Stress and Creativity

20 02 2008

A year ago I was intent on having comics as the focus of my academic career. This is possible at Hampshire College, where students design and construct their own majors. But somewhere along the line I decided to stop studying art, and to move on to the more esoteric medieval Norse studies. How did this decision come about? Much of it had to do with a gut instinct: a deep emotional sense that I wasn’t spending my time well and that I was dealing with far more stress than I needed to be. In the ensuing months I have attempted to rationally examine why I made the choice that I did and why I am happier for it now. This is the product of that attempt. I’m writing it now because it was the article that I wish I could have read but which was never around when I needed it.

How can I begin to describe the stress that producing creative work was putting on my life? It felt like in order to get anywhere, I had to have something to show for my efforts now. The emphasis on the product rather than the process was constantly on my mind as I attempted to put together portfolios and write resumes, make online galleries for publicity, and network with other artists and publishers at shows and conventions. It was frightening to go into these situations feeling like I was empty-handed because everyone else seemed to be marketing what they had already finished. But I had nothing finished! In the end I had to separate myself from what I perceived as the “industry” aspects of comics in order to actually enjoy my work. But that part comes later. For months I was still mired in the idea of making something, producing something that would get me into this privileged club of published cartoonists.

I remember the first real slap-in-the-face moment that got me thinking in a more healthy way about my work. I had e-mailed a professor, N. C. Chris Couch, in a state of near-panic. It was my fourth semester at college and I was on the verge of dropping out and enrolling in the School of Visual Arts or the Center for Cartoon Studies. I trusted Professor Couch’s opinion because has had much experience in the comics industry. We went over my options. I could stay in school and get a degree, or I could roll the dice and bank my future on the strength of my pen and go to CCS (which at that time was not accredited and unable to award a B.A.). The professor encouraged me to finish my undergrad degree and to pursue the Center as a post-graduate move. I expressed concern over feeling that I was somehow missing out on possible comics industry opportunities. He abruptly stopped me.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Nineteen,” I replied.

“What the fuck do you want?”

I left the meeting blinking back tears but also knowing that I had been given good advice. What I did not perceive until much later was that, at that moment, what I was really looking for was meaning. I was ready to pour my whole existence into my identity as a cartoonist. I was focusing on it to the exclusion of all else, and it was that very pressure that left me frozen, barely able to complete one or two page comics. This inability to produce something only made me worry more. It was a vicious cycle. By the middle of the next semester I was burnt out with comics and I followed my gut, switching my academic focus to something more obscure. It was something that interested me on a purely bookish level, a subject that I had no expectations of fame for, and which could be neatly tucked away in a corner of my life and not take over who I was.

In the months since the decision was made I’ve been in a much better place with regard to creative projects. In October I wrote a novel in a month just for the sake of doing it. It was the first creative project in a long time that I did because I wanted to, not because I felt that I should. The joy of writing for the hell of it during that crazy month led me to design a similarly silly project for January. My goal: fifty pages of comics layouts. No finished artwork, just messy thumbnails. Sheer story-telling bliss. A couple nights a week, I would sit down at my drawing desk and bang out half a dozen pages of comics that were more interesting and engaging than they had any right to be. I mean, it was just a distraction, right? So at the end of the month I was left with 25 pages of layouts for a story that I didn’t even know I had in me. It was the beginning of this very project, and it renewed my faith in the creative process.

I’ve begun to build a foundation of pursuing creative works because I enjoy doing them. I am trying now to be mindful of not allowing art and writing to feel like they are becoming all that I am, but remain just one facet of me as a person. They stand alongside academics, music, food, and sex. They are mundane, and they are also special. I am no longer an empty, hungry person looking for something to complete me. I feel I am much closer to whole. Sometimes I sit down to the drawing table or the writing desk, and sometimes I produce something beautiful. For me, this makes all the difference.

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