Half the year is done, and I think, like a lot of other people, this one kinda broke me. I know we’ve jokingly been saying “worst year yet” since at least 2016, but folks, this one’s been bad, hasn’t it? On the plus side, I (finally*) got COVID last week.
* I say “finally”, but like I might’ve mentioned here before, some of my recent health issues seem like they might be partly due to long COVID, which could mean I’ve had COVID at least once before without realising it.
The last six months, though, led me to make a big decision. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve announced that I’m taking a hiatus from lettering comics.
I wasn’t sure if this merited an announcement in the first place – after all, what I’m saying is that I’m going to work less, which is a personal decision that affects me and some people around me, and that’s about it. Plus, I’m a letterer – we’re way down the totem pole in how important we’re considered for the lifecycle of a comic. But I was talking to some friends and colleagues about this, and I got the sense that a lot of people are going through a similarly difficult time, and if this helps somebody realise that they need to take care of themselves, and make a necessary big change to do so, well, that’s one person’s life that’d be a little better.
(Note: After this point, I’m going to be talking about some personal stuff, so if you’re not interested in that, I suggest you skip the rest of this newsletter and come back next issue.)
Honestly, this break has been coming for a while. I’ve been overworked and burnt out in some way or the other since the middle of 2020. In 2021, I made the effort to get my schedule under control, and by 2022, I had a reasonable working calendar – 150-200 pages per month, which amounts to 6 hours a day, weekends strictly off.
But while that has been a good “new normal”, it hasn’t helped undo the damage I’d already done to myself through overwork. The way comics deadlines work, I have at least two hard deadlines every month, even now, and any kind of recuperation I plan for myself has to be between those. Furthermore, with the best planning, once every month or two, there will be a book that has to be delivered the day after it comes in – particularly since the current supply chain issues mean that it’s more difficult to move a print date than it used to be – and I then have to put everything aside for that day, and work for 10-12 hours to get that done. So if I’m trying to build good habits in terms of health, there’s a high chance I have to reset every few weeks, which makes things difficult.
So last month, when my old hip injury from 2020 resurfaced with a vengeance, I started feeling helpless – like I had made all the changes I could, and the situation still wasn’t better. To add to that, the first half of 2022 has, in personal matters, not been good for me. Work has been alright, but between problems in my personal life and my father’s health being in emergency mode for the first four months of the year, it has been difficult to step back and get the time and bandwidth to make improvements in my mode of living.
One positive is that I started therapy in March, and that has consistently been helpful both in getting things under control and in coping better when things slip out of control. A lot of it is simply practical advice that I needed to hear, but it has also served as a regular reminder to look at the big picture and not let the daily grind make me feel like I have no options. It has also helped me tackle my attention issues head-on, and get a bit clearer on how my brain lies to me and cedes control to things that don’t help me, work included, in this case.
Once things settled a bit in my personal life, I reached the conclusion that if I didn’t focus on improving my health now, there was a high chance I might end up with more chronic health issues, and given that I already have diabetes and high cholesterol (like I said, possible long COVID), this didn’t seem like a good idea.
Secondly, I love my job. Actually, let me repeat that and expand on it. I adore comic-book lettering. I like the craft of it, I love helping people tell their stories, I like surprising my collaborators with my little touches and, hopefully, elevating what they’re trying to do. It’s a peripheral job, for sure – I’m rarely the primary reason for why a book works – but the way I look at it, I can help a book soar, and get it back in the air when it occasionally loses altitude. I also like how lettering combines several disciplines – composition, design, mark-making, typography, and storytelling – which always keeps you on your toes. I like to think I’m good at it, and I like the freedom and control that freelancing has given me.
But lately, it feels like my job has taken over my life, because too often, it’s been easier to sit down and work than to think about everything else that needs taking care of. I particularly feel like I missed out on a moment in 2020, when almost everyone I know got a break and a reset with the initial COVID lockdowns, while I spent all of that time … working. Looking back now, it feels like I needed to step away a while ago, and I missed the off-ramp.
At the beginning of June, then, I started taking a hard look at my lettering calendar. I noticed that nearly all of my ongoing series were ending in May or June, and that most of my mini-series commitments were wrapping up by July or August. So I did a little exercise.
I sat with my annual worksheet – the one that tells me precisely how many books/pages I’m doing every month of the year – and, just to see what it’d feel like, I took a bunch of future books off my calendar for 2022 and 2023. And honestly, looking at the resulting page count felt so good. That was when I realised how bad my burnout had gotten – these were all dream books, the kind of books I’d been channelling my entire career towards – and I was having a hard time being excited about them.
