Okay, I guess the actual details of the project I’m working on that leads me to write this cannot as yet, be revealed due to non disclosure issues, but the thing I learned from it is really the important thing here. So bear with me.
I was tasked with tackling a subject that isn’t filled with a lot of obvious visual cues, a tricky project I seem to get a lot, and a deadline that is undermined by slow approval delays from the licensor and the import of needing to do it right and well not just for the client, but also for the friends and creative partners you share connected with this project. They all of them to a person approved of the one design you submitted as a lark, but never really wanted to do, but you figure, “Hey, no sweat, I can make it work anyway”. ( This is something that happens more than you think- though I recommend avoiding a lot of it by never ever submitting a sketch you wouldn’t;t be thrilled to execute). But as I proceeded down this path, more and more I started to feel this growing sense of dread. What was an amorphous disinterest with out direct cause is slowly coming into focus in the worst of ways. The piece sucks, the architecture of it to its very bones, the composition, and as a result my drafting of the final piece SUCKS.
In the past, I’ve muscled down this situation, and committed to it to the finish because it’s what I was tasked with doing… they wanted what they wanted and I had to trust them. They are after all the licensors, participants, and creative directors of the publisher so how could I know more than they? Besides if I’m the only one with a problem, then I must be the problem, right? Not, as it turns out, necessarily. The piece is in fact terrible, the things you are starting to understand about it is true, and I have gone ahead and marched through this no man’s land to fulfill my duty in the past… and have ALWAYS regretted it. There is little worse in our field than to put out, have to promote and publicly celebrate a thing you disdain as if you love it. It is always better to have nothing, rather than to have a piece of work out there that is bad, makes you look bad. You will see that piece of work over years persistently showing back up like some embarrassing mole you thought you vanquished. People will bring it to you at shows asking you to sign it and smile smile smile. Worse yet, the Jeff Jones warning will come to pass: You will be asked to do something like it again and again…
I’ve been working in this illustration thing now closer to 30 years than to 20, which I can’t quite get my head around and regardless of that longevity, I find that there are certain aspects of this work that are the same as they were on day two as they are yesterday. One of the things I find most engaging about this work is its a huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld, (with apologies to The Orb). Meaning really, it’s always changing. Unless your gig is drawing a series of monthly Spiderman comics, each new job brings new people, subjects, rules, timetables, materials and just about everything. The wheel does get reinvented each and every new project. For us who work in this freelance madness, we are in a constant cycle of hyper-attenuated big bang and big collapse of the universe. Always fired and often hired and again and again. It’s a terrifying way to live and it’s also exciting and enlivening. But there are consistent patterns throughout…
One of them is the BIG CREATIVE FREAK OUT. This not according to Webster’s is the cataclysmic moment when your plans have collapsed, the deadline looms, and you have… nothing. Your brain is a desert of ideas, your mind is mush and your adrenal system has burned through so many times it too has gone floppy. The tinfoil in your veins makes you look in the mirror and see the end of all things… your reputation, and your basic ability to do your job. You’re out of gas and you hit the end of your line- there is nothing more from you… You’re Eddie Money with your one hit and now you’d better go find a real grown-ass person’s job. These moments of crisis happen as a way to remind you of two essential things in art making: 1. You care about your work, (and should), but this is where the caring is met with a kind of powerlessness like watching your kids on a canoe teetering over a waterfall and unable to save them from the drop. And 2. No matter how long you’ve been doing this work, when this happens again and again… you are reminded that caring hurts, but it’s also the only way to get through it.
The pain of the first part should be reassuring. Not caring about your work, means you’re a hack, or worse, you see your creative field as a kind of factory job where you mindlessly crank out product as dictated by the boss. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of parts of this field where that’s a necessity, but if you have this mindset in the rarified mountain peak of being gifted with the opportunity to paint the cover of a book, or a poster of any kind of illustration gig that will get printed by the thousands or shared online by even greater numbers, then you will not go far. Caring is an essential component to art. It’s what drives you to sit in your room as a kid drawing or playing while the normals are outside throwing baseballs or whatever it is normal kids do. Caring is what makes your creative crashes so hard that they feel like they could kill you, ( I have actually become bedridden sick after some of these stress volcanoes myself), but they are also the fuel of the ecstasy of getting it right and sticking your landing. Whether or not that moment’s gratification comes at the achievement of the work, or in the receiving of a trophy for it, I leave to you to choose… but the point is the caring matters, more than you realize.
And caring’s the thing that helped me make the crazy choice and decide to scrap the concept everyone loves but you loathe, and start over from scratch at the last minute. Because you cannot and should never quit and run off. That is worse even than hacking out mediocrity. It screws over your clients, your friends and partners and fortifies a bad rep that will cost you work later. Sometimes to avoid falling into the volcano, you need to pull a miracle out of your butt, build wings from the smoldering ash around you and leap towards flying.
