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Hearing Voices

Books

There was a small video crew here this morning to interview me, some footage for a piece they’re doing on the upcoming 15th anniversary of the little paper that could, The Rocky Mountain Outlook. Lots of people said it would fail when it first began in 2001, an empty curse that is often in the first paragraph of many success stories.

I have been the cartoonist for the Outlook since the first time it hit the stands and one of my cartoons has been in every issue. My connection to what has become the newspaper of record ‘round here is something I’m proud of, because it was a dream built by tough people who then passed it on to another generation and they’re taking good care of it.

I’m a big softie when it comes to nostalgia. I reminisce often and usually put an overly romantic spin on the memories when I do. Despite my misanthropic outlook, I’ve known a lot of good people in my time, many of whom have helped me get to where I am today, often with gentle nudges but sometimes with the use of high voltage cattle prods placed in uncomfortable places.

The interview this morning got me thinking about the road from there to here. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my first editorial cartoon, a poorly drawn black and white scrawl for The Banff Crag and Canyon. I look up at the Coyote Totem hanging on my wall, with his knowing grin and I can’t help but marvel in hindsight at all of the dots that had to connect to finally become good enough to paint him. Had I missed just one of those dots, it might have all gone away.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing, an outlet that has ebbed and flowed throughout my life, ever since I was a kid.

At my last Photoshop World, the subject of storytelling kept popping up. One of the instructors was talking about doing that with photos, but the other two mentions seemed entirely random. And yet, I picked up on it. Since then, the theme has been ever-present.

When my publisher Alex and I began talking about my upcoming book of my animal artwork, he was adamant that the writing in it should focus on telling the stories surrounding the paintings. When I dropped off a print to a valued client in Red Deer the other day, she told me how much she liked the stories behind the work. And one of my followers on Facebook commented this week that “One day you will also be an award winning author if you aren’t already.”

I don’t know if that last one is true, but I appreciated the thought. This common theme of writing has resurfaced in recent years, often to the point of distraction. I have editorial cartoons and painting to do, but I made time to write this instead.

When I was in the sixth grade in Lahr, West Germany, I had a teacher named Tom Muise. He was one of those teachers you hear about, who just happened to say the right thing at the right time and probably didn’t even know he was doing it. Handing me back an essay one day, he paused with it just out of reach, so I had to look up at him. When I did, he said, “Someday, you’re going to be a writer.”

I have never forgotten that. I still think about it often. In the late nineties, I was halfway through writing a novel and once again heard his voice in my head. He talked about it often, so remembering that he was from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, I found a number online for a Tom Muise and called him. He didn’t remember me, which wasn’t surprising, but I told him I wanted to thank him for the inspiration and that his kind words had not been forgotten.

Tom Muise died of cancer in 2008. I’m so glad I called.

I finished that novel and only sent it out once. One rejection is all it took for me to put it back in a drawer. Had I known then what I know now about no reward without risk, I would have kept at it and started collecting the pile of rejection letters that every published author holds dear. I still think about the story often and twenty years later, I’ve got pages of notes for a rewrite, hopefully with a more experienced voice. Shonna thinks I was holding back when I wrote it the first time and I know she’s right.

There was another novel after that, and both are printed and held together with cerlox binding, sitting on a shelf where I can see them as I write this. Last year, I bought three moleskin notebooks and keep them close at hand most of the time. I take them camping, on vacation, and on road trips. One is for the rewrite of the first novel, the second is for notes about the art book, and the third is for a new novel with the working title ‘The Dark,’ which will work well enough until something better comes along.

And yet, despite that the fact that I am not a writer, Mr. Muise’s words came to me and helped with my artwork over the years, too. Because what he was really saying was that I could do whatever I wanted to.

In every creative life, there are critical voices. They might come from family, friends, or simply in the form of drive-by posts on Facebook or shouts from the cheap seats through cupped hands. But the worst one is internal. It asks, “What makes your story so special? What an ego to think anything you have to say is worth anybody else’s time. What arrogance. Who do you think you are?

That toxic voice keeps a lot of people from realizing their potential. It’s loud, obnoxious, and provides innumerable excuses for failing to try. Every creative I know fights with that voice on a regular basis. It just told me to delete this self-indulgent post before I embarrass myself.

That’s the voice that made me stop sending out the book after one rejection. Today, it’s not as big and scary as it used to be. Having made my living as an artist for more than a decade, I’m very comfortable with rejection. It’s simply a part of the gig. Its life’s way of asking, “How bad do you really want it?”

There is a parable of a grandfather telling his grandson about two wolves that live inside each of us, constantly battling with each other. One is evil, the other is good. When the grandson asks which one wins, the grandfather says, “the one you feed.”

We each have that choice.

Editorial cartooning will be over someday, of that I have no doubt. Painting will likely be a large part of me as long as I draw breath. This recent urge to write more, however, is a mystery. It might be short-lived, simply dropping by for a little while as it has before. Or perhaps it’s just finally the right time.

What is clear to me is that to ignore the impulse would be a disservice to whatever other has granted me the ability.

So I’ll write, and see what happens.

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Letter to my Editor

I’ve been following Renegade Arts Entertainment for some time now as the company is a local success story. A Canadian publisher of comic books and graphic novels featuring internationally known writers and artists, Renegade’s reach appears to be ever expanding. Based right here in Canmore, their commitment to quality artwork, storytelling, and printing has earned my respect.

Earlier this year, I asked Editor and Publisher (and writer!) Alexander Finbow if he wouldn’t mind meeting me for lunch. I was looking to pick his brain about publishing and asked for any advice he could give me. Alex and I didn’t really know each other, though we’d met, but I needed help and figured I had nothing to lose by asking.

He was gracious and generous with his time and information, we talked about Renegade possibly publishing my book (something I didn’t expect), but with the many submissions he gets each week and the fact that my book will be very different from anything they’ve published before, it was just tire kicking on both of our parts. I thanked him for his time and willingness to share what he knew and I went away with a lot more to think about.

Alex and I ran into each other a few times at the Calgary Expo, talked while walking to the BMO Centre one day during the event, and he invited my wife and I to a networking event that weekend as well, which was a lot of fun.
Alex01FBThis past Sunday, I went downtown to Café Books here in Canmore to buy Renegade’s latest book, The Loxleys and Confederation, and Alex and I chatted more about my project. Before I knew it, we had agreed to work together on it, and Renegade will be publishing my book in early 2017. If that seems like a lot of lead time, it’s because there are a thousand things to do if you want to publish and market a book well. Creating the content is step 1. I’m looking forward to a lot of work and a lot of education over the next year. The artwork and writing of the book needs to be done by Canada Day, 2016.

So now I have a deadline. I’m good with deadlines.

With some suggestions for the narrative from Alex and my own thoughts rattling around my head, he tasked me with laying down a foundation for the book. What do I want to say? What story do I want to tell?

Yesterday, I sent Alex the following email and I thought it might be something you’d like to read, with his permission and approval, of course. He even came up with the title for this post.

So here it is. The beginning of my first book of artwork…

Hi Alex:

Having had some time to think about the direction of the narrative in the book, I wanted to write down what I think would give you my best work to go along with the images. Most people I know who’ve run their own business or charted their own course for any length of time, have experienced the rewards of following their gut instinct. Sometimes it’s soft spoken, other times it’s a deafening roar. We’ve all been the victims of ignoring that instinct as well, and the ones still working have learned from it. I’m sure you can say the same of your own experience.

With that in mind, I don’t want to include any fictional stories in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I like writing fiction. I’ve written two novels that have been sitting on a shelf for the past fifteen years because I was focusing on my artwork instead. Truth be told, I chickened out on trying to get either published, although I did recently start editing the first one again to give it another go.

But for the animal work, fiction just feels wrong to me. What I had intended from the beginning, and what still feels true to me, is to use the writing in the book to talk about the road from there to here. How I stumbled upon drawing animals and the success of that work at this point in time is a weird meandering story and that’s the one I want to tell.

I’ve never gone to art school, so I don’t like talking or teaching art in that way because I don’t feel qualified to do so. I’m also not an animal expert by any means so talking about habitats and biology would be boring for me to write, not to mention for someone to read. As for telling a story that goes with each painting or image, there really isn’t one for every animal. Some of them, like my Bactrian Camel image, was just because I saw one at the Calgary Zoo and thought, “I want to paint him!”

BactrianCamel
That’s often the case with most of my images and there will be plenty of sketches and works-in-progress I’d like to include in the book that won’t require captions or accompanying text.

But there are many paintings that do have fun and ridiculous stories associated with them. There are the owls up at Grassi Lakes, a rooster on a hobby farm outside of Bowden, a couple of goofy looking seagulls on a dock in Ucluelet, the lion cubs I photographed up close outside of Innisfail recently, and a Coyote that waited twenty years to be painted. Incidentally, that Coyote is my favorite painting and I’m willing to tell that story in the book. I’ve never written about it before.

CoyoteTotem
I’ve got plenty of stories to tell, but the common thread that will tie them all together is that they’re part of my story. So that’s what I want it to be, a collection of stories that contribute to the whole. The lessons I’ve learned from painting animals.

I want to talk about my philosophy on the business, anecdotes, learning to paint, following instinct, serendipity and happy accidents. I started in my mid-late twenties and somehow turned this into a career. What I’d like to share with people is the inspiration that it’s never too late to try something new and to point out the value of taking risks. Ask twenty artists how to become a success and you’ll get twenty answers. The ones who went to art school will say you have to go to art school. The ones who paint with oils and acrylics will say you have to paint with traditional materials. More and more in my career, I find that the rules others tell you that must be followed are often shackles, chains that prevent you from moving forward.

This is the type of narrative I want to write, the one I’m the most passionate about, and what will deliver my best work to the project. It’s these types of themes that have given me the greatest response in newsletters and blog posts over the years, the ones that strip away the glossy PR and marketing and talk to people like they’re real…well…people.

I’ve been keeping a pretty regular blog since February of 2008, although some months are leaner than others. Lately, more of my writing has gone into my newsletter, but there’s a lot of material there and more I can add that I think will make an interesting read to go with the paintings.

Everybody’s got a story to tell, and I’d like to start telling mine. I think there’s value in it. Plus, I really do enjoy writing and if I’m going to keep painting the images I want to paint, then I’d like the writing to follow the same guidelines.

That being said, I fully submit to your editing expertise when the writing is done. I mentioned to my wife the other day that it seems laughable when we were kids that our teachers would assign 1000 word essays in English class. I can write that much in an email even when I’m trying to keep it short. Clearly, I need an editor.

I’ve had a title in mind for a couple of years now. It best sums up the work and describes the whimsical nature of most of my paintings. I’d like to call it, “Funny Looking Animals.”

With that in mind, I’d welcome your thoughts and advice on this. I’m happy to send you links to any blog posts I’ve written that I think best illustrate the tone I’d like to set in the book. I’m looking forward to working with you.

Cheers,
Patrick
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