Published on November 18th, 2017 | by Meg Lemke3
Get Art Done: But First, Stop Drowning—An Interview with Jessica Abel on GROWING GILLS
Being overwhelmed is not new or unique. It’s a working mother/artist swan song on repeat, wanting more (time and recognition and output).
So, my today was typical*, let’s just relive it. After being up past 1am on a freelance project, I woke up with the kid at 6am-ish, did all the kid-getting-to-school tasks, got her there, rushed to a doctor’s appointment where I set up comical across two waiting-room chairs with my laptop temporary office, after which I took the L train into Manhattan to fight for a seat at a coffeeshop that was near enough to not miss a meeting next door and still be able to type up the documents due at it… then after, cut short that client chat in order to get back to Brooklyn in time to serve banana bread at the “potluck” to celebrate Thanksgiving at my daughter’s 1st grade classroom (held at 2:15pm, inexplicably cutting into the 45 minutes before they normally release the children)… (Though, it was delicious).
Now, I’m avoiding making dinner to write this post**. This is my “art,” mostly, to create MUTHA. It’s also very late. I did write several emails on the train on my phone. At least a few to apologize. Others, responding to someone apologizing to me. Because I work with artists, many of them also parents. We’re all flailing under similar waves of water. I find myself literally writing back: this is me from the bottom of the ocean…
Ok, let’s breathe…
Jessica Abel’s new book, Growing Gills, promises that “there is a better way.” The celebrated graphic novelist and arts educator (creator of La Perdida, Out on a Wire, and others intelligent-set comics) offers her guide to getting art done (rather than swimming in circles worrying about it (and everything else) all the time). Over years of her personal self-improvement as an anxious artist, Abel developed theories, researched the advice of successful creatives, and tested activities in online courses she developed for her fans and students and colleagues, all to get “unstuck” and, as she writes, teach yourself to:
“Focus. Finish. Move on to your next project.”
Simple enough? I’ll admit that “self-help” isn’t a shelf I often browse—not for lack of (desperate) need (obviously), but due to stubborn protection of my dysfunctional habits, and unease with authority claiming quick transformations. But I know Jessica and have for years. She’s awesome and dauntingly prolific. And, do you remember Artbabe? Jessica is the creator (not the character, she oft repeats). Across the table at countless comics conferences, she’s, to put it plainly, not some dude named Dr. Oz (cue SEO, did you scan that?) or giving off guru vibes (though she’s practicing up to be a good one in this book…). Abel knows where MUTHAs are coming from: She’s a mother. Her two kiddos were some of the first I saw showing up at indie comics shows as women began to emerge more presently in the scene (always there, but better recognized since the 90s). While she and her spouse, Matt Madden, were stellar series editors of The Best American Comics for many years, their babies grew up in New York and France, making them also the kind of parents you wish you could hang out with all the time (but you figure they’re busy).
She spared some time for a Skype call, though, so we could talk Growing Gills. Read on for our conversation. If you want to learn (to live!) her system, you’ve got to get the book. But here’s some soothing quotes:
“The key insight you will internalize is that your actions are your own. You can take control over your behavior, so that when you decide that something truly is important to you, you will actually do that thing.”
This, I want to tape up on my wall (if I can find tape beneath the paper on my desk):
“Promises feel urgent, so they end up taking precedence over dreams, which are merely important. You do the daily necessary bits of stuff, you tackle the urgent as best you can, but you never arrive at doing the things that are truly important. Here’s a quickie activity that might just change your life: Don’t say the word “busy” for the next month.”
OK? Let’s do it… Dive in.
MUTHA: Did you write this book “for yourself?” How did you start Growing Gills?
JESSICA ABEL: It grew out of conversations in the Out on the Wire working group. I created a survey for members following the podcast, which is about creating a narrative. I asked, “What do you need?” and I thought they’d say things like, “a storytelling group,” or “feedback on my next project.” Instead I heard, “I’m paralyzed by anxiety and procrastination” – on and on, an outpouring. I realized, I know this problem, I have worked on it for myself, and I can help.
