I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about my life before The Center for Cartoon Studies, or, more accurately—my state of mind. Before I moved to White River Junction, Vermont in the summer of 2011 I was living in NYC struggling to make ends meet and publishing my webcomic Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell twice a week. A year before that I was working as an English teacher in Taebaek, South Korea (still publishing DCiGTH) and a year before that I was working as an administrative assistant at New York University just starting out on my long road to CCS. I was to all intents and purposes a newbie—I had few pages of comics under my belt, virtually no readership, and (I think) I was happy.
The year following my graduation from CCS has been the most successful of my short career. I had a comic included in Best American Comics 2013, I ran a successful Kickstarter for a book edition of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell with my friend and co-author Jenn Jordan and I also pumped out a decent number of pages for an assortment of anthologies. It was a red-letter year and yet I felt some of the blackest depression, stress and anxiety I have ever experienced in my life. My days were busy and my to-do lists were never done. I frequently felt isolated, angry and unproductive. I distanced myself from my friends and family (some because of my perpetual bad moods, some through sheer neglect). Clearly, I was doing something wrong.
One of the benefits of entering a program like CCS is that it pushes you to excel in the quality and quantity of your art. There are comics I simply would not and could not have made without the guidance, feedback and encouragement of my teachers and peers. I am undoubtedly a better cartoonist for having gone to CCS and I do not for one minute regret my decision to attend that school.
Now that I'm a graduate though and am facing the long corridor of "the rest of my life" I feel it's time to reevaluate some of the lessons I learned over these past few years. Here are a couple thinks I have been mulling over recently:
1. You are Not Your Career
When you are a regular participant in the comics community it's easy and natural to equate your value as a person with your value as an artist. Comics are the air you breathe and the grounding for your relationships with your friends and teachers. Failure to excel as an artist often feels like a personal failure. "My comics aren't good enough" becomes "I'm not good enough".
This leads to some questionable behavior and choices. A balanced life that includes friends, family, physical health and leisure is no longer seen as valuable. Productivity—pumping out pages, getting published, getting reblogged and liked and noticed—is of primary importance.
I think those of us who are especially ambitious, who have always chased good grades and approval (and this certainly includes me) are especially susceptible to this. It has taken me an entire year to see that the problem here is not that I am not productive, recognized or talented enough but that I see these things as more important then being happy.
2. No One is Watching
I have had numerous conversations with my classmates and friends over the internal pressure we feel to be "visible" online and in the world of comics. If we are not constantly putting new work out into the world we feel like failures and no matter how much we try to keep up a steady stream of work it never feels like enough.
I think the reality though is that in all likelihood no one cares if you publish once a week, once a month or once a year. Even if there are some readers out there constantly demanding more (and there are)… fuck 'em. We are the main audience for the dog-and-pony show that is our lives. Please yourself first.
3. Success Does Not Equal Happiness
I've found the media circus surrounding Robin Williams' death to be unsettling and I hesitate to add to it, but the lesson I've learned from his suicide is that all the success in the world can't make you happy. Happy is a state of mind—not of place or position. You could be happy today if you wanted to—if you actually chose to seek happiness instead of the things we commonly believe are its harbingers: recognition and success. Be happy today because "tomorrow" might never come.
In light of these musings I've made some adjustments in my life. I moved from White River Junction, Vermont to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One major reason is for the more affordable cost of living and city amenities but I was also eager to leave behind the pressure of the comics-is-everything CCS environment. I've also made a pledge (to myself) to choose happiness over productivity and cultivate hobbies that have nothing to do with comics and enrich my life in other ways. Finally, I will try to see my guilt and anxiety over productivity as the problem rather then the perceived lack of productivity itself. I am going to try to embrace the philosophy of "good enough" instead of chasing some unachievable ideal.
I hope that by sharing this I can find a few like-minded friends who have also struggled with these issues and that we can all move to a healthier place together. I guess time will tell.
PS: I in no way mean to blame the Center for Cartoon Studies for any of the above. It's a great school and I'm very happy with my experience there. I think the pressures I've discussed above are the kind that can breed in any environment where a number of highly creative, ambitious and slightly unstrung people are all focused on a single absurd pursuit.
PPS: I am not quitting comics!!! I'm a lifer.