Joyful persistence: my talk for the UBC School of Creative Writing graduation

These are the slides and text from my talk on May 23 at UBC.

I am delighted to be here with you all today. I have taught some of you, which has been wonderful, and I know that all of you have worked hard to get to this point. I hope you’re proud. How lovely to have your friends and family here as well. Thank you all for coming.

Slide 1: Joyful persistence: Some thoughts on being a creative worker, in honour of the grads, by Sarah Leavitt, May 2023

For most of my life, my art-making, whether it was drawing, writing or making comics, felt painful and fraught. But now – most of the time – creative practice is something that steadies me, something I rely on to think and feel my way through the world. It’s a source of deep joy. I’m going to share some ideas with you today that have helped me make that shift. 

Slide 2: What if you think of yourself more as a worker than as an artist?

(Just a note — I am going to use the word Artist in this talk to refer to all kinds of artists – writers, visual artists, filmmakers, cartoonists – all of us.)

When I was a kid I loved drawing, and I thought of myself as an Artist. But as soon as enough people told me my drawings weren’t good, and I saw that a lot of people were better at drawing than I was, I realized I wasn’t actually an Artist. I didn’t stop drawing, but for many years even the drawings I did in my sketchbooks were stunted and small, infrequent. Who was I to use paper? In my 20s, I briefly forgot that I wasn’t an Artist, and I applied to art school. I didn’t get in — mostly, I think, because there was very little in my portfolio. I hadn’t been taking classes or filling sketchbooks or practicing. When I didn’t get in, I didn’t think about that, though. I just remembered, right, I’m not really an Artist.

My path as a writer was a little different. I did get into the SFU Writers Studio, and I did get into the UBC MFA. And I published a few short pieces along the way. I had had a solid writing education as a kid, and I had good grammar. I had some aptitude for storytelling. So, on some level, I did think of myself as an Artist when it came to writing. But I’m not sure that was such a great thing, either. Because it was something I was as opposed to something I did.     

What if I had thought about it all differently? That it wasn’t about being an Artist but about working at art? That the important thing was to write, to draw, to cartoon as much as possible? Like, I’m a creative worker and this is my work. This sets aside the gigantic (and perhaps irrelevant) question, “What AM I?” in favour of the more answerable, “What do I do?” Or “What do I make?”

Slide 3: What if you make a big pile of imperfect things?
Slide 4: What if your job is experimentation, exploring, repeating, failing, learning, continuing?

For those of you who’ve taken my classes, you know that I am always encouraging you to waste paper. You will not be the reason that our forests disappear. Take up the whole page with your drawing. Write everything, don’t worry about who will like it, stop editing in advance! Write every day! Draw every day! Worry less about each individual word or picture.  Identify the things you want to get better at and do them over and over.

The finished pieces that we share – they’re dependent on these messy piles of imperfection. Remember, we’re workers, we make things.

Slide 5: What if you seek out joy in your work?

My second book, Agnes, Murderess, took me eight or nine years to write – or maybe three, with long spaces in between. Anyway, it was overall a miserable experience. Once, during those years, I was on a panel with an older man, a famous, successful artist and writer. He talked a lot on the panel, mostly about his gorgeous studio in North Van, huge and with a view of the ocean. He loved making art and writing in his nice studio. At the end of the event, he told me I should try to find more joy in my creative practice. I was so mad. It inspired many rants about gender and privilege and so on.

I did not like working on my book and that seemed normal to me. Meanwhile, I was also making diary comics, and these did bring me joy. Part of why I loved them was that I was using these lush, juicy brush pens that made messy, expressive lines.

At some point, I had an epiphany: I could use my beloved brush pens for my book instead of the much more difficult process I’d been grimly using. What? Use materials that I loved, to make my serious art? I started to enjoy my project. And then I actually was able to finish it.

Making art is hard! It takes a long time, you do the same things over and over, you’re a worker, you’re practicing, you’re flowing. How will you keep going if you don’t find any joy in your work? OK, fine, that guy was right.

Slide 6: What if you make art when your heart is hurting?

My creative practice and my way of thinking about art-making has really transformed in the last three years. It started with the death of my partner, Donimo, in April 2020, which, of course, caused many aspects of my life to shatter and then re-form. Donimo said something to me before she died about me making comics about her dying and death. I said I didn’t think I would. And then after she died, my friend said something about the comics I’d make about the whole thing. I was like, nope, uh-uh. She said, of course you’ll make comics, it’s what you do.

