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Uncertainty in your Writing and Art by Oisín McGann – Part 1

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By Oisín McGann

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I want to talk about uncertainty, and how it is both a blessing and a curse for artists. It is the cause of our doubt, our frustration and insecurity, but it is also the abyss we choose to venture into, that we mine for treasures and attempt to fill with our art. Without that open space, we couldn’t do what we do. It is something most people try to avoid at all costs – hell, the fear of it is the basis for every religion – and yet artists have to spend much of their time seeking it out in order to explore it. I think it’s the biggest factor in people steering clear of artistic careers, or giving up on them after they’ve tested the waters.

There is a mistaken perception of an association between creative people and mental illness, where it’s assumed that, at the very least, you must be an eccentric or a prima donna to be a good artist. There’s little evidence to back this up, and in my experience, professional artists tend to be pretty well balanced, mentally healthy people, at least in part because of what they do – though we are all somewhere on the same mental health spectrum, and it is certainly the case that creative work can help people with mental health problems, so they can well be drawn to it for that reason. One of the main reasons creative people’s behaviour can often be perceived as odd is simply the extent to which they are compelled to explore areas with no clear paths or boundaries. They must deliberately seek out uncertainty on a daily basis. Of course, life itself is full of uncertainty, everyone faces it to some degree or other, it’s just that for most people, they do so reluctantly. People tend to crave security, or at the very least, narrowly defined risk. There is no clear career path for a professional artist, no obvious ladder to climb, so they have to be enthusiastic about their future, while never knowing what’s ahead. This is rarely regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

I’m a writer and illustrator, so these are my terms of reference, though I think most artists will recognise the states I’m going to describe. Let’s talk about the uncertain nature of an artist’s work first. As a writer, I stare at a blank page and think about how to fill it with words that will a) make people want to read them, and b) have something worth saying. As an illustrator, even if I have a brief from someone else of what to draw, I have to choose where to put the pencil to paper for that first stroke and how I’m going to create a picture, in what style, with what materials. When I worked in advertising, our creative director – a man who matched the stereotype of an artist; chaotic to deal with, though he had a brilliant mind – once said that he thought the most creative thinking was to be found in advertising agencies, because of the range of areas they often had to produce ideas for, on subjects they didn’t get to choose. Working in that industry had never been my ambition, and I fundamentally disagreed with him, making one simple argument: Every ad has a starting point with the product it has to sell. Art has no clear starting point at all. When I’m setting off on a book, I look at a blank page and there’s no obvious place to begin, no clear objective to achieve.

Every word you write for a story has meaning; each new word you add to the text is a variable that can change the direction and meaning of the narration – it’s an option that, in turn, leads to a range of almost limitless other options that can lead you in an infinite number of directions. And in every word you write, is the hope that people will find something that appeals, that it will make them want to read it, and to keep reading. It’s all questions with no right answers. It is the contemplation of this gaping abyss of potential that scares the shit out of inexperienced writers taking on their first novel, even as it might excite them.

This is the kind of uncertainty that I haven’t feared in a long time. I enjoy it now, I look forward to it. I savour the anticipation of the special moment when I write the first line. It’s a treat. I learned long ago to plan ahead, how to prepare for it and how to tackle each new question as it’s asked. Even so, the nerves are always tingling a bit when I’m setting off.

Drawing or painting has a different flavour of uncertainty. These are practical skills that demand the manipulation of physical materials – your ability to convey your thoughts is limited to what you are capable of showing directly, leaving less to the viewer’s imagination. The clearer the picture, the less open it is to interpretation, but it’s also more accessible, as it is not constrained by the limits of language. Anyone, whether they can read or not, can understand a picture if you’re communicating clearly – visual art is the only truly universal language we have. But you don’t automatically begin at the top of the page in the left-hand corner, so where on the page do you choose to start, and how? Which direction do you move the pencil? And where next? And where after that? Leaning heavier or lighter changes the quality of the line. I can use a harder or softer pencil. What if I use a brush, or dip-pen, or charcoal or a technical pen? What if I do it on screen, rather than on paper? And these are only the most basic questions. A different shape of eye or mouth, the slightest tilt of an eyebrow can change an expression, change the meaning. More blue than red in the depths of a shadow can suggest a different atmosphere. Again, decades of doing this has made this a pretty normal experience for me, and yet there’s still so much I can’t predict at the outset. You either embrace this uncertainty, learn to craft within it and love it for what it is, or you’ll run a mile from it.

