Silencing the Anxiety Beast: On Success and Schooling

For the past several months I have been staring down the wailing and terrified beast that resides within my head, trying in turns to calm it, to reason with it, or to simply scare it off.  But it is a creature that cannot understand reason, and as it already lives in constant terror, there’s not a lot I can do to scare it further.  I’ve been at a loss.  It’s hard to enjoy the prime of my life and the objectively excellent situation I find myself in when there’s a beast living in my head that will. not. stop. howling.

I have been fortunate, I remind it.  I planned, I saved, I structured my life in such a way that I was able to let go of a full-time job that was providing little more than knowing what was going to be in a paycheck at the end of the month.  I traded the scope-creep and what was often at least 50 hours of my week for flexibility and work that paid better.  Less work, sure, but more worth the time it cost.  I didn’t lose employer provided health insurance because I never had it.  I’ve only had to dip into my safety net once- for the holidays.  I have an excellent support network, an incredible and encouraging partner, and bright plans for the future.  I even taught myself to enjoy hard-boiled eggs!  I am doing fine.  I am incredibly lucky.  I still have time.

But because the beast does not listen to reason, none of this matters.  So in my quest to find new ways to soothe or distract it, I have come to a realization.  The beast is not truly afraid of destitution and starvation, or even of the potential need to once again return to the traditional 9-5 existence.  These are just the flags it’s waving around to hide the true core of its terror:  I do not deserve this.  I am not worthy.  I am lazy, foolish, selfish, a drain on society.  That if I am going to be so irresponsible as to leave a life of sitting at someone else’s desk for at least 8 hours a day whether I’m needed or not, I’d better have some damn good results to show for it.  I’d better turn into a success.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have a real definition of what success is.

My life plan has largely been the nebulous “make art, sell the art, teach other people how to art.”  This hasn’t…not worked.  I do well at the majority of shows I vend, and teaching supports my eating habits nicely.

The trouble is that once I removed the 40+ hour workweek structure from my schedule, I no longer have clear units of measurements to prove to my terrified brain beast that “yes, we did enough today.”  I set goals and make to-do lists and work toward them, but I have the terrible habit of constantly shifting the goalposts and therefore end every day feeling like I haven’t accomplished nearly enough.

I have pretty deeply internalized some unhealthy lessons and habits from the 9-5 office job setting, particularly my first and longest-held job at the doomed digital marketing agency (basically a content farm).  Even with the knowledge that these principles are flawed, if not entirely false, my brain cannot seem to completely let go of the following toxic measurements of worth:

  1. Quantity and speed is more important than quality
  2. If you do not have a large number of accomplishments to show at the end of the day, you’re doing a bad job and should probably be disciplined.
  3. You have to show up for at least 8 hours a day, even if there’s not 8 hours of stuff that actually needs doing today and even if you showed up for 12 hours the day before.
  4. Even illness needs to be heavily justified before it can be used as an excuse not to work

So yeah, I have some things to fix before I can actually enjoy a creative career, which doesn’t have the same goalposts or measurements of accomplishment as typing in a lot of really surface-level fluff content into the internet so someone else can get rich.

I think one of my biggest problems is that I never stepped back and really asked myself what I actually want out of a creative career.  What would success look like, not to the faceless mass of society, but to me?  Since I did not define what it looks like, the crappy toxic job definitions of success still live in my brain, years after watching the crappy toxic company get shut down by its buyers.  So this is the first thing I need to figure out.

The second thing I need to do is go back to school.

As someone who thrived in an academic setting only to find that it has very little translation to what the real world is like (and boy was I not prepared), the thought of returning to school has always been sort of a comforting and wistful daydream in the back of my head.  The expectations were simple.  You showed up.  You studied.  You took tests.  You did projects.  When a thing was done, it was done, unlike a lot of adulthood where you have to show up and do the same thing again the next day and there’s no sign of stopping.

There was growth, learning, and challenge.  There were clear goals.  You weren’t trading your life for money, you were investing your time to become better at what you’re doing.  This was the time when I felt the most freely creative, even if my skills weren’t yet where I wanted them to be.  This is the mindset I need to recapture to fall in love with creativity again, rather than just trying to be a “successful businessartist,” which is a sort of soulless thing to be.

Now, traditional art school is a pricey investment and I have no intention of burdening my career and feeding my anxiety monster with a mountain of debt.  So when I say that I’m going back to school, I don’t mean that I’m trading in my office desk for a desk in a brick school building.  There are enough online resources to serve as professors, and I have been around the block enough to see at least some of the weak areas in my own work I want to improve upon.

