Chronic illness and creativity comic

Sometimes ideas arrive fully formed, as this one did back in July when I started a non-dominant hand chronic pain drawing diary/ sketchbook! It’s the first comic I’ve made since finishing The Facts of Life this time last year. In March, my health became considerably worse and I’ve been bed bound at times, and often housebound. At the worst point, my arms hurt simply lifting a drink to my mouth – I had to use a straw. I have ME, and I’m also in the process of having diagnoses confirmed for Fibromylagia, and Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS). I’m now a sometime wheelchair user, Blue Badge holder, and I consider myself semi-disabled – although these are fluctuating conditions, so it depends on the day!

Part of the pain and stiffness I get in my dominant hand from drawing and writing is also likely due to the beginnings of osteoarthritis in my index finger/ knuckles. However, the parts of my body that I use the most become fatigued and sore due to ME/Fibrolmyalgia, so simply using my left hand is not necessarily the answer.

I’m trying to find new ways of working so I can somehow continue writing, drawing and creating comics. My hope is that if I use my left hand to draw, it will at least spread the load, and I might eventually become sufficiently ambidextrous to switch sides when one gets too painful. This might help to slow down the progression of any arthritis and ultimately extend my potential working life as an artist. Artwork is also made difficult by being unable to sit at a drawing board for long, if at all, hence using a sketchbook.

This comic is very much about a fear of losing my creative potential, expression and communication, and my means of making a living. My creativity is my backbone – it props me up in so many ways. The last few months have been frightening and sobering at times: I’ve learnt that nothing is certain, and life as you know it can change drastically at any moment, crushing hopes.

One of the things that has kept me going, and been of some comfort during particularly bad periods, is my imagination. It is still very much active – probably the most active part of me, in fact, and my illness won’t take it away. I continue to record ideas for times when I’m well enough to carry them out.

This comic no longer exists in a tangible form – it’s in the bin – trashed! For me this reflects the transient unpredictable nature of lives curtailed by chronic invisible illness.

 

 

 

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Motorways

I’ve had to make one or two journeys due to family illness this year and, when not driving, I’ve found it to be quite absorbing to draw the fast-changing landscape of motorways. It takes my mind off things. The drawings are very wobbly, of course, due to the movement of both the vehicle and subject matter – but I like that quality. I became excited by the shapes of those 1950s concrete motorway bridges – and I started to fixate on the CCTV cameras. I also found the black digital display boards to be somewhat foreboding and ‘looming’ when they didn’t contain any information. They’re just the right size to be spooky in some way. Maybe it was just the mood I was in! See if you can guess what I was listening to…

Curing the cringe factor

There are times when you create something that is so crushingly cringeful that you cannot bear to look at it for years afterwards. You even destroy work in an Orwellian-style rewriting-of-history attempt to erase all traces of crapitude. I’m almost over it with these teenage paintings of mine that my mum secretly kept. It’s interesting (to me at least) to look back on work I did as a teenager who wanted to ‘be an artist one day’. Just about enough time has lapsed for me to be able to look at them with fondness and to know that all cringes pass in time.

Teenage art eh? Hormones all-asunder, sweeping emotions, yearning and unrequited love. I’m surprised I didn’t use my own blood to render this dancing image:dancing_paulaknight

snowgoose_paulaknightThe birthday card above was based on The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. We listened to the radio adaptation in art class and had to draw as we listened to the story. I drew the characters Fritha and Philip, with the snow goose in the background. I don’t recall who the card was for but I didn’t send it.peacegirls_paulaknight

I did the ‘peace girls’ image after visiting Eastern-bloc Czechoslovakia on a youth-orchestra exchange in 1984. Mine was an emotional rather than political response – I think I was too young to really appreciate the politics back then. I only wish I still had the painting I did of a woman being sacrificed over the letter S (the top of the S was a hand holding a dagger dripping with blood). Teenage hormones…

I worry that the work I’m producing at the moment – in my hormonal peri-menopausal state – will one day beckon the dreaded cringe all over again. But this time the work isn’t safely squirrelled away in a bottom drawer for later. However, cringe is under-rated; perhaps the discomfort is a sign of authenticity, of work wrought from such a genuinely human and vulnerable place that it elicits angst at the very thought of sharing it. I think Billy Bragg said that he knew when a lyric was probably good because it made him feel uncomfortable to express it.

