Jessica Abel. Photo: Laurène DuCrocq

Jessica Abel did not always want to be an artist. Despite drawing comics all through college, she was an English major with no intention of being a cartoonist.  “I always liked drawing and stuff but I definitely didn’t self-identify as somebody who was going to become an artist until I kind of already was one…I didn’t really have a direction and I just kept making comics until I ended up where I ended up,” she says with a laugh.

These days, Abel is an author, educator, chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and a Harvey Award-winning cartoonist with several graphic novels, textbooks, collections, and a podcast to her name. Now she has one more achievement under her belt: she has recently released Growing Gills, Abel’s first non-cartoon based book and foray into self-publishing. The book focuses on being productive when making self-driven creative work, a topic Abel has been writing extensively about on her blog for the last year and a half.

Though she previously explored creative practice in her book and accompanying podcast, Out on the Wire, Gills is more of a handbook for creatives in need of help. It all started in 2015, when she was surveying her mailing list and working group for Out on the Wire podcast, to see how she could keep working with them after the podcast ended. She asked them “‘What’s going on with you? What are you struggling with in your creative life?’ I was looking for answers like ‘I really need storytelling help.’…What I got back was this survey full of anguish about not getting work done at all. Just like ‘I can’t, I’m so stuck, I don’t know what to do. I’m spinning my wheels I feel so much guilt over this and so much anxiety, I can’t focus.’”

To try and address this problem, Abel put together a small online course with “about forty people” using Google Plus, a social media group and email. “That was the initial foray into this creative focus stuff. As a result of that and talking about it with colleagues of mine, I started writing blog posts about it and then built it into the full Creative Focus Workshop.” The blog posts and workshop would eventually bloom into source material for Gills. 

Abel says pulling everything together in book form allowed her to consolidate and organize her thoughts until “everything related to itself in sort of a smart way.” She also found it gave her a chance to “process the ideas again and pull them together in a different way,” helping her come up with “new overarching structures.” This process took her about a month, a major difference from working on a graphic novel which, she “would’ve been drawing … for the next eighteen months.”

“What I figured out is that I’m pretty good at writing a book, like I kinda know how to do that, and what I don’t really know is how to be a publisher,” Abel says with a laugh, noting that self-publishing a book is “certainly harder [than traditionally publishing], because I’m doing everything.” Though she is not “a hundred percent sure that it was the best choice,” Abel decided to self-publish so she could put it out in ebook form. That way she could “have it really cheap and have it easy to get and just have it be accessible and reach the most people I could with it. Reaching a lot of people also implies traditional publishing because the distribution networks are better but … the accessibility of having it really cheap and being able to give it away and do whatever I want with it is very attractive.”

In the process of working on the problems of creativity and productivity, Abel says the number one issue she has heard about from other creatives is being overwhelmed by the amount that needed to be done to complete a piece. “It’s this thing of feeling intimidated by the overall project, feeling like it’s this giant everlasting gobstopper and you have to swallow it whole.” In the end, she says, it all boils down to feeling out of control. Her solution? “Know what you want to do, know what the project contains, …[and then] decide what you’re going to do and take control.” Make conscious decisions and, as she advocates in Gills, pick one goal at a time and stick with it. And she says the applications are not limited to just creative work. “When a lot of people go through my program [the Creative Focus Workshop], they’ll come out of it saying ‘and I’m applying this to my job and to my house and I’m getting my spouse to do this.’ There’s a universal applicability to the idea of conscious decision.”


A good first step, to getting your life in order (besides her book or workshop) Abel says, is her free What’s Stopping You? Checklist. It “will help you start thinking through what are the things that you’re facing that are stopping you.” She says she finds the biggest thing standing in people’s way is that they do not realize they can make choices about what they are doing. Once you realize that, Abel says, it allows you to feel in control. She suggests listing all the projects you want to complete and picking the one thing you want to focus on now. “It doesn’t mean that [you] can’t do the other things, but don’t try to do them all in one day or one week. Do one, finish, and move on. It’s hard to make that decision but once you make that decision then, it’s a huge, huge factor in moving faster and being happier.”


And in the end, you have to forgive yourself if you don’t meet the goal you’ve set out for yourself. “One of the most painful problems that people suffer from, all kinds of people, not just creative people, is beating themselves up and self-blame when they fail to meet some goal they’ve set for themselves. … It’s not just that it is hurtful and is painful, but that it actually makes things worse. So the best thing you can possibly do when you set a goal and miss it … is to go ‘oops!’ and set a new goal and keep moving and forgive yourself for it as fast as you can and fully as you can. So don’t tell yourself ‘I should’ve done that blah, blah, blah’ and don’t keep a blacklist of days that you’ve failed. All that stuff is sapping creative energy and attention and mental energy that you could be using on your art! Because the kind of creative work that I focus on in my book is the self-generated creative work that comes fully out of your own conception, nobody cares if this exists or not until it already exists. You have to believe in it enough to make it happen in the world.”

Learn more about Jessica Abel and Growing Gills here.

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