A week ago I was in the studio trying my hand at oil painting again. (I’m really really not the best of oil painters…) It was just the dreariest of days and soon I realized that the sky and ground base layer I was going for had turned to mud and I was just scraping the “mud” up and down on the canvas. I stepped back and looked at the painting. I looked out the window and back at the painting. I had somehow managed to capture how I felt in that moment, without really intending to. I was trying for something else entirely.
I most certainly did not create a “work of art” on what is probably now a ruined canvas, but it started me thinking about the definition of art. Most people see the tangible result of artistic expression, a painting or a novel, and call it “art,” but for me, the act of creating the art is the art. Anyone can learn the skills to follow steps and make something the same way someone else has. Artists create something new because they allow themselves to explore what is uncertain.
This idea is possibly why I struggle so much to come up with tangible results. I get pulled down trails of ideas and possibilities and find myself in completely unexpected places that I feel the need to explore. But if I’m being honest, that’s what I really want. I am not trying to become a successful marketer of stories or paintings. There are plenty of ways that I could actually make money without putting so much emotionally on the line.
No, I want to make art. I want to find myself in this short life I have been given, and that takes embracing the happy accidents.
Last night I posted on Facebook a quote from my four-year-old daughter, word for word, with the ironic hashtag, #contextmatters
Here’s the quote:
“When I read people’s minds I need to hold on to the table so I don’t fall down.”
I thought it was a hilarious soundbite from my life, out of context, so I shared. Didn’t get nearly as much positive response as a normal cute-kid quote does, and even earned one sad-faced emoji.
But what’s really interesting to me is this: no one asked for context.
PEOPLE. Context MATTERS.
It always matters! You want to know what’s wrong with the world? Especially in the current face of such an onslaught of constant information? #contextmatters
If you aren’t taking the time to understand the stories around you, you shouldn’t even have an opinion about them. The circumstances surrounding everything ARE everything. Why people do what they do. Why they say what they say, and believe what they believe. If you won’t take the time to understand before making a judgment, you are part of the problem.
I know this rant isn’t my usual type of post here, but indulge me. Go listen to some stories that are outside your own narrative. Stories that DON’T resonate because they have a completely different setting than the environment you understand. Try to see someone else’s context. It matters.
I am not awesome at decisions. Setting goals for yourself is all about deciding what you can, or should, accomplish. And by deciding what you are accomplishing, you are automatically eliminating a whole range of other possibilities. You are limiting yourself. I hate limitations. But the irony is, by dragging my feet and refusing to set clear goals, I am greatly limiting my success.
This may sound ridiculous if you’re decisive. I know my husband is baffled by it. So I have for this coming year, four goals. Two creative, one business, and one habit.
Creative Goal 1 – Finish my mid-grade novel, The Pumpkin Tree. I’m most of the way through a first draft, but I’ve been most of the way through a first draft for a while. I am going to start posting chapters here on the website soon.
Creative Goal 2 – Get Leap back on track. Complete storyboards and fully realized art. I plan to relaunch sometime in the summer.
Business Goal – Break even as an artist. I know this is stunning, but I make very little money as an artist. I don’t need to support myself or my family through art, fortunately, but I would like to at least pay for my photoshop subscription and my watercolor habit…
New Habit Goal – blog (and vlog) more consistently. Like this.
Yes, that’s me. I’m one of the bullet journal enthusiasts. And the reason why is important. Your progress toward your goals (if you are like me) stops and starts and stops and starts again. You win, you lose, you lose focus, you wander off, you get super motivated, you forget what you walked into the room for. Today is a new day. A new page.
The bullet journal is a system of just writing things down, one after the other, in a journal. With bullets. You can get fancy with colors and patterns and pretty icons, but you shouldn’t. There should be no pressure to maintain. Because a really ugly bullet journal is really forgiving, unlike nearly any other planning system out there. (I probably have tried them all…)
I didn’t write a single thing in my journal for the entire month of December. I had a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away so I felt like crap all month. My dad had an unexpected triple bypass. A much anticipated family visit was almost called off. Unnecessary drama at church stirred up. The holidays are chaotic and usually not that much fun for me as I try to make sure they are fun for everyone around me. (Oh, motherhood.)
