Thoughts

Debunking The Heroic Artist Idea.

Creativity

Interview with comic book writer and artist, Jessica Abel.

‘Creativity comes out of coming back to the thing Over and over again — by confronting yourself with it, letting yourself sit with it and then moving it forward bit by bit. That’s how things get finished.’

Last year, Jessica Abel wrote one of our favourite books. It’s called Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.

It’s an information-packed comic book that takes you behind the scenes of some of today’s most popular radio shows and podcasts, including This American Life and RadioLab.

It explores some of the key issues of creativity, production and getting stuff done. So we thought she’d be the perfect person to give us some key insights on the subject of side projects. And we weren’t disappointed. Over a crackly Skype line stretching across the Atlantic, here’s what we learned.

DL:
Before we get into the Q&A, I have to say, interviewing you does feel a bit intimidating. Not simply because you literally wrote the book on some of the best interviewers on the planet, but because you’ve also done a ton of work on the subject of side project success. And you’re recognised as the go-to person for advice on the subject. So, if you will, can you kick us off with what you see as the key take-outs for anybody embarking on a creative side project?

JA:
#1 Make sure that your project has space in your life and in your schedule.
There are a lot of moving parts to a side project, and the thing that I talk about a lot is that your system is going to be very different depending on what your life contains and how you work. Consider too, that you’ll also have to be able to say no to things.
Don’t get overwhelmed with stuff that matters a lot less. You have to have a system around the project; you have to create a way to organise your time and priorities in the service of what it is you want to be doing.

DL:
So are you saying the key is to create a unique, custom blend of activities and routine that works for you? Like a personal operating system?

JA:
Yes, I think that’s right. Pay attention to what works for you, and then build on that.

DL:
Would you view a system and the side project it supports as an exploration of what’s possible? An experiment, even?

JA:
Yes, I think that’s true. It is about experimentation, but it’s also about looking at what really is in your life, what really has worked for you, and not just randomly stabbing at things that might work.
There are so many levels to this. You have to have a vision of where you want to go. You have to say: ‘This project, this thing, means this to me. It’s this important; therefore, I’m going to devote time to it. I’m going to give my energy to it’. You have to have that vision to move forward and to make sure you’re on the right track.
But, if you are thinking about that aspect too much, you can fall into what I call the ‘Idea Debt’. You get caught up in perfectionism, the feeling like everything needs to be just so, and all the conditions need to be aligned. Then guess what happens? You can’t do anything.
So you need to build a system where you can break down the larger project into small enough bits. So that you can look at the next bit that’s in front of you, and just do that thing. You need to be able to not think about the larger implications day to day.

DL:
Is there an element of the Japanese Kaizen approach here, the small incremental, but consistent iterations and improvements along the path?

JA:
Right.

DL:
What’s your view on the ‘P’ word (procrastination)?

JA:
The problem with side projects, especially ones you’re not getting paid for, is that they are inherently self-motivated. Nobody is telling you this is worthwhile; nobody’s making room for it. It’s on you to do that; you have to believe in yourself enough. You have to believe in the project enough to move forward with it. Which really can be a procrastination trigger.
Procrastination is going to be the #1 thing that holds you back.

DL:
Do you think that no matter what the actual side project is, there is another end product? That in addition to a successful completion of whatever the side project is, there’s also another ‘thing’ being created, and that ‘thing’ is a whole new you?
Because what you learn about yourself, and how you change during that process, helps you realise that you have to implement some form of new and improved personal behaviour design to get your side project to the finish line. And that such behaviour change might be, for example, fixing your long-held procrastination problem or taking better care of yourself by way of exercise, diet and sleep.

JA:
Yes, I think that’s true. But I don’t think the personal change aspect is necessarily motivating for some people.

DL:
Fair point. Getting back to your main argument and your earlier advice about doing what it takes — can you expand on this?

