Monday, April 12, 2010

Fat Man and Little Girl

If you're on the lookout for a good podcast, you may want to give Radiolab a spin. It's nominally a science podcast, but the hosts are so charming and the format so creative that it's easy to forget that you're also learning something. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have a knack for unlocking the latent entertainment in just about any topic, from archaeology to zoology. Their favorite haunt is neurology -- V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks contribute so frequently that they should probably be credited as co-hosts (I'd like to take this opportunity submit my nomination of Sacks for Most Huggable Scientist, and if such an award does not yet exist, somebody needs to get on that).

I can't pretend that I completely understand the mental machinery they describe (I'm not sure anybody does), but there's a common thread that connects every interview: this idea that the mind is not a unified entity, but is instead a loose coalition of independent operators that may occasionally work at cross purposes. In extreme cases, you can end up with hemispheres that have dramatically different goals (see alien hand syndrome). The whole notion of a single identity starts to look like a gross oversimplification of a much more complicated reality. What's your favorite color? There may be ten different and completely legitimate answers to that question.

It's hard not to speculate about the ways that this sort of inner diversity may affect artistic creativity. I've started to think that whatever agency is responsible for the good bits of Project Waldo is completely separate from the mind that's composing this blog post. I've heard many artists talk about "tuning in to their muse" or "getting in the zone" when they work, and I've spent many years attempting to get that well of creativity to flow on demand. Those attempts have been mostly unsuccessful.

Once a month, I attend the Tuesday Art Group, a gathering where game and comic artists congregate to sketch and talk and look at one other's work. Some blindingly talented people show up to this thing -- folks like Vinod Rams and his wife Emily Fiegenschuh fill giant sketchbooks with endless, effortless streams of gorgeous artwork. It's hard not to feel like Salieri in a room full of Mozarts. In any event, the people looking over your shoulder are people you'd like to impress. And for the life of me, I can barely manage a stick figure in this setting. It's gotten to the point where I've started to feel like an impostor. 

It's certainly not the first time I've experienced the art version of a bashful bladder -- sitting beside Brandon Graham at this year's Emerald City convention, I was stunned by the ease with which he whipped out sketches for fans. I kept thinking, "there's no way I could do this. Every character drawing I made would end up a stunted, homunculoid atrocity." 

Radiolab has prompted me to think about this problem in different terms. I've started to wonder if it's not so much a problem of finding my creative voice as it is about turning down the volume on a second, louder voice that's been shouting it down. The metaphor that comes to mind is of a room that contains a shy but poetic little girl and her hulking, overbearing agent. The room's door has a little grill to talk through, and I come to it every day hoping to hear some poetry. When I show up, the fat guy starts berating the child: "YOU'VE GOT TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING GOOD THIS TIME! THEY'RE NOT GOING TO LIKE YOU ANYMORE IF YOU BLOW THIS!" And he keeps shouting even as the kid begins her recitation. Of course I can't hear that little voice through the door with all that yelling going on. On rare occasions, perhaps when the man is asleep, I can sneak up to the door and catch a snippet of what the girl's saying. Of course, as soon as the agent realizes I'm there, the din resumes. 

I also suspect it's the agent who's so eager to take the credit when I return to the room with news that someone liked the poetry.  "I'M PRETTY DARN GREAT, DON'T YOU THINK?" I don't suppose the girl really cares what anybody thinks.

So I guess it's not so much a problem of getting the girl to talk. It's a problem of getting the big fat guy to shut up for a second.


  1. Hi Nate,

    What you're describing in this post is pretty much what the Buddhist[*] understanding of identity says: that you don't really have a unified identity. It's a sometimes (not always :-) convenient fiction around which you organise your lived experience. And yes, it is full of contradictions and cross-purposes. In particular, the part of you that does stuff and the part that evaluates it are always getting into the sort of unhelpful relationship you've described above.

    So that tradition would say you're on to something. The good news, they say, is that you can learn to help all these parts work together without having to pick a "winner".

    [*] I am no expert on Buddhism, I have just read a number of English-language books explaining this stuff.

  2. Thanks for the shout out Nate!
    Can't wait to actually meet you at the next TAG event! All I can say is that I've felt that same feeling at big art gatherings and sketchgroups. Basically my feeling is that we're all at different levels and when we go to these groups we all converge. So of course we look at everyone's work and feel horribly inadequate. But then we leave and (hopefully) take something away from the work we saw and continue on our "level" till we get to the next one!

    And finally, your work is amazing, I could never even dream of taking on a project like your comic so I'm excited to see how it progresses.

  3. Jad Abumrad?? OMG, a countryman! That alone makes it worth checking out *g*
    I'm familiar with the discussion you mentioned. Basically science is catching up with the old knowledge that the self as a defined and constant entity doesn't exist. Just like a sequence of images following each other closely end up looking like a unified animated sequence in our mind, so does the sum of our memories and perceptions give us the illusion that we have a single, constant and unchanging Self. As you're finding out yourself, that illusion can be debilitating. We blossom much better as people and as artists when we allow ourselves not to be defined and constricted by a self-image of any kind. Although to be fair some people do need it to function int he world, so it's not like it's altogether undesirable or anything.