But today, I just turned to the next blank page and started a new line. I quickly summarized the wins of 2018, because this last year was one I want to celebrate. I am feeling more confident. I am actually selling art, prints & books. I have gotten into a better routine with my kids. I am growing as a writer. 2018 was good.
Next line. 2019. Awesome goal setting in progress.
There were things about this first chapter I liked. I love how a few of the frames came out – some of the colors. But the pacing was weird. I was trying to go between two different times, and I had it in mind to do the same thing throughout the critical scenes of this whole story. Flashbacks that control how much you know when. Also, I was trying to take advantage of how the webtoon format allowed for scrolling instead of page-turning, and trying to keep the mystery going. I am really rethinking it and may split this part into two different episodes. I feel like I need to communicate so much more information now that I am looking at it again.
So, taking a fresh look at Chapter 1, here it is in prose, an exercise I am going to do with the whole thing so I can get a better feel for what I am trying to accomplish. Later this week I will post the new storyboards for this chapter. What do you think? Leave some feedback in the comments, please!
The floor was cold. But Nina didn’t feel the cold. She didn’t feel anything at all.
Blood. So much blood. How could there be so much blood?
How long had she been on the floor, legs and arms wrapped up tightly as if she could fold up and disappear? She had been there long enough for her legs and feet to go numb. Numb like her heart. Maybe it was gone. Like his. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t feel.
For a brief moment last night she had felt pure rage. But that faded, and she couldn’t bring up the feeling of anger anymore. She wasn’t sad. Or even scared. When she had come back into the house, she went straight for the wine in the fridge. Only a glass left, and it was barely drinkable. It probably should have been thrown out weeks ago. Then she opened the big drawer in the kitchen that held the odds and ends she kept because she didn’t want to be wasteful. The ketchup packets and plastic sporks from fast food restaurants. The twist ties and corks and other odds and ends that always came in handy. She was nothing if not resourceful. And the bottles. Lots of tiny bottles. She rarely drank, but they came in handy when a recipe called for two tablespoons of whiskey or rum.
She had worked her way through all the bottles. One after the other, paying little attention to what they were. On the last bottle, the tears started. She cried harder than she had ever cried. She cried so hard she shook violently. Silently. Her eyes hurt. Her head hurt. And then it all stopped. And she just sat there on the floor, staring blankly into the dark bedroom.
She didn’t see the wedding photo, smashed against the wall. She didn’t see the broken glass that littered the floor, in amongst the bright red splotches. Red everywhere. Blood?
So much blood.
No. Not blood. Rose petals. He always gave her red roses. He had given her roses yesterday. He thought he would be forgiven. But forgiveness wasn’t possible. Not anymore.
Nina pressed her eyes closed and slid her feet out to rest her legs on the floor. She reached for the knife beside her. The blade of the Ka-Bar still had a smear of blood on it. Like her nightgown, her legs and her arms.
She stood up with the knife and walked to the mirror. It would all be over soon. But she wasn’t going like this. She lifted the knife to her chin, pulled her hair aside, and in one swift motion, sliced across her long hair, leaving her with a ragged, chin-length bob.
He liked her hair long.
Ignoring the dried blood on her legs and arms, she pulled on shorts and a tank top and walked barefoot down the steps.
There was still light coming from the massive fireplace that was the centerpiece of the enormous timber frame home he had built for her. Had so little time really passed that the logs were still burning? It felt she had sat on the floor for days. The glow of the bright embers lit up the copper sculpture that hung on the stone chimney. The Uktena’s snake-like body seemed to be coming from the fire itself, winding up toward the ceiling with wings outspread. He seemed to writhe and struggle to be free, as a chunk of the log fell into the coals, shooting up bright new flames.
You’re not free. We’re both prisoners.
Maybe they could help each other.