JA:
Yes. What it takes is daily, weekly commitment. And making literal time on your literal calendar. You have to pay what it costs to do the ‘thing’. Which means not doing other things. Which means maybe money. Which means you have to negotiate with the people who want your time. Which means that you have to say no to stuff. Which means overcoming the fear of exposure. You know, those are all real costs.
But I think the biggest problem for people who are starting side projects and trying to grapple with self-generated creative work is that they think they can’t just get their butt in a chair and do it. And once they think that, they’re doomed.
They say they care about this ‘thing’, but they’re not doing it; they feel terrible about themselves, and they think that there’s no way out. But there is.
They have to create a low-pressure, repeatable, daily system to get into their creative space. They have to keep moving forward bit by bit. It’s not about jumping off the high dive. Create your system then trust the system.

DL:
Then the process of moving a side project forward is iterative — not simply a big leap off the 10-metre tower at the pool? It’s more grit and grind, getting yourself sat in that chair. Showing up and getting on with it. Is that in itself, in a sense, success?

JA:
Sure, but real success is finishing the project. The problem is, this thing about ‘all you have to do is just get yourself in the chair and just force yourself through’ can be misleading.
It’s not about willpower. It’s about creating systems that avoid draining your willpower. Make doing the work more automatic than not, make it just the thing you do.
Being a martyr to the creative struggle, thinking that it has to be painful, and that you have to force yourself — I don’t buy that.
It’s better if you frame it simply as ‘this is part of my life’, and you prioritise the project because it’s deeply important to you. It keeps you sane, moves you forward and makes you feel connected to the bigger things in life.
But at the same time, you don’t want to stop feeding your children, or stop going to work if you have a day job, or the other things you really need to be doing with your time. You have to balance those things. Find a way to weave everything that matters together.

DL:
So it’s not so much the ‘hero’s journey’ as the ‘pragmatist’s path’?

JA:
Yeah, I think that’s right. The heroic imagery we use about creativity is damaging. The starving artist in the garret, the heroic paint-spattered painter with a whisky in hand (it’s always a ‘he’ by the way, isn’t it?) — it’s super destructive in terms of how people think creativity is supposed to work. Creativity comes out of coming back to the ‘thing’ over and over again — by confronting yourself with it, letting yourself sit with it and then moving it forward bit by bit. That’s how things get finished.

DL:
But aren’t there also other facets of this process, or small triumphs along the way, that we need to celebrate and be proud of? Aren’t there also rewarding experiences of ow and the joy of doing something you’re really, really proud of?

JA:
Yes, of course. Things like that give your life meaning, but the actual *doing *of it is not heroic. The results can be wonderful, life-changing. But the actual functional doing, the way you get yourself into it and the way that you work your way through it, can be great but also painful. All kinds of different emotions are going to show up.
Sometimes you feel on top, sometimes you feel like you’ll never make it. But you need to keep going. You need to get done what you need to get done.
Everybody chases flow, everybody likes the feeling that everything’s going well, but creativity inevitably goes through what I call ‘The Dark Forest’. The part of the creative process where things are just really, really difficult, and you don’t know the way forward. You don’t feel confident that you’re going to be able to solve this problem, or that you can get the ‘thing’ done.
But if you have this structure to fall back on, if you have a system and you come back to it, you’re not going to get discouraged and run away.You know that you can do it.That’s what’s going to get you through those tough parts. That’s when the system helps you do the things you have to do.
The fun parts, the joyful parts — that’s easy. When it’s going great, you want to sit down all day and do the ‘thing’.
But if you have this structure to fall back on, if you have a system and you come back to it, you’re not going to get discouraged and run away. You know that you can do it. That’s what’s going to get you through those tough parts. That’s when the system helps you do the things you have to do.

DL:
When things aren’t going well on a project, what do you advise? What do you do? Mediation, yoga, go for a walk, call a friend?

