[More thoughts on “How To Be Creative”:]
37. When your dreams become reality, they are no longer your dreams.
If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted. Same is true if you fail.
[A Brief History Of The “Cartoons Drawn On The Back Of Business Cards” Format.]
As this book reaches its end, I’m thinking how it’s been OVER TEN YEARS since I first came up with the “cartoons drawn on the back of business cards” format. And it seems like I’VE ONLY JUST got them to the commercially successful level I thought they were capable of reaching.
Better late than never, I suppose.
A friend asked me recently, had I known it would take this long, would I have bothered in the first place? I have in my mind this fantasy version of myself that makes reasonable and sensible decisions, more often than not. This reasonable and sensible person, if he existed, would probably have answered, “No. Definitely not.”
But none of this is sensible. None of it ever was. So yeah, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have behaved any differently. I’m not proud of that; I’m not ashamed, either. It just is.
Was it worth the cost? Not really. It never is. Van Gough once told his brother, “No painting ever sells for as much as it cost the artist to make it.” I’ve yet to meet in the flesh any artist who could prove him wrong.
Though looking on the bright side, it IS nice after years of struggling away in obscurity, to have a body of work that you’re actually proud of, one that [A] makes you a good living, [B] exceeds your earlier expectations of what you thought you were capable of achieving as a human being, and perhaps most importantly, [C] has given a lot of other people a lot of joy and value.
When I was a kid in college, there very few avenues a cartoonist could take, if she wished to be successful. There was no internet. There were only newspapers, magazines, books, TV, movies, comic books, merchandising, and little else. A world I find hard to imagine now, only a couple of short decades later. And besides, I never saw my work as particularly commercial, so even if I did give it my best shot, I never thought it would ever realistically pay off.
So in my last year of college, feigning maturity, I turned my attention to landing a job that would pay my bills upon graduation. From what I could then tell, writing TV commercials seemed to use the same part of the brain it took to draw cartoons, and I wasn’t a bad cartoonist, so I decided to give Madison Avenue a go. It looked like it could be interesting.
Somehow I managed to get a job as an advertising copywriter, straight out of school. Some skill was needed, most of it was luck, but when you’re in your early twenties and entering the serious job market for the first time, you’ll take whatever you can get.
Though I was in the ad industry off-and-on for over a decade, I don’t think about it too much, now. Some part of me has blacked it out. Besides being VERY hard work, it wasn’t much fun. I was very much in the ranks of what I would call the “In-Betweenies” i.e. those good enough to get and keep a pretty well-paid position in an ad agency, but not good enough to really get ahead in it; not good enough to enjoy it properly. This was the world I lived in, in 1998 New York, when I started drawing the cartoons with a vengeance. And like every other In-Betweenie my age, it was a tiring, stressful time for me.
[And then the internet happened…]
Over the next couple of years, yes, I drew a lot of cartoons, but I didn’t do much with them. They were just a hobby. Besides, I had a lot going on at the time, with the job and the New York lifestyle to maintain. Most of my cartoon audience back then consisted of fellow New York barflies that I had foisted them upon.
But all good things must come to an end. One day I found myself under-employed, broke and pissed off with life in general. With nothing better to do besides waiting for the phone to ring, in May, 2001 I started my blog, gapingvoid.com.
I would like to say that the website took off soon after, the cartoons were a smash hit, and things improved dramatically right away, but sadly that didn’t happen. I just kept at it, day after day, building it up slowly. That’s still how it happens, for the most part.
The million-dollar contract has yet to arrive in the mail. That’s OK, somewhere along the line I figured how to make good money off of them, INDIRECTLY.
How? It’s pretty straightforward, in retrospect. I posted the cartoons online, and because I had a lot of free time on my hands, I then spent a log time tracking what happened to them, once they went out into the ether. This was 2002, just as blogs were beginning to hit the scene. This was the beginning of Google’s rise to the top of the search market. This was the era of Technorati.com, when people wanted to start seeing what was happening on the web RIGHT NOW, not just historically.