So I will be designing my own college curriculum.

I’ll still be teaching and doing my freelance work, but I will also be taking on “classes” that I will design following a traditional college semester structure.  I plan to build myself a course catalog exploring the areas I want to improve upon (facial expressions, character design, shapes theory, etc), create a syllabus, and show up for classes in my own living room every week.  I will have projects, and I will have homework.  But the goal is not going to be to “build my business” or “make many dollars,” it is just to learn and get better.  Maybe the other two things will come about, maybe they won’t, but it really doesn’t matter.

So instead of taking out student loans, I’m going to loan myself the time.  And maybe, just maybe, this will be enough to silence the beast.

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold

These words greet the heroine of the English Bluebeard-like tale, Mr. Fox, as she approaches the gates to his estate.  Like all the heroines of the Bluebeard family of folktales, she is about to discover that the future laid out for her has a dark underbelly and a very real risk of her own brutal and untimely death.  She reads the warnings and continues deeper until she reaches the forbidden door, opens it, and finds the bodies of young women just like her.  In a moment, the future she thought was before her shifts its path to a dark place and she must now act to free herself from its shackles.  The return of Mr. Fox requires her to hastily hide away from sight, watching as he drags another young victim through his stately mansion.  He stops near her hiding place, having noticed a ring on the finger of the woman he’s dragging, and in his insatiable greed he feels compelled to stop everything and pull it off her right there.  The ring is stuck, however, so in his frustration he simply chops the finger off.  It bounces, landing in the heroine’s hiding place, and when he doesn’t immediately see where it went he just shrugs and drags her up to finish the job in his murder-room.  The heroine grabs the grisly trophy and books it out of there, holding on to it until the morning of her wedding, when she uses it to reveal Mr. Fox for his true nature and save herself from a murderous union.

The line “Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold” struck me particularly when I read this tale about a month ago, and it has become a personal anthem for me since.  Not too long ago, I realized that the path that I had set myself on had its own closet full of bones.  After a year of working full-time in the office, part-time as a teacher, part-time as a podcaster, and part-time as an illustrator, I had reached a desperate state of burn-out.  I walked through the halls of the life I had built and looked in on the bloody closet of ideas and projects I would never have time to complete, opportunities I had already missed or had to turn down.  A couple months after that anniversary, I witnessed a long and difficult battle between my magical unicorn coworker and leadership, and her resignation was the finger dropped into my lap.  It was time to take myself off this path.

Though her grievances were thankfully resolved, to the relief of everyone involved (we would have been in serious trouble without her- she truly is a magical unicorn of a person), my story had already veered in a different direction.  I could not keep up that pace indefinitely, and while my full-time work was the most stable source of income I had, it was also the least fulfilling and the greatest contributor to my closet full of bones.

So here I stand at the mouth of a path into a dimly-lit wood.  I packed my bags as best I know how, I have the tools I know how to use at my belt, and I have donned my iron shoes for the journey.  The last time I left my safety net was a matter of circumstance outside my control.  This time it is my choice.  I may encounter many thorns and hungry wolves upon the path, but at least when I reach its end I can say it was an adventure.

Do I have what it takes?  I won’t know until I start.  Could I have prepared more? Probably, but at what cost?  All I know was that I could not stay in the comfortable home of steady income only to end up another nameless set of bones forgotten in a closet.  I am buying myself time to tell the stories I have always wanted to tell.

It is time to be bold. 

Oh 2017, Where Did You Go? A Brief Retrospective and Con Report

Okay, I know it’s only October, but it feels like it was only maybe a month or two ago that I was coming in from the cold January air for my first day of training for the new full-time position at the Art Center. I hit the ground running on January 2nd, going from part-time teaching and freelancing to a full-time communications job, part-time teaching, and freelancing. It took me a little while to adjust from a largely self-regulated schedule back into the rhythm of socially-mandated “adulthood” time plus the self-regulated schedule. But now that summer camp is done, convention season is done, and I’m down to only one 12 hour day and only 5 days a week at the Art Center, I think I’ve got the rhythm of things figured out. Our podcast is picking up steam, the illustration business has been delightful these past couple of months, and the future’s looking bright. I have two more confirmed festivals, both this upcoming weekend, and then I can return focus to building up the Etsy shop and paying more attention to this blog, fancying up the website, and keeping my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts active. But for now, in this brief lull, I’d like to reflect a bit on the two biggest events of the season.

