the agony and the angst of works in progress

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Any creator, in any field, will tell you that when it comes to launching their project/book/artwork/play/invention into the big ole world, a certain inner turmoil descends upon 'release'.

What will people think?

What will they say?

How will they react?

Will they be offended?

Will I be panned, canned or slammed?

Will they LIKE it?

Having pondered these questions many a time in my career, I've only recently come to the biggest (and most meaningful) question of all . . .

Does it really matter?

Some might say yes. Perhaps if people LIKE our work, we'll win awards. Or we'll sign more contracts. Or gain renown. Or finally snag that holiday home on the Amalfi Coast.


But also, maybe not.

My children's book obsession (particularly picture books) spans 35 years, and I'd like to think I know a little bit about said books, especially since founding Kids' Book Review in 2009, but most especially because a heck of a lot of my waking hours are spent immersed in picture books in some form or another, from writing, editing, studying, designing and constructing, to analysing, illustrating or just plain enjoying them.

Despite all of my experience and passion, however, I'm acutely aware that what I like in a book is still completely subjective. Naturally. There are plenty of award-winning and highly-lauded books I really don't like--not even in the tiniest fragment of a bit. There are plenty of highly-esteemed illustrators whose work barely raises a blip on my enthusiasm radar, and some I think is downright awful. And there are plenty of awards handed out to books that confound me to a point of numb and aimless wandering.

Does this mean these books or artworks are 'bad'. No! Not at all! They are absolutely brilliant! To some. Or maybe even to many.

Therein lies the rub.

If published works (of any kind, not just picture books) are so utterly vulnerable, lying on the market slab with their throats bared to the whims and fancy and interpretation (or misinterpretation) and likes and dislikes and opinions and ethe and political beliefs of Everyone and Anyone, why do we place so much importance on the LIKE? Even awards judges are subject to subjectivity. Naturally!

So, why the agony? What purpose does it serve other than misery? So long as we are creating and doing what we love without harming anyone, isn't that all that matters?

I can hear you, my creativity-resplendent reader, thinking 'all of this is nothing new', and you're right. The point of this post, though, goes beyond what people think of published work. It's about the agony and the angst of works in progress. Works no one (or few) has even laid eyes on yet.

Case in point: my first self-illustrated book.

The concept has been in my mind and heart for many years, and to be able to illustrate the entire work myself, after 25+ years of illustration hiatus . . . well, this opportunity rose above and beyond 'dream' and into something quite unimaginable.

Yes, it's been happy-making. And the first couple of months prepping for this book and researching and trying out illustrations, has been creative nirvana--pure and unfettered.

Until . . .

As the creation and concepts for this book have unfolded, I've begun to exist in a quiet sort of gradually-escalating agony over something. And that something is really quite pathetic. And ridiculous. And surprising.

I mean, I've always known that illustrating a book is going to open me up to a whole other world of criticism and opinion (double whammy for Author/Illustrators, but especially tough because I'm 'new' to this side of things within the industry), but to be already worrying an entire year before this book even hits the shelves, has really taken me by surprise.

I'm terrified of being judged. And my work isn't even controversial.

Actually, let me clarify. When I say 'judged' I don't mean the way people view (like or dislike) my illustrations or text or book concept. What worries me is more pure 'judgment'. How some may judge me as a person. A woman. Not as an author or illustrator. As a human being.

Perhaps I've been scarred by some recent abuse on Goodreads (removing myself from that site is an open refusal to support a platform that thrives and encourages abuse--if you're unaware of the anti-author stance Goodreads takes, just google it!), or maybe it's because I'll soon be published as an illustrator, I'm not sure--but my fear of being personally judged via the interpretation or misinterpretation of my work by some, is something I'm sick over.

People can dislike my work. They can even hate it--that doesn't worry me in the least. But to publicly vilify authors over content interpretation or misinterpretation or books that are NOT HOW THE READER WANTS THEM TO BE, is unacceptable--and honestly? terrifying. Because it pretty much typifies the dark side of the internet--something that's having real life effects on real life people. With real hearts and minds. It's particularly terrifying because, as a creator, you're expected to remain unmoved and completely mute. You're expected to just cop it.

Even if it's libel. (As is frequently the case with Goodreads.)

Why is that? Do creators not have rights? Because they put something out into the world, does that automatically remove their right to defend themselves against defamation? Against trolls and haters? Since when did the trolls and haters and keyboard warriors gather up and squirrel away all the rights? Are people out there seriously good with this now? and more than happy for the beings of the underworld to steal the light???

Because I'm not! And I'm strong enough to stand tall and say all this without an account set to private, a fake name and the 'protection' of anonymity (ie: keyboard warriors).

Criticism is perfectly fine. But this 'picking books apart' and vilifying authors because they don't contain what readers want or expect absolutely does my head in. You either accept a book for what it is, or you put it down and move on. It really is that simple. There is simply too much to read and enjoy in this world--why spend more than a nanosecond on a work you don't particularly like or that you strongly disagree with or that you perceive in a way that gives you the irrits. And more than that, WHY get online and deride and vilify the creator's actual character? Just because you have a megaphone, doesn't mean you have to use it as a tool to spread hate.

I guess this kind of hate-spewing says much more about the spewer than anything about the creator. Alas, these weaklings don't have the balls to put an identity to the rampant opinion. Always the way of the weak.

