Finding Authentic Visibility


It’s a turtle. Why a turtle? Because I’m very slow off the mark in reporting on a week of my life that challenged and inspired me, while scaring me a little too. And because I always put an image in these posts.

Back in September, I took a week-long online course with Jessica Abel, who is a comics creator and educator, podcaster, and has recently turned her hand to helping other creative sorts achieve focus in their work through her Creative Focus workshops. I’ve been following her for a while, and when she offered an Authentic Visibility Masterclass I jumped at the chance to take it — one of my weak points as an artist is getting my work out in the world and selling it. I’d much rather be making it, as you can probably tell from the volume of stuff that comes through this blog! And I don’t want to alienate people with sales pitches that sound like a used car salesman.

The course was well worth it for me. Through three live-casts, a series of worksheets, and a lively discussion group on Facebook, we worked our way through how we looked at marketing and what it really is, and what motivated us and our customers to buy things, to reflecting on what we had to offer the world. Some of it was very introspective and soul-searching, while some of it was wildly brainstorming-oriented. There was a unit on how to use social media to best advantage. All of that was a good solid grounding in how to get started forming a strategy for selling what we do.

And then there was… The XY Formula.

The XY formula is a concept for finding “the hook” in crafting a succinct description of a story. The X is the “what it is” and the Y is the “why it’s interesting” part. In our case, we were to use the formula to write a description of our work: either our whole body of work or a specific subset. I’ve had lots of practice doing this for individual books or series, but have always had trouble writing this sort of thing for my work as a whole because at first glance, it looks so diverse, and not just to me — lots of other people are quite surprised by my, um, versatility (I’m trying not to use the words “all over the place”, but there you go).

So I set off to find out for myself what tied all my work together. It was a squirmy sort of a beastie to tackle, rather like trying to lick your own elbow. Silly space opera cats, a mermaid mystery, odd little cartoons about animal facts, a sometimes-helpful-sometimes-not muse… and they all look different to each other. Where to start? I described the process to Jessica like this:

“Picture a kitten’s first encounter with a mirror — first a startled leap, a bit of batting at the strange newcomer, then peering around behind the mysterious “window” to find the other kitten, finally another look and internalizing the reality of the reflection. That’s me, trying to get a handle on this.”

The formula was clear. Here’s what I started with, including a paragraph on “what I think I do”, for critique.

X…I create comics that will transport you to worlds you will want to live in.
Y…Populated by strong women, space-faring cats, merpeople, and talking dolphins, the stories feature action without violence, and conflicts are solved with humour, kindness, and tolerance. They are all-ages friendly, which means your kids and grandparents will want to move in too!

What I think I do:
I make comics that I hope will inspire people to take care of our world and each other. I write/draw stories that are set in worlds that are like our own in many ways, but with bits drawn from history, science, old ballads and fairy tales, and classic science fiction all woven together to make new flavours. I believe that the stories we tell ourselves are what we build our real world with, so they reflect things that I think need strengthening in our society: women accepting and showing their strength, tolerance for the alien, looking at our values in regards to commodification and commercialization of nature and human creativity. Visually, my work has a hand-made aesthetic as sort of a reaction to the latter point; though I’m always trying to improve what I’m capable of, I’m trying to follow my own vision instead of current stylistic tropes.

Jessica pulled out from that the sentence “I believe that the stories we tell ourselves are what we build our real world with” and had me put that at the beginning of the XY part, and change the wording a bit. Here’s what we ended up with, and I think it’s a pretty good description of what I do.

The way we build the world we want to live in is by imagining it through the stories we tell! So I create comics that transport you to worlds you’ll wish you could move to permanently. Populated by strong women, space-faring cats, merpeople, and talking dolphins, the stories feature action without violence, and conflicts that are solved with humour, kindness, and tolerance. They are all-ages friendly, which means your kids and grandparents will want to move in too!

The surprising part, to me, is that it has ended up being a kind of mission statement that I can go back to as a check on my own direction, and use it to choose whether I want to do a certain project or not (very valuable for someone who is constantly overwhelmed by a hyperactive muse) and how to approach the ones I do.

I highly recommend taking a look at Jessica’s blog — there are all kinds of goodies there for helping creative people figure out how to make their way through a world of distractions. A particular favourite of mine is an interview she did with another of my comics heroes, Lucy Bellwood, about Personal Demons and Should Monsters (replay is at the bottom of the page). Also check out the Out on the Wire podcast, which is how I first noticed Jessica.

I’m still digesting a lot of what I learned during that intense week, and going back to my notes and the class material. I may be slow as a turtle, but it’s the journey that counts!





2 responses to “Finding Authentic Visibility

  1. What an inspiring journey, Karen! Thank you for sharing on how you and Jessica reworked your X and Y (What and Why), which process in turn surprised you with a clear mission statement. Kudos to you and your creative work, and to Jessica Abel’s too.


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