Calling all teachers!

Are you a school teacher? Have you used illustrated journaling to teach your kids? Have you used any of my books in class? If so, I would love to talk to you about your experience and what you’ve learned. Please write to me at dannygregory@mac.com

Please share this request with any teachers you know.Thanks so much.

How to kick monkey butt.

I’ve written a lot about the nature of the inner critic that confounds our creativity. And so far, I’ve urged you to fight it by just getting to work. That may not be as easy as all that, so let me be more specific with some ways you can push past that hectoring little voice in your head.

Just start. Do one small drawing on one small piece of paper. A Post-It. Or draw a loose grid on your sketchbook page and fill in one single square with a line drawing of your foot. Whistle while you do it. If the monkey starts to grumble, hum louder. Push off that inner criticism for 120 seconds until you can get something down on the page.

Creating something, anything, can break the logjam. And it can give you something to look back at hours later, to get excited about. Initially, the monkey may sneer about your tiny attempt but go back at it and look at it again. Find something to love in it. It’s in there.

Don’t talk about it. If you are having block, don’t endlessly discuss it and seek solace from others. The more you do, naming it and broadcasting it, The more you solidify the block, the more of  a living entity it becomes. Give it a name and you give it power. Stress over it and you become twisted and jailed.

My words here are a double-edged sword. I want you to be able to see that your problem is a common one, that you don’t suck any more than the rest of us. But the more we dwell on this discussion, the more attention the monkey gets, and the less time we are spending making something.

Give him a banana.  Try holding out some sort of reward to yourself. A bribe to get it done. Say, “if I do three drawings today, I can buy a new fountain pen. ” “Or I can watch TV for an hour if I draw during three of the commercial breaks”. Or “I can eat that donut, if I draw it first .”

Use this tool judiciously. You don’t want to end up obese, broke, or in jail.

donut

Get your lazy ass up. If the monkey tells you are a hopeless slug, agree with him. Tell him you want to improve and so you are going to set the alarm a little earlier and start the day right. Sit down and draw before your first cup of coffee. Fifteen minutes of drawing the reflections in the toaster as the coffee perks. Monkeys are lazy bastards too and they can’t get it together so early. I find I do my best work before I start reading email and talking to people and dealing with the day. Then for the rest of the day, I glow with that knowledge that I have already made art today and the rest is gravy. By knocking out a few drawings with the dawn, you will lubricate the wheels of habit while the monkey turns over and keep on snoring.

Do something you definitely suck at. Buy a medium that’s absolutely new to you. Draw on your iPad for the first time. Paint with ketchup on the kitchen counter. Play the digeridoo. By doing something you have never done before, you have the perfect excuse for sucking. If the monkey pops up, you can say, yes, yes, I know but this is my first time. Have fun. You’re making something. Sure, it’s no good. But keep going. Keep making. Keep exploring.

The great ape debates. If you can’t screen out your monkey, tune him in. Really put his critiques to the test. Ask the monkey to take the stand. Grill him.  But this time bring your inner lawyer to dissect his arguments.

Give the primate the benefit of the doubt. Take his arguments at face value and see if they hold any water. Maybe you do have room for improvement — none of us is perfect. You can learn and grow from self-examination. The thing we must avoid is self-destruction and abuse.

So, write down his complaints about you and come up with strong rational responses.  Write these down too. Next time the monkey levels these same criticisms at you, just tell him, “I’ve heard you and responded to the charges. What else you got?”

Stock your own arsenal. Sit down, like I’m doing, and come up with a bunch of ideas to trick yourself into sitting down and coming up with a bunch of ideas. If you want, start by critiquing my suggestions and then making up better ones that will work for you. Hate the idea of getting up at dawn? Fine, then draw at lunch, draw in the train, draw on the toilet. Come on, plus my ideas. What works for you?