So, given that I now felt like I had the option, I spent some time assuming that I’d take those few books off, and that would be good enough. But then I had a conversation with a close friend, who pointed out that there was a problem I was still ignoring – at 37, I should not have so many physical problems. Something had gone badly wrong. Whether it was long COVID or stress, this was not a good situation, and I was continuing to ignore it because I didn’t feel I could stop working. In that conversation, I realised I needed a hard reset. That for a while, work had to be the farthest from my brain that it could be. I had to rebuild things health-first, and then see how work fit into that, not the other way around.
Something else I brought into the equation at this point that I’d been leaving out of it for too long was everything else that I’d wanted to do in my life, and that work was originally supposed to facilitate. I wanted to write my own stories and comics, I wanted to learn how to draw, I wanted to create my own lettering fonts, and maybe (lowest priority of these, but a fond fantasy) learn how to play the guitar. All of these things – supposedly important – had been slotted in the gaps left by work, which meant they were always the first thing to be dropped. But work is not life, and if work is always keeping you from what you really want to do, you gotta make changes. If I wanted to live the kind of life I’d wanted my work to help me build, now was the time.
So instead of taking a few books off my schedule, I concluded that I needed to properly stop, but in a way that I could still live with – without leaving people in the lurch. I decided that everything I was already in the middle of, I’d still finish.* For everything else – I emailed or called my collaborators and walked them through my decision. Like I said in my thread, every single person was fantastic about this. They made it as easy for me as possible, and assured me that new projects would be around when I wanted to work again.
* The one exception was World’s Finest, which I will be leaving after #6. This was a wrench, honestly, because I love working on this book (Batman and Superman! Written by Mark Waid! Drawn by Dan Mora! In their original costumes!), but it was the one ongoing series with no end in sight, and it’s a strict monthly, which was exactly the kind of book I couldn’t be working on anymore. I agonised over this for weeks, I tell you.
The way it looks now, I’m still doing 100-150 pages per month till September, then it drops down to around 50 pages per month till December, and then, at the end of the year, it’s down to one book per month, till that one’s over. There are also a few OGNs and mini-series which are being produced at a glacial pace – they feed me around 50 pages a year, and I can work on those at my convenience. I’m still finishing those, though I exited the ones that hadn’t begun production yet.
I’m not sure how long I plan to make this last. As you can see from the above, it’s not a break, but in fact me putting my work decidedly on the back burner. I don’t know if this ends with my “quitting” lettering. I think that’s unlikely – like I said above, I love it too much. There’s a scenario here in which I letter a couple of books a year, and occupy the rest of my time with other stuff. Wherever I end up, the plan is to figure out what I want my life to look like, and then plan backwards, rather than think about how much work I can do and go from there.*
* I mention Cal Newport quite often in this newsletter – his work has helped me reshape my productivity approach for the last few years – and he talks about a “digital reset” for giving up mobile devices before you reintegrate them into your life in a more intentional way. I’m looking at this whole thing as doing that with work – give it a reset, and then bring it back in a slow, integrated manner.
The main thing, for the moment, is to try and keep deadlines out of my life for as long as possible. That feels like the most important thing here. I don’t mind being busy – I like doing a lot of stuff – and after a rest period, I intend to continue doing a lot of stuff. But I want to be able to wake up every day and, for a while at least, be able to choose what I’d like to do that day and for how long, without someone else’s deadline dictating it for me. It’s that freedom I’m looking for.
On the more practical side of things, I recently read this book by K. C. Davis called How to Keep House While Drowning. The title itself spoke to me – I’ve had a very hard time since 2020 managing to be on top of all the small, daily stuff while things are on fire, and it’s been getting me down for a while.
But then I opened the book, and it really spoke to me. It’s quite a slim volume, but it gets a lot done in the space. It is aimed squarely at people struggling with being on top of chores due to attention- and/or depression-related issues, and it is meant to help you reconfigure the way you look at these things and attach value to them.
A lot of it might seem basic, but just reading things like “Laundry has no moral value” and “You’re not a bad person for letting some balls drop” is surprisingly helpful when it’s someone else telling you.
Anyway, this one’s ended up quite long. Next issue will be about something else, and will be coming at an indeterminate time in the future.
Bide well, gang!