Overcoming Creative Fear with the Graphic Novel/Comic Form

Creative work requires bravery.

There’s absolutely no question about whether an artist, writer, or musician is courageous when they sit down to create an original piece.

First, there are the tireless hours and personal sacrifices spent transposing one’s artistic ideas into tangible art form. There’s the confusion and terror from loved ones who don’t understand the madness behind locking oneself away to obsess over a semi-secretive pursuit. There’s also the teeth-gnashing, insomniac nights spent in self-doubt and worry–will this piece of writing work? Will my project devolve into an unquantifiable mess?

Yet, in my opinion, what is even more terrifying than creating a piece of work is sharing one’s art form with a group of strangers, and then trusting a teacher or mentor to provide honest and personal feedback. Sharing creative work requires a kind of lunatic bravery that is both a mixture of giving a speech to an audience of 1500, while also possessing the audacity to leap out of a plane at 12,500 feet with nothing but a parachute.

I believe that sharing creative work is often like getting a root canal done without anesthetic.

As artist-in-residence, my role is to be a workshop facilitator, creative writing mentor to my students, and an empathetic collector of their personal stories. My ultimate residency goal at The John Howard Society is to foster a generous sense of artistic openness by being an individual that students and staff might be able to trust enough with their creative work and life histories.

This is also why I want to truly congratulate participants on this month’s drop-in sessions. I’m so incredibly thankful to you for sharing your work with me and trusting me enough to be open about your creative fears.

In return, I would like to share with blog-readers some of the incredible life stories that I’ve collected from workshop participants:

Derek is an incredibly talented 23-year old, who dreams of being a visual artist and videographer. Each week, we chat about his aspirations and passions. He tells me about his favourite films. He hopes to be able to share his drawings with a wider audience if he’s able to gain funding to take more college-level art classes.

Timothy, a 25-year old, shyly asks me one session to teach him proper spelling and punctuation. “I really want to learn how to write good,” he admits, initially afraid to work on comics because the act of writing letters terrifies him. “Can you please show me?”

There is an older gentleman called Paul, with severe arthritis in almost all of his fingers. He likes to entertain the group with anecdotes about his family and his two daughters, the oldest whom isn’t speaking to him. “I have many stories,” he always says, half-laughing,  half-serious. “They are all about my family who is mostly dead.”

Erica is a mostly cheerful woman who is extremely excitable about adult coloring books. One class, she arrived wearing a seaweed facial mask. She usually chatters nonstop about her life, and each week, she tells me that she’ll soon be moving to Montreal.

David is a scowling young man in his twenties who usually doesn’t want to participate, but on the firm but kind urging of his outreach worker, he sometimes joins in.

There is also Peter, a thirty-seven year-old man, who loves the storytelling and comics sessions. He is my most enthusiastic student. He drops-in before working a shift at a bicycle shop on Main and Broadway, and then he always asks me sweetly if he’s allowed to come back, before staying again for an entire afternoon.

And finally, Alex, a shy student who loves graphic novels, has requested tracing paper to learn how to draw his favourite superheroes, which include The Incredible Hulk and Batman. “Can I draw them in pencil crayon?” he asks anxiously. “I don’t think I can use felt pens.”

What all of my students struggle with is literacy and the fear of being asked to write and read. This is why the comic and graphic novel form is most appealing to them. This is why overcoming that intense fear of sharing their artwork and storylines is such a tremendous accomplishment. And their momentous fear of writing and reading becomes multifold, as I constantly ask my students to openly share their creative work with each other and with myself.

Thanks to the generous donation of graphic novels from Shenuri Nugawila of the Kensington-Cottage branch of the Vancouver Public Library, we’ve been able to work collaboratively on comics and story-telling at The John Howard Society.

During May, I have been incredibly honored and privileged to be a messenger of my students’ illuminating stories. And I truly hope to encourage more students, clients, JHS staff, and the public to share their own stories with me through an outpouring of creative work.

Starting in June, our drop-in sessions will be held on Fridays from 10-3 PM, and then we will be changing our schedule for the summer months to every second Wednesday.

Blog readers, what are some times in your life when you have been hesitant about sharing your creative work with strangers? And how did you overcome your reservations? Please leave comments below.

RECOMMENDED READING (Comics and Graphic Novels):

Maus by Art Spiegelman

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Koreal by Guy Delisle,

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison

Epileptic by David Beauchard

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Roughneck by Jeff Lemire


*Student names have been changed to provide anonymity.