“So, are you scared?”
I knew exactly what Lewis Trondheim was asking me, even though he said it out of the blue during a dinner at our house in Brooklyn last August. I was about to take a year’s sabbatical leave from SVA and move to France to do a residency at the Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême. A year-plus of theoretically open schedule to work on whatever I want and the only thing I have to do is: not screw it up or, worse still, fail to produce anything. The pressure has been on as of August 29 when we (Jessica and I and our two children, Aldara and Jasper) arrived—barely intact—at the Angoulême train station to start this new phase of our lives. (You can read Jessica’s account of the adventure here.)
So: yes, I’m scared.
And to lead with the discouraging news, I’ve been quite unproductive these first four months, at least when it comes to producing any new comics. The nadir came when I recently backed out of an anthology project I’d said I’d contribute to. I wasn’t finding enough time to work on it (though it was only a page) and when I did I was creatively stumped to a point where I just had to cut it loose because it was depressing me as well as distracting me from other projects. All of which is particularly humiliating because I thought it would be a quick amuse-bouche to get myself geared up for longer, more ambitious work.
It’s a rude way to begin this residency since in fact I’ve produced very little of my personal work in recent years and there are all kinds of muscles and reflexes that have become dull and stiff. So the small set-backs that happen in every artistic endeavor feel more devastating right now because I feel like an awkward combination of has-been and rank beginner, trying to find a foothold.
I was fully expecting to lose a month or so to paperwork and getting the kids set up in school and that sort of thing but everything got compounded and time flew by as it tends to. All that said, here we are in early January 2013 and an end (not THE end, no, never) is in sight. So rather than linger on my failures thus far I’m planning for the open swaths of time in the coming months when I’ll achieve some real momentum. (And you can bet I’ll be posting about it here.)
I’ve had a lot of encouragement: from Jessica of course, as always, but also from friends here like Lewis, who despite his impish pleasure in making me squirm has prodded me regularly, going so far as to make me and Jessica sit down with him over the course of an afternoon (New Year’s Eve, in fact) to crank out a book of drawings (about which more some other time) just to show that it could be done (well, and also because Lewis Trondheim can’t help but draw and create things all day long).
I also got to have dinner recently with one of my heroes, Edmond Baudoin, and he reminded me that he didn’t start drawing comics until he was 30 and had his first book published at 40—which puts me 2 books ahead of him at the same age. Now if I can keep up with him and make 60 more books in the years to come… (Not incidentally, this is one of the many reasons I wanted to live in France and in Angoulême in particular: comics luminaries come through town regularly and you get a chance to spend real time with them, not just shake hands at a festival or big city bookstore opening).
Last but not least: I love my new life in Angoulême at la Maison des Auteurs! Here’s a shot of my studio, where I would happily lay down a futon and spend most of my time if I wasn’t a good family man:
The MdA (as everyone calls it here)is an amazing resource, something that I’m not sure anyone could pull off in the US unless it was some kind of for-profit venture or lottery-winner indulgence. Pili and Brigitte, the director and administrator of the MdA, have done an amazing job in facilitating our move. We were both able to get well-appointed individual studios (there are also group studios for anywhere from two to six artists) and I’m relishing private space and the quiet—or the noise—in which to draw, write, and get lost in reverie. Jessica has a bit of a different take on the new set-up here. I haven’t gotten to know my fellow residents well for the most part and I hope they don’t think me too antisocial but with the kids to run home to all the time I have neither been able to go out for drinks much nor willing to spend much time hanging out while I’m at the studio. There’s a nice camaraderie, though, and I’m forging friendships one at a time.
So I’ll end with a photo I took in a moment of optimism but which now taunts me a bit. It’s an empty art box I’m planning to fill with new pages in the year(s) to come. Well, it is hungry and I am going to feed it:
mahendra singh says
Every artist goes through that fallow period, very often in their thirties, I think … and the (happy) chores of children and family do tend to worsen the block.
But once it clears, you'll find that your brain has been working assiduously behind the scenes while you've been swanning about.
That fallow period is often the precursor to better things! Best of luck.
Matt Madden says
Thanks for the encouragement, Mahendra, I know I'll come out of it soon and I do believe the best is yet to come. By that same token it's been great to see you re-emerge in recent years, better than ever.
Matt Madden says
Thanks, Daryl and Rob. Yes, perservering and moving forward even if not always happy with the results is crucial.
Darryl Cunningham says
Getting back into the creative zone can be tough, but its never gone for good. One thing I've learned over the years is that doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing. Start and persevere with something, even if it is crud, as it will lead on to more fruitful creations. Best of luck.
Rob Clough says
Matt, if you have them on hand, re-read Lynda Barry's books on creativity. It's the ultimate kick in the ass, in the best way. I miss your personal work, and I know you'll produce something worthy. Just don't worry about producing The Perfect Project right away–just start drawing.