When I sit down to draw something, I often start by looking at the negative space, the parts of the picture that aren’t the subject. I draw the sky behind the building, the floor under the chair, the wall behind the person. It’s a way of overcoming assumptions and getting a fresh perspective on what’s right under my beak.
Let me tell you about the negative space that defines the past few months of my life. The things I stopped doing — so I could do what I did instead.
The most obvious decision is that I stopped writing posts here. I had been writing pretty regularly on and off since 2003 and it has been a really valuable part of my process. This blog has given me a place to try out ideas, to get perspective in what I’m doing, to scratch my writing itch, to make jokes, and to talk to you. But.
When I went to summer camp in my tweens, we had to write a letter home twice a week. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a rule. In fact, these letters home were called “Meal Tickets” because if you didn’t have a letter in a stamped, addressed envelope clutched in your grubby hand, you couldn’t have dinner that day. No one vetted the contents of the letter itself, it could say anything, but you had to show up with it or starve.
Of course, being a snotty pubescent, the letters I wrote grew more and more perfunctory, a simple “how are you? I am fine” and my parents would probably have preferred I saved the stamp money.
When I started to blog, back in the days of coal-powered laptops, I was really only writing for Richard Bell and Roz and a few other pals, and this was just a place to play, to experiment, to record ideas and muck about. I’d write thoughtful things, silly things, fantasies, pseudo-academic theories, advice, and what have you.
But in the ensuing years, while I was playing, blogging became a science, a marketing platform, a job, and I became “a blogger” and felt I had to follow the emerging code.
Earlier in the year, a well-meaning friend told me I must blog consistently and regularly to be taken seriously. She told me I should have a theme for each day so people knew what to expect on Tuesdays, say, and every other Friday.
For a whole I tried this, diligently churning out themed pieces, ripe for sharing. Not sure if you noticed.
Then another friend said I should make quotes in sharable visual form and put those out there. “I tried that too.”—Danny Gregory
Someone else said my blog posts needed to be shorter and pithier for busy people. So I cut back on my verbosity and shelved my thesaurus.
Then I worried I was blogging too much and wouldn’t have anything left to put in my next book.
Then I went through a dark and insecure time of not feeling I had anything useful to say at all but had to write anyway.
I know that you, dear reader, are saying ‘what a lot of poppycock and hornswoggle’, but such is the predicament of an aging hipster in skinny jeans trying to remain current. Like it or not, in an age of diminishing marketing support from publishers, blogs and the attendant audience-building have become an essential part of an author’s job. You and I are just working for the Man, making up for the publishing industry’s declining fortunes, by developing a strong bond into which books can be inserted and credit card charges extracted.
I hate to think that this was the purpose of all these posts, to sell stacks of paper and feather executive nests, but such is the reality of life in the trenches.
A friend told me last week that her agent said that thanks to her Facebook following (built on pithy illustrated quotes) she could expect a seven-figure advance for any books she chose to write. What should it be about, she asked? Doesn’t matter, he replied, just see what you can do to get your numbers even higher, then you have carte blanche.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I went on blog strike or anything. My days at the barricades are long gone.
But I did decide that I am going to blog just because I want to and if that means that a lot of casual first-time readers looking for quotes to jazz up their Pintrest boards miss out on a few of my pithier jpegs, so be it. If the sales of Art Before Breakfast–the Workbook are less than stellar because of my principled stand and shirked responsibilities, I will gladly resort to eating day-old bread, shaving with dull blades, and selling one of my dogs. Sorry, Tim.
And if the head counselor has to call my parents again because I have refused to hand in any more meal tickets and my ribs are sticking painfully through my delicate birdcage of a chest, I will hang my head and take the tongue lashing.
By the by, I expected that suddenly vanishing from the scene would cause some sort of ripple, that people used to getting a regular 7 a.m. email of my latest musing would notice the void, but that didn’t happen. Not by a long stretch.
