Making better comics: 12 years and 12 hard-won lessons learned
When you set out to create work that exceeds your grasp, it can be excruciating. Whether you’re working to make better comics, craft stronger stories, or improve your art, there will be a lot of bumps in the road as you hone your skills. You’ll face your limitations, learn painful lessons, and struggle to live up to your own expectations.
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
—Robert Browning (“Andrea del Sarto”)
But it’s exactly because it’s so difficult that it’s the work we should pour our efforts into. It’s because creative work is hard that it becomes such a powerful vector for life change.
Doing the work is how you close the gap between who you imagine you should be, and who you actually are.
It will change your relationship to the world. Your work will be a filter and a lens that illuminates aspects of the world you didn’t understand…or even know existed.
It will change your understanding of yourself.
How do I know?
On December 4th, a 12-year chapter of my life came to a close with the publication of the third and final chapter my sci-fi comic Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. (Why did it take 12 years, you ask? Read on.)
I’m proud, I’m happy…I’m relieved.
Working on anything for that long means it will perforce witness seasons of change in your life. But when that something you’re working on is a giant, ambitious creative project, finishing imparts life lessons, and not always gently.
Sometimes they come down like a hammer.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
The lessons I took from Trish seem to fall into a few specific categories.
This last category is some of what I lump together under the heading “creative focus” —all the meta-skills and understandings that not only lead to successfully finishing and launching work, but also clarify when you are—and are not—making rational choices that will lead to a better, more sustainable, creative life.
Helping other people with creative focus is what I’ve devoted my attention to most fiercely for the last three years, and after reading this article, I think you’ll see why.
I’ve had my doubts about publishing this article. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. But in the end, if sharing this journey might help someone else gain a little clarity, and that would be well worth it.
Remember: If you will allow it to, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Background: the timeline
Before I get started, I need to lay out the timeline for you briefly so you don’t get lost.
Dec 25, 2006 My very first notes on Trish Trash date from Christmas, 2006, inspired by an illustration I drew for Drawing Words & Writing Pictures.
2008 I signed a contract with Dargaud France to originate Trish Trash in France as a 3-volume series, to be written by me and drawn by a collaborator. In case you’re wondering, yes, it is highly unusual for a non-French speaking author to originate a book in France in translation.
2011 After much back and forth, my collaborator dropped out of the project, and I decided to draw it myself, with Lydia Roberts as my assistant.
2011-2013 I drew and TT volume 1 with the help of a team of interns and Lydia, slated for publication in France in April 2014. Plan is now for 4 volumes.
[2012 – 2016 Moved to France.]
2013-2015 Drew TT2 with the help of, and got schooled on derby by, Justine Sarlat. And Lydia, of course.
2014 Publication was pushed back to January.
Summer 2014 Quixotically hand-drew the Get Ready GIF as a book trailer/marketing piece.
October 2014 Trish is cut back to 3 volumes.
January 2015 TT1 is published in France.
October 2015 Sold the US publishing rights to Super Genius, an imprint of NBM/Papercutz.
November 2016 TT1 comes out in the US with Super Genius.
April 2017 TT1 is nominated for two Eisner awards.
August 15, 2017 TT2 released in the USA.
January 2018 Completed drawing TT3.
December 4, 2018 TT3 and the collected edition are out in December in the US. Neither has yet appeared in France, where the publication plan is now to put out the collection only.
Working better and making better work
Let’s start with lessons that, even while difficult, produced concrete upsides.
1. Work with the best people, and show your appreciation
Trish Trash was an enormous team effort. Any book is, and this one more than most.
I wrote long and anxiety-producing acknowledgements (what if I forget someone or say the wrong thing?!?!), where I talk about all the people who contributed in one way or another. But my one best ninja moves on this book was to hire Lydia Roberts as my assistant.
Let’s be clear: I was lucky, mostly. Lydia started out as my student, so I knew her well by the time I hired her to work with me on world-building and drawing backgrounds. If I was going to draw a sci-fi comic, by god, it had to have great space-trucks, and this chick knows her trucks (and bikes, and buildings, and character design, and sci-fi in general).
When we started, Lydia could never have dreamed her part of this project would drag on 7 years (I started the book well before I got to the point of hiring anyone), but she showed patience and professionalism throughout, no matter how timelines stretched or how crazy our work process got. She was a pleasure to talk to and collaborate with, and treated this job as an iron-clad commitment.