Since then, I have learned an enormous amount from my students in the courses I’ve offered on this subject. That’s always true when you teach, so it’s not a surprise phenomenon, but it was a surprise just how much I learned. My own ideas and approach have evolved, as I’ve actively workshopped these topics. This book is the outcome.
MUTHA: Growing Gills is long—which is a daring move. Many self-help books are purposefully slim, so people don’t feel daunted to approach the task.
JESSICA ABEL: There’s 19 chapters, 23 activities, it’s big. When I read it through again at the end, there was some repetition. But also, it’s helpful to readers to hear key principles more than once and in different contexts.
MUTHA: Often the self-help genre has planned repetition, because people tend to skim ahead, you have to catch them flipping.
What I think is beautiful in your book is that you allow the reader to understand “it’s OK if this work takes time.” That’s calming to readers who come in with a high-level of anxiety about the exercises and their relationship to their creative identity. We always feel behind.
JESSICA ABEL: In teaching my course, I know that part of the value I offer is saying the same things over and over again, for example, that it really is legitimate if you want someone to look at your work and say you’re doing a “good job.” It doesn’t mean you’re not an artist because you need approval. Find the approval: get it done. It is acceptable if some days you can’t get to your creative work, because you are incredibly busy. That’s life: it’s hard.
People are so used to punishing themselves. Anything doesn’t go as planned: it’s time to get out the hair shirt. There’s a false belief that punishment will change habits, and it doesn’t.
MUTHA: As an anxious type, I find a seductive sense that punishment is itself an “action,” when you are overwhelmed with guilt over procrastination, at least you got that done.
JESSICA ABEL: There is the fear that if you don’t acknowledge and actively force your awareness into your lack of finishing a project, that everything will go downhill—there’s anxiety that being slower is a sign that a project is not “destined” to happen.
MUTHA: You have to drown out the negative repetition in the minds of people who are anxious creative types. If you tell them seven times it’s OK to restart, that helps partially to balance the fifteen times they’ve told themselves they’ve failed.
JESSICA ABEL: There are also many clients who come to me as professionals, who do get work done, successfully. But the anxiety for them is so painful that they need to make a change. If you’ve been suffering your whole life, it takes time to learn that you don’t need to beat work out of yourself. It’s like you’re a rescue dog, you have to take care of yourself and train yourself back up.
MUTHA: Was there a moment when you realized you needed to change your own process?
JESSICA ABEL: I had thought about these issues for years, but the turning point for me was reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, which I discovered via Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders. By that point in my career, I’d gotten much more efficient. But still, I lived in this constant churn of anxiety, about what I was forgetting, what I needed to do next—with no distance to reflect on my strategy and approach to creative life. Allen’s idea of the “brain download,” putting all the things you’re committed to in one place—I call it a” stuff audit” in my book—was a game-changer for me.
MUTHA: The “stuff audit” is writing physically down the “open loops in your head,” then moving items around, Marie Kondo style. But rather than whether they spark joy, you’re determining if you actually need to do a task, someone else does, or it can be let go. I envision that as corralling little pieces of paper, because I have a huge desk pile of pieces of paper….
JESSICA ABEL: Or for other people it’s digital lists; maybe you have a hundred tabs open. Or you have sticky notes all over your fridge, next to the door, in your wallet. Everywhere.
When you have to-dos collected “everywhere,” your brain doesn’t trust that you know what’s going on, you have to keep checking in with yourself and your piles, and so you are constantly cycling. Taking a total pass to collect everything, it’s essential.
MUTHA: But, while you’re saying it’s a dysfunctional time-tracking method, people may have been taught to do that specifically by another self-help book, right? To put notes on your door, if you’re forgetful, it makes what you need to remember present.
JESSICA ABEL: But when you do learn to put items in good order after an inventory, whatever your trusted system is, whether on paper or digital, then the only one thing to remind yourself: it’s all there. Look there.
