February 26, 2013

I hope you don’t think I know what I’m doing. I hope you don’t think I have it all together. My comic essays aren’t about truths I have mastered, but about truths I struggle to embody everyday.

I’m currently in a season where I struggle with fear.

My publisher has decided to wait and see how well my books sell before they offer me more work. It is a time of waiting and wondering and watching the money in the bank dwindle. I’m afraid.

Have you ever felt like the money you have in the bank is like a fuse on a bomb? The money burns down and down, and when it all burns up, your life will blow up. If only I could make that fuse so long I’d never have to watch it burn. I’m afraid.

So let’s talk about fear, everybody. I think many artists struggle with fear, but don’t talk about it nearly enough.

Fear comes from believing your art will make you happy.

I wrote an essay about this, I should know better, right? But one of the reasons I’ve been struggling so much lately is I keep believing that being a successful cartoonist will make me happy. This flawed belief paints my situation in a radically fearful light. A small gap in cartooning work turns into a huge crisis where I wonder if I’ll ever have a chance at being happy again.

Someday I hope to start a family, but lately I’ve wondered if I’d be able to support a family by drawing comics. Perhaps I’d have to leave the job I love and find other work. And suddenly, I find myself in a dark place where I begin thinking that a wife and kids would be a roadblock to my happiness. Do you see how poisonous is the lie that art will make you happy?

Fear also comes from the illusion of control.

I’ve begun to draw a lot lately in an attempt to improve my skills. My theory is that the more skill I have, the more job security I will have.

This has lead me to a bad head space where I feel like what I see on the page is an arbitrary indicator of how well I’m doing in life. If my drawing is good, I feel like life is good, and I will be okay. If my drawing is bad, I fear for my career and my future.

If you were to ask my insanely talented artist friend Nicholas Kole if great skill provides great security, he would laugh at you. Take a look at this series of beautifully designed monsters Nick did as a concept artist at 38 Studios. He’s great, isn’t he? I admire his stuff a lot, which makes it hard for me to accept that he’s currently looking for work after 38 Studios abruptly went under. Being talented has nothing to do with job stability.

Do you feel my fear? Are you scared now too? Don’t be afraid– here’s some encouraging thoughts:

The truth is, you are not in control, and that is a good thing.

Life is such a myriad of diverse variables it is a nightmare to try and control. You are not in control of everything, so give yourself permission to stop worrying about what you can’t change.

Furthermore, when you think about it, do you really want to be in control?

When I really think about it, I don’t want my life to be the story of how I willfully seized everything I wanted. A good story involves struggle, hope and perseverance. It is the very possibility that I might not make it in the art world that fills me with excitement and thankfulness when I do manage to achieve something.

So I will keep hoping and waiting and struggling. I do believe I’m going to make great work someday, but even if I never find the success I’m hoping for, that’s okay. I am not defined by my art, and my happiness does not lie in my art. I will be thankful for the people in my life who love me, not for my art, but because I’m me.



I’ve been starting new projects and searching for new types of income, so I’ve had little time to work on the Doodle Alley essays, but fear not, I do plan to finish this series of comics about creative sustainability. In fact, I’m currently looking for a publisher who would consider making this collection of essays into a book. Does anyone have any ideas?

Speaking of new types of income, I’ve started to take commissions! Do you have an idea that you’d like to make into a cool drawing like the one below? Just email me and I’ll give you a quote!


30 Responses to THE FEAR

  1. Interview with Comics Are Great! | on February 26, 2013 at 12:15 am

    [...] new season of life has been a bit difficult for me as I look for more work and am forced to reinvent myself as an artist. But I have been growing a [...]

  2. Toru on February 26, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Hm… Getting back to the topic of you being or not your art, and identifying your happiness with your art… OK, I can accept it, but… making things that I like, whether if they are comics or just illustrations, does make me happy. I do feel happy when I manage to make something that I’m satisfied with. Then again, I certainly feel miserable and afraid and stressed when I think I’m not improving my art, I’m not good enough and maybe I never will. Anyway, that’s not the only thing that makes me happy. The people that I love make me happy, too, even more. But, hey, they can also hurt me, and sometimes they do, right? I suppose what can make you happy can also make you sad, because you care. But you can’t be fearing and worrying all the time. In that I completely agree – you can’t be worrying all the time for what you can’t change. Rather invest all the energy of worrying into working for what worries you… or into something that you like or makes you relax!

    This is just a bit of a random reflection about what you’ve been writing, nothing else ^^. I’m no near of being a professional artist, or even a good artist, but I certainly try and care about it. I’ve been reading your blog and find it very interesting, and what you wrote about ‘You are not your art’ made me think a lot, but I had nothing insightful to post then.

    Regards ^^.