Over the next year or two watching the cartoons traveling about, watching what other bloggers were up to, I started getting a pretty good feel for how the internet ACTUALLY worked, not just how the journalists and marketing folk told people how it worked. After a while I started posting my thoughts about this brave new world online. And after a while people started e-mailing me, offering to pay me good money if I would share more of what I had learned online with them.
Sharing this information for me was A LOT MORE FUN and better paid than trying to sell ads to clients, so hey, I went for it.
So far I’ve managed to turn it into a pretty nice business. A lot more money, for a lot let stress and time than Madison Avenue ever offered me. Not a bad outcome.
The thing is, none of it happened on purpose. It just kinda sorta happened, one random event at a time.
I find having two strings to my bow, cartoons and internet, helps the business out a lot. I like to play them off each other. Sorry, I can’t draw you a cartoon; I’m too busy doing internet stuff. Sorry, I can’t help you with your internet problem; I’m too busy drawing something for a client. I totally believe that if I gave one of them up for good, the other one would crash and burn overnight. It’s keeping the creative tension between the two, an extension of the aforementioned “Sex & Cash Theory”, that keeps things interesting. For both me and the good folk paying my bills.
I never intended to be a professional cartoonist. I never intended to become an internet jockey. But somehow the two got mashed up to create this third thing. That’s what I mean by “If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted.”
It’s good to be young and full of dreams. Dreams of one day doing something “insanely great”. Dreams of love, beauty, achievement and contribution. But understand they have a life of their own, and they’re not very good at following instructions. Love them, revere them, nurture them, respect them, but don’t ever become a slave to them. Otherwise you’ll kill them off prematurely, before they get the chance to come true.
I can tell you straight up now Hugh that your whole situation in your earlier years sounds exactly like what I’m doing now. Things are steady, I work in advertising / marketing, it’s okay but not my preferred path. I have these grandiose expectations of myself and my creativity, I’m 50k words into my first novel, I blog about it, I’m working hard at my fulltime job to add that ‘extra bow,’ and I’m trying to maintain ‘that lifestyle’ whilst floating between Oxford and London.
It’s all outstanding, it’s brilliant to see how it is all possible, and especially through this modern medium we call the social media, which I love, and hope will continue to treat both me, and yourself well.
As you say; Rock on. The future holds bright things, they’re often hard to get to, no one ever said it was going to be easy, but I believe the harder you work, the luckier you get, and I plan on putting in the hours to get where I want to be.
Thanks for your thoughts, and I look forward with baited breath to the book.
Dreams are fuel for life. The bigger the dreams the bigger the life. They don’t always match up (almost never) but that wouldn’t be fun if we new where we were going.
Thanks Hugh for sharing your dreams with us.
That’s exactly the post I needed to read this morning. Thanks.
Like Richard, I feel like I’m at the start of my path – and who knows where it will head. But anything’s possible. You’ve proved that.
Great post, Hugh. Well written, engrossing, and relevant, (and a little sweet). Would make a perfect ending to a book… etc.
Or you could become a life coach.
Seriously, since arriving at your blog 3 years ago through http://www.enriquedans.com, a Professor at a business school in Madrid (talk about randomness), I´ve learned a lot on how to detect bullshit (especially my own) and learning to set out to my true North.
You´ve inspired me to put my ideas in cartoons too (I suck at drawing), and that unexpected turn matched with the idea of putting them on t-shirts, which is what I was originally set out to do.
Of course, I´m nowhere near my own shore, but reading this blog has helped me set the true foundations for the ¨sex¨ part of my schtik. I guess that attests to point [C] of the bright side you mentioned above.
So thanks, once again.
This smells charmingly like the last chapter in “How To Be Creative”. Touche!
When you’ve realized your dreams the only thing to do is to come up with new dreams. (Screenplay?) When I started in the advertising business the first thing I realized was that I had turned a hobby (writing and drawing) into a business. It was no longer fun.
Who said I had to “feel” creative at 9am in an office cubicle beside an expressway in Dallas?