JA:
I have this idea called ‘Focus Sessions’. For when you’re totally in a jam with something. Basically, you meet with somebody who would be a great reader, viewer or consumer of your ‘thing’. It doesn’t have to be another professional, just somebody who will engage with it and you.
You talk through the problem. You explain what the problem is, where you’re getting stuck and you get feedback from the person. But more importantly, you work it through in your own head by talking about it out loud. It’s really fairly magical.
You record it, then you relisten to the recording, and as you listen, new things will come up for you. You’ll remember things and you will solve various problems. It may not get you all the way through, you may need a bunch of Focus Sessions, but it’s going to start dissolving some of the knots around where you’re stuck.

DL:
When you’re working on ideas or writing and sketching out projects, how do you capture your thinking? Do you use notebooks, do you make audio reminders on your phone, do you use Evernote,Trello and the like?

JA:
I usually collect notes in Evernote. I definitely speak out loud when I’m formulating something in my head; when I’m walking around, I’ll make an audio note for myself and transcribe it later. When I’m actually drafting a coherent thing, I usually turn to Scrivener. I take everything and put it in there. It does a really good job of organising your research and your writing into structures.

DL:
Do you have a p.o.v. on the perils of people who have too many side projects on the go? Should they prune them?

JA:
Well, I think anybody with a side project should focus on prioritisation. People often have so many, too many projects. And then they get distracted. Trying to do all those different things is an invitation to procrastination.
It’s not that you can’t do them sometimes, you just can’t do them all at the same time. It’s about putting things in order according to your priorities. And doing the first thing first. Then continuing on from there.

DL:
Anything else?

JA:
I want to debunk the heroic artist idea.
Everything I write on this topic is about the idea of creating a system around your real life, and a real way of working, so that you can chip away at things regularly instead of thinking that you have to wait for some kind of wave of inspiration to hit you.
Of course, people want the easy way out. Of course, everybody wants a formula. But you’re not going to do great work using someone else’s formula. If you want to make something that’s new and transformative in the world, you’re going to have to work harder than that. Everybody knows that.

DL:
Agreed, everybody knows that. I’m not sure everybody’s buying it, in terms of implementing what is really good advice, though.

JA:
That’s the thing — they know it, but they don’t want to believe it. They want to believe that they’ll just be struck by inspiration, and then it’ll all just flow out of them. But that is not how it works. The fantasy is that if you just strike that seam, you will solve this problem for yourself once and for all. That things will just flow, you’ll be discovered and everything will be fine. But anybody who examines that thought process with any kind of honesty at all will realise that the inspiration thing is completely untrue.

DL:
But don’t you think there’s an element of truth in the ‘flash of inspiration’ idea? That 90% or more of the time, yes, it’s hard work and one has to follow the path and discipline that you outline. But this thing about inspiration — surely there is a role for it. Inspiration does show up and does have a place in the creative process, if only occasionally. When you’re out walking the dog, in the shower, preparing dinner — those are the times when the solution comes and taps you on the shoulder out of nowhere. When you’ve been struggling with something, miraculously, the answer comes when you least expect it.

JA:
Of course. And that’s the key right there: when you’ve been struggling with something. When you struggle with something regularly, inspiration does show up. But if you are NOT grappling with it regularly, it will not show up.

DL:
Aah. Of course! Yes. It’s like you’ve got to prime the pump. You’ve got to prime the inspiration by doing the graft, the research and writing a thousand ideas that won’t work. Then walk away from it. Then all of a sudden, you’re out riding your bike one day, and bingo — it comes. But only because of all the heavy-lifting and deep work you’ve put in before that. It’s struggle first, then success later.

JA:
Yes. That’s exactly how it works.

Mike Coulter interviewed Jessica Abel for The Do Lectures.

Jessica Abel is an American comic book writer and artist known for Life Sucks; Drawing Words & Writing Pictures; Soundtrack: Short Stories 1989-1996; La Perdida; Mirror, Window; Radio: An Illustrated Guide; and the omnibus series Artbabe.

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