Not only that, her work was stunning from the start, and just got better as we went along.
So, that’s all pretty obvious: pick great people.
The real lesson, however, came when I took Lydia for granted—or certainly made it look like I did—when I failed to use my power on the project to guard her interests.
I screwed up. When I was reviewing the proofs for the first volume in French, I forgot to check that Lydia’s name was on the title page under mine, as intended (and as instructed), and her back matter illustrations were uncredited. In fact, she was only mentioned in small type on the credits page. She was, understandably and justifiably, hurt and upset.
It was incredibly painful to realize I’d made her feel under-appreciated, and did damage to our relationship (and even possibly her career). We recovered, but only by dint of much painful discussion and heartfelt apologies on my part. I’ll always feel grateful to Lydia for her generosity in forgiving this mistake, and teaching me how crucial it is to make your appreciation for your collaborators visible and tangible.
Lesson: Be there for others, and support the people who support you.
2. Hitting a wall with your technique is your invitation to the next level
I never formally learned how to write comics, I just developed my methods willy-nilly as I went along. By the time I finished my book Life Sucks (a writing collaboration with Gabe Soria, drawn by Warren Pleece), I’d worked out this complicated color-coded system for scripting that used some elements of screenplays, and differentiated dialogue from “stage direction” by color and font. (You can see an example of this style in my book, Mastering Comics, in the chapter on scripting.)
Trish Trash was initially supposed to be a script, where I would collaborate with an artist (like Life Sucks, then my most recent project). (It was also supposed to be a one-and-done throwaway rollerderby on Mars lark. Turns out that’s not how I roll—another lesson that’s not even on this list.)
So when I started writing Trish Trash, I began it in this style. Then I gave my draft to the artist who was on deck to draw.
He did not like it.
He loved the concept, but my script was wordy, dense, and, he pointed out, boringly reliant on similar 2-shots, meaning medium-distance shots of two or more characters in a panel, talking.
I looked back on my previous work and realized this described all the things that I’d been frustrated with in previous work—too wordy, too crowded, not using the images as the storytelling tools they could be.
Around that time, I ran into Alison Bechdel, and heard from her how she’d developed a technique for writing comics in actual comics panels, but without drawing.
Ever since then, I’ve been using my own version of what I came to call visual scripting, where you write your dialogue and stage directions in physical space on a digital mockup of the page, using panel borders, so you can envision how the final page will look, how dense the text will be…and you can thoughtfully edit yourself the hell down—let the images to the work, as they should in comics!
The script got leaner, more visual, clearer. Better.
Things with my collaborator did not pan out (professionally speaking! We’re still friends). But as a result of this rewrite, I revolutionized my ability to take control over the visual element of my comics, because I was finally using images during the writing process as narrative elements, rather than figuring out how to do so only after locking in the script.
THIS technique is what allowed me to write my next book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (right in the middle of Trish Trash. More on that in #10 below) in a visual script and get REAL, substantive edits from my amazing editor Meagan Levinson.
This method is what made not only Trish, but Out on the Wire, as good as it is.
(If you’re a cartoonist, find out more about the visual scripting method in Mastering Comics and here.)
Lesson: A tough critique is a chance to identify and solve a problem you may not have known you had. It’s not necessarily fun, but it’s how you grow by leaps and not baby steps.
3. Subtraction can be addition
Picture me in January 2015. After an already-9-year-long struggle, Volume 1 is released in France. I’ve been working my ass off for almost a year, trying to create creative marketing for it (that goes absolutely nowhere).
Signs on sales had already been bad; we’d postponed the release of vol 1 from April 2014 to January 2015 to relaunch it to retailers. But even so, the final numbers were dismal. And so the plan—which had been for 4 volumes—was tossed and I’m told I have to wrap it up in 3. (See #6 and #8)
I’ve already drawn Volume 2, and am working on production. It’s too late to redo that…or to make any changes. So all the compression has to happen in the last two chapters.
Fortunately, while I had vols 3-4 paced out and started, they were not fully scripted. And so I’m tasked with fitting what would have been 108 or so pages into 72.
Meanwhile, over the previous three years, I’d completed Out on the Wire (see #10), which was slated to come out in August of 2015.
Out on the Wire is devoted to understanding the elements of a great story (in the context of narrative podcasts and radio, but applicable across the board).
