Ambidextrous: Don't Over Pursue
Do not make breaking into comics the only thing that really matters to you…
Thought I wouldn’t bury the lead so badly in this second installment of my series about how not to break into comics, which is intended to keep fellow hopefuls out there from making some of the mistakes I did over the years. The response to the first chapter was fantastic, and I appreciate everyone sharing their thoughts and stories on the boards and through e-mail. Despite a relatively volatile marketplace, and something of a transitional period where we’re all trying to figure what format will mark the future of comics, people still want into the business. So I’m very glad to be of some minor assistance, and welcome you back to another diatribe about how you can break into the game a little easier and a little smarter than how I went about it. And like anything else worth having, it all begins with that big aspiration that makes you just a little different from everyone else---dramatics aside, all of this begins with that proverbial “dream.”
I’ve wanted to write since I saw Star Wars the very first time, and consciously or not, I’ve been moving in that direction all through adolescence and my somewhat formative teenage years. You know that kid in creative writing class that would turn in the 50-page “short stories,” when the minimum page count was only 10? That was me---handing in assignments packaged in binders, because there were too many pages for staples. Writing action/adventure novels for the rest of my life was what I’d imagined, until Chuck Dixon’s Ten Commandments of Comic-Book Writing seminar at Chicago con set me straight. I’d been reading comics for years already, had even drawn a few terrible looking ones, but for some reason, writing them for a modest living never even occurred to me before that moment. When it did, my entire focus changed almost overnight.
What didn’t was the general feeling that getting this accomplished was probably going to take forever. Initially, I was only thinking of that word as an abstract concept, because I hadn’t done much research yet. Attempting to write professionally just seemed like something everyone was doing, and at a much higher level than I was capable. Only after doing about a year of comics specific recon did I realize what I was in for. This last bit almost goes without saying, but just to get it on record---do your research. Read and dissect everything you can about the business, because how you think it works is often incorrect and incomplete. There is a business side of comics and a creative side that will work both in concert and in opposition to each other. You have to know why and how in both cases, which means reading obsessively, but also talking to as many working creators as possible. Then, you’ll learn the true definition of “forever,” but my feeling is that the number should be around ten years. To break in, to build up enough of a portfolio (and enough contacts) that you can continue steadily working---realistically, plan to be doing this for a decade.
This makes forcing your way into comics a marathon and not a sprint. This is a critical distinction that you will spend years mentally, and perhaps even physically, fighting against. You’ll feel like you need to get the job done as quickly and decisively as possible, for any number of personal reasons ranging from simple validation to sheer exhaustion. In addition, the closer you get to your final goal, the faster you’ll likely run towards it, thereby encouraging it to run even further away from you. Ideally, you hang back just far enough so it doesn’t feel like it’s actually being chased---meanwhile, you’re gradually closing the distance. Getting this wrong is going to lead to you burning out, completely unable to maintain the motivation necessary to even finish the race. After falling on your face, you’ll simply give up and move onto other things. To survive, you must have something else in your life that provides balance. As dangerous as it is putting your financial well-being into the equation too soon, doing the same with your emotions could prove even worse.
What this diversion is could be almost anything, but it must be personally fulfilling, and push you forward. Another professional or financial pursuit. A significant other that’s supportive and makes you want to be better. A pet to take care of. Hell, even an organized sport works---anything that allows you to split your attention and give you something else to feel good about when this impossible mission of yours is grinding you into the pavement. Any and every time I hit a big wall, it was made incredibly worse when “breaking in” was really the only thing I had going on. And I think I was broke most of the time, too.
I still do have a problem with it now, but in the beginning, everything about me and my approach was based on absolute extremes. I had this elaborate plan worked out that involved devoting my twenties to establishing myself as a working writer, then sitting back and enjoying the professional spoils during my thirties, while everyone else I went to school with pondered shooting themselves in the head from having to wake up too early and wasting too many hours in traffic. At least…that’s what I equated “civilian” life to, as harshly as my juvenile brain would quantify it at the time. Making this thing happen was the most important thing to me, and so I set out to purposely eliminate every thing that I saw as impediments or distractions.
In many cases, this mindset refers to other people and prompted me to manage my existence (and relationships) down to the most precise degree. I had a girlfriend around the time things seemed to be coming together, and I broke it off without hesitation, because writing was the thing I wanted to focus on. Isolation comes fairly easy for me anyway and my quest always provided the perfect excuse. Anytime I didn’t want to go out or put myself in a position to accidentally have some fun—blame the writing and go do that instead. When heading off to college, I lacked the spine to tell other people, unequivocally, that “I’m going to be a writer,” but after three years into my psychology degree, it became obvious a back-up plan wasn’t enough. So I’d drawn this ideological line in the sand, declared this is how it’s going to be, and put everything else in the background.
This made for an incredible amount of focus and an incredible amount of inflexibility. Strange as it sounds, there is more to life than your life’s dream, and it was a long, long time before I understood that. Relaxing a little bit, allowing myself to enjoy other things here and there would’ve ultimately benefited the writing. This is admitted under duress and begrudgingly of course, but it happens to be true---balance is going to beat obsession every time. Make it one aspect and not the aspect of your life, and get comfortable… because you’ll be at it a long time.
The ultimate goal is not to shift too far with the victories or the defeats. Getting published is a feeling that I almost can’t describe, but until the moment it’s happening several times a year, I try very hard not to see it as anything more than the next step in a process. I was blessed with a home life that makes it impossible for me to feel too impressed with myself, and while some of my friends would say that makes me chronically aggravating, it also keeps me generally unsatisfied. And more likely that the frustrations and setbacks will be more difficult to swallow. But that’s the game, and to be any good at it you have to embrace and internalize the feeling that spending ten years at this is really nothing. Not to be able to do what you want for the rest of your life.
Chris Rock had this line, and I’m paraphrasing, that joked about people complaining about how short life is---“Life is long…especially if you make the wrong choices.”
Take care of your money. Keep ya mind right.
Next time, we talk about why you even bother.