But like all good working stiffs, at least I knew it wasn’t a steel factory and that this job was better than a lot of people would ever have the chance to do – so I proceeded to churn out “product”, today called “content” and then cherry-pick the best of it for my portfolio.
Who really thought that I had a deep creative desire to find the underlying meaning and subtleties in the Texas real estate and banking markets? No one, fuck all. I was doing a job and I knew it. So I set about developing other hobbies outside of the office.
I learned to shoot dove in West Texas (very near to you). I picked up sailing on Cedar Creek lake from Pat Beckman and his 25ft Catalina. I became Tower Records best customer by weekly stoking my collection and I developed a serviceable reading jones at the hands of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins, Brautigan, Vonegut, John Irving and the like.
And life balanced out. I never had any misconceptions that I was writing the great American novel aside from my work to hawk toothpaste, laundry powder or video games. I married, bought a few houses and became a weekend warrior on a 100 year-old money pit in Michigan.
Life was good.
Yet, like you, it was all random. The call to go top Korea was about as weird as I thought things were going to get – until two years later when I started my own company in that odd and foreboding foreign land.
Random? But, not really.
Over time I’ve just learned to accept the twists and turns as gifts from above and make them work for me. To stay a perpetual student and maybe, after time, to be able to teach others how to run the maze.
The trick, I’ve found is in being able to decide, quickly and decisively, what it is you “do not” want to do. That skill will keep you from wasting time on things that just aren’t going to work out anyway.
Hugh, you say the business card cartoons have been going for ten years but I beg to differ with you on that count. I can remember as long as we have known each other, you working with this format. You really were doing it in the early 90s in Chicago, after UT. It’s what has kept us in contact all these years. When you first put up Gapingvoid, I was on your mailing list.
And then, this last year, when I finally got a real chunk of my book “Wild Wild East”, on the net, you were one of the first to respond and link me in. And that fueled my current blog and got me into a weekly 3-post diet.
Now, I’ve got writing, drawing, blogging and marketing all working together in one of the oddest symphonies I ever could have imagined.
This week, I met an American who works in the Internet industry and has moved to Vietnam, who found me because of my blog. Next month, a woman from Singapore will come to HCMC, who had also found me from my blog. Last Saturday I had a date with a woman who has been a loyal reader and this Friday I will attend an industry function and meet another woman who has been following the writing.
Niche, what niche?
Okay, it’s not “Cartoons drawn on the back of business cards” but if “Smart-assed marketing guy in the bowels of a communist country” is a niche, I’ve got that baby sewn up!
The Internet has given us previously undefinable types the opportunity, to, if not go mainstream, go “slipstream” into sideways and previously uncharted social marketing and networking philosophies that have probably always existed, but never had a reachable platform.
Being paid to be exactly who we are has got to be the ultimate reward and measure of the word “success”.
Million dollar checks don’t often come with that, but million dollar smiles really do.
Rock on, Hugh.
thank you very much for this. 😀
Here’s the latest on Vietnam.
My 2.0 may happen yet…
Please leave a comment on the post if you feel so inclined.
Especially relevant to my situation is your line about not becoming a slave to your dreams because doing so will force you to cut them off before they come true. I draw cartoons and post them on my blog, and lately I’ve felt frustrated because I’ve spent a lot of time on them, and I love doing so, but they’ve begun encroaching on other things I value in my life and I’ve come to the point where stopping the drawing for a while was an option. But I feel differently now after having read this post. You have a way of making it all seem possible. Thanks for your brilliant writing and I’m looking forward to your book.
I stop here regularly and am NEVER disappointed.
The quality of your writing is inspirational, what you write is inspirational, your success is inspirational.
Bet you never thought you’d be an inspiration uh??
Or if that’s why you do it you’re succeeding!
The cartoon on How to Make It As An Artist made me laugh…will send on to my artists friends!
More seriously, you made a good point about how getting to where you are was a combination of many individual steps, a bit of luck and good timing. People think (and are sold on the idea) that success happens overnight. Not true, more often than not.