She also won a coloring contest when she was nine.
You are one of those multi-talented artists who write and draw. What’s the most stressful part of being an artist for you?
The most stressful part isn’t making the art; it’s the communication, networking, planning and meet-ups. It just takes a lot of energy sometimes.
And away from your work as well.
Exactly. When you’re a self-employed person which most artists are these days, it’s a double-edged sword. Taking out the middleman is nice, but those extra tasks take a lot of energy you’re not able to spend on artwork.
What’s the hardest part of self-care for you?
The anxiety and knowing when you need to stop and give yourself time to recharge can be a challenge. You have to be very self-aware, which sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.
I don’t know a lot about your writing. Did you start writing in tandem to illustrating?
I did a lot of writing before art, and then art kind of took over. If you look at my journals, it would be a mishmash of written word and drawings. It’s very much together. A lot more of my collaborations are out there in the world than my personal writing projects. I went to school for art so I went through that gauntlet of people giving critique and feedback. It can be brutal sometimes. I haven’t done that with my writing so it’s a still a sensitive area that I’m learning to put out there.
I think monitoring feedback and learning when and who to ask for it is a big part of self-care for writers. It’s very vulnerable.
It’s very vulnerable and you can’t take everyone’s feedback. I think it’s Neil Gaiman who said, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
[Laughs] When did you start writing?
All the way back to first grade. I wrote this story about a cowboy saving someone who’d been kidnapped in a typing class. Everyone else wrote gibberish and I wrote a story, so it got published in the paper. I’ve always lived a fanciful life in my head. Then I figured out I could draw and that was like an extra superpower because I could bring my stories to life.
Like most illustrators, you have to have a very heavy online presence, which is not something many writers have to contend with. How do you deal with that?
I try not to be on the Internet too much because you can easily get sucked into that hole. After I post something I usually put my phone on silent because otherwise I’ll be checking it every few minutes. There’s this pressure to constantly upload and post because otherwise you become irrelevant, and I have to remind myself that not every piece of artwork I do needs to be online. You fall into this fear of, “Everything I do needs to be online and therefore everything I do needs to be good.”
You need to let yourself experiment and fail in private.
It’s easy to fall into this habit of doing art for the next post, this number of views, or this many “likes.” Sometimes it’s okay to create without having to do something with it.
When you start doing art for the “likes,” you’re not doing art for yourself anymore. As someone who makes a living doing art, you can’t do every piece for yourself, but you can’t base your artistic worth just on other people’s opinions.
So you do an equal mix of collaborative work and personal projects?
Yes. One of the great things about collaborating is sometimes you draw things you’ve never thought about. You can be challenged in ways that help you grow as an artist. But in other ways, you need to take time for yourself. That’s part of my self-care. I’ve worked on darker, bleaker stories with other people, but when I write, my stories are more whimsical and happy. So when I work on my own things, it’s about getting out of that dark spot and into a happier place.
What’s your character’s name again? I love him.
Edward! I talked to you before about being kind of depressed and down this summer. I hadn’t been drawing as much and everything felt like a massive slog to me. Then I went back and did a little “Edward and Marni” comic and it was like, “This is my happy spot.” This dam broke and I could feel my happiness and creativity flowing again.
What was it about the stress that made it hard for you to do art? Do you only do art when you’re in a serene place?
First, there was a lot of traveling and being on other people’s schedules. I could doodle but I couldn’t really produce. There are all kinds of studies on the amount of time it takes to enter a flow state, and I think those are really true. I’m very sensitive to my surroundings, so if that is chaotic, it’s really hard for me to sit down and do [art]. If my space is clean—even if my mind is chaotic—I can sort of absorb my space and be okay.
You saw it really well once when I was trying to get work done and a bunch of us were all hanging out in your apartment. There was all this stuff going on you took me to a friend’s empty apartment nearby and you were like, “Okay, now work.”
[Laughs] Because I get that way too.
As an introvert, it’s not that I need to be alone at all times, but I need that time to recharge. I didn’t have that this summer.
So you can’t suddenly invest all this energy you don’t have yet.
You can’t get water out of an empty well.
I have to say—and maybe it’s because you’re an introvert—but you’re not someone who appears to have social anxiety. You seem very Zen most of the time, to be honest.
I was thinking about this when I was walking about Boston or New York last week, but I’ve become very good at navigating cities I don’t know and not getting anxious about it. Part of that is just having a smartphone. [Laughs]
You develop techniques and systems for yourself. I can go to concerts where there’s crowds and noise, but I would always get there early, even before the opening band. I had to analyze myself to realize I did that because there weren’t a lot of people at that point and it was still relatively quiet. It’s like the boiling frog idea. It builds up around me versus me just walking into a wall of sound and people. The same goes for conventions. I have a table between myself and other people and I can get there before everyone else.
I think being able to identity the skills that already work for you is just as important as obtaining new ones. That takes an incredible amount of self-awareness.
