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How did you get started making comics? I started reading comics around what you might call the predawn of the graphic novel era. When I was in high school, a few major works came out, including Maus, Dark Knight and the Watchmen. That was also the first wave of the “Biff! Bang! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” articles, which were part of a sense that this was a turning point for a new medium. Which it was. It just took a lot longer to turn than I realized it would.

When I got to college, I discovered Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers, among other complex and mature works. That was a huge influence on me because I went from being a really big comics fan to wanting to make them myself.

Really, the interesting question is not so much how I got started making comics—because comics are an incredible art form—but why I keep making them now that I’ve figured out how hard they are to do and how hard it is to make a career out of them. I don’t know that I have the answer, but it’s a good question I’ve often asked myself.

You’ve created books about radio storytelling. Why does the radio and podcast world inspire you? When you draw comics, you spend a lot of hours drawing and inking, where your eyes are busy but your ears are free. So I’ve been paying attention to radio for a very long time as a listener, but the fact that I’m working in audio storytelling and have strong connections with that world is totally a fluke.

I was creating nonfiction reportage comics for a local paper in Chicago when I lived there in the ’90s. This American Life was based in Chicago at the time, and Ira Glass cut one of my comics out of the paper. Then, a few years later, he had a brilliant idea for a public radio pledge drive premium: a comic book about how they made This American Life. He got in touch with me, and we created Radio: An Illustrated Guide in 1999. It walks the reader through the stages of production of This American Life—what they did, and still do for the most part, to create a show.

There was nothing else like it at the time. As a result, it became a go-to text over the next ten years as the world of long-form audio narrative was exploding with all kinds of voices in different directions. It continued to sell, and I would meet people in odd places who told me they were big fans. I even met a few people who had become radio producers because of my book. I saw that there was a need and a market for more of this type of information, and so I got to work on Out on the Wire, a book about the storytelling techniques of the very best narrative audio producers in America—people like Ira Glass, Alex Blumberg, Stephanie Foo and Chana Joffe-Walt.

Kind of fluky. But still, it absolutely aligns with my interest in narrative and storytelling and how story is constructed. Everything I cover in Out on the Wire—with some small exceptions, like sound design for novelists—is completely transferable to any other narrative art form.

Part of our job is to create and safeguard space and time to think.”
 
How have your experiences in France and Mexico informed your work as a storyteller? I lived abroad in Mexico from 1998 to 2000. I was working as an illustrator for American clients and earning dollars while spending pesos, which made those two years the first time since I was fifteen that I’d been able to not have a day job. That was when I began working for myself as an artist, and it was a major step for me.

When I moved to France for four years, the move itself was a much bigger deal. I was a homeowner, married, with two kids, teaching, in the middle of a couple of books, editing The Best American Comics and just absolutely at my limit. My husband was as well. When we left, I went from having an absolutely jam-packed calendar to having a totally empty calendar, and I suddenly felt able to decide what I wanted to do with my time.

In both cases, the freedom I experienced had less to do with the place itself than not having a full, structured life. I artificially created this enormous margin to think and breathe. And in both cases, by the time I left, life was just about as busy and full and crazy as it had been before I arrived.

Gaining margin—time and space—even temporarily is an amazing benefit to living abroad. But, in a larger sense, for any artist or creative person to spend a period of time living abroad—and I don’t mean a few weeks, I mean months or ideally years—is an invaluable experience, especially when you’re creating narrative art. I wrote a blog post about it, where I came up with a metaphor that I think really explains this: bas-relief sculptures.

Characters from your own culture are like bas-relief sculptures. You can describe parts of their outlines and see how they’re different from one another, but they’re built into this bedrock of culture that’s invisible to you because you’re a part of that same substrate. You can’t see all the way around your American-ness—or wherever you’re from–ness—until you can see it from the outside. From the inside, it’s really hard to understand what it means, in my case, to be an American, or an American woman, or a White American woman. But when you can rip yourself from that bas-relief block of stone that you’ve been attached to from birth, so much becomes understandable—and much more useful from an artistic point of view.

You offer advice and coaching to help creative people take full control of their lives. What’s an example of something you’ve written about that’s really resonated with other creative people? My best-known article is called “Imagining Your Future Projects Is Holding You Back.” It’s about the concept of “idea debt,” a term that came from cartoonist Kazu Kibuishi. I was interviewing him for my Out on the Wire podcast, and he was talking about how impossible making his huge, seven-part graphic novel Amulet would have been if he’d thought about it too hard.

He said that he sees a lot of younger cartoonists carrying around this huge burden of what he calls idea debt.

He used the analogy of snowboarding. When he’s going down runs, he often sees young snowboarders gathered around the tops of jumps, checking them out. It looks like they’re assessing the situation, making sure they’re going to take the best path. But, as Kazu pointed out, they’re getting colder as they stand there. Also, the overwhelming hugeness of hitting that jump and being cool and making it awesome is getting bigger and bigger as they stand there.

His philosophy is: hit the jump or skip it.

As I see it, there are two kinds of idea debt. What Kazu is mostly talking about is what I call Type P, for perfectionism. You allow something to get bigger and bigger in your mind, and then your ability to actually achieve what you imagine gets weaker as you sit and think about what it could or should be like. The flip side is what I call Type N, for nostalgia, which is when you hold on to an idea for so long that you feel like you owe it to some earlier version of yourself to shepherd it to fruition.

Idea debt has become a core piece of what I now call the Creative 360. It’s part of my Creative Focus Workshop as well as my coaching process. In the Creative 360, we assess all of the things that are already in the mix in your creative life, which is a prerequisite for making the necessary hard decisions about it.

How should creative professionals measure their productivity? I help people with productivity, but I resist putting productivity as a first concern. We are not machines cranking out widgets. We’re creative professionals, making work that adds sublime value to the world. Part of our job is to create and safeguard space and time to think, and to go into a place of flow where we can create things that will change the world in some way. If you’re producing that kind of work, you are productive enough, and you simply need to continue to guard that time.

It’s incredibly dangerous for creatives to get into a state where they feel like they need to make more and more and more. It’s not healthy, nor does it help you get to a place of financial stability because when you’re in that state, you’re not making smart decisions about what is going to pay the bills, what will get you to the next level, how you are going to get paid more for less work, and how you are going to build your platform to the point where your work is being valued as it should be by the world. All of those things are big, strategic thoughts, and you’re not going to get there if you’re busy trying to cram more stuff in.

Productivity is the outcome of getting clear on what you want, making space for the things that are most important to you and then having systems to help you get through the hard parts. That’s how you get there.

What advice do you have for making marketing more enjoyable? Don’t try to muscle anybody into doing anything they don’t want to do. Don’t wheedle or even try to convince. Instead, invite people to participate in what you’re doing. Go where the people who are into your thing already are, and do something that will make them happy. It becomes so much less burdensome to talk to people when you realize that what you’re doing is making relationships and connections with other human beings around something that will make their lives better.

Cartoonist and coach Jessica Abel works with ambitious midcareer creative professionals and businesses to help them start carving out the deep focus needed to finish and launch their most important work. Abel is the author of Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life; the graphic novel La Perdida, winner of the 2002 “Best New Series” Harvey Award; two collections of stories from her 1990s omnibus comic book Artbabe; and the graphic documentary and podcast Out on the Wire. She coauthored the graphic novel Life Sucks, and her latest work of fiction is the Eisner-nominated Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. Abel and her husband, cartoonist Matt Madden, were series editors for The Best American Comics from 2007 to 2013. Together, they created two textbooks about making comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. She is the chair of the Illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and lives with her family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Headshot by Maria Teicher

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