Personally, I prefer a digital system, I hate having loose paper around. But, people tend to get stuck debating what’s the newest, best software to use. Don’t flip out about it, just pick something. It doesn’t need to be neat. A yellow legal pad will work. People go down rabbit holes comparing digital tracking, and my response is to pull them out and say “don’t worry.” Do what you have available, as long as you do it.
MUTHA: Is this book your “creative work?”
JESSICA ABEL: Absolutely, it’s completely self-generated creative work. No one was asking me for this book until I made it, they read it, and they realized they needed it. Making it without anyone saying “Jessica, finish chapter whatever,” is exactly the kind of creative work I’m talking about fostering in Growing Gills. It’s the work that’s hardest to produce.
Many of my readers are fiction writers, or cartoonists, but plenty of them are trying to create a course, like I did. They’re entrepreneurs, starting one-person businesses, they’re trying to create a start-up podcast. Just because the project isn’t quote unquote underground art, it doesn’t mean it’s not creative work. What’s defining is that you are creating something whole cloth, on your own, no one telling you to do it.
MUTHA: You talk in the book also about process over project outcomes, can you unpack that more?
JESSICA ABEL: What’s destructive is when people want to make art, but don’t want to sell art. AND at the same time they feel they can’t be artists if they aren’t attempting to be professionals. “If I’m not showing in a gallery, am I really an artist? If I don’t have a mainstream publisher, am I a writer?”
Yes, you are.
It may be that the business side is not what you’re interested in; it requires sacrifice of your creative time to do the work required to be a “pro.” People miss that the selling part is a separate project. If they can recognize and commit to selling as a separate project, great. If you constantly find yourself saying “I don’t want to do the things needed to sell my work,” then maybe you need to rethink the underlying model. Maybe the creative work on its own is what you need to feed your psyche. Make room in your life for your work without worrying about making it pay for itself. Maybe it’s enough to share it with your family, friends, or put it up for free on Medium. Don’t confuse the creative work with your childhood dreams of fame.
MUTHA: I think something that became very confusing to people with the rise of crowdfunding, in the last eight years post-Kickstarter/etc, is that people felt here’s a way to be transparent as an artist and get fans to fund me… but they didn’t appreciate the fulfillment and advertising costs inherent in the process. It’s not just build it and they will come.
JESSICA ABEL: In balance to what I just said, there are now as many or more opportunities for artists to make money with their art, than there have ever been. But if you’re not willing to spend the time and energy needed, it doesn’t matter. Getting your work into the world is a stage you have to treat as a separate project, equally creative and equally demanding of your time.
There’s nothing wrong with being a passionate amateur: Working towards a professional level in terms of the content of your work, but just not concerned with whether or not the work can support you. But you need to consciously choose and determine your aim. Otherwise, people fall into the starving artist trap. They think, I should be beyond the selling part, someone should find me and feature me, I’m the artist.
It doesn’t work that way.
It’s a myth that this is new with the internet. There used to be fewer options for artists to sell themselves, and now they can, so publishers want them to—but it’s always been a crapshoot. There are no guarantees that come with a major publisher, and the more people self-promote, it’s always been a huge advantage, for anyone who doesn’t happen to win the book lottery of surprise bestsellers.
MUTHA: I’ve always had the hope that Kickstarter would pull back the curtain and provide more appreciation for the work of publishing. There’s a lot of publisher bashing, legitimately in many cases from artists and writers who haven’t had the best experiences. But it’s difficult to manage a book tour, to fulfil orders, to make a book sell. When you take on crowd-funding, it gives some insight to the challenges of fulfillment and the details of what publishers provide. And of course, it’s a two-way street—publishers have much to learn from the success of self-funded projects.
