Even if you’ve read more than one of my articles, I’m guessing there’s a still decent chance you have no real idea what my main creative activity has been for my whole adult life. And that sounds bad, but I actually count that as a good thing, because it means I’ve been able to reach, to communicate with, a whole bunch of brand new people about brand new things in the last few months, especially since I published my Idea Debt article.
Here’s the history. I’m a cartoonist, writer, and teacher. But if you’ve been hanging around anywhere in my vicinity, you may have noticed something shift with me in the last year—or really, within the last six months or so.
Where I used to occasionally post news updates on my comics and events, now, I’m publishing regularly on how creative people can get more of their important work done, with very actionable information.
I’m running a course on this topic, right now, called the Creative Focus Workshop. There are 83 amazing, fascinating, brilliantly creative people in this course, coming from areas as diverse as sculpture, video games, anthropology, fiction writing, software development, coaching, the military, mathematics, journalism, podcasting, comics, and even cryptography, all with big creative plans for the future.
We’ve only been at it for a few days, but already I can feel participants turning a corner, from simply wishing they could get moving on their projects, to actually building the path forward. It’s inspiring.
Why am I doing this?
I wrote a post back in July where I promised to talk more about the thinking I’d been doing about taking a new path, and I haven’t followed through. So here I am, with a peek behind the curtain.
It all started with a realization, or rather, a series of realizations, and then some decisions I made just over a year ago, as I was finishing the artwork for Out on the Wire.
First of all, I realized I had a business model. Who knew?
My business model was to sell books on spec to publishers (sell on a proposal, that is) for an objectively decent advance, then work as fast as humanly possible to finish the books—I was never fast enough to make the advance actually come anywhere near to paying for my life—meanwhile looking around for the next book so I could sell it before the old one was done. This would eke out about 1/2 of a living.
Then I would caulk the gaps with adjunct teaching and one-off jobs like illustration and editing, which would take well over half my time, thereby causing the books take even longer to complete.
As will not surprise you after reading that…
My second realization was that my business model had very low probability of ever allowing me to work at a human pace.
…Or to really focus enough on any one project to put it over the top in terms of visibility (and therefore income. My books haven’t earned out—I don’t see royalties).
There’s of course always that chance someone—someone with a bigger platform, a bigger wallet—would reach down and pluck me from obscurity. But I’d been waiting for that hand of god to point to me since I started, and it hadn’t happened. That isn’t a “business plan,” that’s wishful thinking.
Then I got really mad.
…For several months about how things had played out for me. Here I was, verifiably a success by the standards I had set out for myself, and yet, I felt like a hamster in a wheel.
But simmering resentment isn’t my style.
Third realization: What I had to do was to come up with something that I would love to do, but that could get me paid more for working the same hours.
I feel like an idiot even typing that. I mean, of course. But look around: the things we artists choose to do for money (to support our art) tend to be things that feel like they’re almost art (I’m thinking teaching here, but fill in your own day gig). But they’re not, and they take an enormous amount of time and energy, and, perhaps because these jobs are in demand by creative people, they’re among the lowest-paid professional jobs in existence.
A lot of people think teaching will be the solution. But I’ve got bad news: Adjunct teaching is not the answer. It’s a stop-gap at best, financially speaking. And don’t get me wrong, I love my students—I love teaching. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the system where you would have to take on a 5 to 6 course teaching load every semester to stay above the poverty line.
I beat myself up a lot for working too hard, not being able to take time off. But when I look at it from this angle, my behavior is completely logical. It’s a result of the way I’ve been living for 15 years. Given my underlying assumptions—all the things I’ve chosen to do to support my family are so low-density—many hours at low pay—the only way to actually make living is to cram more in.
There are only so many hours, and my hours go cheap, baby.
What that’s done is train me to just take on more. Just do more and more. It isn’t really that I just need to “tell myself” to take time off or take care of myself. I need to do less stuff.
I felt so resentful of the way the rules seemed stacked against me, against any creator: If you struggle relentlessly against the difficulty of making a life as an artist in this world, that’s great, you’re admirable. But all that means is that you’re buying into a system that just doesn’t work.
