Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fear is the Mind Killer

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. 
                                                -Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Last week, I did a phone interview for the Comic Book Page podcast. I've done plenty of interviews by email, but this was my first real-time interview. Things went... well, I should have known something was amiss when I woke up on the morning of the interview in a state of panic.

For the entire day leading up to the 5 p.m. interview, the anxiety got progressively worse. This was my first and only chance to make a good impression on the ears of the internet, and there would be no do-overs. What if I messed up? What if the right words didn't come out? What if, God forbid, I came up completely empty? Then my mind switched to preemptive self-accusation. You're a 35-year-old man! How could something this inconsequential put you so off-balance? You're going to sabotage yourself!

As total freak-out terror began to set in, I listened to several earlier podcasts to get a sense of the kinds of questions I'd be asked. Every guest was confident, poised and intelligent. Never an "um" or an "I don't know" -- just well-reasoned opinions and easy congeniality. My fear was total.

By the time my phone rang that evening, I was in pretty bad shape. Bob Bretall, the interviewer, turned out to be a calm and sympathetic host, but during the pre-interview chat my mouth was so dry that I could barely croak the words "yes" and "no." And then he said, "okay, if you're ready, let's begin." A pause as he started recording, and then a shift in tone as he assumed an announcer voice and introduced me. Then came the serve, high and slow over the net: "Nate, welcome to the Comic Book Page podcast."

"Thanks," I squeaked. "It's nice to... see you."

There was a brief, tense pause before Bob resumed, but the seconds felt like eons. Every voice in my mental peanut gallery began shouting. You blew the greeting! This is going to be a total disaster!

Next, I was asked to give a synopsis for Nonplayer. My mental bandwidth, consumed as it was with recrimination, had fallen to sub-dial-up speeds. I'd written a few notes beforehand, but they didn't seem to match the question exactly. I went off-script and started babbling. Finally, about half-way through my meandering explanation, I drew a complete blank. This was it. No safety net, no second chances -- there was a yawning chasm of dead air, and I could find no words with which to bridge it.

I gasped, made sort of a weird squeal. "I'm so nervous right now, can we just..."

"You're doing fine, let's keep going." On to the next question, which attempted to make some sense out of the mess I'd presented so far. Perhaps satisfied with my opening face-plant, my inner critic had finally gone quiet. Things certainly couldn't go worse than they already had. The rest of the interview went quickly, if awkwardly. When it finally came to an end, I apologized to Bob for blowing the intro. He said he thought it went fine, but I knew I'd turned in the worst-ever performance in the history of the Comic Book Page podcast -- perhaps in the history of all podcasting.

The rest of the day was a blur of self-loathing. Here was confirmation of all my worst fears -- that I wasn't cut out to be a professional artist, that the comics industry would destroy me. That I was an incomplete human.

That inner critic said one thing very clearly: "You'll never be any good at public speaking. In the clutch, at that do-or-die moment, you'll always choke. You just don't have the knack for it."

As soon as she got home, my wife asked how the interview went. I tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but she could tell I was wounded.

She didn't miss a beat: it was time for some intensive media training. She never once bought into my "I'm no good at this" theory.

I'm sure most wives would respond similarly, but I wonder if there wasn't a certain culturally-ingrained vehemence to her reaction. My wife is Korean, and she clearly subscribes to the Korean belief that humans can improve themselves through practice and hard work. This contrasts especially with our American fixation on giftedness and genius. Where we are happy to sort our children into "winner" and "loser" piles from kindergarten onward, Korean teachers expect under-performing students to keep up with their peers, regardless of their supposed deficiencies. There isn't a Korean word for "loser."

I would not be allowed to hide behind the "no knack" defense on this one. After a night of beating myself up, I wrote back to Bob and asked if I could have another shot. He very generously assented. Turns out there was a safety net, after all!

Queue intensive training montage. I went to the library the next morning and wrote a detailed plot synopsis, refining it until it was brief and clear. I practiced saying it aloud, making sure to take my time, to pause between sentences. I meditated. I listened to Carl Sagan talk about our role in the universe. I made a new cheat-sheet, this time more organized and legible. At its top were two sentences:

"Thanks for having me."


When the call came that evening, my heart went back to jackhammer mode. Bob handled me with kid gloves this time, pointing out that if something went awry, I could just say "do over" and we'd edit that part out. And then came the dreaded pause and shift in tone as Bob began the podcast. He welcomed me to the show.

"Thanks for having me," I said, triumphantly.

