“…a briefing yesterday, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board warned it could be a long time before the plane is cleared to fly. NPR’s Wendy Kaufman reports.”
As I awoke to NPR’s Morning Edition, I prohibited myself from hitting the snooze button. I didn’t have to, my girlfriend already did and was up getting her morning started. As I lay there thinking about what I had to do for the day, I remained still knowing there was nothing pressing enough to get me out of bed. Well, that’s not entirely true.
“What would you like for breakfast,” I asked through the bathroom door.
“Scrambled eggs, turkey bacon, toast, and some juice please,” she said.
Armed with the latest thermal underwear from Japan, and layered in flannel pajamas with a think wool cardigan, I retrieved ingredients from the fridge to start cooking. It was a chilly friday morning as I looked out the frosty kitchen window that overlooked a snow covered ice patch that we called a backyard.
I have all day to write…bleh.
Having that kind of time stressed me out. It was stressful because I knew myself too well. Give me unlimited amount of time to complete something, and I’ll waste as much time as possible. But this was the dream, right? No day job to pull me away from writing comics, this is what I thought I wanted most of all. I clearly was learning something new about myself, and a life in Vermont that I clearly wasn’t prepared for creatively. I was losing focus. I was losing my edge.
To be successful in the life of a freelancer takes a conscious and dynamic shift in one’s work ethic. The mentality is completely different, something I didn’t prepare myself for. Before, I would do my 40 hours a week at my day job, and still manage to cram in anywhere between 15-30 additional hours on my writing. I did this because I afforded myself no time to slack off. Plus, the full-time job provided a structured buffer from which to plan out my free time to write. Now, I was having to stitch together my own schedule that no one was expecting me to adhere to.
Not less than three months ago, everything was dynamically different–a life that I was feeling completely detached from. Both conventions in Baltimore and New York provided me with deadlines and expectations as I had two brand new series debuting through 215 Ink. The publisher was kind enough to allow me to do a few signings at their booth, and I was proud that Cobble Hill and Southern Dog sold out at both shows. Amidst a slew of podcasts and internet interviews for both books, I even managed to produce two brand new pitches that made the submission rounds. One was entitled Houdini–a semi-biographical action/adventure, and the other Art Monster–an exciting collaboration with superstar artist Joe Eisma of Morning Glories fame.
However, what totally caught me off guard was an event that occured outside of my creative life.
A week before New York Comic Con weekend, I was called into my manager’s office to conduct a follow up meeting concerning my job performance. A little context: I was working for an Apple Authorized Service Provider (AASP) as a Lead Repair Technician, which served as the retail arm of a larger corporate consulting firm that funded the entire business. Having worked for the company for over two years, everything was great up until that summer when the corporate’s yearly revenue review yielded a significant dip within the retail division from the previous year. If we didn’t figure out a way to increase revenue, we were informed that our end of the business could very well fold within a few years.
The disadvantage me and my co-workers faced was the fact that even though we sold Apple product and various accessories, most of our time was spent servicing computers, which wasn’t a significant revenue builder. The only aspect of our end that did generate significant profits was our Data Recovery service that was run by a part-time employee. Completely blindsiding myself and my immediate supervisor, the owner of the company decided to promote the Data Reco guy to not only full-time, but replaced my supervisor who was demoted. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled.Continued below
Tall and friendly in a completely phony way, the Data Reco guy had a permanent grin on his face that was unnerving. Whether he was attempting to be friendly or unexpectedly confrontational in the most passive way, he couldn’t stop smiling. As newly appointed Retail Manager, he decided to have a performance review with his newly acquired staff, which was completely expected. In my meeting, he had three objectives that I was to fulfill by the end of the month if I expected to keep my job. They were as follows:
- Complete my re-certifications.
- Improve customer service in the store.
- Improve customer service on the phone.
He also made it abundantly clear that these tasks were ordered by level of priority. He said he’d follow up in a month with a second review. So, I did as I was told. I signed up for the re-certification exams scheduled for the end of the month, and in the meantime focused on my customer service. In order to maintain the highest level of customer satisfaction, we would send a one question survey to any customer that made a transaction in our store. As the weeks went by, the store was receiving top notch reviews from customers that were personally mentioning me by name. By the end of the month, I passed both required exams to keep my job. Prepared for my follow up performance review, that day came and went. A few weeks later and still no follow up. Almost six weeks had finally passed when Data Reco guy called me into the owner’s office first thing monday morning as I came into work.
