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I’ve been thinking and talking a lot with creative people about how they make a living, how they struggle with money, and what they might do differently to bring in a reasonable income.
It comes up in virtually every coaching call.
I talk about it with friends.
I ask people rude questions about it on this podcast!
…and it’s a subject of conversation around the dinner table pretty often—my husband, Matt Madden, is ALSO a cartoonist, so yeah. We talk about it a lot!
So I invited Matt on the show today to talk about specifically what goes sideways when you try to lean on MORE — doing more, making more, working more — to fill the gap.
Making a living as a creative:
What’s the first thing that pops to mind when you’re paying bills, or contemplating a big household expense, or saying no to yet another fun outing with friends? Your brain goes, wow, I need to make more money!
If you’re like most creative people, it’s something like, “I need to find another income stream.” Get a gig, or another job, or more clients, or pitch a book, or post on social media and try to sell more, or…all of the above.
Sounds like a solid plan, basically. Any of those things could lead to some money.
But when all of them together don’t lead to enough money, it’s time to ask, why does all this activity lead to diminishing returns, and what can I do differently?
(I’ve also written a new blog post where I break down how income plateaus happen, and how to take a totally different approach to solving the income gap between “some money” and enough money…without just doing MORE.)
This podcast is part of a series of resources designed to help you understand your choices, and to make better ones
- Why just making more work doesn’t lead to making more money [article]
- 1000 True Fans + 1 Elephant in the Room (The hidden math that controls your success—until you control it) [article]
- What does it actually take to find 1,000 True Fans? with Matt Madden [podcast]
- Run your own numbers to pinpoint the actions that will lead to a sustainable income from creative work with the Income Clarity Calculator.
About Matt Madden:
Matt Madden is a cartoonist, teacher, and translator known for his playful experiments with comics form, a practice that led Ed Park of The New York Times to dub him, “the stuntman-philosopher of American comics.” His most recent graphic novel, Ex Libris, came out from Uncivilized Books to rave reviews at the end of 2021.
His best-known book is 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, his comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. His other recent works include the comic books Drawn Onward and Bridge. He has been living in Philadelphia since 2016. Follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
More from the episode…
- Jessica shares two truths that can help creatives earn more money, while minimizing burn out and avoiding plateaus.
- Avoid the “make more” trap: “Doing more does not lead to more money. It might even lead to less.”
- Some money vs. enough money and why understanding the difference is so important.
- What triggers Matt’s “I need to make more money” moment?
- How do societal pressures box in creatives and limit their potential for success?
- “Every system is perfectly designed to get you the results it’s currently getting” — Why many creatives struggle to reach their financial goals.
- “I was so burnt out and so sick of working the way I was working, I was ready to change how I was” – Jessica’s first step toward coaching and escaping the endless grind.
- The first step to building a new system: “Start with reality.”
- Jessica and Matt share how they manage their time and money as a creative couple.
- Jessica introduces the Incubator, her new coaching program designed to help creatives build a business that meets their needs.
Connect with Matt Madden:
Click here to read the transcript
Matt: And I, up to that point, I really hadn’t thought of it as more than a, passionate side hobby, but then suddenly I was like, oh, this could be my career. All I have to do is keep on doing this.
You know, I’ll do illustrations for magazines it pays even better than comics. And that way I can make my weird comics everything is going to be hunky dory. But it didn’t really work out that way.
Jessica: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?
There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.
And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.
So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:
Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.
I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.
And this is the Autonomous Creative.
Hi, everybody, welcome. We’re going to be trying a slightly different format today. This show is called the Autonomous Creative, and it’s all about what it takes to build a strong, flexible creative career that gives you the freedom to make work you’re proud of.
And usually I interview some amazing artist or writer about their career. And when I do that, I follow what’s interesting about their career and life and work. And I don’t necessarily dig into what’s on my mind.
But you may know that in addition to being a coach for creatives, I’m an author, mostly of comics.
You might not know that my producer on the show, Matt Madden, is also my husband of 21 years and he’s also a cartoonist. So we’re a two cartoonist family. And you can see why this topic, how to build a career in the arts that actually supports you, has been a hot topic of conversation between us since we met almost 25 years ago.
So, of course, when I’m doing an interview, I will dig into anything useful that comes up in that context, but I don’t always get the chance to dive deep into concerns I see coming up with students, clients, or friends, or even ideas I’m implementing or playing with in my own business.
Yeah, I save that for Matt. I pigeonhole him while he’s making dinner or over lunch, and I work through ideas about what works and what doesn’t to make more money as a creative, without selling out or giving up or getting totally burned out. And to be able to really dig into our topic today, which is a juicy one, I thought it would be cool to invite Matt on mic and invite you into our ongoing dinner table conversation. And the context for this is that I’m working on a new project, a coaching program called the Incubator where I’ll be helping people actually put the principles we discussed on the show into action and lots more to come about.