And the whole thing went fine. Afterwards, Bob and I talked about his amazing collection of comics and memorabilia. What a cool guy! With my fear-blinders removed, I could enjoy Bob for what he was -- the most passionate fan of comics I'd ever met. I like Bob.

I went home exultant. It was like I'd gotten hold of a time machine and rewritten my own history. All thanks to my wife, who refused to let me run back to the safety of my burrow. Could it be coincidence that after thirty years of spinning my wheels, I'm only able to finish something with her around?

No, it couldn't!

Okay, on to other business. The first Nonplayer interview is up over at Good Comic Books. Joe's questions were great -- I especially enjoyed talking about the differences between comic-making and game design. Thanks, Joe!

Also, I'll be at Emerald City Comic Con from March 4-6. This will be my first-ever convention appearance, so if you want to witness the in-person equivalent of my interview crisis, you'll be able to find me either in the fetal position somewhere near the Image booth, or loitering just within earshot of Geof Darrow. I have printed up 100 Nonplayer posters to sell, so come and get them while they're hot. They're 11" x 17", and they look like this:

No speech bubbles! I'll happily sign yours, if that's how you like your posters. My comic won't be out for another month, but I'm hoping a couple of early adopters will swing by to say hi.



  1. What a great story! Thanks for sharing Nate! As someone who's interested in getting into games I'm sure I'll enjoy this interview! :)

  2. Well done Nate, you're awful tough on yourself but look what you've accomplished!

  3. That made me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. Going to listen now and will definitely be at ECCC in full-on Nonplayer cosplay.

  4. I had a similar experience doing a podcast in London. I just drew a total blank on the first question and it just kept being awful for the next hour. It's good to know I'm not the only one!

  5. great pimp keep in there and dune is the shit.

  6. hey dude, don't feel to bad that the first interview went badly. things happen. you did what you could under the circumstances, and no one could fault you for it. just remember this, you got a shot that a lot of us dream about, so take each step in stride. those guys who made might have been as nervous as you were at first. we all have to start at some point, regardless of the outcome. this is a beginning, not an end. stick with, and you'll find that insecurity slowly slipping away, and you'll wonder who that person was that you left behind in that first interview. life goes on man, and so shall you. remember, those guys are comic fans too. and wanted to interview YOU. that's gotta count for something. you'll gain your confidence as you take each step, don't rush man, you'll get there. good luck, and all the best to you. can't wait to see the fruits of your labour.

    jerry pierreponte

  7. you win an award for most inspirational comic-blog. (and one of the most well-written) keep it up.

  8. Nate,
    That was so funny, and yes, I was laughing at your expense but only because I have been there so many times. No, I've not had anyone asking for interviews but interviews in general. I had a guy at MS ask me what I was thinking when I designed a particular control skin and I went completely blank. I mean completely! We just stared at each other. It was horrible. So buddy, I feel your pain but hey, you got the re-do and aced it! You're a charming, funny guy. Relax. You'll kill at the con!
    Oh, and I want a poster!

  9. Nate. I envy your blog writing abilities. I'm always impressed with how well you express yourself here. I'm betting this ability must carry over into your comic writing.
    Man, I completely identify with your story. I did a phone interview once and it was hell. What makes the memory of that worse for me is that the interview was for a news paper. All they did with it was lift some quotes for their article and then use them in the wrong contexts. I felt like it must have been my fault for not expressing myself very clearly.
    I'm heading up to Emerald city too and I'll definitely say hi. Hopefully, I wont be awkward.

  10. ah, thanks for sharing. turns out most people share the same experience.

  11. Nate,

    I like your art, but what I get most from your blog is the knowledge that I'm not the only guy who deals with the issues you share. Insecurity and social awkwardness plague all creatives to some degree. It's just that when one of us makes it big, those traits are suddenly redefined as 'quirky' or 'eccentric.'

    One of the best classes I was required to take while pursing a Bachelor's in Management was Public Speaking. It didn't make me into a suave, sophisticated person, but it did teach me how to pass myself off as one for presentations and meet-and-greets that business people love so much. If you ever get a chance to take a course, do it.

    I recently had my first podcast interview as well. Couldn't get Skype to work on my laptop, so I was doing it over my cell phone. It sounded terrible, I could barely hear the others (who were all on Skype) and I fear I overstayed my welcome (didn't know when I was supposed to hang up!).

    All that to say 'congratulations on making it big!' you quirky, eccentric creative.