The Voice continues

monkey-2
I am traveling again, this time on the 6 a.m. train to Washington DC. And again, I am thinking about the Voice in my head (I first wrote about it a couple of days ago) and the other ways in which it can monkey with my creative plans.
This jabbering voice doesn’t resort only to vicious critiques to stymy my creativity. It likes to concoct diversions to distract me too:
Like, why make a drawings with the pen that’s in my pocket when I could plan a trip to the art supply store, and burn up money and energy instead? That’ll make sure I end up on the couch, dozing, my new art supplies still in the bag by the door.
Or, maybe I should just check out some of my pals’ blogs, see what they’re up to. Man, they are so creative and productive. I really do suck by comparison.
Or how about a snack? Maybe we should go out for a donut?
Okay, back to work. Wait, I should get some inspiration, do some research. Let me try to find that David Hockney book I have on the shelf somewhere. Ah, here it is. Hmm, so Hockney mentions a Franz Hals painting here, what did that look like exactly? Let me just pop open Google Images and see… Oh, look, that cat is cute…
All this activity makes it seem like I am doing something, but I’m not really. I’m just pissing away time and defeating my creative impulse with thoughts of fine art, chocolate, naps, sex… The illusion of productivity is the bone the monkey throws me. We’ll start tomorrow, I swear .
Negotiation is the monkey’s ploy. If it isn’t condemning or seducing, it’s bargaining.
But remember, the monkey doesn’t want what’s good for me. He is selfish and vindictive. He wants me slow and weak and distracted so he can have his way — uncreative, status quo,
Here’s another ploy: “There’s no point in starting until you have your act together so let’s get the ducks in a row”. A good stalling tactic but I wont fall for it. Back off, chimp. There are way too many ducks and rows are for accountants. Organization is irrelevant to making stuff. Art needs to be messy. A neat stall is the sign of a dead horse. Sure, it’s a good idea to know where you keep your pencils but being anal doesn’t help you create shit (as it were). The random juxtaposition of stuff and chaos is the seeds of art. If oysters were prissy about keeping out all the sand, we wouldn’t have pearls.
The fact is order, security, and perfection are all illusions. Life can never be perfect and again I am just wasting time.

no-pearl
(For some reason, I am reminded of those boat owners who sit in the marina drinking beer on board and never raise their anchors and head out to sea. Rather than adventures, they have the most expensive bar stools in town.)
The ape loves a good fight too. If I find I am quarreling with others and venting emotion inappropriately, chances are that I am not drawing, not writing, not thinking. Or alternatively, I may find myself overworking, nights and weekends (on projects fueled by drudgery and obligation not passion) living out of balance, out of harmony, out of fast food containers, far from my true self. The monkey loves french fries and insomnia.
In my job, I often encounter people who are driven to melodramatics by their inner monkey puppeteers. They act out, drawing attention to themselves, making excuses, having fits, being prima donnas, making demands, when they could just put their heads down and make more stuff. Client questions your decision? Throw a fit. Need to cover up a blunder? The best defense is a good offensive speech of self-righteous indignation. Not.
Making more stuff is the best revenge. Put your creative energies to work coming up with more ideas, not with histrionics. Get back to work.
Another monkey game is monkeying with my health, mental and physical. Am I not productive because I am depressed? Or is the other way round? Is this cancer or hypochondria? Start doing and see what happens to your mood. If something indeterminate ails me, I hang it up for long enough to write or draw a page or two of my dream. See if I feel better, less blue, more energized. My back won’t hurt, my allergies will recede. When I wake up at 3 a.m. with the ape chattering in my ear, I can only take so much lying there in the darkness. So I crawl out of bed, go to my desk and draw or write something, anything, Then my mind is eased, the chimp goes back to sleep and so do I.

How does the Voice monkey with you? I’d love to know…

The Voice.

monkeyWhy are you here? Here, on my blog, why are you here?

Are you here for the reason that I’m here? Which is, I think, because I have a vague itching inside that says ‘make something.’ But the thing I feel I ought to be doing when that impulse arises, namely drawing something, is somehow not appealing right now.  Maybe that’s because it’s after midnight, I’m sitting in the darkened cabin of an airplane flying to Tokyo, and the only thing I could draw at this moment is the dimly lit, freckled, meaty arm of the guy sleeping in the next seat. So I’m doing something else instead. Writing this.

But maybe a more honest reason why I’m typing instead of drawing is that I am afraid. I’m often a wee bit afraid when I start to make a drawing — yes, even now after zillions of drawings over a decade and a half. I’m afraid of the Voice. Not the TV show (though that can be scary too) but that teeny, nagging voice saying that the drawing will possibly (or probably) suck. The Voice isn’t always there when I uncap my pen, but it often pipes up once the first line starts to go down. “Oh, well, you blew that one. It’s all gonna be repair-work from here on.” Or “Better start cross hatching now, it looks flat and weak.” Or “Come on, let’s finish this one up and watch TV.” Or just “Puhleez … you cannot draw for beans, you worthless, posturing fraud.”