Today’s topic is how to make more money as a creative without totally overloading yourself. And we’re talking about two ideas, a mentor of mine, Tara McMullin, foregrounded for me that have been absolutely rocking my understanding of my work life. The first one I learned years ago, but I keep having to relearn and realizing I haven’t actually fully implemented it.
So number one, doing more does not lead to more money. It might even lead to less. In fact, in my case, I think it probably has led to a lot less money.
The second principle I learned more recently, and it is a 180 degree flip from how I, and most artists think about their careers.
So number two, choose and design your actual revenue producing activities, starting from what you need, meaning starting from money, how much money do you need? Certain kinds of creative satisfaction, freedom and autonomy. And then you cross that with the time, energy and skills you have. So starting from your needs and then designing your activities around your needs and be aware if you approach the problem this way, the end result might not look anything like what you’re doing now. I mean, what?
Don’t worry. We’ll get there. Okay. Matt. You ready to dive into number one with me?
Matt: Hi, Jessica. I’m ready.
Jessica: Okay. So quick background. Tell us what you do and about your latest, super cool book that just came out.
Matt: So as you said before, I’m a cartoonist. And I have a new book out called Ex Libris that came out at the end of 2021, from Uncivilized Books. been into bookstores and getting some good reviews and I’ve been really happy with the response so far.
Jessica: You’ve been on a bunch of podcasts about it too. Right?
Matt: Yeah, I did a couple of, you know, mostly comics and book oriented podcasts.” Recommended If You Like” with Brian Heater and, “Virtual Memories” podcast with Gil Roth.
my job to brag on you. You’ve gotten all kinds of amazing quotes, with stuff popping up all the time on Twitter about how this is just life shaking. Awesome. Everybody should check this out. Ex Libris. Go get it. buy it. it Um, you also do, in addition to helping me with Autonomous Creative, the podcast and the company, you also do translation. Right? So tell us a little bit about that.
Matt: Yeah. So I’ve been doing translation, as a pretty major, side hustle for the last, three or four years. Mainly with a company called Europe Comics that does, uh, French comics translated into ebook, PDF editions some of which would then go on to be published as books. And that’s a pretty regular gig for me.
And then I’ve also done some work with New York Review Comics, uh, that I’ve been really proud of. That’s the stuff that’s very, close to my, heart. Uh, Edmond Baudoin’s book Piero, and few stories with words in them from, Blutch’s collection, Mitchum.
Jessica: So on top of your comics and translation, made a family decision when we moved to Philadelphia a few years ago, and I took on a full-time department chair job on top of my comics and my business, Autonomous Creative. you tell listeners about that a little bit?
Matt: Um, yeah, so it really started even before we came to Philadelphia at the time when we were in France. feel like, when we are doing ostensibly this residency, the two of us. And had, you were juggling two book projects. I was trying to get a book project and a bunch of, you know, teaching and projects underway in France and it was getting pretty unmanageable. Partly because up to that point, we’d been juggling parental duties pretty evenly.
Jessica: We have two kids by the way
Matt: yeah, we have two children and we got to France. They were two and four years old and were going to a little public school right in town. uh, sometime during the first ,couple of years in France, I feel like pretty organically, it just started to make more sense that I would take care of the kids, you know, walk them to school. Do the grocery shopping, do the majority and eventually pretty much all of the cooking, and so on, laundry, like the whole thing. actually worked out pretty well because you really needed that extra time.
me it felt like it freed me up, and when I did get into the studio, to feel like I was contributing to the family and, and not have the stress of like, I got to do something that’s going to make money and just like do creative work that I wanted to be doing.
Jessica: Yeah, it was kind of a gradual shift. We were very strict about 50/50 early on, and then, like halfway through our France time when I started really getting heavy duty into Out on the Wire and then started shifting gradually. But at some point we had that conversation. We were like, what are we doing here?
Jessica: need to be in charge of our household.
Matt: Yeah. And that, that was, really, while we were still in France, that we made that decision. But then when we came to Philadelphia and you got the job at PAFA, you know, the more, like, necessarily like, okay, this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to do all the house stuff. I’m going to walk the kids to school.
going to cook.
And in exchange I will, you know, try and carve out time in the mornings to work on Ex Libris and my translation work, which makes some money, but also I enjoy doing it. you know, always like getting paid to do the crossword puzzles for me. So, um, it’s of a win-win that way.
Jessica: And And I think that the other piece of this is that, we’re in a pretty stable situation in our family and I think we both feel pretty comfortable with roles that we have, there’s still plenty of times when, I certainly think this, and I know you think, I need to make more money. And so can you tell me when you think to yourself, I need to make more money, the first thing that kind of pops into your head?
Matt: Well, I think there’s two main impulses for that. One is that if I made more money, or if we as a family were making more money, I would have just more time to make art. And, uh, know, my ideal of comics all morning, having a nice lunch, taking a nap, and then playing guitar and reading the rest of the afternoon, know, be a sort of ideal.