The element of storytelling that’s most compelling for me is story structure. I love the way well-constructed stories not only keep you reading, but also feed your deeper understanding of the characters and themes. The principles and techniques in chapter 3 of Out on the Wire, “Keep or Kill: Story Structure” became bedrock tools for me, and made it possible to imagine pulling this last volume of Trish Trash out of the fire.
I drafted a new script. I used tools I had written about in Out on the Wire like the XY story formula on the entire series, on the individual volume, and on many of the scenes. I used the Focus Sentence the same way.
In a series of focus sessions with Matt (often on long drives), I workshopped ideas. Matt gave me tough love and made me ensure that somehow, Trish really does literally become “Rollergirl of Mars” and scrap a whole cliffhanger ending I’d come up with back in—2010 or so?—that no longer made sense.
It was radical, it was difficult. But it was also exhilarating, and fast. I felt more in control and had more fun with the process than ever before. (And then I documented a bunch of this process in the Out on the Wire Podcast, because #10.)
Not only that, as in lesson #2, where I had to learn to write visually and it led to huge improvement, putting the last half of Trish Trash through the structure wringer absolutely made it a better book. (I still could have used another 10 pages, tho…)
Since then, the Out on the Wire-derived storytelling tools have served me in every writing project I’ve attempted, including this very blog post.
Lesson: This is two-in-one. First of all, learning tools for storytelling is incredibly empowering and damn useful. Second, all the things you do in your life will feed one another, often in unexpected ways. You are more than the sum of your parts.
The world is large and complicated
OK, so the first part of this post was made up of the kind of learning we look back on and think, I’m so glad I went through that. It was tough, but I grew so much. I’m better for it.
These that follow mostly involve me making a fool of myself in one way or another. It’s hard to look back and see myself being so naïve.
I’m glad I know now, but the cringe is real.
4. Sci-fi is hard
You know, when I started this book, it felt so fun, so light. It seemed like a lark to imagine life on Mars in 200 years.
Then I started actually writing the thing.
Science fiction doesn’t have a fantastic literary rep. It’s dismissed as “genre” by “serious” writers. (see #7 below). Which is pretty funny because science fiction is so damn hard to write!
Sure, there’s a lot of dreck. But when it’s done well, it’s a tour de force. Think about this:
- World-building in nonfiction basically entails discovering the relevant facts about who, what, and where, then presenting them clearly.
- In realistic fiction, you’re making up characters and events, but you can lean on a whole body of knowledge you share with your readers about what’s happened in the world, who has done what in history, and how things literally function.
- When you’re writing sci-fi, it’s all on you.
And world-building doesn’t just refer to flying vs. wheel-using cars. It applies equally to governmental and administrative structures, laws of the land, religion, the social geometry of race, class, and ethnic difference, and anything else you can think of.
When you’re inventing the entire world, the bar is really high in terms of the sheer number of factors you need to consider, never mind creating internal consistency.
There are whole domains of life on Mars that I just simply never turned my attention to, and sometimes I feel like the Wizard of Oz, trying to distract the audience so that it doesn’t notice the gaping hole in the stage set right… over… there…
At least I didn’t try to create an entire society from scratch—my Mars is deeply rooted in Earth societies. But I did make up a new non-Terran biology. In balance with that I conveniently ignored the fact that Mars has ⅓ Earth’s gravity and I attribute much technological advancement to “sci-fi magic.”
H/t to Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars Trilogy was a major source of my “research” and who shows us all how this sci-fi world-building jawn is done.
Lesson: Seamless and effortless is harder than you think.
5. Roller derby is a sport
I admit it. Back in 2005, 2006, I was drawn in by the punk rock spectacle of roller derby. The costumes, the take-all-comers, aggressive fuck-youness of it. I also loved the all-female, power-to-the-players feminism, and how derby welcomes all body types and levels of athleticism.
That last part, I still love. And despite debates about them, I remain amused by derby handles (meaning often-punning stage names derby players assume).
But living in New York for the first 6 years of this project meant my hometown league was the Gotham Girls. If you know derby, you know what that means.
For everyone else: the Gotham Girls have been #1 in the country for most of the last decade. They are hot shit.
Back in 2007, they weren’t such hot shit. Hotter than most, but back when I started going to “bouts” (aka games) derby was still a baby sport, drawing in crowds more with the makeup, fishnets, and the promise of girl fights than with athleticism.