The Saga of Dragon*Con


Back when I was but a wee artling, wobbling on unsteady creative legs after the mind-blowing discovery that art was a trainable skill rather than inborn talent, I went to Dragon*Con for the first time. Amidst the overwhelming nerdy joy of being surrounded by excitable people in impressive costumes, the memory that stands out most clearly is my first experience of the Dragon*Con art show. Staring at rows upon rows of gorgeous artwork, my young impressionable brain formulated a goal: I must get into this show one day.
It took me until the year after I graduated college to get the courage to apply. I was of course summarily rejected, but I was rejected with critiques. Now I had a direction in which to improve! This proved ultimately more helpful to me than four years of undergrad. I kept applying year after year, and my critiques would change (and become a little less… extensively critical, haha), until last year I was finally accepted! My giddy excitement was soon tempered by the realization that juror acceptance did not mean placement, and placement was not in the cards for me that year.
This year, in the midst of battling a flea infestation while both teaching and helping to run the Art Center’s 70 (I kid you not, seventy) summer camps, I got the call. I had been placed! They took my money! Everything was official!
And ohshit I had less than three months to get prepared for this, the biggest show of my career. And the majority of my best work had already sold in a pretty sweet festival season in 2016. And we were going to be in the midst of summer camps for two of those months.
In summary, I barely slept those three months. My infinitely patient saint of a boyfriend who, it should be noted, had only been dating me for like a week when I got the acceptance call, bore with my frenzy and stress with admirable endurance and kindness.

So the thing about achieving goals you set for yourself in middle school… the reality is a lot like that of meeting your heroes (with the exception of Ursula Vernon, my personal hero, who is just as delightful in real life as you’d expect from the art and blog). The Dragon*Con Art Show is still incredible, don’t get me wrong; I definitely felt way outclassed there and enjoyed seeing it just as much as I ever have. But after spending so much time churning out originals, it was wee bit disappointing to discover how much of the show was prints. Prints I can do! I have prints in spades!  I could have slept!

Oh well, live and learn. I did find homes for three of my original pieces, and I sold more prints in the print shop than I’ve ever sold in a weekend, so all of that was very cool! I think I just had wildly different expectations of what the weekend would mean to me. Also I’m apparently getting too old to deal with the ever-increasing crowd size. I love Dragon*Con and always will, but I may not be able to attend in the future without a table to hide behind.

The Saga of AWA


I was able to approach AWA with a lot more calm and sanity than I approached Dragon*Con. AWA and I are old friends. I did the artist alley there back when it was its own small room, separate from the dealer area.  I still had a lot of new work left over from Dragon*Con, so I was able to take a relaxed approach and just draw the red panda I’ve been meaning to get around to ever since doing the raccoon last year.  Set-up there is a breeze (props to the AWA staff, who have this down to a science!), and I got to make friends with the very talented Ocean N’ Company during the setup.  We bonded over a shared love of pancake animals.

AWA itself was a delight from start to finish.  I got to see many familiar faces, both old college friends and people I met at the booth last year.  The cosplays were all excellently crafted (I saw like a billion Taakos and got obnoxiously excited about each one) and every person I had the chance to talk to was friendly and a joy to be around.  The fluorescent lighting might have been a little wearying after three days, but the people at AWA bring this infectious energy that just leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.

Two particularly delightful moments stood out to my admittedly fried and frazzled memory.  One was when cosplayer Silver Glass Productions returned to my booth after taking home the cozy raccoon last year to let me know that she’s now decorating a room around that color scheme.  The second was when Murrshake handed me an awesome sketch page they’d done, telling me that my work had inspired it (though I think they’ve got a better handle on hatching than I do).  I probably reacted like a crazy awkward sparrow to both of these instances because I am a barely functioning human, but they filled me with so much joy and confusion and gratitude that my brain just kind of short-circuited.  Do check out both of their work though, because both the cosplay and the artwork are lovely!  The sketch page is now on my wall-of-motivations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what both of them get up to in the future!

 

Thank you to everyone who has wandered this way from AWA, and to everyone who has kept up with my work over the past few years!  I know this blog is sporadic at best, but I’m still alive, still arting, and still appreciative of all your support and good vibes.  Now to dive into Inktober and my last two confirmed festivals of the year!