Um, that’s coming at the same time there’s also a kind of, uh, anxiety and shame impulse too, where I feel, you know, as much as we’ve decided, like, okay, I’m going to be the home keeper and you’re going to make all the money. is a feeling like, it’s not fair, like I should be pitching in more. And so there’s also just that more personal pressure, like, oh, I really got to step up and, know, spread the pain around a little.
Jessica: Yeah, and I mean, I feel similar feelings of guilt and responsibility toward household responsibilities, even though I know that it’s my job to be doing my job so that can keep this balance. And I also, I hear from a lot of people in the Autonomous Creative Collective, who I work with, uh, the same kind of feelings of wanting to contribute more to their household and feeling just, even if nobody’s asking them to and really says, it’s completely okay. What you’re doing is absolutely what you should be doing and this is what I want you to be doing. They still feel like they have to somehow. I mean, I had somebody say to me the other day, feeling like they have to kind of justify their existence in the household.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, it’s like it’s a weird conundrum to kind of get what you want and be able to just make art and not worry about making money, which has been my circumstance for the last, uh, you know, five years now. Six years, really, since, since we were in France. But it com- but definitely comes with a certain amount of angst of feeling like, I feel like I should be contributing more.
It’s like this a quote I found in a book by Gilbert Sorrentino, um, who is also a weird artist dad among other things. And, uh, he says the thing in one of his stories, it is the artist who lives the non-artistic life who is most aware of his painfully absurd position.”
And I really identify with that feeling of like, walking the kids to school and hanging out in the school yard or that there are other parents who have like, you know, jobs and have “real” lives and stuff. And you know, of weird feeling of like, well, I just, you know, I’m going to go home and draw comics on Bristol board for the rest of the day.
Jessica: It is a weird feeling. Although I have to say you draw comics on Bristol board a small minority of the days cause there’s still so much to do to run our lives.
Matt: Yes, that’s true.
Jessica: Uh, so it’s not. Getting to that dream state of drawing all morning and having a nice lunch and then having a nap and playing guitar. you get to do that maybe, you know, once every two weeks average
Jessica: The other thing I hear from a lot of clients, when I talk to them about the idea of making more money is just a lot of shame around the idea of wanting to make money and, and feeling like there’s something. I don’t know. There’s something just really problematic for a lot of people about…
Matt: yeah, I with that. I never made art with the idea of like, oh, I want to make a lot of money from this. but I comfortable with the thought of like, oh, I want to make a good living from, I want to be an artist and have a comfortable life. You know, that much I have no problem with.
Um, I also, uh, you know, I’ve made a lot of decisions over time where I’m like, well, I’m not going to draw, make certain kinds of comics that might make me more money. Like to do, I don’t know, like, uh, our agent Bob was bugging me to do like a kid’s version of 99 Ways to Tell a Story at one point. And I was like, yeah, maybe, but …
if I do that it would only be to make money. And which I, you know, I think we’re going to talk about why that wouldn’t be a good idea to start with.
But you know, uh, to be an artist, I believe this a hundred percent. If you’re going to be an artist, you better do it because you love making art and you love being creative, whatever your is.
and that’s why, know, like something we’ve talked about a lot and been frustrated with, it was like art schools don’t teach you how to make a living as an artist. And I think is a noble, if somewhat muddled impulse in there, which is like, well, because art shouldn’t be about making .
if you’re a person, you need to make a living. And if you want to be an artist, you mean to make a living as an artist somehow, so you can make art. And that’s where it kind of like that, uh, that argument gets kind of I guess.
Jessica: Yeah, really blurry because I think that what it does is it sets up this thing of… I mean, what you said is absolutely true, that you should really want to make the work. But then turns into, if want anything else out of it, it’s dirty somehow. It’s lower. It’s it’s, know, or soiled.
And that’s, I think really poisonous. Because the thing that I see all the time is artists, young artists who I’m teaching as undergrads and older artists who are my clients, is people who are, wow, just like in such a financially precarious situation because they feel like it’s not okay to focus on providing for themselves as part of the equation. And themselves in their family.
Matt: Yeah, there, and there is a bit of the um, artist in the garret idea there, which even though it’s been widely and repeatedly debunked, it’s still is a deep seated in a lot of artists. Is feeling like, you know, you should be struggling to make art. And if you’re that’s somehow gonna like, kill your muse or something like that.
Jessica: Yeah, or that there’s just something wrong with your art. If it’s not difficult enough, there’s this it’s clearly not real somehow. Um, And, and I think what I find is that people after they’ve been doing this and they’ve been, they are amazing at what they do. They’ve gotten so good at it. get 10 or 15 or 20 years into their career and they’re just like, this starving artist stuff. I am sick of this, but I don’t know what to do, you know?
Jessica: And I think that I feel like happens is people sort of grow into the shape that societal expectations set up us, you know, typical artist’s path for starting out as a professional artists is you make something and then you sell it.