Once it’s out there it’s out there. So, my advice to myself and others is this: You don’t know what it will feel like until you dip your toe in the water – put it out there expecting a few hours of vulnerability backlash*, then forget about it. But if you do find yourself curling up in existential agony for weeks afterwards, it’s probably not worth the stress. A leathery hide is advantageous when sharing deeply personal work because you might not receive the required response, which could potentially smart more than the original wound. It’s a gamble. But equally it’s a gamble not to share it, because you never know where it might lead and what good it might do others. Like any new thing, it can get easier the more you practise. This not only applies to deeply personal work – but also to any creative work: some people have terrible trouble letting their work out into the big bad world where everyone is a critic and where silence speaks louder than words.

So, I’ve shared these pictures that used to make me feel so very embarrassed for myself. I’m practising.

ps; I must get round to reading The Wounded Storyteller, by Arthur Frank. It’s meant to be good.

* I first saw this phrase used by Jody Day of Gateway Women – apt words to describe that after-click panic when sharing something personal on social networking sites.

How a Baby is Made

To celebrate my invitation to join the Mumsnet Bloggers network, I thought I’d share the first incarnation of my graphic memoir in progress, The Facts of Life.

I drew How a Baby is Made in 2007, a few years before the story was over and I could begin writing it properly. This was really my first attempt at a comic strip. I entered it for the Observer/ Cape Graphic Short Story Prize in 2007, the competition’s first year. It was always intended as part of a larger story, but I needed a deadline!

It’s frightening to think that I started this project such a long time ago. Between 2007 and 2010 I kept a card index file of memories and relevant thoughts. In 2008 I was ‘diagnosed’ with ME/CFS so that put a spanner in the works for a while.

I eventually, and tentatively, gave this its first public airing at Laydeez do Comics in May 2011, where the encouragement was such that it spurred me on to get stuck in.

Click 1st image then spool through gallery to read whole strip:

Although I’ve been vexing over how long it’s taking me, in a way I’m glad. Over those intervening years I’ve learnt such a lot – not only about comics but also about accepting my limitations due to my health, and accepting that the baby thing wasn’t ever going to happen. This time lapse has also given me the chance to re-evaluate and become more acquainted with where I want to go creatively – something I lost a grasp of while I was ill.

Looking back at old work can be thoroughly excruciating: ‘Yikes – what was I thinking?’  But the exercise has its uses. For example, I won’t be drawing wings on babies, and things will be altogether less twee stylistically. It’s not that I don’t like this at all – I appreciate it because it’s a marker of how far I’ve come with the project despite thinking it’s not far enough! And it’s almost like a diary entry too – it reminds me of how far I’ve moved on in life and how relieved I feel not to be in the middle of those tricky few years.

You could say that this was the conception of my project and now it’s reaching its acne-ridden angsty teenage years. Now, I realise that people might think that my ‘book’ has become my ‘baby’ but watch this space – I intend to write all about that knotty notion in a future post.

Sketchbook pages

I’ve just come to the end of a sketchbook that I’ve kept for the last 18 months, so thought I’d post a few pages here. Ironically, when I was in the thick of being a children’s illustrator, I didn’t keep sketchbooks – the last thing I needed in my spare time was to be drawing. I had to rest my overstretched tendons and tunnels (I had recurring RSI). In recent years I’ve started to carry one around with me again. I’ve also included some pages from other sketchbooks – I have them of varying sizes from a tiny one that fits in my purse to an A4 book at home in which I do comics workings-out.

I don’t often attempt to do finished drawings in them – they’re more for practising looking, and planning (comics). I like to draw in cafes, on journeys, on beaches, and in waiting rooms etc. In these situations, people are in varying degrees of motion, which means fast drawing is required to get any sense of form. I like that challenge, and the results are very gestural lines – mere essence of movement or character.

My reasons for sketching are varied, and include: taking the opportunity to practise drawing when I’m not doing anything else; an attempt to be ‘in the moment’ and record it for posterity; on occasion, to escape from the moment or thoughts, or from boredom; note-taking at talks; and I also sketch in the wee hours when I can’t sleep – this tends to be when comics idea emerge. They can seem very urgent and important in a dozy half-slumber but often appear pretty rubbish later in the day. Like dreams!