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.