    • stephen on February 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      Good thoughts Toru– there’s definitely a difference between taking satisfaction from you art, and taking your identity from your art. I struggle most with the latter–

      I appreciate you following along with the blog!

  3. ollwenjones on February 26, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I think there’s a little of this in any competitive career field. I think it’s worse in the arts, because they tend to be very competitive, and you’re more likely to be self-employed (no long-term 8-5 m-f employer).

    Some friends and I have talked about figuring out some other steady thing, like running a car wash, say, so that our art is freed of the burden of feeding our families. Then it could be whatever you wanted it to be. Even Doug TenNapel has mentioned being jealous of a former neighbor who is retired military. The trouble with that route is it can be almost impossible making the time to do it and do it with excellence.

    I’m not sure you can really divorce your vocation from your identity. I think it really is a facet of who you are. At least in our achievement-oriented culture, it’s extremely difficult not to perceive it that way. However if it becomes the most important facet of your identity then you’re in trouble, as you’ve illustrated so well. That’s why we need something central to our identity with enough gravity to hold the other parts in safe orbit. I think you have one, but we all forget.

    On a simpler note: As a cartoonist, you’re not just an artist, you’re also a writer! Not that it’s easy for writers, either, but it is a unique combination of gifts. :)

  4. Jenn on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Hey Stephen! I just wanted to drop a line and say hello!

    I think a lot of people mistake their work (or their art) as definitions of who they are as people. I think it’s because it’s an easy way to look at something and define yourself. If someone likes the work you do, then it’s easy to say that they like you, or that you are likeable.

    I’m not so sure that these things are true though: I’ve met plenty of great people who never get any of the recognition that they deserve, and I’ve met plenty of people that are very well regarded in their fields of expertise who I wouldn’t want to spend any amount of time with.

    Sometimes good things happen to good people, and sometimes bad things happen to them too.

    For the record, you are a neat guy, and I’m glad I got to meet you at the Albuquerque Comic Con. You also continue to blow me away with your art every time I reread through Mal and Chad, and I am very excited to see what you do next!

    • stephen on March 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks Jenn! You and John have been such positive supporters– I appreciate the great insights!

  5. John on February 28, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Currently reading “Practice the Presence of God”. Read this quote in there today…“That GOD always gave us light in our doubts, when we had no other design but to please Him.”

    Excerpt From: Lawrence, Brother. “Practice of the Presence of God.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library ( iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

    Check out this book on the iBookstore:

  6. Kait on March 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Recently, I came to the conclusion that fear is “not knowing that you are loved.” 1 John 4:18 says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” Lately, the way I’ve been dealing with fear is focusing on how dearly I am loved.

    • stephen on March 4, 2013 at 5:17 pm

      You’re right, thanks Kait! <3

  7. Katie K. on March 2, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    I had assumed that the lack of updates meant that you were in a bit of a slump, and unfortunately my assumption was correct. I don’t really have anything helpful or insightful to say. I just wanted to let you know that there are strangers on the Internet who support you!

    Maybe this is kind of insightful/helpful (and I hope I’m not repeating anything to you): I have been struggling with depression and anxiety for years. (Way to make this about you, Katie.) I was searching for the thing that would grant me happiness–going to college, buying every single (credible) how-to-draw book, etc.–and I never got it.

    There’s a myth in American culture that other people have achieved happiness, as though it can be a permanent state. We look at the people whom we think are “happy” and we want to know their secret. (This is especially true on social media, where others can project a “better” version of themselves.) But they’re thinking the same thing. There isn’t a happiness plateau, where one reach happiness and then is satisfied for the rest of one’s life. You can’t be happy forever, and that’s disheartening. But if you keep trying to achieve this happiness, then you’ll NEVER be happy.

    So while it seems so depressing that we can’t all just be happy people, we CAN make it through the tough times to reach happy moments.

    I hope that everything works out for you, even if it’s not the way you intended. (Although someone get a publisher to publish that book!!) Your essays have been invaluable to me, and we are all so lucky that you share your talent with us on the Internet. Good luck with everything! :)

    • stephen on March 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks Katie K–

      Yeah, I have been struggling with discouragement and depression recently. You’re right, the pursuit of happiness can actually be really depressing!

      It’s been great to have friends and family comfort me. I feel like I know the truth about my identity and my value, I have to pray and ask God to help me actually believe the things I know are true.

      Hope you’re doing well, btw!

  8. Bethany on March 6, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    I found your blog, comics, ect. recently and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your work! You do a wonderful job at creating things that are honest and meaningful.
    I can really identify with linking my art to my purpose in life. On the days that I don’t create anything I feel like I’ve failed to justify my existence. Not giving into that mindset is going to take me a lifetime to learn.

  9. Akryl on March 21, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    That commission thingy in the end is trying to make the fuse longer, and it’s something that might feed your fear… unless the fuse got really really short. Good luck to you in both cases, friend. I hope times turn better for you very soon.

