Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Early Freelance Stress" or "How I Rolled the Dice to Change My Life"

Drawing I did many years ago as I worried about money, family, and vocation.

I was 38. I had a wonderful wife. I had two little children that I loved dearly. I had a good job working at a bank as the computer operator. I had a house that was paid for. I lived in a little town where everyone claimed to be a Christian, and where the big event was the high school football game every autumn Friday night. I had a Norman Rockwell life straight out of the Saturday Evening Post--and I was miserable.

My understanding wife and I talked it over, and instead of me freaking out, I decided to roll the dice. She said, “You know, if you don’t try to sell your writing and drawing, you will always wonder if you could have done it.”

If I had been better informed, or not quite so desperate, I probably never would have attempted what I did. I quit my job at the bank. No more ties and kissing up to the rich, but no more steady check. I started an eleven year struggle that finally channeled me into writing picture books.

Someone once said, “It’s easier to turn a moving ship.” Well, my life didn’t become easy, but eventually I did turn to what I needed to do. I started out trying to sell my pen and ink drawings. This in an East Texas town of 14,000. I bought a 35mm camera. (This was in the days before computers, cell phones etc.) I took pictures of old home places and drew them in pen and ink for $35.00 a pop. I picked up my kids in an old 66 Ford pickup that I bought for a little of nothing. My kids were embarrassed to be seen in it. It loved gas stations. When I stepped on the accelerator, it sounded like I was flushing the toilet.

People around town thought I was crazy. I had given up one of the best jobs in the place to sit at home drawing all day while my wife worked at nursing. I was the town’s amiable ne’er do well. I had people actually knock on my door and tell me I was nuts. I had men crowing and saying that “I wish I had a wife that would work while I sat at home.” An old lady came by and told me that I was going to fail. I didn’t even know who she was. She lived somewhere up the street.

I fought depression. (See Prozac.) I went to counselors. One told me, “You are an artist. If you don’t create, you will do damage to your psyche.” I also did all kinds of jobs to earn exta money in the early years. One thing I did was to make plantation shutters. Another thing I did for a while was to work in a milk plant. But whatever I did, my eye was on creativity. I like a Bob Dylan quote: “I didn’t know where it was that I belonged, but I knew it wasn’t there.” (Watch No Direction Home.)

I’ve got to be honest. My depression and lack of steady income put severe stress on my long suffering and more conventional wife. She wanted to climb the corporate ladder, and I wanted nothing more than to get away from that scene. I had trouble at corporate parties. I found it hard to be nice to people I didn’t like. One time at a Christmas party, a doctor was introduced to me and the first thing he said to me was “I just invested 50 thousand dollars in the stock market.”

Unable to maintain, I said, “So what? Why are you telling me?”

Eventually I got a job doing political cartoons for a small paper. My daughter bugged me until I wrote a satire called Redneck Night Before Christmas. Pelican publishing saw it in a magazine and made it part of their Night Before Christmas series. It sold well, and the rest is history so they say. I’ve written 14 books, but at great cost.
These days I live alone in a modest apartment and draw and write. I live close to the vest. As a midlist writer, you have to be frugal. I love doing school visits. The kids keep me young, and my greatest pleasure is writing for them. I’ve looked back over my life, and you know what? I’d do it all again. Let me repeat that. I’d do it all again. As Will Eisner once wrote me, “We are doing what we do regardless”

Well said, Will. I draw and write whether I’m paid or not. I guess we’re going to be what we’re going to be. The journey IS the destination. So what do you do with good old boys like me?


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