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It’s been two weeks since the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual summer conference in Los Angeles, and I am still feeling like I’m in recovery mode. This conference is a massive whirling ball of creative energy. There we experience information, inspiration, connection, excitement, boredom, nervousness, and ultimately, exhaustion! It was the first year I was on faculty to give a portfolio workshop and moderate a panel of art directors at the Illustrator’s Intensive day, so all of these feelings for me over the four days were extra heightened.
A memorable moment happened at the end of that Illustrator’s intensive day when the faculty was giving parting words for the attendees. The very last question that came up was (I’m paraphrasing):
“After four days at this conference I’m left feeling two things: An intense excitement and inspiration to go home, do more work and get better. Then there’s this overwhelming, ‘Oh my god, I SUCK! How am I ever going to get there?!’ What the heck do we do with these feelings?”
This question lit a fire within the faculty, Caldecott-winning illustrators and art directors battling for the mic to say:
“That feeling NEVER goes away.” And,
“Maybe we do suck, but we have to keep going, keep working at it.” And,
“The feeling of sucky-ness is what pushes us to reach for more and better. If we thought our work was awesome all the time, we’d get too comfortable and complacent with our work.”
It felt like the conversation could have lasted for hours. One thing was clear – we all feel this way, no matter how successful we’ve become in the eyes of others.
And I felt so moved to say something, and we were sort of out of time, but mostly I just didn’t have the courage to take the floor in that moment. So that question has been eating at me since, and I’ve decided to share what I had wanted to say then, here.
There’s a fundamental problem in the way that we creative people approach our work. We draw lines or write words on paper, declare them an extension of ourselves, and then label those marks (and ourselves) as either AWESOME or SUCKY. This is an illogical and unhelpful thing that we do.
In Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, the image we see is a painting of a pipe. Underneath the pipe are the words, “This is not a pipe.” Because of course, it isn’t. It is paint on canvas. Can we take away the labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from our work, and see it simply for what it is? Marks on paper.
Even worse than the judgements we give our marks on paper are the labels we give to ourselves (in response to the marks on paper). “I SUCK!” we proclaim. But I am not those marks – I am a human being, that is ink on paper, and “I suck” is only a thought in my head.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare
I think we are afraid that if we don’t connect our identities to our work, if we don’t judge it as good or bad, we won’t care about the outcome. We won’t care to improve, to grow. I assure you, this is not the case. Why?
Because the reason we do this work, the reason that we sit down every day and make marks on paper, is because we have seen art, or read writing that made our hearts sing. Maybe we’ve even had a taste of this from our own work. But that is our driving force behind making marks. We want our ideas and our marks to make our hearts sing.
So, back to that question, “What do we do with these intense feelings of ‘I suck’?”
On an action level, we have two simple choices:
- Continue making marks on that paper.
- Make new marks on a new piece of paper.
How do we know which action to take? Once we take our thoughts away we are left with the marks on paper, and our internal feeling response to the marks. This internal feeling is your guide to what to do next, so give it your full attention. Don’t label it, don’t judge it, just feel it.
Does it feel enthusiastic, exhilarating, expansive, focused, or simply relieving? Those are good signs to keep going!
Does it feel confusing, tense, blocked, or like a sinking pit in your stomach? This is a signal that you might want to stop and refocus. So in that moment ask yourself those two questions:
- Would it feel better to continue making marks on this paper?
- Would it feel better to make new marks on new paper?
When you look at these lines on the paper, does it feel better to leave them as they are? Does it feel worse to abandon it now? Maybe more marks will fix what’s not working for you. Does it feel better to do something entirely different? There’s no right or wrong answer, you’re just feeling for relief. Every moment is a slight adjustment towards a feeling of relief. Improvement is a matter of incremental turns in the direction of better feeling marks.
I would also suggest taking these steps (often) in between number one and two:
- Take a nap.
(Or a walk. Or a shower. Clean something. Read something, etc.) It’s likely that if you’re in the emotional state of ‘I suck’, none of those marks will please you right now. I have discovered that when I take action in my desperation to fix problems, I usually end up mucking things up further because of my lack of clarity. Walk away and come back with a clear mind. Those two decisions of continuing or starting over will still be there, but you’ll be fresh in your approach.
- Study marks on other papers.
Stepping away from your marks often and revisiting other work that you love will remind you of that heart-singing feeling. Try to learn about why those marks worked so well. It can help create more clarity in what kinds of marks you want to make that will feel better.
REVISION, EVOLUTION, IMPROVMENT, GROWTH
Maybe the marks won’t make your heart completely sing for a while, but you will be able to at least feel relief from previous marks that really didn’t feel good. Keep turning, making incremental shifts to a place that feels a little better, and a little better. This is what we call ‘the revision process.’
TURN IN THE DIRECTION OF FUN.