Nina went out to the shed to get the ladder, which she dragged to the fireplace. She lifted the sculpture off its frame. I forgot how heavy this thing is. She set it down on the floor and took the wings apart. It was slow work. She had to go back out to the shed twice for more tools. But the copper feathers and frame of the horned serpent were finally detached. She put the hardware in a ziplock bag and then bundled up the pieces and set them by the door, along with some of the old leather tree climbing gear she had inherited from her father.
One thing left to do.
She didn’t want to. She wanted to just go away and never look back. But she had to. She forced herself to walk down the dark path to the storm shelter. The stars were bright in the sky. Twinkling cheerfully as if they weren’t complicent. Silent witnesses to the worst acts of humanity.
The storm shelter door was shut. She didn’t remember closing it. She pulled it open and walked slowly down the stairs. The single light bulb dangling from the ceiling was on, but its pale light hardly reached the floor or the walls of the underground shelter that always seemed to her like a tomb. Well, now it was a tomb.
He was still there. Not that he could go anywhere without his heart. She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t. She had seen enough already.
She walked passed him to the corner and knelt down on the dirt floor. She knew this part of the floor had been disturbed, so she started digging. First with her fingers, then with a broken piece of a mason jar she had found nearby.
She couldn’t breathe down here. She had to find it. It belonged to her, and it was up to her to get it out of here. To put it somewhere safe. She hit something hard, and she cut her finger on the edge of the glass. What was a little more blood?
She tossed the piece of glass aside and kept digging with her fingers, pushing around the clay jar, feeling the small bundle of leather tucked inside. She held it carefully, like a broken living thing that might get frightened and turn against her, and headed back up the stairs, stepping around the body, slipping a little on the slick floor.
The stone was her responsibility. She had found it, deep in the mountains years ago. It had glowed so beautifully and whispered to her. How could she know?
She put the bundle in her backpack, and strapped the copper pieces to the back of her dad’s old Scout. She sped down the driveway on the bike without a backward glance.
I just got my first one star review on Amazon. It’s kind of a right of passage, I suppose as I’ve started to sell a lot more books. And actually, it’s been a rather brutal few months for criticism for me in various areas of my life. There seem to be quite a few people who really don’t approve of who I am and what I am doing.
But I am doing. And it feels really really good to do.
A few years ago, I probably would have deleted all my social accounts, taken down my website, stopped participating in the activities that are getting challenged, curled up and hidden from the world. Not that I’m a particularly sensitive person, but when you’re already dealing with crippling self-doubt, it’s hard to get negative input from outside sources.
But I feel different in this moment. Because of you. Because of the people I have connected with the more I put myself out into the world. I not only know there are people that care, I know that my efforts to improve myself while engaging honestly with the world around me often help people, at least in some small way. Why would I stop that?
A one star review from an adult snob on a book I wrote for toddlers is such a weird thing. Should I care? And criticism from people who don’t like what I am doing or saying when I am trying to do some good in the world – should it matter?
I’m inclined to think it does not.
So, go. Do. Do some more. Believe me. It feels great.
These are the questions I dread. I’m 45 years old and I can’t answer any of them yet. I think maybe I will be able to someday. I hope. But for now I just make up answers that seem likely to silence the person asking in the shortest amount of time. Because when I answer honestly, and try to explain what’s going on in my head, I rarely get nods of approval. Mild bewilderment is the best result I can hope for.
But this weekend I was not being asked these questions.
I was asking these questions.
Me. Asking these questions of a 25-year-old I know well enough to know he doesn’t have the answers. He’s going through some major life changes right now and even if he wasn’t – he’s a wanderer. Like me.
Here’s what I wish I had said:
“You may feel lost, but you are not lost. You are right where you are meant to be at this moment in your life. You may not have anything figured out, but don’t let the pressure around you to make socially acceptable decisions keep you from doing the important work you are doing. You are an explorer, delving into the greatest mystery you will ever encounter – your own soul. You might figure it all out someday. But not if you force yourself to commit to what is easy to explain to the people around you. You need to get moving. Do things. Stuff your backpack full of your talents and skills and prepare to get callouses on your feet. Visit goals and dreams you’ve always wanted to explore. But don’t pick a destination until you are sure that is where you truly want to live. It takes some of us longer to find that place. And that’s the way it should be.”