And you’re like, wow, Eureka. I can sell a thing. I, have money now. That’s amazing which it is amazing by the way. Totally amazing. Congratulations. That’s awesome.
Jessica: then you go from that to all I need to do to make a living sell more of them.
Matt: Yeah, that’s exactly how I got sucked into the uh, artist trap. I started making mini comics around the time right, you know, before, right before we met and started getting paid jobs to do a couple of comics for money and then illustration work. And I, up to that point, I really hadn’t thought of it as more than a, very passionate side hobby, but then suddenly I was like, oh, this could be my career. All I have to do is keep on doing this. You know, I’ll do illustrations for magazines it pays even better than comics. And that way I can make my weird comics everything is going to be hunky dory. But it didn’t really work out that way.
Matt: So why, why do you think that is? Why did that, plan that we both kind of bought into in the nineties and into the two thousands, is that not a viable thing? That you just like, you start making stuff, you get money for it, so you make more of it and then you make more money of it out of it.
Jessica: Well, I mean, it can work. For some people it does work people who become professional illustrators, for example, as their primary thing, are successful at that. And they are able to scale up the number of pieces that they sell, the prices they can sell them for. They build a reputation, they get an agent and all that stuff. That does happen.
But the thing that I think we both ran into, and that so many people run into is this idea that scaling something like, um, Illustration is a service, right? So you can sell your service for $50 bucks. You can sell it for $5,000 bucks. You can work with different kinds of clients. You can change the clients you’re working with. You can change the kind of work that you’re doing, but you’re still doing the service of illustration. When you’re trying to sell comic books or prints or something else like that, for most people, and again, there are exceptions to every rule, for most people just trying to sell more of those at some point tops out.
Um, because essentially they are as much as they’re willing to do as far as the operational side of their business. So, the way that they deliver the thing, the way that they make the thing, how fast are they going to make it, how are they going to ship it out? How are they going to deal with customers?
also marketing, like however much time they’re willing to spend and attention they’re willing to spend on marketing.
Um, and while people, working with people all the time, or like, I should be doing X, Y, Z, as far as marketing. I should be on Instagram more. I should be sending out email blast. None of that stuff’s all that effective for them. And they’re like, I don’t really get it. And then, so they just kind of don’t do it. And they plateau out at some level. And so when you’re starting and you’re like, just going to sell more of these things it will be enough.
You can end up with this big gap between what you’re able to earn with those sales and what you actually need to make a living. It seems like that gap should get smaller, but then it just doesn’t, or it doesn’t do it fast enough. There’s like a cap on the growth that I could never understand in the old days.
Matt: Yeah, that’s been a pattern that’s happened to me. Like with illustration it was definitely an explicit choice for me to be like I don’t expect to make money from doing comics. , but I can draw pretty well so why don’t I try and make money doing illustration, which at that time in the late nineties was kind of booming. , it it was definitely, choice of like, I feel okay doing drawings for money when it’s like illustrations for a magazine. It’s like, like you said, it’s a service.
I take sort of professional, craftsmen pride in it, but I don’t consider it part of œuvre as a cartoonist. So in that sense, it was like logical decision to make. I did quickly fall into this thing within a few years where, first of all, the market changed and suddenly weren’t paying as well as they did.
But second of all, we were hitting that wall I think you’re talking about, of, like, we didn’t really know to build it as like a self-employed business kind of thing, we would, you know, meet other illustrators and say, how do you do it? How do you get jobs? And, you get postcards printed up, which, I probably spent $3,000 on postcards. I don’t think I got a single job out of any of the postcards ever printed my
Jessica: Well, it’s not that that doesn’t work. Cause that does. I mean, I think both of us probably got some work out. We don’t, I don’t, I look went back and looked at some point. We had a lot of jobs back then and I’m sure some of those things came that kind of
Matt: No I’m
Jessica: promotion. But the point is that we tapped out on the amount of time we were willing to put in to promoting the thing, partly because we were also still making comics.
And this is what I wanted to get to. We didn’t really know how to make a business as an illustrator, but we could have figured it out if that’s what we’re actually trying to do.
But we were treating it as a sideline support And we only so much time and energy. We were willing to put in. And so, and, and the thing that you said a minute ago is I think something I really want to highlight, where you go, I can do that. I can draw pretty well. I can treat this with craftsman’s pride.
You did the same thing, and I did it too, but like you did the same thing with coloring comics for example.
Matt: Yeah, it’s been a, a pattern in my professional life of trying to make a living. and I do think it’s realistic in a sense that I was like, all right, well, I’m to ever make a lot of money as a cartoonist. So why don’t I use my skills in ways that I can make money.
So I did illustration for a few years. But then I got burned out on that because I was spending so much time trying to hustle and get work. Then I was coloring for Marvel and DC, which was pretty fun for awhile, but in that case, I realized what grueling and time intensive work it is being a colorist for book industry. a tough job, you know.