If you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s likely you’re not going to create work you love. A miserable journey is not going to leave you feeling happy at the end. A joyful journey is going to respond with a joyful outcome. Melissa Sweet taught me this – at the Illustrator Workshop, she showed us some painting she was experimenting with, and to us it looked gorgeous. But she asked herself one simple question, “Okay, this looks great, but am I having FUN?? No.” So she turned in the fun direction, and the work came out EVEN BETTER. To anyone else it may look great, or it may suck, but the only thing that’s relevant is how the marks make you feel. So those small incremental turns should go in the direction of fun–in the direction of play–in the direction of relief. They are moment by moment, downstream turns. Effort and pushing feels upstream. Playing and inspiring feels downstream.
I am the first one to admit that I get too precious with my work. I have limited time, and so I often feel that I have to make everything count, that it has to be perfect right out of the gate. But that’s not how the creative process works. It’s not how those heart-singing surprises happen. I’ve realized that when I’m too concerned with creating a great end product (trying to do something that doesn’t suck), and add to that working on a deadline, that’s when it goes downhill for me. But when I’m focused in each moment with ink flowing on paper, without analyzing or judging it, that’s when the magic happens. Inspiration and insights come out of a good-feeling process, and answers to problems in the work are waiting there.
This process of mark-making and finding relief in new marks is a process that never ends. It’s creative evolution – it IS the work. Turn towards those feelings of inspiration and the desire to keep making new marks, and release the “I SUCK!” words in your head. Those small, gradual, incremental turns will eventually lead you towards mark-making that will make your heart sing.
Today was the official release of not one, but two books that I worked on over the past two years:
The first book is WHEREVER YOU GO, written by author Pat Zietlow Miller. I’ll be traveling to Madison, Wisconsin to celebrate this book’s release in May. For those in the area please join Pat and I on May 15th at Books & Co. Bookstore, and/or May 16th at Mystery To Me Bookstore.
A special thank you to Pat for creating the words, Connie Hsu and Leslie Shumate for editing and story directing, and Patti Ann Harris for art directing.
If you missed the book trailer for WHEREVER YOU GO, check it out HERE.
To order a copy of WHEREVER YOU GO, visit your favorite Indie Bookseller, Barnes and Noble, or online retailer, such as Amazon.com.
The second book is THE UNMAPPED SEA, the 5th book in the INCORRIBILE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE series by Maryrose Wood. I had such fun working on the cover and interior illustrations. Maryrose is truly a talented writer — these books are witty, playful, and lovable. I will admit that in each of my several readings of this manuscript, I got a little weepy at the end. I wish I could have been in New York for the book launch to celebrate with Maryrose.
A special thank you to Maryrose for her writing, Donna Bray for her editing, and Dana Fritts for her art directing (and incredible patience!). This is a dream team!
Along with THE UNMAPPED SEA, we’re also celebrating the release of this series in paperback (which sport my new cover illustrations!).
AWWWW — Maryrose, thank you!!
To order a copy of THE UNMAPPED SEA, visit your favorite Indie Bookseller, Barnes and Noble, or online retailer, such as Amazon.com.
In the life of children’s book creators, many things are beautiful:
A book’s birthday.
If you’re looking for a positive book with sweet writing and diverse characters for a 7-10 year-old, this is your book!
A brand new book trailer.
My husband, Adam, created this beautiful video for a new picture book I illustrated, WHEREVER YOU GO (coming April 21, 2015), by Wisconsin author Pat Zietlow Miller. Thank you, Adam!
It’s hard to imagine two months have already passed in this new year of 2015! With a new year comes new things. Here’s an update on what a few of these things are for me:
I’m excited to join a handful of children’s book writers and illustrators on new blog that’s solely dedicated to discussions around picture-books. For each post, the blogger chooses a picture-book or a quality of picture-books to discuss. We cover a range of picture books, from new to old, well-known to little-known. So far I’ve written about: ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier‘ (Andersen/Rylant/Corace), ‘The Little House‘ (Burton), ‘The Spider and The Fly’ (Howitt/Diterlizzi), ‘The Arrival’ (Tan), and Dan Santat’s newly Caldecott Medal-donned book ‘The Adventures of Beekle: an Unimaginary Friend’.
Check it out at picturebookbuilders.com
On April 21, 2015 the picture-book I illustrated comes out called WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), written by Pat Zietlow-Miller, author of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (which received SCBWI’s Golden Kite award last year!). We were thrilled to get a star and absolutely sweet review from Kirkus:
“A rabbit’s cross-country bike excursion introduces the open road . . . through an animal kingdom of forests, treehouses, country cottages, bustling seaside villages, glimmering cities and mountain overlooks. The sunshine-hued, delicate artwork embraces both the panoramic vastness of the countryside and the definitive details nestled in its valleys, meadows, towns and treetops. Each double-page spread invites readers to stop and look closely at the lichen hugging the tree, the bending roses, the bouncing musicians, the twinkling carnival, the romantic dinner parties, the ships’ many sails, the cactus’ sharp needles, the wisps of clouds on a mountain ridge . . . Children, thanks to captivating artwork and rhyme, will want nothing more than to ride his handlebars, bouncing and merry.”
Here’s an interior spread from the book:
Another book coming out in May 2015 sporting my illustrations is an early middle-grade called CODY AND THE FOUNTAIN OF HAPPINESS (Candlewick), written by Tricia Springstubb, which is the first in a series.
