Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Going out on a Limb

“What do you do?” It’s a common question. People ask it at playgrounds, parks, parties, everywhere. I dread this question.

“I am an children’s book author and illustrator.” That’s all I have to say. Why is that so hard? When I am brave enough to admit I’m an illustrator I get two kinds of reactions. Some people’s eyebrows go up in surprise. They say, “Oh really?” They are impressed. They have all kinds of questions. Are you published? What made you decide to go into illustrating? How long have you been illustrating?

Other people just nod and move on to the next topic of conversation. They show absolutely zero interest. It’s as though I said I worked at Walmart or a fast food restaurant.

No matter what reaction I get, I always feel incredibly vulnerable. Illustrating is deeply personal. I’m sure other creatives out there know exactly what I’m talking about. Musicians, artists, writers, dancers, etc. You put your heart and soul into your work. It is an expression of yourself. That is why it is terrifying.

D. W. Winnicot, a famous pediatrician once said, “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” This is exactly the way I feel. The urge to share my work is overpowering. I crave praise. I long for admiration. I am desperate to be noticed. But my heart beats furiously whenever I prepare to push those post, publish, or tweet buttons on the computer. It’s not that I’m afraid people will openly criticize me or anything. People are always very kind. It’s just that I feel so utterly exposed. I put myself out there for people to judge. This scares me.

As hard as it is to share my work online, it is even harder to share in person. I recently illustrated a picture book for my Aunt Linda. I spent hour after hour working on it. When it was finally finished over 30 people bought a copy, including a friend who came to game night at my parent’s house one evening.

He said, “Hey! I got your book in the mail!”

“Oh yeah?” I said. I was starting to blush.

“Yeah! It’s great. You are so talented.”

“Thanks.” I said. “I’m so glad you liked it.” By this time my face had turned completely red. I suddenly became very intent on the game I was playing and put my hair down to cover as much of my face as possible.

Why did I react this way? I’m still trying to figure that out myself. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my work. I felt that it was decent enough. I guess I was just taken by surprise. I wasn’t prepared to talk about it. I don’t know. It’s the kind of thing you have to prepare yourself for mentally.

Vulnerability. This is the price we artists pay to do what we love. We put ourselves out there. It is hard. It is nerve-wracking. It is absolutely necessary. To be successful at this job I have to be willing to get hurt. I have to take risks. I have to go out on a limb. It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.


  1. Great post! Vulnerability can be a powerful asset or hindrance. I think you are on the right side of it.

    1. Thanks Chris. That means a lot coming from a talented writer such as yourself.

  2. I agree with Chris.

    What a wonderful article, Heather. I also hate the question, "What do you do?" But I feel that allowing yourself to be vulnerable is not only important, but necessary. I love this quote by Mark Nepo that kind of fits: “When we dare to move past hiding, a deeper law arises. When we bare our inwardness fully, exposing our strengths and frailties alike, we discover a kinship in all living things, and from this kinship a kindness moves through us and between us.”

    1. What a great quote! I'll have to write that down in my quote bible. Thank you!

  3. Heather it definitely isn't just you. In fact I think it's a universal thing especially among writers and artist.this piece that you just wrote is one of the best I've ever read. People often ask you what you do as the first question they ever ask you especially in new situations like meeting an acquaintance in the playground. I think the biggest thing here is where you said that you want the praise. in my eyes that is the most natural side of creation wanting to have a reader to understand.I think that is the source of your vulnerability and my vulnerability around this question of what we do. Lately I've been telling people that I am a substitute teacher quite frequently and it feels nice to fall into such an easy category. I think that substitute teachers are good people in general who deal with a whole lot of crazy stuff in their workplace and help the world to educatingwell being underappreciated all the while.what I realize reading is your reflection is the vulnerability of announcing to a stranger your occupation is children's book illustrator is probably worth the pressure you're under. Likewise I think I should start saying im a haiku poet again or that I write and I'm trying to learn art. In the long run I would prefer attracting people like you into my life who understand and read my blog and who know that I could be more publish than I am and that I don't put value in that or who understand my weird life more than the person who thinks my job is like working at Walmart. That might not make a lot of sense the way I said it. I just think that there's a lot of value in saying you are a children's illustrator and I challenge you to say it when people ask and I'll take the other end of that challenge and say that I'm a poet when people ask. I think that there's a lot to be learned and explored in the subjective what value exists in claiming the eccentric title of writer. I think that where you say that you turned red that is simply because you don't get enough of that kind of attention, the understanding of a person who realizes your creator's brilliance. I turn red too!

    1. Haha! Maggie you're on! From now let's own up to our awesomeness! Thank you so much for your kind words. It's nice to know that I am not alone.