JESSICA ABEL: There’s this magical thinking—artists feel selling is “someone else’s job.” I’m not a publisher-basher, but I gained respect for the timelines that publishers put in place as I ran into challenges keeping this book release on-time. What I realized is that I tried to do the production and the promotion projects at the same time, and you can only do one project at a time. I did the writing first, but the editing and design, I tried to finish that while I was undertaking marketing and promotion…. It was folly.
MUTHA: That is a theme in the book—that you can only do one project at a time. That is very hard to grapple with, for most professionals.
JESSICA ABEL: Including me.
MUTHA: Though I do love that line in the book “then who should be doing this, if it’s not me?” It’s liberating. Especially if you realize the answer is “your spouse,” though that’s a whole other conversation.
JESSICA ABEL: Ha! Students have discovered in my course that they need to renegotiate their relationships.
MUTHA: There’s two tracks I want to ask you about—the publishing track, and the mothering track. And since for me, my creative work is MUTHA Magazine, it unites these threads in my life. The question of “how can you only do one project at once,” when you’re a parent, is profound.
JESSICA ABEL: Well, I want to clarify, I mean one project in a domain at once. Another concept that’s important in my book is “project vs. process.” My book doesn’t assume you’re only doing one thing in your life at a time. If you know how to do a regular task and you’re going through the process, it’s not a project. You may still be too busy; you may still need to make decisions about what stuff you want to say “no,” to…. But the point is not that you have to quit the rest of your life for a new project.
According to my rule of thumb, you can have three projects at one time. One in your creative zone, one in your work zone, and one in your personal zone. This comes from a book called The Twelve-Week Year; it’s common to many self-help systems, the idea of three domains. There’s lots of stuff that needs to happen day-to-day. But the creative work you’re trying to develop requires real thought, concentration, and creativity that is draining—you only have a certain amount of time and bandwidth.
MUTHA: How’s it working for you right now? Let me count in my head—you’re teaching, you’re promoting Trish Trash, which promotion, as we’ve just defined, is a separate project, you’re releasing Growing Gills… how are you balancing?
JESSICA ABEL: Well, I don’t follow my own rules. I’m also trying to get there. There’s legacy projects, before I understood this rule of thumb. Trish Trash is a long-term commitment that pops up in my life at inopportune moments; I’m drawing the third volume today, in fact. I look at the drawing as the process, not a project. I know what I’m doing, it doesn’t take new thoughts, I’m using designs and references I’ve already made. That doesn’t make it easy to “fit in,” as other more urgent tasks present and it gets kicked to the back of the line. Teaching, also, when I’m developing a new syllabus or curriculum, that’s a project. Going to class and teaching what I’ve already written, that’s a process.
MUTHA: How do you get kicked out of process—what if a student comes and challenges you in a new way?
JESSICA ABEL: If you need to help a student in crisis, everything else falls away. That’s where the forgiveness comes in. You realize a new priority takes over and you reschedule according to your top priorities.
MUTHA: Something I struggle with is feeling apologetic to anyone who is touching, in any way, the things that are being pushed off… what is your advice in that situation? There’s a larger cultural discussion here around motherhood and the way that women take on emotional responsibilities in work.
JESSICA ABEL: Be clear with people, up front, tell them what’s going on. Not confidential details, but own it. Give them a new deadline. This is life, someone gets the flu in the middle of a giant project at work. Go home, sleep, get better. For parents—mothers and fathers who are primary caregivers—this is a real issue. Kids get sick. Frequently. Not being apologetic about it would be preferable.
MUTHA: Did your need for a system accelerate when you had kids?
JESSICA ABEL: I had to make much harder choices about how I was spending my time. I had to cut out things I was doing before, and that can be painful and hard to face. I ended up doing a lot less gardening, cooking, going out. The work happened, but the non-work part of my life that wasn’t kids, it diminished. I’m not thrilled about it.
I want to find ease in my life. Now that I’m working a full-time job, I can make that choice. As a full-time art faculty member, I’ve got an enviable job for most artists, I know. But work in a bank if it can free up time for making your work.