Since I’ve been writing more, and adding comics from the archive recently, traffic on my website has been up. Cool, right?
So, without further ado, the most visited post from 2018 is…
Still this guy.
What is that, you say?
Well, if you’re new to the world of Jill, you might not know that I used to blog entirely random creative stuff. This is a post from 2010.
…a POST FROM 2010…
…is STILL my most popular post. I mean, I’m exhausting myself here with creative growth and semi-quality content. But this knockoff movie craft has developed his own world on Pinterest and is sending people to my website who probably get here and wonder why they are looking at nonsensical art and mom comics when they were really hoping for geeky crafting tips.
So, this brings up an interesting problem I have had over the years.
I put my art out into the world. My growth. Myself. Me. And, yes, that includes some fan art. That includes some things that are trendy. I even had a comic hit the front page of Reddit.
It would be really easy to shift gears and ONLY do that. Only create things that gain approval. In fact, it can be really hard to pour your heart and soul into something that no one seems interested in, only tomorrow to do something that has zero originality, and everyone adores it and shares it on Pinterest forever and ever.
I have also felt weird pressure to define my brand – my online image. So I make sense to people who don’t know me. (But I don’t make sense to people who DO know me…so…)
But let me tell you, folks, I am not making money on anything here. (I do sell some paintings, and my picture book is doing awesome right now…) but the comic? Pretty close to zilch. It’s a labor of love.
So, as I move into 2019, I am going to make a big effort to stop making such a big effort at things that don’t seem to matter. I am going to be more true to myself, and pursue the things I want, random as that may seem.
And I hope you come along. If not, that’s quite alright. I can recommend some good nerd crafting blogs for you.
So, my new effort to get up at 5am every morning was totally ruined last week by a house full of sick people. (Of which I was one.) Actually, I’m still a little unwell, but since I was up at 3:30 snuggling with a four-year-old who was having a coughing fit, here I am, awake at 5 again!
On my mind this morning is the subject of mindfulness – another habit I have long believed was out of reach. Mindfulness is being fully present in each moment. Experiencing complete awareness of what is happening to you, around you, and inside you.
Mindfulness is hard for me, because I am creative. Creative people tend to be daydreamers. Daydreamers are very not mindful. But creating can also be hard for me sometimes, because I am not mindful.
Creativity doesn’t spring from a void. It comes from noticing things around you. Really noticing. Noticing first, and then letting the wonder start to seep in. If you live in your imagination, you can only work with what is already in your head. To grow your creativity, you have to expand your perception of the world around you. You capture all these little things, ideas that can turn into something new when you take them out and use them. To do that, you have to be mindful.
I find myself perpetually distracted. I am never doing and experiencing something at the same time. My thoughts are very fragmented. I might be doing the dishes, but I am thinking about a story. I might be working on a story, but I’m thinking about how the dishes need to be done. I’m trying to rein all that in and learn to be at least conscious of when it is good to let my mind wander and when it is good to be fully in the moment.
(It is probably worthwhile to note that while writing this post I looked up three things on google, adjusted my WordPress “publicize” settings and did a search for something on ifttt… So, yes, I have a lot of work to do in this area.)
I’m up earlier than early this morning with a sick child, and I didn’t feel like writing my usual existential crisis blog post. So here’s a short story I recently did for my writing group. First time writing in first person, present. Give me some feedback in the comments.
The Cake Boss
I tap my fingers on the counter, holding the phone six inches away from my ear as the owner drones on without needing any help from me. She may be a terrific baker, but she doesn’t understand anything about my process. My cakes are “to die for.” At least, that’s what the customers say. The crème au beurreis perfection. The filling defies gravity. So delicate, yet holding up an impossible number of layers. My cakes are already in demand at every wedding and exclusive party in the city, though I’ve only been working here three months. There’s a waiting list a year ahead. Not that I plan to fill all those orders. That’s why she’s so desperate. Somehow she senses I’m not going to be here long.