In the two months I stopped blogging, I got a single plaintive message asking if I was okay. Otherwise, radio silence from my myriad ‘fans’. The hordes I imagined waiting with bated breath for every pearl of wisdom that dripped from my keyboard were evidently all out playing Pokemon Go. My moment appeared to have passed.
Blogging was the one thing on the Internet I occasionally missed. I didn’t feel that way at all about Twitter, which I similarly vacated. I have always found the limitations of 140 characters to be a pointless ball and chain on my verbosity. I realize this platform is an essential one of our age, propelling some even to the gates of Pennsylvania Avenue, but if you want me to write punchy headlines and short body copy, you’ll have to pay my day rate. I wrote thousands of 30-second TV scripts that had to be 72 words or less and I’ll chafe at the limitation no more.
I find reading Twitter posts to be mindless gum-chewing, looking for meaningful insights in fortune cookies. I like language and can take it undiluted. And I don’t care what you think of what someone else said about something else somewhere else all telegrammed in cryptic #s, contractions and acronyms. If you have some thing to say, just say it. At length. Thoughtfully.
Increasingly, brevity is the essence of the halfwitted.
This spring, I launched a podcast. It was based on my most recent book, Shut Your Monkey. Podcasting has become quite the thing these days, I like to talk, and I have a lot of interesting friends so I thought I’d give it a go.
I intended the podcast to be an ongoing discussion about the inner critic and I brought in a fairly impressive group of experts to discuss with me.
I asked listeners to help turn it into a dialogue, a forum on this all-important subject, an opportunity to swap ideas and experiences. I set up a system for people to record their own ‘monkey tales’ so I could put them on the air. I invited questions and thoughts via email too.
The dialogue part of the effort didn’t pan out. Two listeners recorded messages and one of them was mainly of a dog barking.
Nonetheless, I got quite a lot out of the experience and the discussions and enjoyed much of it.
But over time and as my plate got filled with lots of other things, the podcast became a bit of a Meal Ticket too. Each week I was writing a show, lining up an interview, recording and mixing it, then writing a newsletter and a blog post on dog.com and monkeypodcast.com to explain my experience of the discussion and share other bits and bobs to flesh things out. That in addition to the Skool, my blog, my books, drawing, other projects, navel-gazing and haircuts.
I came to realize that a) the expectations of recording quality in a podcast have gone way up since I had my first go at it ten years or so ago (most of the emails I did get were to complain about my sound mix) and b) that all the podcasts I admired were actually produced by a whole team of dedicated, qualified people doing what I was trying to do alone.
Without explanation, I suspended the podcast and again, heard from no one wondering why. That meant I could chill, not feel guilty at my latest abrogation of duty, and think about other things.
I have material for another half-dozen episodes and when I get around to it, maybe when the evenings grow long and cold, I’ll cobble them together, at least for my own benefit. I have learned so much from all my wise guests and I look forward to listening to all these interviews again.
Another thing I got out of my monkeypodcast experience was the fun of writing a newsletter. It’s quite different from blogging. It feels more one-to-one and more disposable and I found myself writing in a nuttier, more provocative way, tossing off jokes and asides.
What with all the obituaries being written for blogs, I have been thinking replacing (or maaaaybe, augmenting) this blog with a weekly newsletter.
Would you like that?
I’d make it fairly weekly (but not in a meal ticket way), and it would be delivered right to you, in full.
It would mean you would no longer be in the position of saying “Whatever happened to Gregory?” or “I wonder what he’s griping about now.” Instead, you’d know, because it was all there — in your spam folder.
“Newsletter” is such a dreadful term, though. It smacks of Rotary Clubs and dentists and earnest Methodists. And now of “Growth hackers” those horrible, young hard-salespeople who churn out clickbait headlines like “10 ways to immediately transform your sales funnel/diet/credit rating — just sign up for our free newsletter/ebook/infographic…” (I should probably shut up about this. At Sketchbook Skool we sometime resort to this sort of thing and it works embarrassingly well. I’m an old-school brand marketing guy and all this sort of DM, John Caples stuff makes me cringe.)
Anyway, if you think I should do this, I probably won’t call it a newsletter. Maybe , I dunno, a love letter?