MUTHA: But, to speak to people who are working two jobs, already, it’s a very different context. You acknowledge in a few places in the book that background, privilege, wealth all are factors and fault-lines in self-help.
JESSICA ABEL: Not only in that domain, but in as many as I’ve been able to manage as a writer/educator, I try to acknowledge the reality of life. That’s why we’re talking for MUTHA—but Growing Gills is not self-help “for mothers.” It’s self-help for anyone who can’t idealize their life situation, for many reasons.
I’ve ended up with many individuals in my courses with chronic illness. They have a parallel situation to a stay-at-home mother with very small children trying to write a book; there’s super-limited available time you have to focus on creative work. Dilemmas are a key concept in my book: you have to choose. Choose in a smart way, based on what really matters to you. Knowing what matters to you is hard.
MUTHA: Even as your children enter school, they don’t magically stay in that building happily to 7pm; you have to arrange and make decisions about after-school care, pay and manage that process.
JESSICA ABEL: We’re on MUTHA magazine here, but in my family, “Fatha” is the one who is doing the childcare, currently. All of it. It’s important to acknowledge that I could not do what I’m doing right now, if I was also managing the kids. I don’t even mean a “stay-at-home mom.” I mean the one making those decisions. I’m not the one in charge right now. And women are more frequently expected to do it.
He likes it, he has a routine, drawing in the morning and getting the kids in the afternoon. I get impatient more easily (than Matt), as well. I’m like “what, why do I have to walk back to the school building again?” Because our culture has shifted, kids can never be alone. Which is crazy. When I was the age of my kids, my mother worked full-time, and I would be at daycare after school and she’d pick me up at 6—the end. I walked myself to school in the morning. If my kids start walking to school—which they’re starting to do—it will be unusual, most kids don’t. Though, in the mid-seventies, my school was unusual in that it had after-care on site. Many situations are still designed around the idea that one parent will be available, that after-school programs require you to take them yourself.
MUTHA: Gardening, cooking, seeing friends—those were things that presumably gave you pleasure. What we call “self-care,” hobbies that are purely for yourself. With ease, does the creative work become that joy?
JESSICA ABEL: Absolutely. Creative practice is self-care. It takes care of your brain, your emotions, and provides a sense of accomplishment.
MUTHA: Someone who needs this book, what one thing should they do now?
JESSICA ABEL: This is not something you can implement without thought, but here’s the number one idea in this book: Conscious decision.
There’s two parts to that concept: conscious and decision. Conscious: know what’s in your life, know what you are choosing. Know what are the options. The decision part is: make a choice.
It’s hard, it’s a dilemma, because the thing that you’re not choosing has benefits—and the thing that you are choosing has drawbacks. But without choosing, you’re letting it wash over you. And you’re still making unconscious decisions, but they’re not what you want, you feel out of control and victimized by your life.
That, and then the idea of self-forgiveness as a productivity tool.
Especially for parents, there are plenty of things you have no control over, primarily time. To then beat yourself up because you can’t fit more things in than there are minutes in the day, it’s ridiculous and contributing to your inability to do the primary project, because of the anxiety. The self-flagellation is the factor that is stopping you.
Cartoonist, author, and educator Jessica Abel is the author of the graphic novel La Perdida (winner of the the 2002 “Best New Series” Harvey Award), Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, as well as two collections of stories from her omnibus comic book Artbabe. She and her husband, the cartoonist Matt Madden, were series editors for The Best American Comics from 2007 to 2013. Together they’ve authored two textbooks about making comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. Her book (and podcast), Out on the Wire,is about how the best radio producers in the world use story to keep us listening.
Jessica is the chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Both within and without PAFA, Jessica helps creative people with big ideas to get past procrastination and anxiety, and get on with the business of making their potentially transcendent, game-changing creative work real in the world.
Jessica lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her husband and their two children.
You can get her book on her website (there’s quizzes!) and at a certain mega online retailer…
*Spouse is out of town this week; it’s still typical.
**The answer was soup. It’s a good answer.