She has tried to entice me to give up my secrets, but she knows that if she presses me, I’ll just quit. I’m not trying to steal her glory. This is a side gig. It has helped me get where I need to be. But I still take pride in my work. I can’t do anything halfway.
She’s still talking. She sounds smug. She won’t find the secrets in the recipe cards she stole. Those are just mundane recipes for ordinary chefs, and I am no ordinary pâtissier. The important secrets are in my head.
Those secrets make the difference to the serious clients. Like the one I worked on this morning. The Cake of Immaculate Technique is still waiting in the back of the cooler, inside an empty bucket, where I left it before going to lunch. This is different than my “to die for” cakes. She couldn’t even fathom the feat I accomplished with this one. It’s hidden, because this is a side job. Cash. A whole lot of cash, to be clear, and the owner most definitely isn’t getting a cut.
I think I’ve missed something in the conversation. I bring the phone back to my ear and ask her to repeat herself. Impossible! She is telling me she knows about the cake in the bucket – no – she has the cake! She came and got it while I was at lunch. Damn it!
They’ll be here any minute. The party is tonight. I don’t have time to make another! Of course I won’t get paid if the job isn’t done, but the money is the last thing I care about right now. My reputation will be completely ruined. I’ll be ruined. Everything is crashing down around me, but she’s still talking. Oh. Her. Right, I keep forgetting about her, as the constant drone of her voice is easy to tune out. She is saying that she has poured a glass of wine and is going to spend all afternoon with my cake. She’s already had a few bites and she’s close to figuring out the secret of my impossible filling. Then she coughs. Just a small sound, but I know she’s out of words for good, so I hang up the phone.
Maybe the ambassador would be tempted by a perfect slice of my perfect cake, and I can still salvage my career.
And by “waking up,” I mean, setting my alarm and dragging myself out of bed before I have any actual reason to wake up. No, I don’t have to go to work. I have nowhere I need to be. I sit, I drink coffee, I pull out my journal or my laptop, I meditate, I schedule, I pray, I write, I draw.
Maybe this is a normal thing for you, but it is definitely not for me. I have had the limiting belief all my life that “I am not a morning person.” Which means – I don’t even try. But lately I have been realizing that 5am is the best and only true window of time in my day that I can be mentally productive. Two of three kids wake up on their own around 6, which means I have never even tried to wake up before them. I hate 6am. The only thing worse than 6am is 5am. So, for the last decade, I have worked at night, when I am fully awake. But after a long day of going in so many directions, I may be creative, but I am also completely unfocused.
Michael Hyatt calls a limiting belief “a misunderstanding of the present that shortchanges our future.” When I teach art – I hear these all the time. “I’m not good at art.” “I’m not very creative.” “I can’t draw a stick figure.”
We just accept these things about ourselves, and who knows where they come from? A second grade teacher? A parent or sibling? A complete stranger? Maybe we grew up hearing other people talk about their limiting beliefs, so we assumed this was how the world worked.
You identify the things you aren’t good at and it gives you an excuse not to try.
I could write about the other limiting beliefs I have had – “I’m bad with names.” “I can’t do math in my head.” – and tell you how I have knocked those out, but this is an art blog so I’ll stick to things vaguely relevant. Suffice it to say, I am suddenly challenging everything I thought I knew about myself.
Today is Thanksgiving, and as I’m up super-early and the house is quiet, I am reflecting on all the things I have to be thankful for. Of course, I will be thankful for all the materially good things in our life as we sit down to a typical American Thanksgiving spread – complete with a deep fried turkey. I will be thankful for friendship, from those at my table to those I have never met in person. I will be thankful for our health and well-being (if there are no complications from the aforementioned deep fryer.) All of the usual thanksiness.
But this year, what I am most thankful for is the abundance of opportunities I have to grow. I have a chance every day to be a slightly better version of myself. I am constantly challenged by my children and Phillip to reevaluate who I am, what I really believe, and how I make decisions.
And I am thankful that the Creator of all creativity has given me the ability to see something new about myself or the world around me every single day. There is something to learn, each day, to make my life and the lives around me better. To teach something. To make better art. To tell better stories. To see past my limitations and find new creative challenges. Life is good.