“So this is your follow up review,” he began. “I decided to hold off to see if you’d make the improvements that I asked of you.”
It suddenly dawned on me that the owner hadn’t come in. This was strange for a couple reasons. First, the owner was ALWAYS the first one in as we had a morning meeting every monday, and secondly, when confrontation in the office would arise, he’d avoid it at all costs. A wave on panic suddenly washed over me.
“So…I’ve noticed that your phone support is not good. Actually, it’s so bad that you’ve become completely tone deaf to the problem. Something that I don’t believe you can fix. So…we’re letting you go.”
I paused for a moment to comprehend what was happening.
“I’m confused. Just so that we’re clear: You’re firing me because of my phone support, or lack thereof?”
“Forgive me, but this isn’t a follow up review. That should have happened months ago, and as far as I’ve aware from our initial review, I’ve fulfilled–at the bare minimum–two out of the three objectives you gave me. As far as you’ve led me to believe, I made a 66% improvement in my job performance.”
“Yeah…that stuff doesn’t matter. Your job is customer satisfaction. That’s it. Nothing else matters. Fixing computers is secondary. Anyone can do that.”
“I’m going to have to agree to disagree with you on that. If fixing computers is not my first priority as a Lead Repair Technician, then why did you make my re-certifications top priority? I’m also pretty sure the front desk clerk can’t take apart a macbook.”
I couldn’t tell why, but he suddenly flashed that ambiguously creepy smile. “Look, we’re not going to get into any of that. We just don’t like the way you sound when you speak to customers.”
“I have weeks of documented customer reviews that says otherwise.”
“Well, in person you’re great. The customers love you. It’s just your phone voice that we have a problem with.”
“If you’ve had a problem with it this whole time, why didn’t you make customer service on the phone my top priority months ago, or at the very least bring it up with me before now? I know you’ve only been here a few months, but I was not hired to answer the phones. I was hired to repair computers, which I’ve done consistently for the past sixteen months as evident by that Premium Service Provider plaque hanging in the store.”
He concluded with, “I know this isn’t easy. I actually fought for your job, but [the owner] wanted to fire you.”Continued below
I was enraged because I knew he was lying through that relentless grin of his. For the three years that I worked there, whenever there was an issue of any kind, the owner always sat me down in his office to make sure I was enjoying my work with the company, and insured that I could talk to him about anything that might be bothering me. It’s no coincidence that the only person in our department that was bringing in a lot of money was suddenly promoted. For a small business, anyone that could provide a consistent revenue stream was also entitled to a significant amount of influence–regardless of seniority. The owner may have liked me, but not nearly as much as he liked keeping his business afloat.
As I packed up my desk, I realized that Data Reco guy had targeted me long before he was officially promoted. It was obvious that he was just waiting for a good enough reason to convince the owner to let me go. On the subway ride home, I realized that this was another moment when life’s interruptions was about to encroach on my creative Self.
The timing seemed serendipitous considering I was already in the process of packing up my apartment and moving to Vermont at the end of December, but I failed to acknowledge the new problems that would stem from losing the structural buffer of a day job. I was too excited to be able to focus exclusively on creative work for once, and considering I nailed the interview for a tech position at the college where I was moving to, I viewed this free time as purely temporary.
After settling into our new house, it took me less than thirty minutes to see the entire town, and I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see that everything closed after 8pm. What I did find legitimately surprising was learning that the college ended up passing on me for the job. My temporary vacation from a life that kept my creative focus in check was suddenly transitioning into permanent residency.
The problems that stemmed from this new way of life was like a compound fracture–with each new problem, I’d discover a new underlying one. A prime example was the time of day that I was accustomed to creating within. By default, my day job afforded me only the evenings to write, but now I had entire days to fill. Not training myself to buckle down as soon as I got up, I quickly realized why nights were more conducive; my biggest distraction–the internet–experienced exponentially less traffic during late night hours. During the day the internet was buzzing with activity, and I killed time like professional hit man.
Constantly rechecking email: BANG!
Logging into Facebook: BANG! BANG!