But the thing of it is, by doing this you are owning it. I was lucky to have been working with creative partners that not only trusted me, but understood my long email with my litany of reasons why this direction was bad and needs a restart. The first and most important gesture in burning the city down you’ve all agreed to build, is to at least offer blueprints for the new one that will be even better. Even if it’s not the one I ended up with. If you’re going to destroy you also need to have the… “And then” part figured, at least as a peace offering and a comfort.
It was my fault for not calling the bad concept what it was in the beginning and also my fault for waiting to stop the wedding until I was standing at the alter in my tuxedo holding out the ring. That means if I was going to do this, I was required to take responsibility for it, come clean to my clients and bust my rump like it was on fire from uranium and start solving the mess I myself had made. This is where the love is the fuel for your solution. It fired me forward through drawing in fully rendered large piece three or four solutions that weren’t the right solves… but led to the final last minute notion that saved the day, and made everyone happy. More importantly made me happy to work on it, so the work would be my best, and I could be proud to share and stand behind it throughout. the course of its life out in the world after. It made me realize how even after 30-ish years of this, the crisis you cane come across on day 2 can still blossom before you on day 29,635. There’s a comfort to that as proof of the ever growing pulsating brain always has the upper hand and you will never fully be the master of the waves you surf in your creative career. Some might rightfully find that terrifying, but those of you who know, know it’s what makes this so fun, and essential.
This entire melodrama spilled out over the course of about a week. Most of it was me fretting in bed at three am, or yelling at myself and using avoidance techniques like building a new fireplace mantle in the living room as an escape. I honestly expected to be fired from the job, and rightfully so, or at least do great and lasting harm to my professional relationships… but I knew in my bones the seemingly easy solution was to simply go along and do what I was told to do, based on what I initially presented and agreed to. It reminded me that like Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv commands us, we must always answer with YES & AND. Your personal integrity matters, your being happy and motivated by the job matters because it makes you do a better job. Respecting your role and your responsibilities your clients are expecting you to fulfill matters. And even in the darkest pits of the full freak out, there is a solve. If you don’t see it, you just haven’t found it yet. Like as not its there right under your big toe, waiting to say hi.
Ideas are not finite. There is not a set amount of creative notions you are born with like eggs for babies that run out and then you’re finished… (I have heard this insane idea from so money working professionals I cannot begin to count or understand). Ideas and creative solutions out from the FREAK OUT come from a crisp nimble brain. The ability to think outside of your habits to resist a thing you’ve seen million times and see something new. The things about this job that are terrifying… the hiring/firing dynamic, the uncertainty, the naked display of self, and the expectations and ticking clock of your career as young turks with brilliant diamond-minds and young fresh styles coming up behind you… are also what can and will save you from the volcano’s pit, and worse yet, make you an irrelevant has been in the field. It has for me each and every time it happens. And it happens again and again. maybe not as much as it used to, and certainly not with as much consequence as it used to, but clearly based on my last week, it does. And today I awake to work on the new and better concept with a fresh brain and clear mind with the hope and excitement that keeps me working in this field. Sometimes Indiana-Jones-leaping across the volcano gets you hugging the lava, but more often that not, if you keep your wits about you, make your terror your fuel, you can clutch that stray root on the other side and pool yourself up from the fall. And even if you don’t… well sometime sit’s worth the burning to try anyway.
Again, the first and most important disclosure here is to do what you can to avoid this dynamic. Just because you pulled the plane out of its death spiral and landed it safely shouldn’t encourage the terrible thing’s repeat as a value. There are less self-destructive ways to challenge yourself for sure. Lessons learned here… never submit a sketch you don’t believe in, never stay quiet when others are encouraging you in a wrong direction, and never wait so long to honestly confront the situation if you are able. But doing any one of these I could have skipped the terrible week, so as much as this is a statement of the values of what was learned, you can do better than this hot mess. This is a cautionary tale with a fortunate outcome at best. But also a reminder that none of these errors are new ones. I’ve done this same dingus stuff in the past, and all I can hope to do is try harder not to repeat them. Sometimes it takes a few slaps to the face to uncover the source of the slapping, and even after decades of the lessons, learning them is not a lock.
At the moment when I really had planned on quitting and had even begin a half dozen versions of a letter to my AD and publishers saying as much, I finally took the few minutes to watch Ethan Hawke’s TED talk about the essential core of creativity, and I swear on my bones that thing gave me the ignition spark to pull myself out of the nosedive of failure and pull back on the stick to miss the mountain and fly up again. It’s just 9 or so minutes and its brilliant and true in all ways. If you feel the need of it and we all do at some point give it a go:
This isn’t supposed to be easy, and you won’t always win, but you keep at it, and carve out the Grand Canyon of your life with your single flow of water, no matter how long it takes. Determined forward motion, fueled by honesty, professionalism and a helpful dose of fear can be how you keep going and even when you fail, get another shot at resurrection. Rebirth requires of it to first feel the dying. To quote the great and terrible Al Swearing from David Milch’s stunningly brilliant DEADWOOD:
“Pain or damage don’t end the world, or despair or fuckin’ beatin’s. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man — and give some back.”
*I promise that when I am able I’ll reveal the project and show you all the parts of this invisible circus.