For whimsical Cody, many things are beautiful, especially ants who say hello by rubbing feelers. But nothing is as beautiful as the first day of summer vacation, and Cody doesn’t want to waste one minute of it. Meanwhile, teenage brother Wyatt is moping over a girl, Mom is stressed about her new job as Head of Shoes, Dad is off hauling chairs in his long-distance truck, and even camp has been closed for the summer. What to do? Just when all seems lost, Cody bumps into a neighborhood boy named Spencer who is looking for a runaway cat. With a new friend and a soon-to-be-found cat, Cody is on her way to the fountain of happiness.
Tricia Springstubb’s writing is playful, musical, and endearing. Through the process of illustrating this book I found myself grown attached to lovable Cody and her friends and family. There are over 30 black and white interior illustrations in the book. Here’s one of them:
After over a year in the making, I’m eager for these new projects to go out into the world and be shared with everyone!
Today I was able to attend Edith Cohn’s book party for her debut middle-grade novel, SPIRIT’S KEY, at Children’s Book World in West Lost Angeles. It seems a rare opportunity to have the author and artist who worked on a book living in the same city, and it was a special experience to finally meet Edith in person and celebrate this book together.
There was a great crowd, raffle prizes, a reading, and dog-bone shaped cookies–what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon?
One thing I learned from Edith was that she was asked by her publisher, FSG, what kind of cover she wanted, and she said that she liked the cover of DOLL BONES–which is why they approached me to do the artwork for this book! I’m so glad they did.
Andrew Arnold at MacMillan Publishers did such a fabulous job with the book design work! I’m enjoying finding all the details he used for the jacket and throughout the book. Special thanks to Andrew for choosing me to work with him on this project.
Congratulations to Edith, and SPIRIT’S KEY!
To learn more about the book, visit Edith’s site: www.edithcohn.wordpress.com
Check out my recent post over at Kidlit Artists blog on doing studies of illustrators that inspire.
Each year I go to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s National summer conference, and each year I promise myself to type up notes and blog about the experience. And each year (up until now, huzzah!) this promise has gone un-kept. By now I’ve got a pretty good handle on how this happens — and I think other conference-goers can probably relate. This event is four straight days spent with 1200+ fellow writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, and SCBWI staff. It’s a social, informational, and inspirational whirlwind. SCBWI’s director and MC, the hilariously love-able, Lin Oliver nailed it when she said:
“This is what happens when a bunch of introverts get together and feel comfortable with each other.”
It’s the best kind of social+professional interaction. In fact, it’s come to the point where these events nearly match Christmas for me. I’m giddy and excited to geek out with hundreds of other children’s book, well, geeks for four days straight.
But, as we know about introverts, even small social interactions involve rest and recovery periods. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it takes me a whole 7 days after the conference to recharge (the entire first day involves lying face-down on the bed). A lot of that time is spent catching up on deadlines, emails, and binge-watching some tv series (usually involving bridal gowns, or food, or the 90’s). It also involves thinking “I gotta type up those conference notes while it’s all still fresh,” yet not having quite enough energy to take action. But this year I did it! It’s two weeks later, the dust has settled, but it’s still fresh on my mind.
The event highlights for me:
- my conference buddies, Debbie Ohi and Kimberly Gee
- meeting author Pat Z. Miller!
- the keynote speakers
- juicy breakout sessions, during which I always seem to collect new tips on craft, and get insight for my stories in progress
- seeing my agent, friends I’ve made from conferences past, and the SCBWI mentor/mentee group–we eat, we drink, we bond
- meeting new friends, and collecting cards at the illustrator’s social
- the Monday Illustrator’s intensive: all about inspiration this year
I woke up to a super cool thing today . . . one of the greatest children’s book bloggers out there, Julie Danielson (of the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) was asked to compile a list of the “10 Children’s Illustrators to Watch” for BookPage. Guess what? She thinks I’m one of them! Woohoooo!!
Thank you, Jules!
The illustrators on this list are fantastic – it’s an honor to be considered part of the company:
The Brothers Hilts
Theodore Taylor III
Hoda Hadadi and Birgitta Sif
No one in the town of Bonnyripple ever kept a grudge.
No one, that is, except old Cornelius, the Grudge Keeper.
Ruffled feathers, petty snits, minor tiffs and major huffs, insults, umbrage, squabbles, dust-ups, and imbroglios–the Grudge Keeper received them all, large and small, tucking each one carefully away in his ramshackle cottage.
When a fierce wind blows through Bonnyripple, the residents are forced to rescue Cornelius and deal with their various disputes . . .
A picture-book that I illustrated, THE GRUDGE KEEPER (written by the talented Mara Rockliff), was released on April 4th, 2014. It’s such an exciting moment to see the book all put together, in real life!
Check out this wonderful interview about the writing and illustrating process with Mara and me on Peachtree Publisher’s blog, here:
The Making of The Grudge Keeper
A few peeks into the process:
Three cheers to Mara Rockliff’s wonderful story, and to Peachtree Publishers for all their amazing work bringing it to fruition!
For more info about the book, visit Peachtree Publishers online.