That changed fast—and I watched it happen. (Not as a #1 superfan, but dropping in for a few bouts a year.) By 2010, the play was pretty jaw-dropping.
When the Gotham Girls would host an out-of-town team back then, I’d be reminded of what the early days looked like. These other players would be skating in circles with little to no visible strategy, and just be absolutely massacred by the Gotham machine.
Even that, now, is no longer the case. There are dozens of leagues and teams who play at the international level. “Olympics” is a word that gets tossed around.
Awkward for me, since I wrote the basic premise and structure of Trish Trash back in 2006-2008. It’s got derby names, oddball costumes, and they skate on a banked track (also somewhat controversial). This is the risk when you step into someone else’s arena. Learn the rules and respect the culture: it’s not yours to screw with.
All right, so in 2012, after drawing Trish Trash vol. 1, I moved to a small city in France (Angoulême). Why? For an artists’ residency program (La Maison des Auteurs) for cartoonists and animators.
Yes, I know. Crazy, right?
La Maison des Auteurs is in Angoulême because lots of comics-oriented organizations are also there, including an undergraduate and graduate art school with a comics program. That’s how I found Justine Sarlat to intern with me. What I couldn’t have predicted/hoped for is that Justine is a talented cartoonist… and a serious roller derby player (ret.)!
That’s how my butt was more-or-less saved. Justine critiqued my team structure, posed for drawings, and made me illustrations of derby strategy. She was amazingly helpful. I even skated with her (and fell on my ass)!
I don’t flatter myself that I got it all right, but full respect to the derby world and players: my book is intended as an homage to what you do.
Lesson: When you step into a new context with other people’s rules, be humble, be curious about how it all works, and assume you’re getting stuff wrong.
6. French comics is a culture
Back in 1998, I went to the Festival International de Bandes Dessinées (FIBD, International Comics Festival) in Angoulême (ironically, the same town in which I’d later spend four years living—and working on Trish Trash).
I went with my friend Tom Devlin, among others, and I remember one night sitting up in the hotel room with Tom and telling him my dream: to not just be translated, but to originate a comic in France, within 5 years.
10 years later, I signed a contract with Dargaud France to originate Trish Trash.
I thought I knew something about comics culture in France.
I’d had a book published in French by Delcourt (La Perdida), had traveled around doing signings at comics stores, I had been to the Angoulême festival a few more times, I had made a number of French cartoonist and publisher friends…I had married a French-speaking BD-o-phile…
I do—and even then I did—know more than most Americans.
But I didn’t know jack.
There’s a term in language learning, “false cognate.” It means words in two languages that sound similar, but have totally different meanings, like “embarazada” in Spanish, which seems like it ought to mean “embarrassed” but actually means “pregnant.”
The comparison is not 1:1, but there’s something distinctly false-cognate-y about the French and American comics worlds. My publisher Dargaud is neither the DC Comics of France, nor the Pantheon Books. Not only that, there is no DC of France. There is no Fantagraphics. There is no Scholastic. There just is no direct equivalent there to how things work here.
An example: Trish Trash is written for adults, with a very welcoming door open to teens, and even tweens. But if you say a book is for children in France, adult bookstores won’t even look at it. So we called it an adult book, and cut out young readers.
Another example: If you call it bandes dessinées (comics), and you associate it via format with traditional hardcover French BD (as we did with volume 1 in France), you are setting up certain expectations with regard to audience and content. If your content is influenced by American and even a little bit by Japanese comics (as mine is), and if it features mostly girls of color as protagonists (as mine does), you run the risk of confusing and dismaying that somewhat hide-bound audience.
Meanwhile, the audience who reads “romans graphiques” (graphic novels)—which includes the urban, literary audience (that also writes reviews in mainstream publications)—sees the full color, sci-fi trappings of the book, and ignores it.
I could go on. I won’t. There are so many things I don’t get, so many signals I didn’t know I was sending, or wasn’t and should have been…
Lesson: Similar to that of #5 about roller derby: Be careful (at a minimum, be aware) when you make decisions based on assumptions about how the world will receive your work.
7. Some art is more “arty” than other art
… and thus seen as more worthy than other art. At least when it comes to comics.