  4. PS Speaking of the muse, it varies with everybody, but personally I can't have it on demand, period. I can try to coax "her" out by doing things that usually open me up, but if she's not around, pushing is utterly futile. Without fail, inspiration returns the moment I give up trying and move on to a different activity – then I get full-blown epiphanies, simply because I stopped interfering with the part of my mind that does the creating. It's no wonder this has been anthropomorphized as a female being, lol.

  5. Ahh it's good to hear this from like minded individuals, its was only yesterday that I was writing about something very similar.

    I was saying that when I try to create a piece of work a voice is always there sounding out all the little imperfections and mistakes and it drowns out any and all creative input from the creative part of my brain.

    I notice this problem in a lot of other real life situations as well, little fears that drown out reason. Maybe I should look into Buddhism lol...

    Thanks for the lead on that podcast to checking out it now, good stuff. Keep up the good work.

  6. I occasionally attend a local comic artist meet up and I always feel like a total hack and imposter. When I do manage to get anything drawn I always feel like it's horrible. My peers there seem to like my work, but I've also got a fat guy living in my head shouting down my ideas and rationalizing away any compliments.

    What it comes down to for me is a little bit of logic. Either the fat guy is right and I suck, or (for the things I do that are liked) my peers are right and I don't entirely suck. Either way, the hardest part of getting things done is getting that negative voice to shut up long enough to work.

    I'm not going to lie; the fat guy wins far too often. I'd like to thank you for writing this post. It reminds me that there's somebody living in my head that needs a five-fingered reminder to shut the hell up.

  7. Sorry, I haven't read this blog post yet. I'm a little swamped at the moment. Just wanted to let you know I just heard the last of Aubry's final unfinished voyage. I was deeply moved.

    Thank you so much for recommending the series to me.

  8. My design teacher had a simple phrase for those days when you think you can't produce anything but junk.

    Mental diarrhea.

    The cure is a simple purge. Take 30 minutes with a sketchpad and scribble out every single concept, every single observation, every single piece of information in your head and get it out on paper.

    Sometimes there's diamonds in the rough, other times, its best to pull the lever and flush it. Either way, you've started to turn down the volume on the noise.

    Eventually your hand and your brain will connect and you will go about your drawing in a zen state - very fluid, very thoughtless, very focused. Eliminate the worry and self doubt and all the creative distractions, and you'll be good to go.

    The second part of that is to maintain the confidence afterwards. And to also be more easy going when things don't pan out as planned. Life is like a set of tear sheets - sometimes the sheet is full of well developed ideas, other times its not - but you always have the ability to tear it off and start clean.

    We frequent your blog and admire your work. Many others do too. We realize that to err is human, and if things aren't your best 100 percent of the time, we'll forgive you. We'll help you too, but you gotta fail first in order for us to do that.

    Just put it out there. No one's gonna laugh in mockery. And if they do, they're not worth sharing with in the first place.

  9. josef - Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. My parents are both avid practitioners of meditation, and I was frequently encouraged (forced?) to participate as a child. I never quite grokked the purpose -- it just seemed like the boring opposite of playing with my action figures. These days, I'm starting to see the potential benefits of bringing all those mental subroutines into some kind of synchrony. Still, those action figures beckon...

  10. Vinod - Thanks, man. It's good to hear that you're mortal and not some kind of artistic Highlander who will chop off my head the next time we meet. As I look at your art and think more about what impresses me about it, I keep coming back to proportion. You've got this gift that lets you keep the entire form in mind as you work on smaller areas of the drawing -- it all comes together so nicely. I don't have that knack for tracking the meta and the micro simultaneously. But I'd love to learn it!

  11. Joumana - Yeah, Jad talks about being Lebanese in the show. Even if he weren't one of your countrymen, I think you'd love the show. I've started listening to them all a second time, and they hold up very well. He's stated that he wants the podcasts to be repeat-listenable, and I think he has succeeded.

    As to the fickleness of the Muse and coaxing her out by switching tasks -- mine only seems to show up while I'm in the shower. It's inconvenient, to say the least. I've had days where I'm stuck on something at 2 pm and have to get up and take a shower just to figure out the next step. I suppose the logical progression is to set up my Cintiq in the shower. I'd probably get pretty wrinkly after a day of shower-drawing, though. Also electrocuted.

  12. Torkyn - Yeah, that little voice is what keeps 99 percent of the world from doing what they want to do. The great blessing of being a child (especially with permissive, encouraging parents) is that you don't know you're supposed to be "good" at what you're doing, so you just do it because it's fun. There's a great graphic novel on this subject by Lynda Barry called "What It Is." It's all about getting past that voice and letting things be fun again.

    Another thing that helps is having friends to set you back up on your feet when you have setbacks. You carry their voices around in your head, too, and they can make all the difference.

  13. Shypdir - Oh, this one's easy. Here's the objective truth about your art: it's great! The most recent stuff on your site is from 2007, so I can only assume you've gotten even radder since then.

