Punching the Bag (or What I Learned at SCBWI)

I recently had a conversation with someone concerning those times when we get caught up in too much nothing and overrun our circuits obsessing over the things we cannot control. We try so hard to figure out the Shoulds and Oughts and the Mights. And once we’re on that path, it’s all too easy to start considering the Can’ts and the Won’ts and even the dreaded Why Bothers. Why is it so hard to start thinking about the Go-For-Its and the Why Nots and the What-the-Hecks? How do we learn to see possibilities instead of problems and to just stop taking everything so darn seriously? He calls his solution “Punching the Bag”: going back to the basics to practice, work up a sweat, and rediscover the reason you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place.

This month marked another international SCBWI-LA conference, in all of its overwhelming and overstimulating glory. This year was my third conference, and marked the end of my official year as a “Mentee” with the portfolio showcase mentorship award.The Illustratior Social at the SCBWI-LA conference 2012

The first year I attended, I had pretty much no idea what I was doing or how to illustrate (I still cringe at that old portfolio.) I couldn’t afford to stay nearby since the hotel costs a bazillion dollars a night, so I couch-surfed with strangers in all different parts of LA. I left my portfolio on the top of the rental car and it flew off in the middle of the street and was run over by cars. My takeaways? Mostly technique-related. I was too overwhelmed to absorb very much. Also noted: Don’t leave things on the top of your car.

The second year, I was a little more organized. I stayed in a hotel nearby, making it easier to meet people. My portfolio did not get destroyed during the conference. I did not get lost on LA freeways. I was totally shocked to hear that I won one of the portfolio mentorship awards, and remain convinced that I was somehow “accidentally” chosen, and that I did not belong in the group. (Imposter syndrome, anyone?) My takeaways: put together a better portfolio. Make better work. Tell better stories. Be better at being mentored. Be better in general. I felt pretty excited but oh, the pressure!

And this year? After stressing for a year about wishing I could get more done, cursing those without day jobs (I am sure they have no worries and spend their days dashing off illustrations effortlessly, right guys?) sending my work out and collecting terse rejections, refining and refining a dummy book only to turn on it a moment later as I compare it to the work of someone else–this year my illustration demons were at their best. The conference stirred up a concoction of complex emotions; I wasn’t sure whether to be excited, happy and inspired or disappointed and ashamed or even, dare I say it, bitter.

Sunday afternoon came and brought the last breakout session of the conference. I had chosen to attend a talk and Q&A with Steven Malk of Writers House, about agenting in general and his thoughts on the business. Among many other things, he said the following:

1. Be patient. (Some stories need time. Some illustrators need time. Sometimes it’s not time yet.)
2. Loosen the grip of fear on your heart.
(This quote speaks for itself.)
3. Focus on what you can control.
(So this means my vague goals like “be successful” or “get an agent” are, um, less than helpful.)

If you don’t want to tweet, or facebook, or blog, or whatever, then don’t! If you want to keep you day job for now because you need the financial security, then keep it! If you aren’t ready to write as well as illustrate a book, than just stick to your portfolio for now!

It was a liberating moment: the first time someone had given me permission to do it my way. I don’t have to be an overnight success. I can be a really gradual success. Or I can make my own definition of success. We don’t all have to be an Erin Stead, hitting a home run on the very first try.

So now I’m trying to loosen the grip of fear, and stop caring so darn much. I’m reading more picture books, not because I should, but because I like them. I’m drawing more, not because I need to practice, but because it’s fun. I’m experimenting and trying new things. And when each day is done, I may not have done something huge or impressive or spectacular or perfect, but at least I punched the bag.


Happy Holidays!
Makana: A Tribute to a Friend


  1. by Kristi Valiant on August 19, 2012  7:49 am Reply

    Hey Jessica, your work is gorgeous (especially the spontaneous energy in your raccoon above), and yes, what a liberating lesson learned from Steven Malk. Your career is your own to create in your own way just like your paintings are your own to create in the way that works best for you. SCBWI conferences have been huge guiding hand for me too. I plan to be at the LA conference next year. Maybe I'll see you there.

    • by Jess on August 23, 2012  9:50 am Reply

      Thanks, Kristi! Hope to see you there too :)

  2. by Priscilla Mizell on May 29, 2013  3:14 pm Reply

    I'm finding this post quite a bit late, but I wanted to say THANKS for sharing. It's amazing to read how conference experiences can vary from year to year. I will be attending LA SCBWI for the first time this August and reading fellow illustrators' posts (like this one!) is helping me understand how to make the most out of the trip.

    P.S. I love your raccoon illustration. :)

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