And as Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently says (I'm paraphrasing), 'if you don't like my novels, then go write your own ******* book'.

But I digress.

I understand that pleasing everyone is impossible. But still--few creators want to disappoint or have their work read in a way that wasn't intended, or put too much in or say it the 'wrong' way or leave something out.

The nature of this book I'm illustrating is that a lot will be 'left out'. It only has a limited number of pages, after all. Like my A Kids' Year series, some of the feedback we receive includes 'what about...', 'but you left out...', 'where is...', 'we don't celebrate that in our house...'. I love these 'criticisms' because it's fantastic to see people (kids especially) thinking about their own worlds and what's meaningful to them. And if my books do that, it's a great thing.

Consciously I know all this worry and angst over whether my book fulfills everyone's expectations or needs or beliefs or ideology--is ridiculous, but it really has been agonising. I guess it's been agonising because I care. I really do care. I don't want to offend. I don't want to disappoint. But if I continue to listen to these inner fears, I'll honestly stop creating books all together.

So, this whole sordid issue has disabled me for over a week, and enough is enough.

You see, recently, I worked on a potential image for the book that I absolutely loved. But then, my brain got busy. Mild wonderings turned to curiosity which turned--very quickly, into mild panic.

I asked a fellow author/illustrator his thoughts and he had some really fabulous things to say. I asked another trusted author/illustrator friend her thoughts and we discussed it quite a bit. She asked her husband for his opinion, and he checked with another highly-qualified person and they came back with thoughts--all positive. I then asked another friend who asked three of her friends and again, all positive.

But, as with anything, each of them had different things to say. Sometimes vastly different. And a few also pointed out how SOME people could perceive the image. And while it was good to hear all this--stupid me, wanting to please absolutely everyone, began mulling again on all this variant opinion.

So, JUST TO BE SURE, and to cover all bases, I asked some MORE people. And a few more. And all came back with more totally different reactions (90% positive, thank goodness) that really brought me to a point of feeling physically ill and mentally fraught. Not because of anything they said, but because of all my internal 'what ifs' and 'how am I going to cater for everyone!?'.

All this over one little image.

And on it went, snowballing and becoming bigger than Harry Potter, as I began looking at other potential images for the book, contemplating how people could take them wrong or read something into them or totally misinterpret, or make their own calculations on why I had created them and what kind of person I am.

Is it any wonder this became sick-making?

Through the latter part of this week, I've managed to calm down and instead focus on creating something I love, the way I want it, without compromising my vision or making it into something every person on the planet will flop around in delirium over.

And did I succeed in letting it all go?


Then, on Friday night, the lovely chanteuse Tina Arena spoke directly to me on The Project on Channel 10. She turned to the camera and she leaned forward and she whispered, 'Tania, I have something to say to you.'

And this is what she said:

'I don't care about ticking any box other than 'does this feel right for me'? If it feels right for me, I think that it will feel right for others as well. The over-intellectualising thing is just a pain in the backside, and for me it's just about getting on with it, having a good time and letting people vicariously live through songs, stories and melodies. That's all I care about.'

All I heard was 'stories'. That's all I heard. Oh, and I also heard 'illustrations'. It came right after 'melodies' and it travelled through my eustachian tubes, into my brain, down my spinal column, then jumped ship through my pericardium and whacked me straight in the heart.

My hand went to my chest at the very same time, and it was one of those long, long moments when you don't even need to breathe.

In this Politically Correct-to-the-Point-of-Sheer-Insanity world, where even the most innocuous thoughts, images and concepts can be manipulated, misinterpreted and wrangled into Personal Opinion, then spouted in fishwife-fashion through the virtual foghorn of the internet, is it any wonder we get nervous or even agony- and angst-ridden?

Some people will get my book, some won't. Some will appreciate my pure desire to have fun and be joyful and creative, others won't. I just want to be able to express myself and my creativity without being maligned or judged for it. I want to feel free to create from my heart without oppression by those who might not 'agree'. They have every right to disagree (without resorting to abuse), and I guess that's something I need to work actively towards completely ignoring.

Renowned children's book creator Ed Emberley has said, of those who haven't liked his work, that he didn't create it for them. He created it only for people who liked it.

I love this concept!

Elizabeth Gilbert has also said, 'You must allow both your work and yourself to be imperfect.', ie: realise it cannot please everyone.

When it comes down to it, it's the opinion of the people who really matter who will delineate what appears in my book. And that, dear reader, I'm  not sorry to have to say ... includes myself.

And, what if someone ends up hating my book? Well, it won't matter.

I didn't create it for them.

I hope these musings help you on your own creative journey.

Courage, creators!

PS: SUB-MORAL of this story . . . do not show more than one or two trusted people your works in progress. And for God's sake, don't over-intellectualise! Trust your creative centre.

If ifs and buts where candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.


Sheryl Gwyther said...

:) I know it's all filled you with angst, but you've written a fascinating blog post, Tania. I couldn't stop reading :)
And what a gorgeous cutie you've added at the bottom. Your illustrations are soooo individual to you - I'd recognise them anywhere now. So gorgeous. xx

Sandy Fussell said...

I love this post. So full of heart and so familiar except for me it's just the words...

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