Whose voice is that?

I used to suppose it was my art/shop teacher from 6th grade. Or maybe it was my second stepfather. Or my father. Or my mother. Or a kid I knew in high school who was way cooler than almost all of us. Or a guy who thumbed through one of my books in a Barnes & Noble in Dayton and shrugged it back not the shelf. Or maybe it was your voice — maybe that was the real reason you came here today, to tell me how much this drawing will suck.

But I know now it’s not any of those voices. It’s one I know much better. It’s the voice that’s editing this blogpost as I write it. It’s critiquing my typing skills. It’s correcting my posture. It’s the voice of fear.

The voice that says,”Why bother? Why take a risk? Why put yourself out there? You suck, it will suck, and nothing good will come of it.”

It’s not Linda Blair’s possessed voice in the Exorcist. It’s not the sneering, sing-song voice of the bully that cracked open my head with a rock when I was eleven. It’s a voice that sounds just exactly like mine, though it whispers, hisses even, back there in my skillet darkness of my skull.

That voice doesn’t just concern itself with drawing. No, it has opinions about most things. Whether I should wear this shirt, whether I floss enough, whether I should have desert, what my client meant by that remark, whether I should write another book, teach another class, look for a new place to live, have another cookie. It’s a busy little voice and it can think of a good reason to be afraid of most decisions, of any impending event, big or small. It can give me umpteen reasons to do something tomorrow instead of now, to ask more and more people’s opinions before I make a move, can tell me what that stranger at the cocktail party will reply if I say hi. Despite its apparent rock-solid convictions about things, the voice is always willing to switch sides with alacrity if it will serve to unsettle me. It can say I’m not good enough — or too good. It can say I should settle for the easy way out — or tell me I always refuse to go the extra mile.

I imagine that voice coming from a smallish, hunched-over ape with bright eyes and twitching fingers crouching right behind the backside of my eyeballs. Sort of like Gollum, but meatier, furred. It’s the voice that tells me the water is too cold and too deep, the girl’s too pretty, the assignment’s too hard, the competition’s too stiff, the road’s too long.

This voice has the keys to the file room and knows the combination of the vault. It can use everything I know against me, push very button, pull every lever, and it is unrelenting. It is smarter than me and it has plenty of time on its hand.

Think about this — would the voice put so much effort into fighting me if it didn’t matter?  Do dragons guard empty caves? Maybe it’s so hard to do this because it matters so much?

But don’t worry about that now. It’s time to silence the voice.

Because it can be hushed. It can be beaten.

The secret is so easy, so simple, it took me ages to figure it out. I tried fighting back, debating, fresh approaches, corroborating opinions. But the answer, plain is simple, is to out-dumb it. To not look but just leap. To make not a plan but a move. To get the lead, or the ink, out. Now.

I pick up a pen and mindlessly start to draw. I don’t try to figure out what I’m drawing. I don’t consider the anatomy of the eyeball or the laws of light reflection or where the vanishing point should be. I don’t think about whether my proportions are off, or whether the subject is interesting, or whether my butt is falling asleep, or if the ink is soaking through the paper.

I am the whistling mule, head down, shoulder to the plow, just here to draw, ma’am, pushing the pen on and on. If the voice clambers out of its grotto and starts to harangue me, I switch to humming and I keep pushing that pen. And when the drawing is done, I don’t stop to look at it, I don’t evaluate it or make a few changes. I turn the page and I start the next one. I am not here to have drawn, I am here to be drawing.

And after a couple of pages, the voice has fallen silent. Given up because it is a bully and it can’t face defeat.  Poor little ape. See you tomorrow.

This blogpost is a demonstration of this secret weapon. I started writing with no real idea of what I wanted to say exactly but just an urge to say something.  And somehow I managed to get all these words typed and, when I get around to rereading them, I think they’ll stand up (I was about to start making some self-deprecating, parenthetic aside apologizing for how second-rate what I ended up doing is in fact, but screw it, I stand by these words and that monkey better get back in its box).

So, if you’re here because you’re killing time, time to get back to work. And if you’re looking for inspiration, you got it. Now, put on your expensive, high-performance drawing shoes and just do it.

It may well suck, but so what? A bad drawing beats no drawing every time. And good drawings are just bad drawings’ grandchildren.

What do you think? Do you ever hear the Voice? What do you say to it? Share with us.

Chatting. In my house. About stuff.

