Scripting counts. Concept sketching counts. Others, too.

But making final concept art does not count. Neither does research, nor writing specifically for pitch packages. They are important tasks, and often involve writing. But not counting them as my daily writing ensures my days revolve around story development first and foremost.

So far this well-defined daily writing time is working. In mid-October I started scripting my longform comic in earnest. It’s my first real go at a script, and while it’s been slow – especially as I worked out the formatting and fit it to my needs – I’m 60+ pages in and plugging away.

To support my new writing focus, I set modest weekly writing goals at first and am gradually scaling up each week or two. I made a tracker for the comic so I can begin to understand my stages of making longform work and how long each one takes. And, I’ve put together a simple but useful system for collecting and organizing story ideas, both for current projects and ones not yet started. (Not having a solid system for this has been a nagging concern for months!)

Somehow, that’s not all. I deconstructed the oldest creative practice I’ve known: doodling characters. I noticed lately that I wasn’t enjoying the activity, that it was occupying me more than giving me joy – and that this experience was not remotely new.

From the Smashtober series: Luigi from Super Mario Bros. delivers his iconic flaming uppercut, possibly on accident.

Illustration projects like Smashtober remind me that I really can enjoy drawing projects – but usually when they’re in service to something else – a plan with a compelling vision, a commission for a client. Similar to my extrovert / feedback needs, I am most generative once I have something to respond to: words, a plan, etc. Even if I start a project by doodling, the best way for me to advance it is through other means – writing, planning, etc.

With this in mind, I considered the visual development for my longform comic – a process I realized had been wandering and lacking in joy. I decided to review and curate the ~18 months of drawings for direction. Once curated, I responded to the collection, leading me to make a focused plan for how to proceed. A complex project is now a series of manageable creative tasks. I can’t wait to see the results of this new structure.

That covers most of my progress and goals so far. In all these ways I am giving myself permission to dream, to want, to pursue, to fail, and to succeed.

Bonus notes, popcorn-style! I’ve created a set of custom fonts in my own handwriting, a project that went far longer than I expected but should prove useful for years to come. The fonts are my (unsexy) first quarterly design / illo project.

My next quarterly project is in early development, but I’ll keep the details on that close to the chest for now, until there’s more to share.

I would be remiss not to mention MICE, which was online throughout October. What a gift! I haven’t felt part of a comics community since I left Maine a year ago, but I certainly do again now. MICE reminded me that to belong, I only need to work on comics and show up when I can.

Additional things I’m wondering about currently:

  • Audience – Who are my potential / actual audiences? What are the best ways for me to reach each one? What do I want that contact to look like? (What do I offer, and what do I hope they give me in return?) Where do I begin to reach audiences, and how do I build up from there?
  • Community – What does a healthy network look like during a pandemic? How can I better cross the digital divide when in-person meetings are more my preference? In what ways can I be a more active and supportive friend to those I already have?
  • Infinite-scrolling longform comic – Is this possible? Worthwhile? What would it look like? How would a reader navigate it? How might select animated GIF panels impact storytelling? Is it feasible for me to pursue this format and still end up with a compelling printed version?
  • Composing electronic music – Could this serve me as a useful additional creative outlet – free of pictures and words, and inherently an immediate experience? What would it look like for me to explore this with relatively low impact for the rest of my studio work?

Boy, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! And thank you so much for reading. Have a cookie 🍪 I hope to do more of these, roughly bimonthly.

★ ★ ★

Published by Tyson

visual narrative artist + creative organizer | illustration, comics, design | he / him

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