    There you go! No more doubting voices in your head! I declare your art-demon exorcised! Now go put up some new stuff!

  14. Sorry, not Shypdir. Shpydir. That makes more sense. Moving on...

  15. Eagle - Holy cow, you're voracious! They're great books though, right? I'm very happy that you enjoyed them. If you've got any counter-recommendations, I'm all ears.

    Also, we should start talking flatting, if you've got any openings in your schedule. I'll contact you offline.

  16. Drezz - That sounds like a useful process, though I think my brain might be more constipated than diarrhea-ish (diarrhetic? diarrhesque?).

    You know, you mentioned working in an environment free from distractions. I've become so dependent on audio stimulation -- podcasts, music, audiobooks. These are probably not helping me focus at all. Maybe the key is to have the guts to turn off everything. Just to sit in the quiet and let the page become the whole world.

    I'm going to try this and get back to you.

    Thanks for the advice and encouragement, Drezz!

  17. Son of a bitch. I just lost the entire bloody post I typed out because "Sorry, we were unable to blah."

    I'll come back and retype it later. Bloody hell.

  18. Okay, let's try this again.

    I -am- voracious! I'm always bloody working. :P

    I've been digging through my collections for something that could be an adequate follow-up, but I haven't found anything yet.

    I did enjoy Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, but it has a couple short stories that may disturb you. I don't know your tolerance for that stuff.

    Right now I'm listening to Bruce Sterling's Distraction. The reader is terrible, but the story has some interesting political plays and ideas about how our near future may play out.

    Have you managed to get your hands on the Lost Fleet series yet? Nowhere near as good as Aubry-Maturin, but still good for what it is.

    I'm doing work for two more people now [four in all], but I'll still have time for Waldo!

    Send me a note on GZ and we can get this show on the road.

    John started using LiveStream to broadcast himself working whenever he's at the computer. It's pretty addictive to have an audience. Helps you stay focused by making you accountable for every second you spend not working. So I started doing it myself. If you ever care to join in, here's my stream:

  19. Also, I was hoping you might have another suggestion. x:

  20. How long have you been livestreaming? I never noticed that before.

  21. Eagle - I've been livestreaming ever since I saw the link you posted last night. I'm hoping it'll help bring back the work ethic I'd cultivated when my wife was at home with me. Since she got her job, it's been a lot tougher to ignore that PS3 that sits just to the left of my desk...

    That said, it won't be an interesting feed at all. I don't think I want to show the desktop, as that would entail giving away spoilers. So it's just me sitting there like a shlub.

    I haven't read the Lost Fleet yet, but I'm excited to try it out.

    As for other books you can read, Master and Commander is pretty much the Great Divide -- all points in any direction are going to be lower. But if you like historical fiction, you could do much worse than the Baroque Cycle trilogy by Neal Stephenson. Also Cryptonomicon. As far as sci-fi goes, my favorites are the Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer, the Foundation series by Asimov, the two Zones of Thought novels by Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky), the Uplift series by David Brin, and Gateway, by Frederik Pohl. Oh, and the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons. Those are all big world-building exercises -- I'm a sucker for scale.

  22. That's alright. There's still value in being able to chat with you. :)

    I've got the Baroque Cycle, but the reader grates at my ears something fierce. :/

    I loved Cryptonomicon and his more sci-fi-ish books [Snow Crash, Diamond Age, et cetera]. I actually read them before I got into this job.

    The Gateway series by Pohl was fun. I listened to a lot of his stuff a while back.

    I'm going to see if I can get my hands on those others. Thanks!

  23. Didn't know you worked on Space Siege. Didn't have a computer that could run it at the time. Will have to try it now.

  24. Eagle - For the love of God, don't spend money on Space Siege. I wouldn't even wish a free copy on you.

    Where did you find out I worked on it?

  25. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  26. In your Livestream links, you pointed to your portfolio, which has some concepts you did for it. I'm nosy. And greedy.

    Alright, I won't waste money on it. The IGN score for it is pretty bad. Shame the hype for it was so big back then. That cyborg spidery thing with the monofilament sword was sweet.

  27. In the procaster settings, if you tell it to minimize and leave you just the control bar at the bottom, it hides the chat window and you can't see what anyone's saying to you.

  28. Alex set this up:

    It's got six streams on one page and viewers don't have to have a Livestream account to chat. Just enter a nickname [no need for a password], hit the Rooms button. Might want to hit Float too.

    I asked him to add your stream so I can check in on everyone at once.

  29. Eagle - I linked to that gutterzombie video gallery in my next post -- I hope that's okay. As for my inclusion, I of course feel totally out of place. You know, because everybody else is sharing art and I'm just sharing my face. Feel free to remove my link if you feel my face isn't a worthwhile addition.

    Glad you're not buying Space Siege. I feel that I have averted a major mishap. No flies on the company or the team -- there were some very talented people on that one, but the project just didn't get the development time it deserved. I guess games rarely do get the time they need, come to think of it. Just like comics!