Woah. Doing. Making comics is what I do. And about a month later, I did start making comics.

Suddenly, all this new art was pouring out of me. Abstract shapes, bright colours, swooping lines. I was working quickly without sketches, exploring materials and styles I’d never used before. Particularly in the first two years after my partner’s death, I was in a strange space of deep grief and, at the exact same time, profound artistic joy.

Why am I telling you this? I certainly don’t want anything horrible to happen to any of you. And I don’t think suffering is required for making art. BUT. There’s something incredibly liberating about being in a place where you have so much more important stuff to consider than whether you’re good, whether you’re a real Artist. You have things that you’re determined to express that are hard to express and you have to grab for shapes or colours or markers or brushes you’ve never touched before. Will this thick textured line express what I want to say about death? Will this three-legged alien creature on a pink landscape say something of what it feels like to live without someone I’ve loved for decades? Will this closely-observed drawing of a tulip reveal anything about starting to love someone new?

It was such a different experience from making my first book, Tangles. Tangles was also inspired by a huge, painful change in my life, my mom’s illness and death. But I was still in such a tight and timid place, and I didn’t have a regular working practice. After Donimo’s death I made a work schedule, and within that schedule, the art came and the joy came.

What if we all kept working through everything, and it all came into our creative work, exploded it and reformed it and exploded it again?

Slide 7: What if you never become the best?
Slide 8: What if everyone else wins the awards?

I don’t think it’s news to anyone that it takes a certain kind of resilience to be a creative worker. There’s so much rejection. So much losing, so much not getting the award or the grant or the job or the likes. It’s hard not to get super jealous, to wish you had someone else’s career, to despair about your own work. That’s definitely been a huge struggle for me. So how do we avoid being full of envy for others or condemnation for ourselves? Maybe it helps to think about what will happen if you never win anything. No awards, no grants, no millions of followers. Are there other reasons that will keep you going? Maybe the discipline of being a worker, maybe joy. Maybe being super aware of how it feels to make your art – in your body, in your heart.

Maybe also it’s about feeling like you’re part of a larger whole. So that when someone you know wins an award you feel joy for their achievement instead of – or maybe at the same time as – sadness about not getting it yourself.

Slide 9: What if you find your people?
Slide 10: And together you get bigger and more beautiful?

My guess is that the people you’ve met are one of the best things about your time with us. I hope you’ve found people who get you and your art, who support you and push you and celebrate you. And I hope you’ll keep finding more of these folks. Maybe it’s part of your job as a creative worker, to seek out the people you need, and give back at least as much as they give you. Keep each other moving forward. You’ll need different people at different times in your life. It might be other creative folks, it might be scientists, it might be your mom. Just keep paying attention, and when you’re stuck, try looking around for your people.

Slide 11: You keep working even when everyone says you're now a Really Amazing Artist.

So you find your people. You love each other, you love everything each other makes. You begin publishing your work and more people say you’re amazing. This is a wonderful feeling and everyone should have this experience. You actually are amazing. But don’t stop working. Keep meeting with your drawing and writing buddies. Start a draft of a new project. And check in with yourself about what your next project needs. You might need to try a new approach, one that you don’t know yet.

I’m working on my next book right now. I’ve realized that while the joyous, explosive work of the past few years will shape it, I need to do something very different with process and form. I got lots of great feedback on my grief comics. I sold them to a publisher. Yay! It would be so great to keep working like that. But this book needs something different. How will I figure it out? I guess it’s back to the working.  

Slide 12: You make more pile of imperfect things.

I hope you’ll think of graduation not as a completion or a stopping place, but as a pause before getting up and continuing on whatever your own path turns out to be. I hope that through your own process of trial and error you’ll find a way to keep working that is sustainable for many years to come, and that brings you deep joy. Please keep in touch with us. Please tell us about your publications and awards. But also, will you do this? Will you tell us about how you found your people? Will you share with us your messy piles of imperfect things? Will you tell us the secrets you’ve found for making art in the midst of heartbreak? I hope so.

Thank you.

Slide 13: You keep working with joyful persistence.