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.
(Also, my daughter is not telepathic.)
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.
What are your goals for the coming year?
Literally. In my bullet journal.
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.
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.
“So what are you going to do now?”
“What would you do if you could do anything?”
“What are your goals? Dreams? Purpose?”
“Do you have a plan?”
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.)
Do you have any “mindful” tips to share?
I have been waking up at 5am lately.
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.
At 5am in the morning.
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.
People often express envy of my hair. But they don’t understand the chaos that comes with a curly mop of hair.
(There’s a point to this. Stick with me.)
Many people have hair that responds to the environment in a small range of fairly predictable ways. Curly hair does not live by such constraints. Curly hair has a wide range of possibilities within any given set of conditions. And it doesn’t have to respond in just one way. It is creative. It can choose to respond in multiple ways simultaneously. Straight, wavy, frizzy, fuzzy, spiral curls – all can coexist in an inexhaustible number of combinations. It is chaos. The more I try to tame the chaos, the worse it usually gets. I am not adding structure to my hair with the addition of styling gel – I’m adding more variables. Yes, the results can be beautiful, but also overwhelming.
People often express envy of my creativity. But they don’t understand the chaos that comes with creativity.
Many people respond to their environments in a small range of fairly predictable ways. Creativity is about removing those constraints. The more creative you are, the more possibilities you can see. You do this by never accepting that options are limited. You may not know the question to ask, but you know there is always the potential to ask a question that will lead you to an answer that is new. An answer that is creative. Ask enough questions and you can arrive at a place where there is an inexhaustible number of possibilities. This is creativity. It is chaos.
I often have no idea what to do with my hair. So it gets pulled back into a pony tail holder. I can’t control it. Also, often, I have no idea what to do with my life. Not because I’m out of ideas, but because I am working with too many ideas. It’s a very different problem, but the results may look the same. I make no progress at all. I do the emotional equivalent of pulling my life into a pony tail holder.
So, if you are striving to be more creative, understand that you are going to have to get comfortable with uncertainty. The more questions you ask, the less sure you may be of the answers. You have to say goodbye to the way other people style their lives. And if you have a creative person in your life who never seems to accomplish anything at all, have a little sympathy. They see the world very differently. Yes, the results can be beautiful, but also overwhelming.
Seth Godin defines art as “a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.”
I’m struggling right now with what it means for me to be an artist. Sure, I can draw and paint – I can even write. And you may wonder why that isn’t enough. But the real art project is not my latest watercolor effort, or the story I’m working through. The real project is ME.
I am not just looking to improve my drawing skills. I want to fully realize my potential. To make “art” that is true to myself in a way that takes a risk, makes a connection, and contributes something to the world. But it is amazing how hard it is to get out of my own way. I am always conscious of my image. Most people don’t see me as insecure, but I am. I worry about how others may perceive me – whether anything I am doing even makes sense. It doesn’t matter if it makes perfect sense. I’m still figuring it out. It matters that I am doing it for the right reasons, with the right goal in mind. That goal is to make things that only I can make. To find “me,” as cliche as that sounds. I’m the art.
In the story I’m working on, Leap, I have my main character jumping off a cliff with homemade wings, only to have those wings fall apart, causing her to plummet and get snared in the tree limbs. I love that panel. I know just how she would feel if she were actually conscious at this moment.
Ray Bradbury is famously quoted as saying
“Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
I’m a jumper. A wing-builder. But I always end up dangling in the tree limbs wondering what went wrong. I’m in one of those moments right now. I’m hanging there, upside down, blood draining to my head, wondering if I’ll ever really fly. Or if this jump + crash + recovery + repeat process is the sum of my future.
So, here’s my agenda through the end of the year. I am taking Leap back to the literal drawing board, to be sure that a story I feel can be awesome is actually being served by the decisions I am making, and not just being rushed through so I can say it is finished and move on. I will be removing it from Webtoons & Tapas, and posting every part of this process here as soon as I get myself organized.
I may not turn into a professional wing-builder. I may still jump before knowing what I’m doing, but I am at least going to make an attempt to learn from some of my mistakes.
Recently, during a writing group session, I was trying to describe my efforts to untangle my life’s purpose, and what work I should be focused on to best reflect that purpose. How I struggle because there are too many competing ideas in front of me, and I want to choose the right one. A friend stared at me with a puzzled expression and asked “is that really what it is like inside your head?”
Yes. Yes it is.
And it is probably why I am so scattered and ineffective. I am reading The One Thing, by Gary Keller, where he has you refine your priorities down to one thing. You focus on that one thing first and foremost, making everything else easier or unnecessary. So, my one thing right now is to figure myself out. I’ve made some efforts over the years to make this website a cohesive reflection of me as an artist, but I’m not looking for a job, or even to sell you anything, so that seems pretty unnecessary. Who cares what people think when they visit? So, I am going to work out my “one thing” right here, with whatever craziness that might entail.