This came home to me in France when the first volume of Trish Trash came out (Jan. 29th, 2015). As I talked about in #6, above, I didn’t fully grok the split in the French comics world between pop culture and high culture.
When La Perdida was translated into French in 2006, it was nominated for one of the top awards of French comics and it was reviewed widely (and very positively) in the mainstream press. I even did a photo shoot for Les Inrockuptibles (I’ve always thought of it like the Rolling Stone of France, but that’s probably wrong. See #6).
When Trish Trash came out… crickets.
It was barely noticed even on the few comics blogs.
La Perdida revolves around issues of class and race and power imbalances. So does Trish Trash. (And so does Life Sucks, by the way, although it’s a vampire romantic comedy.)
Trish Trash and Life Sucks are easily as “good” as La Perdida. I’m a flawed writer and have taken years to get better at what I do…my earlier works aren’t as well put together as later ones. In these later books I know I objectively did a better job.
But La Perdida is black and white, set in the present, naturalistic, serious in tone, and was initially published by hip alternative publisher Fantagraphics, and then later by highbrow lit publisher Pantheon, whereas Life Sucks is funny, features supernatural powers, is in color, and is published by a children’s comics publisher, First Second. Trish Trash is set in an imagined future, is in color, has lots of scenes of women skating in circles, and is published by the teen imprint of a children’s publisher.
The author of La Perdida and Out on the Wire is seen as very different from the author of Trish Trash and Life Sucks. The former is invited to conferences and speaking engagements and residencies, the latter is not.
Lesson: The playing field is not level. Play accordingly.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
Here’s where the lessons go a little dark. If there are reasons I shouldn’t publish this article, you will find them below.
8. To be a professional, you have to be flexible
The flipside of working with good people (#1) is that not every collaborator will be a peach. People will drag feet, decisions get made that you won’t like. Stuff happens, intentionally and accidentally, that you won’t have any control over or even know about until it’s too late.
But when your creative work is your job, you just gotta go to work.
Trish Trash hit many many speed bumps. Some were my fault. Some were due to others’ mistakes. Some just… happened.
I went from writer only to writer-artist.
The page count went from one volume (2007) to three (2010) to four (2013) and then BACK to three (2014) (see #3, above).
I moved from the US to France and back.
People disappeared and then came back, deadlines pushed back and then got crazy, the entire initial French publishing plan got thrown out the window and redesigned.
There are times when you need to stand on principle, insist and freak out on people.
Lesson: But mostly, if you want to work with a large team to produce books (or anything else, I’m guessing), you need to be able to absorb blows, go with the flow, noodge people into action when they’re falling off schedule, be unfailingly polite (until you need to be a bit of a bitch), and in the long run let it all be water under the bridge.
9. The tortoise wins
I finished—by dint of slow, unyielding effort and a deep well of inborn bullheadedness (and with, notably, Lydia’s help—see #1). I made it through.
Lesson: Slow and steady wins the race. Or does it? Read on…
10. One goal shall rule them all
Projects I completed while also working on Trish Trash:
- the last year of Life Sucks (itself a 7 or 8 year odyssey)
- the final quarter of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures
- Mastering Comics
- editing six editions of The Best American Comics
- Out on the Wire
- the Out on the Wire Podcast
- Growing Gills
Not to mention teaching many many many classes, moving to France, moving to Philly, starting a coaching and online teaching business, developing a new undergraduate illustration degree program…and birthing and raising two kids.
So if you’re wondering why what is essentially a 200-page book took 12 years, that, my friend, is your answer.
In the last few years I’ve talked—a lot—about the idea that having ONE creative goal at a time is the best way to make real progress. Not only will you finish and launch faster, but the work itself will be more coherent and, frankly, better for the concerted attention you give it.
Meanwhile I’ve been both a cautionary tale and a hypocrite.
No, honestly, it goes deeper than that—I had no idea when I started Trish Trash that pursuing One Goal was even a possibility. I had never heard of such a thing. I used to believe in multitasking. I used to think you could actually focus more than one thing at a time, both in the short and and the long term, and not only that, you should, because that’s how you’d get more done.
Sounds logical right? Except it’s just flat out wrong.
And when I realized what I’d done to myself (after coming up with the One Goal framework in, what, 2016?), all I could do was start saying no to new projects that came up in the present. I would still have to see through all the legacy projects I was committed to, meaning years of juggling and overwork, all the while knowing exactly what was wrong.
This is what burnout looks like.
My latest insight into this aspect of Creative Focus is that it’s the almost-invisible ripple effect of projects—their long tail of follow-up and mop-up and doing the stuff you didn’t do because you were cramming to hit a deadline—that will really screw you up. Check out this article for more.
Lesson: No matter how enthusiastic you are for a project, trying juggle it with all the other things you love is a recipe for burnout.
11. Don’t be “realistic”
A lot of my mania to jam in more projects essentially came down to my “scarcity mindset.”
A scarcity mindset is what results when you don’t have enough of something. When you don’t have enough, your brain goes into tunnel vision mode, and can only focus obsessively on that one thing. It’s like an alarm going off in your head. But that means you pay less attention to all the other things that do not address that immediate, pressing issue—including strategically planning how to address the source of the scarcity at the root.
The scarcity trap is that living with scarcity limits your perspective, and causes behavior that begets even more scarcity in the future.
A Creative Focus student sent me an incredibly useful podcast episode that snapped the whole concept into place for me.
The short version, from Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan:
“When you have scarcity and it creates a scarcity mindset, it leads you to take certain behaviors which, in the short term, help you manage scarcity but in the long term only make matters worse…The scarcity trap for us is all those ways in which scarcity today begets behaviors, which leads to even further scarcity tomorrow.”
What was lacking for me was not exactly money.
We didn’t have much money, and were never in a position to NOT to think about money, but we did OK. We had enough to allow us to plan a budget and not just scramble check to check. We are also incredibly lucky that we both come from a financially-stable middle-class background, and that provides a backstop that many people do not have.
What was scarce for me was stability and control over my finances, career, and prospects. What I lacked was any assurance that what I had now—the work, the income, the career position—would continue.
The scarcity trap out in the wild
From the moment I decided to be a cartoonist (which I did, fuzzily, back in the mid 90s) and, in general, a freelance creative, the scarcity of my success (having some, having less, not knowing where the next would come from) gave me tunnel vision.
So I took on every gig that came up. I said yes to every book idea I dreamed up. I did more and more, and for a moment, the scarcity alarm would go silent. This thing is coming up. There’s another thing in the pipeline.
But it came at an enormous cost.
By piling on gig after gig, I created even more scarcity: time scarcity, for sure, and also, most ironically, career-stability/success scarcity. When I had four or five book projects all rolling at once, there’s no way on Earth I could devote the time and attention resources to any one book that could help ensure that it did what it should do out in the world (aka do marketing and promotion).
That’s why it’s called a scarcity “trap.”
It’s self-perpetuating: scarcity begets more scarcity.
Even now that I’ve been consciously working on digging out of the scarcity trap for over a year, I realize to my deep dismay that I still spend virtually all my free time on “productive” activity. If I have time to read, it’s as likely to be a business book as fiction. If I’m listening to a podcast, it’s something utilitarian. Like Katie in the Hidden Brain episode, a little voice in my head nags at me, “If I’m not doing something productive, what is my purpose in life?”
Things are better than they were a year ago. I am consciously choosing to implement white space more often. I’m choosing fiction and gardening and friends—and trying to ignore that little voice.
And closing the Trish Trash chapter feels like a huge victory, because the way that project played out has become a symbol to me of all the dumb, scarcity-trap-inspired choices I’ve made over the last decade. If I can put this book to bed, thank it for all its lessons, and not instantly replace it with something else, that’s got to be good, right?
What does this have to do with being “realistic”? Stick with me here: I think “realistic” is code for “feed the scarcity beast.”
Most creatives who want to be pros suffer from the particular brand of scarcity thinking that I do, to a greater or lesser extent. And the scarcity-trap we typically fall into is to make decisions that are short-term and “realistic.”
All I need to do is work harder. Follow the advice of this blog about how to build my platform, or finish one more minicomic for the comicon, or take on this editing gig which will establish my name, or go back to grad school and get better at my craft, or take this crappy barista job so I have more time for my work, or…
If I do all that, then sales and fame and success will follow.
It’s all about what you can do immediately, within the scope of what you’ve done before, making incremental progress and not risking anything unknown.
It’s doing the same thing, essentially, over and over, and hoping that doing more of it will be your ticket out.
There are lottery winners. I’m not one of them. And you probably won’t be, either. Hoping you will be is no way to live.