  10. Lucy on March 26, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Stephen

    Thanks for a bit of perspective! I needed that. I struggle with the same thing; only with being a scientist rather than an artist. I think, if my research is good then I’ll be happy, and if I’m not constantly impressing my supervisors and doing extra-great work then it’s not good then I won’t get funding for a new project and I won’t be happy. I think that sort of a fear is universal to most if not all professions. You have a knack for capturing universal problems, both in art and words.

    As for publishing, have you considered crowd-sourcing funding for publication from something like Kickstarter? A book of your comics and essays sounds like ideal kickstarter material in my opinion. I would totally back that. I know a lot of people who’d benefit from that sort of advice and a book of it would make a very thoughtful gift, so it’s something that’s likely to sell well. If you haven’t heard of Kickstarter, you should look into it.

    best wishes

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  13. Kevin on May 23, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    I love your blog! Very insightful stuff.

    A couple of things to consider about The Fear:

    “Know Your Zero.” What is the rock-bottom that you could stand living at? When I was young, my Zero was being homeless. Knowing my Zero enabled me to take chances and know that even if I “lost everything” I would still be in a good state to build up again from scratch. Sort of a variation on your riff of making Failure your friend. I’m older now and better off now. My Zero is now probably where you are now. When you’re young you have less to lose so take chances!

    “This One’s for Art, This One’s for Groceries.” I once was a fan-boy of a writer who was struggling with some of the same issues you are. The way he dealt with it was to work on art and on supporting himself. As an artist, he would write short stories, as a breadwinner he would write ad copy, or work as a janitor or a waiter or whatever else would help him make rent.

    Keep on keeping on!


    • stephen on June 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Those are some great insights! Thanks for sharing those!

  14. Mrs.Wight on September 29, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Hi! I just wanted to let you know that my third grade class really enjoys your Mal and Chad books. I bought 2 in a pack at first. One reader asked on our class wish list: Mal and Chad 3,4,5,6,7,8,9…. They were sad when I said there was only 1 more we could buy. I have just ordered it and can’t wait to see their face when it comes in! Thank you for keeping my readers interested and wanting to read!

  15. Chantal on October 17, 2013 at 4:16 am

    I prefer to think art is something that makes me happy, and that I can have it no matter where I am in life or what I’m doing. Unlike money in the bank it cannot be lost, it’s something that will always be there where ever I go.

    I don’t think of it as who I am, but a chunk of me, a immovable chunk of me that I will always have. It will follow me where ever I go, no matter what I do.

    Maybe I’m not yet at the point where I can really say anything, but I still find it comforting to think that no matter what I do and no matter where I go it’ll still be a part of my life.

    • stephen on October 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      I think that’s fair– and I’m glad you can take comfort in your art!

      I think for me it’s the opposite– the better an artist I become and the more precious my art gets, the easier it is to be afraid. What if I go blind or hurt my hands? What if my art is not good enough to make a living out on and I have to put it aside to go find different work? Those questions can plague me.

      Thanks for sharing!

  16. Schwpz on November 16, 2013 at 11:45 am

    It’s incredible where following a curious link might get you. I stumbled here upon coincidence, really, but found in your comic essays a profound wisdom and inspiration that really touched me. The timing of this discovery is quite astonishing too, almost making it hard to believe it was coincidence. I see that I’m two days late with backing your Kickstarter, so it won’t let me pledge, but I would really love a copy of your book. What can I do to get a copy? Where can I buy it?
    Thank you for having made my day a little brighter. Wishing you all the inspiration in the world! :)

    • stephen on November 18, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks for being here!

      I plan to set up a store where you can order both print and digital copies of the book– but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Stay tuned!

  17. Gabrielle on November 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you so very much for writing this post. All of your posts are lovely, but this one is the most helpful to me. It is brave. It helps to hear the fear in real-time, rather than when it’s over. Thank you for all your work. Thank you.

    • stephen on November 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      I’m glad it was helpful! I originally wasn’t sure if I should post about my insecurities and anxieties– I didn’t want to look weak. I’m glad it helped!

  18. Zoe on November 26, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Stephen, I think you’re great!

    I would love to support you by buying your book/s.
    Can you post a link to that (did you make the doodley alley book yet? I want it!) and also send it to my email??

    Thank you! :D

  19. Zoe on November 26, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Oh, and I’m sharing you on Facebook. (loved the failure piece)

  20. Laura on November 26, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Just wanted to say I’m glad I found your blog and subscribed to your newsletter – I really enjoy page 15 of Secret of a Great Artist “because that’s what artists are supposed to do” – it made me crack up!

    Happy to have found you!

    • stephen on December 3, 2014 at 1:23 am

      Me too! Thanks!

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