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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

'Up 'til now everything was fine' -- Creativity in a vacuum.


My grandfather used to have a book of jokes and witty monologues for toastmasters which I, for some reason, really enjoyed as a child. It was of an earlier era, so any raunchy jokes were those Bob Hope-ish works of art that only worked if your mind was as dirty as the comedian's, and the rest were dry and observational.

I only remember two jokes from that entire book. One was a can of paint turning to her husband and saying 'Honey, I... I think I'm pigment!'

The other is one I like to open social media and networking panels with. There's this five-year-old boy, see, and he's never spoken a word in his life. There's no medical reason for it that anyone can find, nothing physical or mental that should affect it, but he's just never made a sound. His parents are worried, but other than the not speaking, he appears perfectly on course for a kid his age. One day over breakfast he turns to his mother and he says, 'Mom, could I please have some sugar on my oatmeal?' Mom and Dad are overjoyed. 'Son,' they ask, 'why have you never spoken until now?' The boy shrugs and says, 'Up 'til now, everything was fine.'

I tell this joke to demonstrate what's going on (as I've observed it, at least) to many creators -- especially online -- when they feel like they're creating art in a vacuum. If you're a creator and you distribute your work online, you know what I mean. You could make regular, constant updates of the highest quality and upload them into a silent ether year after year, but the minute a 'teh' sneaks into a speech bubble, suddenly everyone wants to talk.

I experienced this with the ending of ConScrew, a webcomic I ran for nearly ten years (now my second longest-running, having been outstripped by Kalibourne flying right past its tenth anniversary). The decision to end ConScrew was a rough one not because I didn't want to, but because it was such an ingrained part of my life and my daily routine that putting a cap on it meant a major life change. But I was aware that, beyond extras for eventual books, I was out of stories to tell, and it would do more harm than good to keep it running Just Because.

Now, ConScrew did not have a completely silent fanbase. I got the occasional fan letter or piece of art. I'd meet fans at cons. I got my share of pointless hate mail. I also got people who believed that my protagonist was actually me and would tell 'me' to dump my boyfriend for them. (If you're still out there, boys... if you meet a girl like Emmy, don't date her. Date a girl like Mimi. She won't run your insurance up or start weird love triangles.)

But, by and large, I was not getting a lot of noise. It got to the point that, when I was preparing to announce that the comic had four more chapters to wrap things up and then would be over, I wasn't even bothered because I figured no one was reading anymore.

Boy was I wrong.

I got a deluge of emails -- people begging me not to end it, people informing me confidently that it was the wrong thing to do, people believing I'd somehow been pressured into it and reassuring me that I could start it up again in a few years... Basically, more people in the course of a week than I'd heard from in its near-decade run telling me No I Couldn't Do This.

Because of course. Up 'til now, everything was fine.

One common point I've noticed the more I work in creative fields is that creators support creators. They share and talk up each other's work, they link to Kickstarters and Patreons (hey, I've got one of those!), they're engaged and supportive. Meanwhile, people who primarily consume but do not create, or create casually for themselves with no expectation or livelihood connected to it, by and large consume quietly and only speak up when something isn't right -- an update isn't there, the artist has changed gears too much, etc.

This isn't me standing imperiously over consumers and judging. It's tempting, but if you aren't a creator yourself, it can be difficult to comprehend just how much the noise means. It's not just about praise. When a creator raises their voice about lack of engagement, it can come across as nothing more than someone shouting 'NOTICE ME!!!' which runs a person the risk of looking whiny and needy. (And yeah, I've seen a few artists who will inform their followers 'If you do not reblog my posts in exactly this way exactly this often with a suitable number of praiseworthy tags, I won't feel loved enough and I quit.' And, er... nah.)

There are plenty of valid reasons that silence can be harmful to a creator. It's discouraging, sure, but more tangible ways. Ignoring the obvious things like ad revenue and exposure and generally wanting to sell things... fan feedback helps us make things better for you. And make things you might like.

It may seem odd or pointless or awkward. Or maybe you feel you'll come across as insincere. I promise, if you want to tell a creator you like that you like their work, and you're genuine about it, you won't come across as weird. And the more they hear about what people like, the more they can tailor anything they might attempt to sell or share.

Creating in a vacuum is what causes many creators to stagnate. As an artist with a quiet fanbase, I can attest to this. We put together a comic, we post it, we trust from the site reports that there's X number of people reading... but it just sort of goes out there and you don't know. Some days you don't mind, but others you stop and go 'Why, if I don't even have any idea what reaction it's getting?'

One major part of being a good creator is working through the silences and drawing motivation from yourself and your peers. But one major part of being a good fan is occasionally putting a word in. Are you obligated? No. Are you Satan's little wizard if you don't? Nah. But you're missing out on a very basic way to assist the people whose work you enjoy.

And engagement online is tough as it is. We have social media platforms working against us, upending our timelines, holding our updates hostage because we don't get enough hits and then cornering us into buying enough views to get seen by strangers so we can continue getting seen by actual fans. So if your social media platform of choice isn't hiding your favourite creators from you yet because of weird metrics, take a second to show your appreciation. Tell a friend. Tell five friends.

Don't just hold out until the day an artist you like does something you don't like. Don't hang back until you spot a typo or a broken image. Engage when it's not necessary, when you have nothing to gain but knowing you made someone happy. See what happens. I promise, it makes a difference.