I am sure I love stories. The only common thread through the things I try to do, the things I care about doing, is story. The Ghost of a Coal Miner painting I recently did for a character challenge is a story. Nearly every piece of art I am really proud of has a story in it. Every song I have cared about writing has been a story. Every comic, every poem, every piece of fiction I enjoy making has some sort of story embedded in it.
I care far less about each individual medium than I do about the creative challenge of using a particular medium to communicate something. So, that’s where I am starting. And I am going to work on putting all the different creative pursuits here – I have removed most of them as they didn’t make sense when put together.
Oh, and I’m bringing the webcomic back. It will still be on Webtoons, but also posted here. With extra commentary probably.
This post isn’t going to go over well with a few of my friends, because they will argue that I’m succeeding. But I’m not. I’m failing. I’m failing constantly.
A week ago, on Monday night, I was up past midnight, working to get Episode 4 of Leap finished. I know I’m supposed to be working with a buffer, but I’m not, and I know I should be at least working ahead, but apparently I’m not.
Then came the moment of realization, the kind you feel in the pit of your stomach. There was just no way. I was going to miss my deadline.
It’s a self-imposed deadline. I set it. There are no consequences for missing this deadline. Except the profound feeling of being a big failure.
Why do I keep doing this? Why do I always feel so pressed? So behind? So in over my head? All the horrible feelings of self-doubt and frustration come crashing down on me. When do I get to the point where I am winning at this sort of thing? When does it get easy?
Then it hit me.
Unless you are stagnant, failure can’t be conquered. It must be embraced.
What I’m doing with Leap is completely new and very challenging for me. This is the first time I’ve fully finished a story. I’m drawing all of it. I’m churning out more than five fully rendered panels a week where I normally did one. I’m imagining and drawing everything in the story. I’m designing characters and magic and intricate plot elements. I’m coloring and finishing the pages. I’m posting and promoting. While keeping up fairly well with the rest of my busy life.
And if I get good at this? If I get to where I don’t miss any deadlines and don’t feel pressured anymore?
I’ll just start a bigger challenge.
So I’m always going to fail. And I’m just going to have to get comfortable with that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, because that is the feeling that gets me where I want to be.
Here’s an excerpt from my comic collection, “My Mom Is An Artist.”
When I was seven, a nice lady asked me if I wanted to be an
artist when I grew up. Confused, I replied, “I am an artist.” An
artist was a person who did art. I did art. I was an artist. But
some concepts are more difficult for adults to grasp than children,
and three decades later I am still learning how to say with
confidence, “I am an artist.”
The day before I drew my first comic in 2010, I was not an artist.
I was not doing art, and I hadn’t in a very long time. At thirty-
seven, I was a mom with a baby and a toddler (a job I had
long wished for), and I had an identity crisis of epic proportions.
As two tiny faces looked up at me, I was filled with doubt. How
could I help them grow and find success, when I couldn’t follow
my own dreams?
I have always believed that everyone has a God-given purpose
in life, but though I had some talent, my creativity never seemed
like a significant contribution to the world. So I spent twenty
years wandering in the wilderness of ideology, doing everything
but what, deep down, I knew I really wanted.
In the Icarus Deception, Seth Godin says,
Art is personal. Art is untested. Art is intended to connect.
As a child, I did this naturally. My art was very personal, untested (for me) and it’s purpose was to communicate. Along the way, I lost the sense that I had anything at all to say, because I went through a crisis of personality. I tried to fit in to the world around me so I could find friends and avoid ridicule. (Junior High is brutal, ya’ll.) I continued this pattern of trying to blend in for the next two decades. It made life a little easier.
I lost the ability to connect with other people through art. I was simply pursuing some skill with what I saw as my talent. The comic brought me back because its only purpose is to connect. It doesn’t matter how well you draw a comic. It matters if it resonates with at least one other person on the planet.
Connections come from something genuine inside you reaching out to someone else. It’s something we should all be doing.
We should all be artists.
I’ve always told stories about my life. We all do. We might tell them to our BFF or a stranger in the checkout line at the grocery store, but we’re always telling stories in funny or dramatic ways. Of course, many of the stories I tell about myself are in comic form.
Leap is different. It’s a complete story, and it’s not about me. I’ve worked on stories for decades, but I’ve never finished them because I was so personally invested. They were too important to me to get wrong. Too emotionally big to risk failure.
Leap is just a story. A story with magic and mystery and murder. There’s not much magic, mystery, or murder in my life.
Along the way, however, the main character, Nina, started to take on familiar elements. Nina is a young woman who finds an ancient source of power, which causes some terrible things to happen. But Nina’s biggest problem is herself. She’s given away her own power. She’s let people take power from her. She struggles to make decisions.
How many people do I know who are Nina? Myself, sure. But beyond that I can’t even count. Some have grown and taken back their power. Some are perpetually stuck in a cycle of letting others take from them. And hopefully, in the people that read this story, there will be someone with whom that concept resonates, and maybe even subconsciously, it will help them realize that they are strong enough to take a leap, spread their wings, and fly, even if they aren’t sure where they will land.
Read Leap only on LINEWeboon: