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Intolerable Uncertainty

(WARNING: The following is dark, contains profanity, and you may not want to read it)

Last night I gazed too long into the abyss, and before I knew it, the abyss had taken my hand, and we were going on a tour of all of the bad shit that was going to happen in the next few months.

For about two hours before bed, while watching TV I wasn’t really watching, against my own advice from my last blog post, I surfed news stories on my iPad, going from one to the next, basically asking the same question, “How long will this last?”

My mind has been telling me, “Your business will not survive this. You’re fine right now, but what about tomorrow? You just cancelled a trade show and a business trip, what about the next trip, what if my clients go out of business, what if this art thing I’ve worked on for the past 20 years just vanishes like a fart in the wind, where am I going to work when this is over, ….what if, what if, what if…”

I’ve slept on the couch two or three nights a week the past month, so I didn’t toss and turn and keep Shonna up. No reason for both of us to lay awake wrestling demons. Then I read something that says if you’re not sleeping, it’s even worse for your mental and physical health because it compromises your immune system.

Well, thanks. That makes me nod off with dreams of kittens and rainbows, now doesn’t it?

As mentioned in a recent post, catastrophizing is one of my worst bad habits, and this virus has opened the flood gates of despair, as I’m sure it has for many. This post pretty much contradicts the slightly more optimistic tone of the other, because as we’re all learning, this situation changes by the minute.

Now with what should be more time to do anything I want to do, paint, write, draw cartoons, everything takes a lot longer because I get distracted by a news story, news alert, phone call and then down the rabbit hole I go.

A cartoon I drew yesterday that should have taken a couple of hours to draw took about five, because, in the middle of that, I had several newspapers from one chain tell me they were shutting down for the month of April, possibly May. That’s in addition to the half dozen that did so at the end of last week.

We’re bombarded by stats and articles telling us how bad this is going to get, and projections that tell us we’re in this lock-down until the end of April FOR SURE…no wait, MAY…no wait…JULY…no wait…FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES.

Logically, I know that the majority of these articles, blog posts, science journals, pseudo-science journals are all just spewing information so that they have something to post, and that 95% of it is conjecture, but I seek out the worst ones. It’s a desperate search for anything I can control. If I can deal with the worst-case scenario, then I can deal with anything better than that. But it means reading a lot of bad shit.

It doesn’t matter that I know I’m being illogical, Spock. I’m human, which means I’m illogical, you green-blooded pointed eared Vulcan!

Anybody else notice that Dr. McCoy was racist?

The worst-case scenario almost never happens, but because I said almost, that means it could happen, so hello darkness, my old friend.

I would love to be spending my time writing, but all of the story ideas, notes, the novel I’m working on, sitting there waiting for me to put in the time, I just can’t focus. And in the time I do make to work on anything creative, it all seems like garbage because I see it through a dark negative lens.

It would be nice to come out the other side of this with a stack of new images to license and yet I’m finding it hard to paint. It doesn’t feel like this will ever end, and when it does, I’ll have lost so much that my focus will be on survival, not success.

That’s the problem with catastrophizing. It’s sticky stuff, and if you do manage to get one leg free from it, you’re in it up to your knee with the other.

At this point in the post, I’m supposed to turn this around and start saying that we’ll get through this, we‘re in it together, there are always people worse off, do your part, it’ll be over soon, take this opportunity to discover new things, when one door closes, another door opens, blah, blah, blah.

There’s a meme I thought was funny when I first saw it, but now I find it infuriating. It reads, “Your grandparents were asked to go to war. We’re being asked to sit on the couch.”

Then it ends with variations of, “Don’t screw this up,” or “We got this” or “Suck it up, Princess.”

It just feels like so much bullshit.

Shaming people into acceptance doesn’t work. All it does is tell us that who we are is unacceptable and makes us bury our feelings of despair, so we don’t make strangers feel uncomfortable. Too long on that course and you’re looking at a nervous breakdown, a heart attack or worse.

The truth is, life has always been hard, and this is hold-my-beer level hard. People need to feel their pain and chastising somebody else to cheer up does more harm than good.

I try to tell myself that many others have gone through horrific stuff and came through it, far worse than this. The people who went through the 1918 pandemic, those who endured concentration camps, devastating financial crises, health crises, 9/11, our history is replete with people surviving long odds.

For 10 million people who died in the concentration camps, I can’t imagine the hopelessness and despair, a horrific end to their lives at the hands of cruel oppressors. And despite the courage and endurance of those who survived it and lived to tell the tale, I can’t imagine there were many, lying in their hard wooden bunks, packed in like sardines, freezing all night, awaiting their fate, telling each other, “Hey, we’re all in this together, and some people have it worse, cheer up, mmmK?”

Sharing online finger-wags about what Anne Frank, John McCain, or the Chilean miners put up with while imprisoned in their own circumstance is just more online shaming. Yes, they endured, but they weren’t having a good time!

This isolation we’re being asked to do is not just sitting on the couch watching Netflix, drinking wine and playing board games, without a care in the world.

It’s watching our savings dwindle away, the panicky market destroy investments, our businesses close, possibly to never open again, our careers implode, relationships suffer, the fruits of our labour shrivel up and die on the vine, and any plans we made up and vanish, while we just sit and wait, unable to do anything about it, for who knows how long?

This is not a vacation for which we should be expected to feel grateful.

Yes, people have gone through worse, but putting a metric on somebody else’s pain does not diminish our own. These are still our lives. Expecting people to shrug and say, “aw shucks, shit happens” is not only unrealistic, it’s cruel, especially when it took two seconds to share a meme or post that wasn’t designed to make somebody feel better, but to make them feel worse. You’re just scolding friends, family and strangers for having real human emotions and a difficult time coping with them. People have different tolerances for pain, and most of us are pretty damn hard on ourselves already without the added weight.

Knocking somebody down does not make you taller. It makes you a bully.

Instead of drawing first thing this morning, I just poured all of the angst into this, hoping for some sort of pressure release valve, because having a global sing-along is not going to do it for me. I almost didn’t post this because of worries over branding, being negative, pissing people off, and not being enough of a Polly Anna.

I’m not dealing well with this, and I imagine that’s the case for most people, each with their own unique grievances.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if this will go on for a couple of months or many months? I don’t know if, at the end of this self-isolation, there will still be money coming in from anywhere for anybody. I don’t know how many will get sick, how many will die, if these measures are overkill, not enough, necessary, unnecessary, if the media is being irresponsible with the constant fear-mongering and death toll scoreboard, or if the fear is needed to scare people into compliance with the new rules.

I don’t know much of anything.

And that’s what’s keeping me up at night.

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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9 Tips for Working at Home for Artists

Our current global situation is unprecedented, and we’re each trying to figure out how to adapt to the new normal. We all face similar challenges; how to stay healthy while still getting groceries, staying connected with our family and friends, and planning our day to day with limited resources for however long our self-isolation lasts.

Each profession, industry or walk of life, however, will have specific hurdles to overcome, so this is directed at creative types.

Most of us find ourselves confined to quarters right now. You might be a professional artist who already works from home or one who works for a company and suddenly finds yourself working from your residence. You might be an art student home from school or a hobbyist who now has some extra time to devote to creating art.

Whatever your situation, I hope some of these tips give you ideas and inspiration to make the most of this challenging time.

I’m a professional artist, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for newspapers across Canada and a painter of whimsical wildlife. My painted work is licensed internationally on many products through different companies and sold as prints in several zoos and via my online store. I’ve been working from home full-time for the past fifteen years and part-time for five before that. I’d like to share with you some productive practices I employ to make the most efficient use of my time. I’ve learned most of these from correcting my own mistakes over the years. Here goes…

1) Set Up a Work Space

I work from a dedicated office in my home. When I’m in this space, it’s work time, so it’s easy to make that mental shift when I walk through the door. Occasionally, I’ll work at the kitchen island if I want a change of pace, but the majority of my work is done in front of my Wacom display, sitting at my desk.

I get that not everybody has the space for their own office. Twenty-five years ago, we lived in a tiny apartment, and my workspace was a small desk in the living room, jammed in beside the TV. When I sat at that desk, however, it was creative time. Facing the wall was a big part of that because there were no distractions in front of me.

2) Get Dressed

It is tempting when confined to your house or working from home to let yourself go a little, and that’s fine, but staying in your pajamas all day or throwing on a robe without showering will not put you in the right mindset to work. Get up, shower, and put on clean clothes. You don’t have to wear a power suit or anything silly like that, but being clean and presentable counts. It will make you feel like a professional. Walk your talk.

I wear pretty much the same thing every day unless I’m going out. My lounge pants could very well be used as PJ bottoms by some, but I wear them for comfort and a t-shirt. If it’s chilly in my office, I wear a hoodie. But it’s all clean clothing every day. If somebody comes to my door, I am presentable and don’t need to apologize for my appearance. How you look impacts how you feel.

3) Establish a Routine

If you’re new to working from home, a routine is vital. You’ll be forming new habits in your new work environment and what you prioritize will determine your success. I have no boss other than my clients, but I get up at 5 am every day, even on weekends. I do some moderate exercise, meditate for 15 minutes, shower and grab my coffee and am at my desk by 6.

This is my routine, and by sticking to it, I get a lot done.

Obviously, you don’t have to get up as early as I do. I’m a morning person and established that time when I needed to get cartoons drawn and sent before going to my regular job. When I went full-time at home, I stuck to that because it works for me. Find what works for you and stick to a schedule.

I am at my creative best first thing in the morning, so I make sure I’m ready to work during that time. I save the afternoons for admin work and other parts of my job that don’t require my best creative skills.

It is too easy to sleep in, laze around, watch some TV, and figure you’ll do some work when you feel like it. Before long, hours have passed; you haven’t done anything, and then you beat yourself up for your failure.

Talent will only get you part of the way. Success comes from self-discipline, in all things.

4) Avoid the Kitchen

You’re at home; all of your favorite foods are available. It is effortless to make multiple trips to the kitchen and have little frequent snacks. A few crackers here, a cookie there, some chips, a handful of nuts. Before you know it, you’re gaining weight and can’t figure out why.

Stick to regular meals, and if you’re not getting your usual level of activity, make meals smaller than what you’d typically eat. You won’t starve and can adjust as needed. This goes back to having a routine.

5) No Excuses

If you have a primary focus in the art you’d like to create, then get to it. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. That’s an excuse used by artists who don’t want to work. In my experience, the work comes first, and the inspiration follows.

Nobody is saying you have to work a four-hour stretch, chained to your desk. Start with a half-hour. Work for 30 minutes, without checking your phone, going on social media, watching Netflix, chatting with a friend. This is creation time! Start with less and build upon it.

6) Stop Scrolling

The biggest distraction we have, especially in stressful times like these, is our handheld devices. Silence your phone, turn off notifications, avoid social media and the news. You will survive a half-hour, hour, two hours without knowing every little thing going on in the world. Right now, it’s all pretty bleak, anyway, so what are you missing? There is no way to immerse yourself in your art with one eye on your phone.

7) Take Some Training

Every creative needs to keep learning. Even knowing that, it’s tough to make it a priority. I primarily need to use my creative time to produce art to pay my bills. With some extra time at home lately, I’ve been catching up on some online training and enjoying it.

Despite our present challenges, we live in a great time right now. Anything and everything is taught online. And best of all, with money tight for many, a lot of it is free. Not just click-bait teasers with the meat of the instruction behind a paywall, but real valuable art training, more than you could ever take in a lifetime, is available for free from world-class instructors.

You just have to go looking for it, and then make the time to watch, learn, and practice.

I’m an expert in painting and drawing in Photoshop, which comes from twenty years of doing it. And yet, I watched a recent tips and tricks video and rolled my eyes at some skills I could have been using, but didn’t know existed.

8) Try Something New

I’ve known many creatives in my life, and one thing I’ve noticed about most of them; they’re good at more than one kind of artistic expression. I know many painters who are also musicians. A tattoo artist I know is a skilled 3D modeller. An animator I know is a killer character designer. All are creative pursuits requiring different skills.

There was a time when I devoted a lot of my energy to learning Flash animation when many thought that was the direction editorial cartooning was heading. I got pretty good at it, but nobody wanted to pay what it was worth to create. And I didn’t like it much.

I was a bad graphic designer for a short time. Didn’t have the eye for it, nor the interest. I painted caricatures of people. I was good at that, but there wasn’t much call for it, and I grew tired of it.

But all of that work was worth my investigation. All of it taught me something, and I can trace a direct line through each of those pursuits to the painted whimsical wildlife work that is now half of my business. It pays, I’m good at it, and I enjoy it a great deal. I don’t think I would be doing it had I not tried those others first.

Part of trying new things is also realizing what you don’t want to do. By process of elimination, you might find your true calling. But you won’t know until you try.

9) Reach Out

We’re told to self-isolate, but we have the means to connect with anyone in the world.

Everybody is living this situation; we’re all nervous, a little afraid, and misery loves company. Just talking with people like you, who are going through the same thing, will ease tensions. Best of all, you never know what insights or opportunities might come up in an email exchange, Facetime chat or Skype call.

Just this morning, a graphic designer friend in a nearby city recommended a podcast to me that turned out to be one I liked. She was correct; it was right up my alley.

The other reason to reach out to your network is to get work. There might be skills you have that you don’t actively pursue that deserve a second look now. Survival under challenging times requires adaptation and approaching problems in a new way.

Be respectful, open-minded and receptive. The person you contact might not have any work for you, but they could suggest somebody else and offer an introduction or recommendation.

Nobody will give you these opportunities. You have to ask for them. And be honest in your inquiries, because it’s no secret that we’re all navigating strange waters. There’s no shame in saying that work has suddenly become difficult to find, and you’re exploring your options. Right now, that won’t surprise anybody.

They might say no, because a lot of companies are suddenly finding themselves in the same situation. But they might also say Yes.

How do you think I got this writing assignment?

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(this article was commissioned by Wacom, you can see it on their site here.)

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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