When I get on Facebook, I see posts from other cartoonists exclaiming how busy they are, and how tired they are. And if you also work in tech or in a startup, you know that being tired is a badge of honor. It was for me too. I’ve been working in web for 20 years now. “Tired” becomes the default answer to the question of “how are you doing?” A year ago, I was forced into resting for two months post surgery, and it has changed my outlook forever.
For most of my life, I would work all day, then come home and draw comics at night. I still do that. I love to work. Then Friday would come around and I would party through the whole weekend. Suddenly it would be Monday. I started getting more responsibilities at work and doing more with my comics. And I started having some drinks at the end of a long day. Then I started having nothing but long days. And in your 20s, you can do that. Moving into my 30s, I started to see some problems with that lifestyle. But there wasn’t much else in my life. And I started to think that I was working for the sake of work.
“How did we get here?”
My worst night: I had a huge website redesign that I was shepherding. I was acting as the account manager, the project manager, and the designer. That’s too much. But I always used to think I could handle it. My developer was building out a custom CMS on top of it all. The site had to be done the next day for an 8:30am meeting. I had to do a manual upload of their product database. All I had was a text file. It was going to take me all night. So I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon on the way home. I poured myself a drink and I got to work on my update for Drunk Elephant Comics. After 5pm, comics became my priority.
A couple hours later, I had a comic done and a good buzz going. I got to work in TextMate configuring the products. My girlfriend came over for an hour or so, and one of my friends did also. They sat and had a drink with me while I worked, music buzzing from iTunes. They came and went. And by 1am, I was tipsy. I had to sober up, because there was a lot of work left to be done. So I put on a pot of coffee. My developer called around 3am and we had an hour of back and forth about the project. How we got to this point. Why were we doing this to ourselves. I paced and drank coffee.
By 7am, I was done. Done with the project. Done with being a real human being. I was totally fried. Beyond tired. My body in a weird limbo of having had alcohol in its system recently. But also a truckload of adrenaline and caffeine. I showered, shaved and drove myself to the client meeting. I was so tired driving that I kept the window open on that frigid winter morning. It didn’t help.
The project wrapped. The client was happy. We delivered the impossible. And I created a new comic even.
Why did I do that to myself? What was the point of risking my health that much? For any of that? I mean, I wasn’t even getting paid for the comic. I was doing it for the fans. And I’m still proud that for over five hundred strips, I only missed a scheduled update five times. And as far as the website deadline, I could have done half the work that I did and still been fine. Companies aren’t soulless, capitalistic monsters, despite media depictions. They consist of real human beings, that care. And that became evident when I rolled into that meeting looking like death. The clients were happy, but also concerned that I had been up all night working. And my boss pulled me aside and told me to never do that again. So why did I do that to myself? It’s almost like I wanted to see how much work I could do. See how much I could take on until I broke. And that was it. I got it all done, but it broke me.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Vermont. The Center for Cartoon Studies celebrated their tenth anniversary. I came to the school maybe 6 months after that ill advised all-nighter, in September of 2011. The last all-nighter I’ve done. I don’t want to say cartooning school was easy. It’s not. But reading through the above again, that was my life. That was all my life was. Were there some tough deadlines at CCS? Absolutely. Could I handle it? It was never a doubt in my mind. Going to CCS was a dream. I could work on comics and my studies full time. Under the instruction of some of the finest cartoonists I’ve ever met.
I was thinking about the time I spent in White River Junction during the block party celebration. The day also had some personal significance to me. It was the first anniversary of my open heart surgery. I saw many friends on Saturday who were happy I was still up and walking around with the living.
Recovery after surgery
For the first time in my adult life, I was forced to rest. It took me two months to recover enough to get back to work. The first month was hard. A week after I came home, I started going to cardiac rehab. Everything was hard. Taking a crap. Showering. I couldn’t even get out of bed on my own. That first month was rough.
But by the second month, my strength was returning. I was walking 30 minutes everyday. And since the pain was starting to fade away bit by bit, I was getting bored. So I started to work a little here and there. I started by rebuilding this website from the ground up. I’d been tooling around with it for the better part of a year. I ended up rebuilding the whole thing in a day. Then I started looking at some comics that I had put off for too long. And the art just poured out of me. Those two months spent convalescing brought my creativity back. I was on fire.
The Galloway Method
When you start running long distances, you’ll read about Jeff Galloway’s methods. Simply put, you take breaks. When I could still run, I found that walking a minute for every mile I ran actually improved my time.
I have started to look at work that way now also. During March and April, I cranked out 25 pages of comics. This is for a project that will be released soon. But pretty much all I did was work all day at my job, then come home and draw all night. It was great. I had so much fun. There wasn’t much time for anything else though.
This month, I’m taking a break. I need a recharge before I head back into The Walk. And I’m traveling. Having some fun. Visited CCS, like I mentioned. Last weekend I went to Chicago to see the Cubs beat the Pirates. I stayed at my first Airbnb, which was near Wrigley Field and where my father grew up in the 50s. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to Disneyworld with my family. I don’t have kids, but my niece and nephew are going to have a ball. I’m finishing up some writing projects in the meantime and taking a break from the drawing table.
“What are you working on now?”
Some of my peers who graduated from CCS were nervous about this question. “What are you working on now?” Because if you are a recent graduate, the answer is usually “not much.” James Sturm told my class to take a break after graduation. A year isn’t out of the question. The program is intense. And we are all so hardwired by that point to create that most of us feel like we can’t hop off the hamster wheel. But we should. We all should from time to time. It doesn’t make you a failure. It doesn’t make you less committed to whatever you love. Whatever your passion is. Breaks are good. Rest is good.
As for myself, I don’t drink too much anymore. I definitely don’t smoke anymore. I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I take walks. I drink so much damn Sleepytime tea. And I read books. Actual books! Not comics! At least, not as much as I used to. And then when I’m ready to cut loose again on comics, I will be.
You will, too. Take care of yourselves.