And meanwhile, there’s also the issue of spreading ourselves too thin and doing too many different things. I think a lot of artists do this where by the mid two thousands, I was doing occasional illustration, I was coloring comics for Marvel I was teaching more than full-time at the School of Visual Arts, teaching drawing and comics.
Jessica: More than full-time, but not on a full-time salary. You were teaching on an hourly
Matt: Yeah. As an adjunct. And partly again, trying to be realistic about it and we’re sort of thinking, well, the more hours we teach, like the better, uh, insurance rate you can get, you know, and sort of trying to like be responsible adults in that way. But it led to a lot of frustration and, and, uh, by the end of the two thousands real burn out.
Jessica: Yeah, mean
Matt: At a dead end professionally, like, all right, I’ve tried all this stuff and you know, it wasn’t a failure, in the sense that we did well for ourselves in the two thousands.
And we, we, had two kids and we have a house and all this stuff, but, uh, but it was, it was just so demanding. And at a certain point, it was like, well, we can’t build, we’ve thrown everything at this that we can, and it’s not going to build any further.
Jessica: Right, because we were trying to maintain all of these things at the same time. So You’re doing all that stuff. Meanwhile, collaborating on a vampire comic and also trying to write a YA and also doing, uh, black and white literary comic, and and
Matt: And you and I are making, uh, together.
Jessica: Uh huh. And making textbooks. I’m teaching also.
I mean, we were doing so many things.
And so this is where most people’s go-to I find when they think “I need to make more money” is, “I have these skills. These are things I can run out and get gigs doing. I can, I can get a gig here. I can sell a thing there and somehow that’s going to make it all okay.”
And the problem is that you get into this state of total 125% max out time, energy, everything.
We were so burned out by the time we left Brooklyn and went to France in 2012, we could barely speak. We were just like, know,
Matt: drunk. And I think it’s worth pointing out that all these things we did were not bad and they were cool and they were very fun and exciting at first.
You know, there’s a famous quote that Robert Crumb said about comics. “Comics is a young man’s game” — or young person’s game. And I think that’s true because I’m 53 now and I feel like I’m hitting my prime as a cartoonist. However, I feel like he’s talking about the hustle I think the hustle that you do when you’re a young artist and you just take any job that comes your way, you’re like, you know, “I’ve never designed a movie poster before, but sure. Let me take a whack at it. It pays $150. That’s great.”
Jessica: And value in that value in that, because that kind of thing of saying yes to things like that, that’s how you figure out what you do want to do. And that’s how you make new connections and go new directions. And all kinds of doors have opened up for us because of saying yes to things. And I absolutely encourage
Matt: Totally but, there’s a, expiration date on, on that kind of, style. And as you get older, and especially if you start a family or something, it just becomes difficult and very unsustainable, I find, for most people. It certainly was for me.
Jessica: For sure. And so I find is that most artists, and I include us in this, a plateau of earning that’s based on the relationship between how they sell whatever it is that they’re doing, all of the things that they’re doing, what they’re selling, what kind of audience they’re selling it to, and their pricing. It’s a, it’s a system, right? It’s system with many parts that all relate to each other. And there’s this quote that when I let this sink in, it just was like, oh my God, which is, system is perfectly designed to get you the results that it is actually currently getting you.”
Matt: Meaning what? That it’s like self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing?
Jessica: Basically. The things that you’re doing are producing the results that you’re getting. Right?
Matt: So if I’m just going to say, like, I’m going to make some mini comics for next indie comics festival sell them for $2.50 each, I’m going to make $25.
Jessica: yeah. And, that what I’m doing right now is selling mini comics and doing some illustration and doing some teaching and doing some coloring, and I’m working as a barista on the side to make ends meet. And somehow that’s going to evolve into something that feels flexible and sustainable and well-resourced… No.
Right? So tops out at some point, where that’s the plateau of, like, I can’t do any more in this way. That’s the system that you’ve built for yourself. And it’s not your fault.
If this is ringing a bell with anybody who’s listening.
I mean, Matt and I were talking about this. We did this. Almost everybody I see does this. I feel like artist’s problem is for very good reasons, we start off with this idea of, I want to make a thing. I have a thing I want to make. I want to write a book. I want to make comics. I want to make paintings. I want to make sculpture.
Whatever it is you have the things you want to make,
But that “I want to make a thing” comes packaged. And this is a metaphor I came up with the other day and it’s a little awkward, but just go with me here.
Okay. It comes packaged inside a box and there’s one ladder inside the box with you. That’s the career ladder that leads up out of the box, but it doesn’t really quite reach the top. Right?
Then you’re inside this box that’s made up of our received ideas and our shared societal understanding of what success as this particular kind of artists looks like.
And so getting back to this starving artists myths, that’s part of the box it’s based on received ideas. And so you make all these assumptions that you need to work the way other people work. You need to follow this one path, this one ladder.
And so you just end up running in circles, trying to do all the things people say you need to do, without really thinking about what might be outside that box that could help you make that.