Posting on Twitter: BANG! BANG! BANG!
The sharp knife of creativity was quickly becoming dull from a lack of consistent use. Even when I’d leave the computer at home and head to a cafe to write, trying to slice through pages of script took longer and longer. Most days I couldn’t cut through the procrastination until three or four in the afternoon, which left me with only two or three hours before my girlfriend came home. By this point, I’d inevitably resign for the day feeling completely unfulfilled and unproductive. Perhaps even more damaging than all the social medias combined was the one distraction that I had no control over.
Enter: The Waiting Game.
The waiting game is part of the pitching process, but without the buffer of a busy day job, or a vibrant city that never sleeps, I suddenly realized how isolating my small town was becoming. Having completely underestimated how much I relied on my surroundings to prevent myself from succumbing to this depressing, self-doubting, and frustrating activity, I found myself questioning everything.
With no rock hard deadlines ahead of me, I started to view my work as trite, and directionless. My motivations were dissolving in my hands, and I was forgetting how to retain my grip on them. It didn’t help when I learned that my artists on Southern Dog and Cobble Hill were being poached by paying gigs, which inevitably delayed the production of each series. Not that I blame them, not at all, but knowing that it would be months before I saw new pages made me disinterested in finishing the scripts. Beyond an extremely positive reception by creators at NYCC, it had been almost four months with no word from publishers concerning Houdini and Art Monster.Continued below
What I was failing to remember was a process that I had spent years cultivating in order to break through these creative blocks. The details of someone’s process is somewhat irrelevant because no one’s is the same. The point is that a creator needs to establish a series of steps that more often than not, will produce work. The steps that I relied on in the city had been rendered irrelevant out in the country. Accepting this, I went back to the drawing board in an attempt to revise my creative process.
Somewhere in between long walks around campus in the snow and killing hours watching television, Tim Daniel called me out of the blue. The communication wasn’t a surprise as we’d been co-writing a new series together for the past six months, it was the excited urgency in his voice that caught me off guard.
“Hey Jeremy. Tim here. Got a second to talk?”
“For sure. What’s up?”
“I wanted to pitch you this idea that I just had, maybe see if you’d be interested in collaborating on? Give me a moment, stepping out of a meeting.”
He went on to discuss an idea that popped into his head practically moments before the call, and was very interested in extending our collaboration with a new project. Having an absolute blast co-writing a story with him–something I had never experienced before–I was on board, and found myself lost in new creative thoughts to propel this idea from concept to full fledged story.
Once I had the synopsis and issue breakdowns scripted, Tim and I revised them, and I was off scripting the first issue. Within less than a week, we found an artist, and I was inexplicably struck with a sense of deja vu that went beyond familiar, it was comforting. I had a breakthrough, my remedy for the all-consuming waiting game was to not focus on trying to complete current projects. Staying caught up on scripts was important, but since production for most of them had stalled for various reasons, that was only exacerbating my problem. Instead, occupying myself with new ideas, new stories, new characters was successfully keeping my creative fire from being extinguished.
Getting excited to make comics was something I had lost sight of. The crippling stress as a new found freelancer, I initially found myself forfeiting the fun of it now that I had to rely on my creativity to pay the bills. Life will always try to find a way to get in the way of the creative Self, and sometimes it will get the best of you. That’s okay, it’s to be expected. What becomes a real problem is when life’s inconveniences become an excuse you use to not create.
Having days on end of absolute solitude, I had to finally admit it to myself that I was using the waiting game as a stubborn crutch. By reevaluating the steps I needed to take in order for me to get back into a creative headspace, I was rediscovering the original motivation that got me writing in the first place. It was, is, and always will be more of a reflex than a conscious decision. Coupling the satisfaction of a solid idea with some hard work, a compelling story can be born that takes on a life of its own. It’s the process of making these creations and not the creation themselves that ultimately fulfills the creative soul. Over time, pure love for the craft is something that even the most seasoned of veterans can forget. Loosing yourself along the way is all part of the journey; it’s discovering what you’re truly made of in the face of adversary that’s the real adventure.
With less than a month before Emerald City Comic Con–and as if perfectly queued up by the cosmos–I woke up to discover an email from Dark Horse Comics.
TO BE CONTINUED…