It’s not until you take control of the big picture, and make decisions based on what you really want out of your life rather than what it seems like logically you “should” do next, that you can start to exit the trap.
When I look at other creatives, I see scarcity-driven choices all around me, constantly. This is why I’m driven to teach and coach Creative Focus, because I know how damaging this mindset has been to me.
There’s hope: As I’ve implemented a series of strategies in my life that force my focus from the panic of the impossible to-do list and the impulse always to jam in more to a place of reflection and conscious decision, my life has started to get closer to the kind of sustainable, intentional creative life I’ve always wanted. It takes serious attention, but it’s possible.
On the other hand, I’m finishing this post on a Sunday morning, so what do I know?
Lesson: Recognize where you act out of scarcity thinking and work to make decisions with a view of the big picture instead.
12. Try not to scale the wrong mountain
Here’s the messed up thing: all these years being a professional cartoonist? I never asked myself: is this how I want to be spending my days? From now on? And I’m definitely not just talking about the writing and drawing part. I’m talking about the whole picture.
If I wanted that life, I should have been out there following up on each release with as many appearances and as much press as I could scrounge up. I should have made it my mission to build a robust online audience for that book and fed it continually with updates and engagement. I should have gone to many more conferences and conventions, and built my professional network. That’s what leads to being able to make a living as a cartoonist.
Instead, as in #10, One Goal, I split my attention and tried to be many things at the same time: literary cartoonist, pop cartoonist (very different things, I found out, see #7), educator, editor, screenwriter…and any one of those things might have worked if I put all my energy into it.
But the most important thing is knowing that if you do channel your energy into something, it’ll land you where you want to be.
The “one last score” fallacy
Truth: for the longest time, I couldn’t really imagine what else I’d be but a cartoonist. Not because I never thought about what I might have liked to do (producer, TV writer, residential contractor…), but because my scarcity mindset had me continually thinking “I just need to finish this one project… it’s got a good chance of success, and that could put me in a position to… “ I never trusted that I was enough without hitting some invisible, always shifting goalpost.
It’s like those heist-movie criminals who are planning to get out of the game, but just want to make one last big score.
It’s the last one that always goes sideways.
The edges of “cartoonist” are well-patrolled by other people in that world who have their own scarcity mindset and need to tell themselves it’s their superior “toughness” that keeps them in the game. Anyone who opts for a different path will be reprimanded, told to stay in their lane. AKA don’t be a sellout.
That happens in real life. I can think of two or three people I know of who’ve snarked that behind my back (social media searches are a bitch), which means who-knows-how-many I don’t know about have done so.
But it doesn’t really matter what judgments people are sharing online because that border guard is also in my own head.
Scarcity leads to having no margin, no perspective with which to rationally judge my options, which leads to the ripple effect; living with the unintended consequences of my decisions for years afterward.
Let me make one thing clear: all of this maundering has to be understood in relationship to my deep appreciation for the career I have built. What I am today is because I’m a cartoonist, and because of all the other projects I threw myself into over the years.
I’m immensely grateful to past-me and all the people I worked with, as well as to the work itself.
I just reserve the right to work differently from now on.
Lesson: Beware the “last score” fallacy—that you’re still capable of climbing doesn’t make this the right mountain.
I don’t want to end on a dark note. I started this article with the Robert Browning quote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” It’s from this that we get the common, dismissive usage of the phrase “their reach exceeded their grasp,” meaning they tried something overly ambitious, and fell flat on their face.
In other words, Nice try, loser.
But Browning meant something different, that the point of being human is to try things that are incredibly difficult, to reach for heaven, even if it exceeds your grasp. That’s who we are. That’s what makes it all worth it.
The dedication (and epigraph) of Trish Trash is to my two kids, “Ad Astra.” It’s a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.” Trish is out there in the stars, and I hope for them that they will always dream that big.
There’s a longer version my mom once inscribed on a ring for me: “Ad astra per aspera,” meaning “through difficulties, to the stars.” And that’s what I hope for me, for them, and for you; that we’ll use our setbacks and hard lessons as fuel for the rocket that we’ll fly to the future.
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Congratulations, Jessica! I have really appreciate the honesty of your hard-won wisdom. I am cheering your victory and look forward to your next adventure!
Inspiring and motivating as always!
Great article, full of insights. Thank you.
Thanks for reading!