And most people just don’t question the box and that’s where all the guilt and the shame comes from. They feel like it’s their fault that they can’t make the ladder work for them, but it’s not their fault that no one ever mentioned or taught them that there might be other ways to go about this, like that there’s a box. And that it is okay to put their own financial and mental health needs first.
Matt: Yeah, cause mean, I’m thinking about,, that our time in France was very pivotal in many ways, but, and partly getting away from our, the New York grind for a few years and having a little bit of a breather, gave us a lot of perspective on that. And I definitely remember being very frustrated with hitting that plateau and not knowing how to get beyond it.
Um, that became your next creative project was like, I’m going to get out of this box or whatever, you know, build a elevator. and feeling just so powerless and befuddled cause I’m like, what, what do I do?
I’ve I’ve tried to be realistic. I I’ve done all these sort of diversify, tried different stuff, teaching and translation. Uh, all valuable things. I feel like I’ve good things to the world. And yet, you know, we’re talking about how we’re going to be able to sustain our lives and, and have, and support our family and stuff.
You know, it was like really disheartening.
So I feel like a certain point, long before me, and you continue to be, many steps ahead of me on all this stuff. was it that changed your, that made you realize, okay, this is the direction I’m going to go that’s going to change this mindset that we had, that we’re stuck in this plateau mindset?
Jessica: That’s a really good question. I mean, this was basically in 2014, 2015, as I was finishing Out on the Wire which is a book that I am immensely proud of and really, really glad that I did, but it pushed me to the brink.
Jessica: The drawing schedule on that — it’s a 200 plus page book, and I had to finish the whole thing in, I think, eight months. And you helped, you drew backgrounds. I had interns helping. And I was still working 8 to 10 hour days every day, trying to just crank out these pages and I just thought, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this.
Even all the things that I love about the book and all the things I’m proud of, the different sort of visual metaphors I came up with and all these ways to talk about storytelling in a visual way. just was like unsustainable. And we were at the point of thinking like, okay, well, what’s, what’s my next book? And I was starting to think about proposals and sending proposals to our agent. And I, I would have had to have next book proposal my next book proposal in the mix.
Matt: And somewhere in there, we decided a podcast.
Jessica: Well, that was a marketing idea.
Jessica: That turned into an entire creative project on its own, but again, I’m really happy I did it, but, oh, wow, that was a lot!
Matt: When I look back at that time, though, I feel like that podcast was a kind of point for you in of getting into, coaching and all the stuff you’ve been doing since, really, since we did that podcast,
Jessica: Right. so this is the “Out on the Wire” podcast. So for anybody who hasn’t listened to it, you should. If your listening to this, you would love that. Um, it’s a podcast that works through the principles of the book Out on the Wire, which is subtitled the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.
So it’s about , long form audio storytelling, but it’s also just about storytelling in general. And I wanted to translate that to a more general audience and let people. Help people understand how the principles I was writing about in the context of podcasting applied to comics, you know, screenwriting, any other writing.
And so with Benjamin Frisch, who was my producer and with Matt, we designed a podcast where the, um, primary episodes were fully scripted, uh, fully produced music, soundtrack, the whole deal.
And then there were interspersed and they had challenges at the end. So there’s a pedagogical element, uh, where I said, so try this yourself. And then we created an online group, uh, for, for listeners to join. And then we would pick work from that group and do these live episodes where you and me and Ben would critique the work. And bring to talk to them about the work.
And that really was, I think you’re right about this. This is the first time I was taking a coach role as opposed to a teacher role. Cause I’d been a teacher for a long time and it was an easy transition to make, this kind of opening this up to the world and inviting people in was a little scary initially. it worked out so well. People were so great and a bunch of people who were in that group are still people who I work with today.
Matt: Right Yeah. I feel like w we weren’t aware of it at the time, but in retrospect, it does seem like that was sort of a shift into this other way of, teaching and using your communication skills and your way of helping people, which you to do.
Jessica: So what I want to get to here to make sure that we, bring this in as like my own story is, I did that and I then experimented my way through how I was going to turn something like that experience into turned into an online course called the Creative Focus Workshop and is now an online program called the Creative Focus Workshop.
It was part of other things that I do. I didn’t know where I was going with this when we started it. But I was ready because I was so burnt out. And so sick of working the way I was working, I was ready to change how I was in the world as a professional completely. And that’s what it took. So your question was like, how did you do this?
Well, the, got to that point, which was pretty successful by cartoonist terms, you know. I had decent advances on my books. People were really excited about what I was doing. I had a lot of readers, a lot of excitement about my work. I was able to parlay that into speaking gigs and and things like that.
But it, it just, I, there was no where to go from there know.
And the, what got me there could not get me to the next level. You know, you can get to a certain level just by bootstrapping, just by you’re good at just kind of showing up sharing good stuff. But then it gets to some point and, okay, next level has to be something else has something different.
And so I was ready to be open-minded and flexible about what that looked like. And, and you’re right. That the podcast pointed the way toward where I eventually landed.