  12. Practice and preparation makes all the difference! If we aren't able to make the Con would like to purchase a signed copy is that possible?

  13. Good stuff. As for the 'store' I was referring to in my comment on your last post, I meant this store:
    Will we be able to order nonplayer online?! (please say yes)

    That poster would look pimp hanging on my office wall, but being the 실패자 (korean word for loser.. according to google) that I am, I'm not going to be at emerald city.

    Again, an official nonplayer online store (see above) that sold nonplayer merchandise, ex: a poster, would be my friend.

  14. nana - Yeah, it's a relief to discover that I'm not the only artist who has trouble expressing himself verbally. I suppose I could have called that one, if I'd given it any thought at all.

    By the way, the podcast link at the top of the post now points directly to the interview (it hadn't been posted yet when I first wrote this).

    Thanks, Nana!

    Jim El - If I could help it, I'd definitely choose to be nice to myself. Alas, that inner voice is pretty unforgiving. I'd better get this sorted out before I have kids, huh? Thanks for the attaboy, Jim!

    xyzboy - Hey Coop -- they finally posted the interview yesterday, so you can follow the link there now. I was surprised by how normal I ended up sounding. I'm a normie, after all! Looking forward to seeing you dressed up as Dana at ECCC. Better shave that midriff, dude. Not sure how excited I am to see your mint-green moose knuckle, though. Naw, I am excited to see that.

  15. Edward - I can empathize, though I bet you did a lot better than you think you did. But you're a sensitive guy, which means two things: first, these sorts of life events will always peg your emotion-meter way in the red. Second, your comics will always be amazing.

    I just read One Hundred Tiny Moments on your blog, and it's absolutely wonderful. I loved it when you moved the narrative into the distant future. One of the most touching meditations on mortality that I've ever seen.

    Great stuff, man!

    Aaron - Dune is very much the shit. I hope if they remake it again they get it right this time.

    Jerry - Thanks a lot! Now that I've cleared that first hurdle, I'm much less concerned about the next interview. On to newer and more exciting neuroses!

    Dave - Thanks, man! I have to admit, I wondered if I was over-sharing this time around, but I'm happy to hear that there are others out there with similar feelings. I suppose all that's left now is for me to provide graphic descriptions of my bathroom habits.

  16. Olov - Darrell! Hi! Yeah, that infinite moment of silence is just about the worst thing I can imagine. I think from now on, if I find myself in that position I'm just going to emit a high-pitched tone. That, or go full-on tourettes. Might actually move the interview in an interesting direction, come to think of it.

    YOU keep food! I keep shiny change! HA! See you soon, Mr. Toland.

    dustinweaver - I'll see you at ECCC, then! Are you going to have a table there, or are you just visiting? I bet you could sell sketches like gangbusters, given the quality of your work.

    But yeah. Interviews. At least with a newspaper interview, they don't transcribe the awkward pauses and overuse of the word "um." Regardless, I bet you gave a better interview than you think. You certainly do write well!

    Thanks for the encouragement, Dustin!

    the enigma - I KNOW! Isn't it nice to know we're not nuts? It certainly is a relief.

    kingworks - You know, that's probably the best advice I've gotten all week. I bet a public speaking course would do wonders. Wouldn't it be cool if a bunch of us comickers could take a course like that together? "Public Speaking for Perfectionist Introverts 101." I would sign up in a second.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  17. BookAddict - Yes, indeed! It all came down to doing adequate prep.

    As to signed copies of posters, I believe those will be appearing at my online store in a matter of days (I have the posters, but I'm waiting on a shipment of cardboard mailing tubes). I think I'll give folks the option of signed or non-signed versions.

    Whether I'll be able to ship signed copies of the comic is another issue. I may start to run into space limitations in my apartment if I've got stacks of comics all over the place... I'm still working on that one. I definitely want people in other countries to be able to get their hands on the comic, so I'll keep researching this.

    Lord Slapdash - You got me on the Korean word for "loser!" I talked to my wife again about it, and it turns out that there is a substantial difference between the way 실패자 and "loser" are used, however. 실패자 has the sense of someone who has failed at everything and ruined their life (maybe more like "he who has lost"), where "loser" tends to mean "one who fails habitually." Maybe not a huge distinction...

    And yes, the store will be up and running in a matter of days. I just did my first test to see if I could order a poster from myself, and everything seems to be in order. As soon as I've got mailing tubes, we'll be good to go.

    Individual issues may be another matter, but I'm working on that, too.

    Cheers, Mister Slapdash!