Oh, yeah, Instagram. Most of my artists pals love it and boast of their zillions of followers and likes. It leaves me cold. I’m not into mindlessly thumbing through hundreds of drawings representing thousands of hours of work. It’s too much like Tinder for my liking. And besides I’m married.
Same thing. Been there, done that, don’t care. Maybe if I was going to reredo my kitchen or pick out a bridal gown, but it feels like too much of a mindless mind-suck for me. One clueless grouch’s opinion.
It’s nice, it’s friendly, but I do not miss it. This summer, Facebook felt like standing on the bank of a broad, fast-moving, and very shallow river. Like wandering through a work Christmas party at a huge company, full of people I sorta know, gussied up, sharing banalities, till occasionally someone has one drink too many and says something honest and embarrassing.
It’s an important place, Facebook, the gathering spot for today’s community, but there’s too much din for me, too much chaff, and I figure if anything important goes on, someone I know in the real world will tell me about it, probably in person.
The exception: the Sketchbook Skool group. I love feeling the creative energy there, a community of people who have gotten to know each other over a long time and through a shared passion and that feels like a real family. So I hung out there some this summer, but even that less often.
I was thinking I’d write a new book this summer. I had two (!) out this year but the wheels of the publishing industry turn slow and today’s notion is 2018’s publication.
I started off with two ideas. One was to write a memoir of my family, an unusual bunch. I’d delve into why my grandparents went from Germany to Italy to India in the ’30s, why my mother got married three times before I was ten, why I went to 18 schools on four continents, why my uncle’s estrangement from the family was on the front page of the NY Times, and other questions.
I also thought about writing some sort of more definitive book about creativity, to go beyond drawing to everything I have experienced and researched about how we do and don’t make things, where ideas come from, how to get better at it, why we fear it, how to encourage a new generation of creators, why society is so ambivalent toward creative people, why there’s so much myth around the whole thing, and why and how the role of creativity in our culture is changing so much right now, from the disintegration for publishing and music to the explosion of startups and technology.
I couldn’t commit to either project yet. The first felt too personal and limited in its appeal. The latter too well trammelled.
I also hesitated because I am unsure about the form. Do I need to write another book? I’ve written ten or so already — what would an eleventh accomplish?
I am resigned to the fact that I will never be Elizabeth Gilbert or Austin Kleon or Julia Cameron or Betty Edwards or SARK or Bob Ross. With no false humility, I know I occupy a narrower orbit. Maybe I lack bravura. Or hair. Maybe I am too prone to beard stroking and muttering into my teacup to be in the pantheon of creative diagnosticians.
So that’s one thing. But also, whither publishing? I had a fairly disastrous experience with the publisher of Shut Your Monkey, a book I expected to be of much broader interest than they were able to drum up. What am I getting for the 93% of my book sales they keep? I conceive, write, illustrate, design and market my books. They print and ship ’em. My editor at Chronicle is lovely but she costs me a lot.
So, should I make more books? Should I just publish them myself? Should they just be digital? How will I sell them?
Or should I put my energy into making courses instead? I have lots of ideas for things that I could teach and talk about in videos and that seems to touch people in a more direct way than books people read once (hopefully) and put on the shelf.
Or should I just blog? Write everything I am thinking here (or in my hypothetical news/loveletter, remember?)and find some other way to buy dog food?
This summer, I had a lot to think about in the negative space. Positive stuff that will help make me more balanced, creative, and happy.
I also realized I do too much. I go in too many directions and not far enough. If I can decided to focus on one thing rather than all the many directions I pull myself, maybe I will discover a new sense of being.
I have lots of plans, lots of dreams, but I have newfound respect and understanding for the importance of empty space, to set priorities among those many ambitions to do the things that I truly care about and enjoy the most.
Life is short, I only have about fifty years to go, so I better get to it. By next summer, things will be pretty different.
Let me know what you think about all this. I really appreciate your feedback.
Meanwhile, my meal ticket is done and I’m going in to lunch.