Matt: All right. So there was, uh, a second thing that you had learned that you were going to talk about too, right? About, uh, designing your work life, and making everything else conform to that, to your ideal idea or something like that. What, what do you mean by that?
Jessica: I’m going to have to explain this much better, clearly. Uh, so I don’t think I did this then, because I didn’t understand. I definitely did not understand idea back then, but I was kind of doing it a little bit where I was saying, all right, I need to redesign the way I’m working around my financial need, as opposed to starting with, “I have an idea for a book.”
Again, like, I feel like most artists are in a position, artists, creative people, you know, anybody’s trying to make creative work. They start off with, I want to make a thing, but then over here on the other side, they’ve got their financial needs, maybe physical limitations, requirements for how much time and flexibility and freedom they need, also their desires for whatever it is.
they kind of try to force those things together. And so the second principle I wanted to bring up is this mind-bending concept of instead of starting with, I have a thing I want to make, with Start with is your life and what are the things that matter to you, and go from there.
And so I wasn’t quite doing that in 2015, 2016 as I started down this path, but I was closer. It was a step in the right direction.
So the idea behind this is essentially thinking like, okay, if I need to make whatever, $5,000 a month or something or whatever the number is. Right, I only have 15 hours a week I can work on this because I have care-taking responsibilities and a chronic illness or something. I need it to be something that is related to my primary skillset as an artist. I love to work with people, or I hate to work with people, whatever it is. Right. So all the things that are about who you are. When you put those things down, you think that through you’re like, well, what could that look like?
So it’s kind of an audit. I mean, once you know all that and you have it in front of you, then you can run some numbers on what you’re thinking of doing to fill the gap and make more money. That’s when comes the likely realization that your plan, like get a book advance or start a second podcast, or start a Patrion, may not make all those conditions come together and work.
And that’s when it’s time for flexibility and creativity.
It’s not a blank canvas, right? You’re starting with a whole bunch of things that are going to indicate different directions that you can take. And I actually wrote a blog post about this, that I think I’m going to probably put up at the same time as this podcast goes live, where I list a bunch of those factors and talk about a bit, a little bit more specifically.
But, basically the main thing to take away is this idea that if you start with what’s necessary and then try to build something that will come up to meet it, you’re a lot more likely to make things come together then starting at the way around. It takes that strategic point of view.
Matt: So we were, maybe this would be a good spot for you to talk about something we’ve been talking about a bunch lately, which is the idea of making some money versus making enough money how that plays into this idea of, um, designing the life that you want. What do you, what’s the difference between
making enough money and just
Jessica: Well, I think it’s what you’ve already taught, what we’ve already talked about. That some money is what happens when you sell some stuff or you get a gig and you think, wow, this is amazing. it just is so far from enough money. It traps you into thinking. If I just do more, more and more and more and more and more, more stuff, you know, talk to more people, more marketing,
Matt: Do a Kickstarter, start a Patreon
Jessica: right. Uh, the long list. You know, I’ll take my stuff and put it up on, I dunno, like stock photo sites or something. of things will pay off, uh, and get to the point of enough money. And so it’s not worth it. So you have to turn it around and think about what you need.
But if you are, know, we weren’t starving. We were doing fine financially.
But we were burnt to a crisp, trying to do it all. Hard work is a factor. And I don’t want to denigrate anyone out there who thinks of themselves as a hard worker. I am too, but the point is hard work offers diminishing returns. It’s not like a one-to-one, you work harder, you get better. Things get better for you, you know, in, in like an equal relationship.
Hard work that is just never enough you’d like it’s an bucket that never gets filled and it never really meets your needs, particularly financial needs. That’s what puts you on a bullet train to burnout as spike trotman put it.
I like to think about the value of being well-resourced. Meaning having what you need, that can give you the space financially, and also in terms of bandwidth to do what you care about and to really be the person you want to be in the world.
So if you’re like a parent and you are stressed out. You know it’s more likely you’re going to snap at your kids. You’re not going to have the bandwidth to slow down and respond and support them like you want to. If they’re acting out, you’re just going to yell at them or whatever, and it feels terrible, but it’s because you just, you don’t have the room.
And so you, you need to be well-resourced to show up like you want to for your kids.
And a lot of artists value making their work available for low-income people. And I absolutely do too. I mean, I’m doing this podcast for free because I want it to be going out to as many people as possible. But if you’re financially stressed, you can’t give your stuff away. If you prioritize becoming well-resourced financially, and you make choices that put you making income for yourself high on the list of priorities, then you can actually be more generous and make things that are free or low cost to support people who don’t have the means.
I don’t think we lived in that stressed out overburdened way for so long. We actually cramped our ability to envision what resource would even mean for us? I mean, I still struggle with that.
What could it look like to be well-resourced, uh, truly well-resourced as far as time and freedom and that really can, um, cramp you it comes to.
Designing something that’s going to work
think bigger than you think you want to think.
