slytherin sorrow

Perilous wrong turns in art-making

In 2013, I began drawing seriously because my job was a misery. "Seriously" meant I held myself to intense quantitative goals. "Seriously" meant I practiced editorial illustration—a commercially viable art field—rather than silly character sketches, the drawing mode of my heart. Aspiring toward Serious Artisthood challenged me to draw regularly and to confront vexing elements like musculature and shadow. No regrets about that. But I became ensnared in an incentive scheme wherein producing stuff was enough, no matter how little I enjoyed it.

Art, after all, was my lifeline. I needed it badly enough that I was willing to put in outlandish hours to keep the vision alive. I thought my goals were objective, when in fact they imbued the ~artist's life~ with psychic heft. In most people's minds, and mine too, the artist's life is a delicious fantasy, dressed in tantalizing set pieces. Those include: freedom in choice and time and expression; aesthetic and moral beauty; a life and livelihood steeped in one's individuality. To be successful as an artist is to know society approves of your unfettered self. It is the ultimate reassurance to the insecure.

Ostensibly, my goal was to draw 60 hours a month, but really, I was trying to attain a lifestyle. I didn't enjoy editorial work nearly as much as I did dumb fancomics; nevertheless, I thought I'd ascend to a higher plane of existence once I made it as an editorial illustrator. I went through a similar process with writing speculative fiction. I speculated wildly indeed—about all the kindred spirits I would meet, about days cleared for thinking and writing, free from bureaucracy or triviality or discomfort. 

Trying to wring out ideas for Dignified and Far-Reaching Speculative Fiction caused me endless anguish, but I ignored the feeling. I figured I could discipline myself into passion. Surely, I thought, the future would justify this frustration. But, as Rosalie Knecht writes in Let's Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer's Lifestyle, that future is illusory:

[...] the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is. I’m baffled when I come across interviews where writers laughingly allude to the solitude, say, or the introspection of the novelist’s life. No matter how solitary or introspective you are while you’re writing novels, you are likely spending many more hours each week at another job, or commuting, or raising kids, or trying to keep your house clean. I spend more time on the subway each week than I spend writing, and I’ve written two novels.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be living this fairly obvious reality can feel at times like we’ve failed. I have the pleasure of my work, but where’s my glamor? Why doesn’t it look the way I thought it would when I was 14? 

Because ultimately, you're sitting at a desk—typing, sketching, researching. Because ultimately, your creative work is enmeshed in your routine, regardless of your professional success. Because ultimately, if all goes well, the work you do in your imagined future is the work you like doing now, in the anonymous dark. All the other shit is ancillary. In The Snarling Girl, Elisa Albert puts it like this:

I’d so much rather be writing my novel, my silly secret sacred new novel, which will take a while, during which time I will not garner new followers nor see my name in the paper nor seek an advance from the publisher nor receive the hearts and likes and dings and dongs that are supposed to keep my carnivorous cancerous ego afloat. I will simply do my work. Hole up with family and friends, live in the world as best I can, and do my work.

Creative work is supposed to be fulfilling. With the addition of a sweeping audience, it may occasionally be glamorous, but mostly not, and also, you'll have way more emails to deal with. Industry parties, Twitter repartee, awards shows, conferences, festivals, interviews—these will be glints. Sharp, rare, fleeting. You will spend more time choosing which grapefruit to buy at Trader Joe's, or picking hair out of your sink, or quarreling with your friends about which song to put on. You will spend more time staring blankly at the empty, uncooperative page. Because the work, the actual work, is getting it to cooperate.

Tim Urban has a neat analogy for the tendency to live in grandiose visions to the detriment of what's happening today. He equates this rosy vision of one's life to a picture, and the moments that comprise lived experience to pixels

Jack’s error is brushing off his mundane Wednesday and focusing entirely on the big picture, when in fact the mundane Wednesday is the experience of his actual life.

And his assumption that his future Todays would be as vibrant and rich as the broad picture of his life is misunderstanding the unremarkable nature of a pixel, no matter what one’s life looks like in broad strokes. 

Lord, can I relate. My mind is a time-machine, adept at hurtling into the distant future, where it surveys the surroundings and invariably deems them better. It's ridiculous, assessing an imagined world from the perspective of a god who knows nothing. Seeing in swathes, in months and years rather than minutes and days. 

When I seize my imagination and stare it firmly in the eye, I see the truth of doing art or writing or some other creative thing full-time. The truth is, it's what I'm doing now, plus the distraction of a clamoring, demanding audience. I know this, and yet, I've spent the last five years trying to decide whether I want to be a creative professional. I go through constant bouts of wondering: How do I ring in my presence? What do I flood social media with? How do I make a name for myself?

These questions all come down to: how, how, how do I reach success? Ah, success. A state at once elusive and urgent. 

The question was shrillest back when I hated my job. I didn't need my success to be quick, but I needed it to be assured. And so I simply picked something and went for it. That's how I ended up practicing editorial illustration. That's how I ended up here. 

Why editorial illustration? Not because I loved it, but because it is respectable. Because people actually earn money doing it. Because of the aforementioned imagined lifestyle. 

So that was my destination; quantitative goals were my vehicle. I made a plan, and it went like this:

  1. Produce enough to get good
  2. Produce enough to get known 
  3. Achieve success

For five years, I hacked at editorial illustration, but something always held me back. I was gratified to see myself getting better at color and lighting and composition, but god, when I forced myself to produce illustrated pieces, I just didn't care. No wonder I wasn't more prolific. No wonder I didn't share as much as I could have. I had no passion for what I was making.

What if I had willed myself past Step 2? God knows I could have. A fragile, honest part of me must have stunted the whole operation. That part of me knew how oppressive actually living out Step 3 would feel. I'd be known for my illustration work, forced to draw in a style manufactured for success, pressured to continue doing this thing that was now attached to my name, my public identity—because my livelihood depended on it.