Recently Cynthia Morris came to visit me and we sat down for an interview because she wanted to know more about A Kiss Before You Go and the whole process of recording your life in a book.  Cynthia has started drawing fairly recently but she is a life coach and deals with creative people all the time. She describes her job as helping “people enjoy their talents and create on their own terms”.  I like that job description.  She gave me some solid advice on the direction my life is taking and I offered my own thoughts on how she could create an illustrated memoir.

Here’s a video we shot of the chat in my living room.

Cynthia posted her notes from a conversation we had once the camera was off about my advice on “8 Ways to Live an Illustrated Life“.  I hope it’s useful.

Finding your groove

The need to make something can be a tenacious itch, clawing to be released into the world. You can try to forget it — like an early summer mosquito bite — refusing to scratch it, aiming your mind elsewhere, hoping it will just go away.
If you suppress it too often, maybe you’ll succeed in dulling your senses, in refusing to heed that inner call. You’ll have managed to wrap yourself in a cocoon, impervious, detached. Congratulations, you can focus on what’s “important,” undistracted  — for now.

Sometimes, the reason you ignore that call is because you haven’t yet found the right way to scratch it. Not every medium is right for every artist. For some reason, maybe it’s physical or aesthetic, we may need to keep shopping for a while ‘till we find the right instrument.  Bassoon players are somehow different from conga drummers, dancers are different from print makers.  (I think it’s sort of strange that in high school band, teachers will often assign instruments to kids, rather than letting them find their perfect musical partner). You need to find your perfect groove.

A few years ago, I visited Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. It’s an amazing hive of artistic activity, all coming from people with various disabilities. I will never forget the energy in that room, with dozens of artists working all day, every day, making paintings, subjects, ceramics, mosaics, prints… it was overwhelming and beautiful. Creatively, these people seemed to have no disabilities or challenges; they’d all found their groove.


When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore recently, I re-encountered an artist who I’d met at Creative Growth years before. Judith Scott was born deaf, mute and with an IQ of 30. She was also a twin. When she was seven, she was sent away to an institution. She was separated from her sister (who was not disabled), and because of her low IQ, she wasn’t given any training of any kind. So she just sat and festered, neglected, alone.
After thirty-five years in the institution, her sister Joyce managed to spring Judith from the institution and bring her home to live with her. Soon Judith started going to Creative Growth. But at the start, she could not connect. She had no apparent interest in drawing or painting, drawing aimless scribbles and little more. She didn’t speak so no one knew what she needed to take off.

Then, one day, Judith wandered into a class given by a textile artist named Sylvia Seventy. She saw the skeins of yarn and spools of thread and suddenly found her passion.  But, instead of following the projects that Sylvia was leading the rest of the class through, Judith began to make her own sort of art, something radical and new. She wrapped objects in yarns and cloth, binding them together into cocoons and nests and complex interconnecting forms.  Much of her art seems to be about connection and twins,  binding together networks and forms into a powerful and non-verbal  emotional message. I can look at her piece for ages, following the colors and lines, and somehow feeling something so sweet and strong and comforting.
I’m not the only person who responded to Judith’s art. Her work is in the permanent collections of several museums and has been the subject of books, films and gallery shows. She made hundreds of amazing pieces in the last two decades of her life.

Judith passed away in 2005. She had lived to be 61, which is extraordinary for a person with Down’s syndrome.  I like to believe that her art and her sister’s love kept her going.

I love Judith’s story because it feel so familiar to me. I can identify with what it must have felt like to go from being abandoned in an institution to suddenly seeing the light, to discovering one’s medium, one’s voice, and to see it grow richer and more complex and expressive. And how easily she might never have found her medium and remained mute and locked down. Judith didn’t have the ability to wander through an art supply store, a museum, to trawl the web, and to find her groove.

True love doesn’t just appear. You have to keep your eyes open and look for it.  Just because you don’t yet know how to scratch it, don’t ignore that itch.

A waste?

global art junkieI was flattered when “Global Art Junkie” posted my Art of Breakfast video on her blog along with some lovely accompanying words. Then I was struck by a comment by a lady who said,

See, this is why I don’t get art journals. Here he’s made something wonderful, and it’s spread over two pages in a book. What a waste! Now he’s going to have to do it again if he wants it to be on one whole piece of paper, and it’s never going to be the same. At least, that how it would be with me. (emphasis added)

I appreciate her POV but felt obliged to explain myself in a comment of my own. You can read it here. What do you think?