And if you decide to opt out of that system? Weak. Not a real artist. SELL-OUT.
But my nose was so bloody from that grindstone.
I said “fuck it” and decided to start to treat my creative life as a business. What that means: making decisions about what I’ll spend my time on based on how those activities serve my goals: making great stuff, helping other people make great stuff, and using those activities to support my family. Those have always been my goals. But how to achieve those goals in a more efficient manner?
I needed to change my business model.
In order to change my business model, I had to figure out what I had that others need, something I could be truly helpful by sharing, enough so that those others be willing to pay me to do so. Tricky. And here I’m going to make an admission that I would have been really nervous about only a few months ago: I took an online business course.
I’ve said it before: be a poser, right? Do the thing you wish you were doing enough, and you become it. So I realized that if I’m going to treat my work activities as a business, I’d better figure out what that means.
So I dove in.
It was back in the spring that I stumbled across Tara Gentile on Creative Live, during the live (i.e. free) run of one of her courses. It took me a while to get used to her energetic vibe and use of lots of business-y terms that I had no grasp of: Conversion rate? Content marketing? Mastermind? WTF are any of those things? I’m a Gen X natural skeptic, my roots in punk rock and underground comics and, what, you want me to go around talking about how “markets are conversations”?
But my poor, bloody, scraped up nose.
I stuck with it. Anyway, I was drawing 8-10 hours a day, trying desperately to finish Out on the Wire on time. When we cartoonists are drawing we need to listen to something.
Then I watched Tara do “hotseats” with audience members (what I might call a critique or focus session), and my eyes were opened. She saw straight to the heart of things, and I watched these people make amazing realizations about who they were, and what they could do for their people. I wanted that for me.
I tried to sign up for her course, the Quiet Power Strategy. Fortunately for me, she was in the middle of a session, and so I couldn’t get in. Fortunately, I say, because there is no way on earth I would have been able to devote the time and mental resources necessary to it while also finishing my book.
I also decided not to pitch a new book. That was a huge leap of faith.
And I finally started in Quiet Power in the fall. It was a big financial commitment for me, and it took several months of hard work, introspection, and many many group coaching calls, but I started to home in on what I can offer, what I can do, and how to change my business model.
But how did I actually change my business model?
I literally just asked, in a survey, and by posting things (on social media and on my blog) and then gauging responses. I started out by trying to figure out how I could help with narrative structure, since that’s traditionally been my métier. But reaching out to people in my audience, I figured out that their (that is, your) number one need is focus. You need help actually making your work.
(There are lots of other things you said, too, that I might get to later. For example: this article is a piece of the same strategy: by being transparent about how I’m rethinking my business activities, I’m talking about the “making a living” piece that so many in my audience need to address.)
That’s when I realized: when it comes to finishing your work, I’ve got what you need: I’ve built systems in my own life that support my regular creative practice, and I’ve taught these approaches to many students. When I started talking about these issues on my blog, the response was immediate and urgent.
It’s incredibly gratifying to be so clearly of help to people.
And it will end up paying my bills, too.
I offered my first, pilot version of what is now the Creative Focus Workshop in December, to an incredible group of people who helped me refine and develop my methodology. And I’ve gotten reports back from many of them that the changes they made have stuck, which is just…it makes me so happy. There’s nothing better for a teacher than to see that she’s made a real difference.
I’ve got a long list of other things coming up in the next year that will follow up on this course, including running it again in the fall (you can get on the waitlist here). I’m working on a book about creative productivity.
Meanwhile, I’m still up to my eyebrows in trying to learn how to be an “entrepreneur.” I’m subscribed to what feel like 18 thousand newsletters with weekly advice…and I know I should shut off the firehose, but I’m still learning every time I read. It’s taken me ages to decode the language of the online entrepreneur, and I’m only just becoming conversant.
But there’s already so much I want to share. I’ll be dipping my toes back into this pool—sharing what I learn—regularly in this space. Make sure to join my list to get it all.
FYI: those links to Tara are affiliate links, so if you check her out, she’ll know I sent you!