Something interesting happened en route to my gloomy, unrealized illustration career. For a couple of years, I fell hard for a certain book series, and I spent my hours drawing fanart. I drew more than I ever had before. I was gleeful about what I was drawing. I fucking loved it. I loved the process of drawing, equally as much as I loved the results. When I posted my stuff, other people loved it too.

But I didn't stop wanting to be an illustrator.

I may be as proud of the pieces on my portfolio website, but I carry them around like jewels. Every time I tell someone I draw, and they ask me if they can see my stuff, I think, Thank god, thank god, because I have an arsenal now, and it is attached to my name. What you see here are the fruits of years of unenthused grinding. Splashy pieces of reasonable proficiency, appealing to the layperson's eye, enough to earn me the right to call myself an illustrator. 

For you see, I am more than a purveyor of lowbrow fanart. I am a Serious Artist. 

The fantasy, of course, is not merely about an ideal lifestyle, but an ideal self. Contained within the vision of an Artist's Life is a version of yourself that deserves to live that life. 

The creative profession comes with an insidious edge. By definition, artists create. They create stuff that can be seen, touched, felt, heard. There are now systems, SO MANY SYSTEMS, for that stuff to be shared, and for people to express their approval. In art, you can earn awards (retweets, likes, comments... but also literal awards) for your skills. The creative profession is the school system writ beastly and unruly. 

No wonder it all went awry. My job failed to validate me, and so I turned to art. How easy it was to imagine that external validation would come with side servings of purpose, worth, identity. 

We all know equating metrics and merit is bullshit. We all know we're in it to find truth, delight, subtlety. To clarify the edges. To coax the edges a little further.

Still. It is so, so easy to tuck it all up in the jaws of productivity. 

When someone tells me they do art or writing, my instinct is suspicion. I think, Are you any good, though? But many of the people who aren't good yet, who aren't published or recognized or awarded or successful yet, myself included, may very well be successful in the future. And when they are, they will be the same people they have always been. They will have the same character, a character, one hopes, of exploration, insight, drive, and focus.

I am already as good as I'll ever need to be. I contain the fuel that will take me where I wish to go. The me who has ~achieved success~, who is a literary sensation (or not!), is the very same me who now spends her days reading, writing, drawing, discussing, analyzing. I'm already there.

And so is my life. 

So maybe I don't want to make a career out of art. Maybe I don't want to specialize in just one thing. Maybe I want to explore forever, wander from thing to thing, move with feline insouciance. I already have a great job, one that leaves me plenty of time to make whatever I want. Financial security, time, anonymity... freedom indeed. Nobody to tell me what to do, no trolls to befoul my sanctuary. I can draw comics about characters going grocery shopping. I can pen deep analyses of obscure, funny short stories. I can write a novel about best friends philosophizing over drinks. And once I do, I can show it to people. Or not.  

Elisa Albert again, on the point of art: 

What makes a work of art special and meaningful is your private relationship with it, the magic of finding it amidst the noise and distraction, the magic of letting it speak to you directly. You found it, it’s yours. (This, however, requires the awesome skill of being able to think for yourself in the first place; hardly a given.) Art can change you; it can move and validate and shift and bait and wreck and kindle you in the best way. And others who feel similarly about said work can be your kin. It is not a more-is-better equation.

I repeat: more is not better.

Because the point is never to prove that you're an Artist. The point is not to amass trophies, or bylines, or reblogs. The point is to express what you most need to express, to travel through the spangly dusk that is your mind. To transmute your particular cosmos into the one we all share.

Sometimes you shouldn't emulate your heroes

Setting quantitative goals around art-making was useful for a few years. I can now sit and draw for a whole day if I must. So my determination around how much to draw (a lot) was soundBut I made some dubious choices about what to draw, and how to go about it. The choices were dubious because my motives were warped. 

From 2013 to 2017, hellbent on achieving Illustration Skills, I spent a lot of time emulating artists I admired. I amassed an inspiration folder featuring a wide spread of styles, but the ones I envied most were gorgeous, intricate, succulent with color. I was taken with the prize-winning artists who created these works. I so wanted to be as good as they were. I fretted over my inferior skills, duplicating their pieces wholesale, trying to bludgeon my style into something resembling theirs. 

Emulation is necessary for improvement! But I came at art practice so militantly, I didn't realize how little I was enjoying the process. What I was experiencing wasn't inspiration. What I was doing wasn't as innocent as drawing from my influences. It was as if I wanted to possess the art I loved—specifically, the stuff The Institution* deemed exemplary. I imagined that if I learned to draw like Sam Bosma and Jillian Tamaki and Richie Pope and every other esteemed illustrator there ever was, I would achieve... I don't know. Nirvana?

That's the thing: my motivations were fucked. I didn't want their styles. I wanted their careers. I wanted their happiness, which I assumed that they, being successful professional artists, possessed in spades. I wanted their job satisfaction, their freedom, their jouissance. Their fearlessness in doing what they loved.

I assumed, mistakenly, that mastering illustration skills would come with the full suite of self-actualization software. 

My emulation simply had no center. It was joyless. Apparently, you can love to look at, or read, or listen to a thing, and hate creating it yourself. I love looking at gorgeous paintings, but you know what I actually like making? Stupid hilarious comics, that's what.

I will be influenced by 100000 artists in my lifetime, but there is only one me. (How very special I am!) My style will shift, but probably not more than a dozen times, unless I go after a career in art forgery. But art forgers don't win industry awards or get invited to speak at conferences, so what even is the point.

Kidding! Don't chase awards, friends. That, too, will make you sallow and curmudgeonly.

*Which I imagine to be housed in a grand Art Deco-ish edifice