by L. Nichols
The other day, one of my friends said “oh my god give me your work ethic,” and while I can’t do that, what I can do is tell you my thoughts and influences that got me to the place I’m at, particularly Rilke. Or maybe just give it my best shot to at least get you thinking about your work process and how to make it what you want it to be.
First off, there is totally an element of obsession/drive/tenacity/craziness involved, especially in a medium such as comics. No matter what you want to call it, you have to find this drive within yourself. Sometimes you have to search deep for this. But I’m guessing that if you already make things and are wondering how you can make more/keep up the work, then you probably already have this drive and simply need to nurture it.
For most of my life, I feel like this drive wasn’t really there. I guess there was a variety of reasons for this. My parents encouraged my art, but never as work. I found school incredibly easy and didn’t have to develop any sorts of studying/work habits to get through. I drew, but I didn’t really DRAW. No consistency. No urgency. No work ethic. NONE. I didn’t really care deeply about much of anything for a very very long time. Eventually this changed, but it was a long and painful process to get there.
It wasn’t until college that I really had to learn how to work. For those of you who don’t know, I went to MIT and studied mechanical engineering. Let me tell you; it kicked my ass. Southern person from a town of 2-3,000 moving away to a city for the first time. First person in my family to really go to a college and stick it out. AND OH MY GOD THE WORK. I learned to produce work no matter how tired I was. I learned that whining is no excuse. I learned how to focus under pressure. I learned how to be around people and still get work done. I learned the value of collaborative work. I learned how to work harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. The joke is that going to MIT is like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hose. It is totally true. But you do not need to have this to learn how to work.
It was at MIT that I started drawing for serious as a way to manage stress. It was at MIT that a professor introduced me to Rilke by letting me borrow Letters to a Young Poet. I hate to sound horribly cliché about this, but Rilke totally transformed the way I thought about my art. This was the first time I heard anyone talking about the impulse, the desire to create. This was the first time I really questioned what I was doing, why I was doing it. And it was the beginning of me learning to answer to myself.
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse [Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet, Letter One].
I’m always looking for unnecessary inefficiences in my work and in my life. Some “inefficiencies” are necessary and vital to the creative process. And, really, you shouldn’t downplay the importance of maintaining a work-life balance that works for you. Play is necessary. Life is necessary. Life and the creative process is not something that can be fully measured and you must constantly be asking yourself “is this vital?” You must learn to be honest with yourself, brutally honest. You must also learn to be patient with yourself; progress takes time and work is not always the most important thing. For me, I learned that I could totally live without working as an engineer, but that I could not under any circumstance live without being an artist. It isn’t a career; it is who I am. It isn’t something I chose out of needing other people to tell me my work is good, that I am good. When I thought about why I create, the answer was simply “I must. There is no other option.”
So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted. [Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet, Letter One.]
But desire is nothing without discipline. Structure. WORK. I don’t know if you guys remember the Greek myth about Milo of Croton, the wrestler who was super strong because he started carrying this calf every day, and as the calf grew he grew stronger until he could carry a full-grown bull. You don’t start out by carrying the bull!
Start small. Start with something you can keep consistent. That will vary for everyone, but you should be gentle with yourself. Be honest with yourself. Pick something you can manage and keep it constant. Consistency is key! After you reach the point where you no longer even think about this something because it is such a part of your life and routine, add something else! Keep that new thing constant, too. Keep it going. Keep it up. Add more and more until you are where you want to be. Find a good consistency, a good discipline, a healthy discipline and keep with it. Don’t hate yourself if you miss a day or miss a deadline. KEEP GOING. Don’t dwell on “mistakes” but keep focused on the future. Build a momentum. Eventually this momentum will help push you on the inevitable slow days.
Study yourself. Study your habits. Learn ways to be productive even when you “don’t feel like working.” For example, I am not a morning person. AT ALL. But I still get a lot done in the mornings because I have figured out what tasks I can do when in that groggy-headed state that doesn’t seem to go away until the afternoon. I pencil or write things when I am feeling energetic and my thoughts are flowing well. I ink or tighten up pencils or tidy the house (because, let’s face it, the dishes still need doing) when I am less able to focus. Learn yourself. Change your habits. You are the only one who can make you do anything and ultimately, you have to be accountable to yourself.
Sometimes action must precede thought, especially on days when you’re having trouble motivating. Find a way to start, maybe by drawing a single unplanned line. Make more. Once going, keep momentum. Learn to start working before your brain can question that decision. Go with conviction. Reflect when finished. Reflection is important, but too much self-doubt will get in the way and paralyze you in your tracks.
One of the tricks I’ve started doing lately is picking some amount of time – one minute, ten minutes, one hour – and just trying to see how much work I can get done in that time without distraction. For example, how many dishes can I wash while the microwave is heating up leftovers? How much can I pencil in 30 minutes? This makes it feel a little more like a game for me, a personal challenge. This trick is particularly useful for me when I’ve been procrastinating on things. Usually I find that after one or two small challenges, I have built up some momentum for the day.
Play is important. Movement is important. Go for a walk. Ride a bike. Learn how to skate. A body in motion can help create a mind in motion. Many ideas start while I’m walking somewhere. Plus, staying active helps you keep a positive mindset.
And last but certainly not least, surround yourself with friends/people who motivate and excite you. Find people who work in different fields. Cross-polinate your ideas. Have a support network. Build each other up. Help out when they need help. Don’t be too ashamed to lean on them when you need encouragement. But don’t use them as a crutch! Your motivation must come from yourself and you shouldn’t rely on the opinions of others for your own feeling of worth. Learn to think critically and to discuss your work. Learn to take criticism gracefully without dwelling on it. Be honest with each other. Encourage each other. If one of you grows, then you will all grow. Nurture yourself. Eventually you can all carry bulls. Just be sure to remember that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.