Matt: All right.
So like, so if I’m a, I’m a well-known indie cartoonist, uh, and I’ve done some teaching and some translation and stuff. None of those things are working out financially. What, what kind of options would I have to like get to that next level you know, see, I, I, you know, I was single or whatever, and we get divorced next week and I have to re
Jessica: news… .
Matt: Run the family.
Uh, you know, I got to suddenly make, you know, a hundred thousand hundred whatever a year, what would I turn cause if I look at my, my list of comic book ideas, uh, I can tell that’s not going to bring in that kind of cash. And I also don’t want to to just having adjunct teaching job at an art school.
Jessica: You have to think outside your box. And I mean, the box I was talking about earlier. That box. Of expectations of what it’s going to look like. You have to be flexible, really flexible.
And honestly, for people who are selling really low cost products, um, like comic books or very low profit services like adjunct teaching, um, those things probably aren’t going to ever provide what you want it to provide. And frequently the answer to this is services. It’s, that’s why some illustrators who focus on illustration and build that out can do okay.
It’s not that it’s easy. It’s not, but you know, they can do all right. so thinking about what is your skillset.
If you’re somebody who’s mid-career as a creative professional, you’ve got a really cool skill set. And I know you may not think that, and people won’t pay for it, but if you think really openly about what that looks like. Thinking about one-to-one services where you can help somebody with something. Make something for them, uh, coaching, teaching, all those kinds of things. Those are the kinds of things that are going to solve this a lot faster.
Because there are only two ways to make more money than you’re making now. One is Sell more. And if you do the math, you know that the math is punishing in terms of really low cost or low profit offers.
Um, and the other is charge more, get paid higher. So you have to raise prices. And if you’re like, well, but I sell comics and you can’t really charge more than whatever, 30 bucks for a hardcover. That’s not going to do it. So you got to
Matt: I can say that as a success story, where like I actually earned royalties off of one of my books. It’s like a dream come true for any author, really. But it’s really like, it’s like 500 bucks a year. not, it’s like a little funny money a year. It’s not something that’s sustainable.
were just talking about the other day. I know we gotta wrap up here, but you were saying, we were talking about this very issue and I’m always thinking about like, well, maybe I’ll offer a workshop or try and a class here or there. And you were like, just, what about just doing a one-on-one. coaching or teaching kind of thing. And I it’s, it’s an obvious question, but I honestly hadn’t really considered it. And now I am. So, you know, to, to be continued with
Jessica: Yeah, exactly.
Matt: oh yeah, I guess I
Jessica: help make their book and you’re like, oh,
Matt: So, uh, yeah, so it’s very hard to, uh, get out of that mindset. I think.
Jessica: I don’t pretend this easy. It’s a mindset question, but then it’s also literally a strategic question to get back to what we said at the beginning here. Um, I am developing a new coaching program, which you will hear plenty about called the Incubator, which is for this. It’s in order to help people break out of this box and, uh, design a business that actually is built to meet their needs.
Um, and so I’m really excited about that and that’s, that’s going to be coming in the next couple of months.
But this is, this is mission-driven for me. You know, I want as many creatives as possible to be autonomous. Be able to run their own lives, be able to pay for their lives, feel in control of what’s going on around them. And, and to be able to make their work. And it doesn’t necessarily look like you get to draw a morning and play guitar all afternoon. We may not be able to arrange that. It may have to be a little bit different from that, but that’s,
Matt: No once a week, if I can do that once a week, I’m pretty happy. Actually, I I find.
Jessica: Yeah. And I think that, means that you can be successful. Willingness to flex to that extent means that you can make that actually happen. So.
Oh, this was fun. This was very experimental. Um, we may do another one of these. I have another idea that I want to talk about.
Matt: Let’s talk about it over dinner.
Jessica: And I’m going to hit my recorder and you’d be like, please don’t let anybody hear this.
We’re talking and chewing at the same time.
I am going to, have a few resources for listeners that we’ll put in the show notes.
I have, as I said, I mentioned that I have a new blog post that’s about how more is not the answer. And it gives you a little bit more structure around thinking about how to come up with new different idea.
That’s number one.
Number two, I’m going to be debunking or at least offering missing puzzle pieces to the Thousand True Fans Theory pretty soon in another blog post, I think
Matt: Mm, sounds controversial!
Jessica: Yeah, it’s very. And fun. It’s like there’s calculators and numbers and all this stuff.
And I’m also creating a calculator to help you think through your specific, relationships between what you need and what you’re actually doing. Um, and, uh, and a class, a free class that it’s going to be coming up. So all of that’s coming up and we will, as a listener of the Autonomous Creative, we will make sure you know all about it. So thank you for being here today, Matt, thank you for doing this with me.
Matt: Sure it was fun. I’m thinking maybe I’ll close out. Marc Maron style with a little guitar.
Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden. Our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden. And I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as the links and extras we mentioned today, Plus transcripts in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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