It’s definitely taken me a long time to get that self-awareness and learn about myself. There has been trial and error, but it’s a very important thing as a creative to figure out how to adapt.
What is it like when you go into your flow state?
As someone with anxiety you can overthink things. In a flow state, I’m just producing without second-guessing myself. It’s been a process to figure out what works for me to get into a flow state, because it’s different for everyone. Some people need heavy metal and chaos. What’s weird for me is I can’t listen to music and work on art. I start thinking about the music instead of my artwork. But I can listen to audiobooks and podcasts.
I’m more of the write-with-music guy. I tried the podcast thing with “Serial,” but it got so engrossing that I couldn’t focus on anything else. I ended up listening to it all night. [Laughs]
I can’t listen to words while I’m writing. When I’m writing, I have to listen to classical music, and it’s the same three or four things. It’s very Pavlovian. The “Amelie” soundtrack…
The 2005 “Pride & Prejudice” soundtrack…
And the “Sleeping Beauty” ballet.
I have so many recommendations for you! I have a whole playlist of non-lyrical music I write to.
I think you gave me “Pride & Prejudice.”
Probably. That was my jam when I was single. [Cries] Is it challenging switching between writing and drawing? I never played piano while I was writing, so I’ve never had to juggle things like that.
I don’t think you can be an illustrator and not be a storyteller. I can’t untangle them. Even if someone else is giving you the story, you have to read between the lines of that story and add to it with your expressions, gestures, colors etc.
So it’s two sides of the same coin to you.
Very much. When I get a script to turn into an illustration or comic, there’s the thumbnailing process, and I treat that the same way as the writing process. It’s planning everything out. That’s the part that always takes the longest and is the hardest for me. Once the planning is done, it’s easy to do the inking and coloring.
Are there things you feel most writers and artists struggle with?
I think we tend to be pretty sensitive and empathetic people because our creativity is a reaction to the world around us. I think that can lead to being anxious or depressed. But I think the myth of having to emotionally struggle as an artist is bullshit. First of all, I have trouble creating when I’m in a terrible spot and secondly, why would you want to embrace suffering?
It’s good to acknowledge this is something we may be prone to, but you have to use it to your advantage and work around it. I had anxiety long before I realized I had it. When I figured it out, that was a huge lightbulb moment because I had a name for all these weird habits that other people didn’t seem to have.
Yeah, there’s a reason artists can be really sensitive people. To create something that didn’t exist before is incredibly vulnerable and risky, and that’s not something everyone has to do for their job.
It took me a while to realize that vulnerability isn’t necessarily weakness.
I agree. Besides art, what else do you do for your self-care?
I do a lot of yoga and some meditation, which is a cliché but I think it’s a cliché for a reason—because it’s really helpful. I do other creative things that aren’t necessarily for work, like cooking and gardening. When I’m feeling stuck creatively, I have to do other types of things to loosen up. Sometimes you have to let that part of your brain rest a little because you can’t always force yourself through things by doing it repeatedly. Given that I’m self-employed and work from home, knowing when to step away is a really big thing [for me].
I think it really helps to have a significant other to sometimes call me out on some of these things, like, “You need to go to bed right now.”
Having a good support system is so important. We’re privileged if we can find it, but if we’re not born into one or we don’t have one right now, it’s worth the time to find good people. They will come, but it’s not always automatic.
When I wasn’t living with my partner I was living with really good friends. You need to find non-toxic people to help you find that balance and talk things out.
When was the longest time you stepped away from doing art? Was there ever a time you considered not being an artist?
Professional projects have deadlines, but when it comes to personal projects, I’ve stepped away anywhere from a few months to over a year.
Sometimes you just need to take that time. There’s so much guilt around that.
Guilt is a huge problem for creators!
“Why am I not inspired all the time?”
I have this guilt when I play video games because I’m not actually producing something. So many artists I know play video games to relax when they’re not working, but I worry when I’m not producing stuff, which is not always healthy.
That’s super hard for me too. You’re also someone whose natural persona is that of a caretaker. Does part of your self-care also involve making sure that doesn’t go overboard?
That has been a huge thing that I realized within the past year and have had to work on. A couple people had to tell me, “You bend over backwards for other people, but when it comes to taking care of yourself, you need to take care of yourself and say no to other people sometimes.” It’s so hard because I often do it without even thinking about it.
It’s so easy to go into the mode of, “I’m helping others right now so I don’t have time to take care of myself.” I find that learning to say no is really an art and often times people will appreciate your honesty rather than the usual excuses.
Right! A degree of my anxiety is tangled within that empathetic side of myself. “If I say no, I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings.” [My self-care has] been figuring out how to say no in my personal and professional life so I don’t overburden myself.
What would you say to someone who struggles with anxiety or introversion?
As far as introversion, figuring out how and when to recharge yourself is really vital. One thing that’s helped me with anxiety is realizing I have it and putting a name to it. It made me realize I wasn’t alone in dealing with it. Knowing why you’re anxious will help diminish it, so sometimes it’s about asking yourself questions and deconstructing anxiety.