I like to use stories to explore ideas, particularly big meaty ideas I have lots of questions about; I have a need to pull them apart, and particularly in my novels. But the bigger the idea, the harder it is for people to get emotionally engaged with it, so making a gripping story out of that involves an extra dimension of difficulty. It adds to the uncertainty, but I enjoy the challenge. However, the point of art is to get something that’s in your head into someone else’s head in such a way that they willingly accept it. They have to invest themselves in the experience. No matter how good you are, that other person’s interpretation of what you’ve made is completely beyond your control. You do your best to make yourself clear, but this is a different mind, that sees the world in ways you can’t anticipate – which is why every writer needs an editor to tell you if you’re making any sense to outside of your head.

This is another level of uncertainty and unlike your piece of art, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let go and accept it – much easier said than done. You can never know what’s going to happen to your creation once it’s absorbed into someone else’s imagination, mixed in with all the other stuff going on in there. Now their opinion of your work – and, inevitably, of you as a person – is being influenced by their own views and experiences. You are subject to subjectivity. And in the age of social media, anyone can publish their opinion of you and your work.

Just about everyone’s job is subject to the opinions of others, where there can be differing views over even the most straightforward task. In art however, every goddamn stroke you draw or paint, every word you type, can be argued and debated over, with no clear resolution. Every mind has a different view of that work’s effect, of its quality. Two equally expert critics can judge your work, one considering it nonsense, the other a masterpiece. It’s impossible to have a clear right answer in art. In fact, even reaching the point where people actually will discuss and argue about your work can be a major struggle. Being the subject of an argument can seem a strange thing to which one should aspire. And how, in the end, do we judge that quality? By sales? By critical acclaim and awards? Weirdly, in publishing, one is often seen as an alternative to the other. Go figure. Me, I want both.

Moving outwards again, let’s look at the very nature of a creative career, which is prompting the thoughts I’ve been having lately, because this kind of career seems to be getting increasingly difficult – and certainly harder for new writers and illustrators to establish an lasting career. Art is valued less while being spread further; artists, paradoxically, are doing ever more work for free in the hope that they might be valued more. Publishing is a prime example of this occupational uncertainty, because though self-publishing is becoming an ever more realistic alternative, most writers and illustrators seek access to their audiences through the distribution provided by traditional publishers, believing they’re not ‘proper’ writers until they’ve found this, often arbitrary, approval. Few of those hopeful souls realise how insecure and unstable a life still lies beyond that approval, if you choose to devote yourself full-time to writing, and how many new skills you will need to become the kind of entrepreneur you must be to make this art your career. And it starts with not knowing, surrendering control of your career entirely to someone else’s judgement, with you pitching your book and waiting, pitching and waiting, pitching and waiting . . . that’s only the earliest stage of the uncertainty that begins with the completion of a manuscript.

If, as an illustrator, you find a single style that provides you with a reliable supply of work for the duration of your career (I haven’t), if as a writer you achieve the kind of wealth from sales of a particular book or series that means you’ll never have to worry about money again (I haven’t), then you’re one of a tiny few (I’m not). To be fair, I probably haven’t done myself any favours on either front; I’ve always wanted to publish a wide variety of books for different ages, and illustrate in a range of styles and as a result, perhaps I’ve spread myself very thin. But still . . . I’m having a good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having doubts about your life or your future makes you a better artist, or somehow stimulates creativity. Frankly, having to worry about where the next mortgage payment comes from or paying the electricity bill is not good for your head and I need my head in good working order to get stuff done. I’m creative enough without having mundane shit to worry about, thanks very much.

There’ll be more on that in the second part of this article.

(c) Oisín McGann

This article was originally poster on Oisín’s outstanding blog.

You can order Oisín’s books online here.

To read Part 2 click here.

Born in Dublin in 1973, Oisín spent his childhood there and in Drogheda, County Louth. He started writing and illustrating stories in copybooks when he was about six or seven, setting himself on a path that would steer him well clear of ever obtaining of a proper job.

Despite his writing habit, he spent most of school convinced he was going to become a zoologist, an aspiration he lost after taking his first art exam in third year at St. Olivers Community College. Unable to conceive of a way to make a living from writing fiction after his Leaving Cert., he decided to fund his dreams of being an author by working as an illustrator. He signed up for a design and print foundation course in Ballyfermot Senior College, Dublin, in 1990 and then studied animation at Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design.

In 1992 he dropped out of college to set himself up as a freelance illustrator/artist, serving the publishing and design industries. In 1997, he took up a position as Background Layout Designer for Fred Wolf films, working on the animated series of Zorro. After completing his contract, he decided to expand his horizons and left for London in February 1998 to seek his fortune. He found gainful employment as a security guard, watching over trains and then hospitals.

In January 1999, he joined the M&M Consultancy, a small advertising and design firm, as art director and soon expanded into copy writing. After three and a half years of working in advertising he became increasingly concerned for his immortal soul. He returned to Ireland in the summer of 2002 much as he had left – with no job, no home and some meagre savings. He set himself up as a freelance illustrator once more, before getting his first books published in 2003.

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