The Myth of Creative Bliss: How I learned to make Resistance an ally, not an enemy

This is a guest blog post I wrote for Hypable:

Tackling a creative project is exciting and full of promise, but once we begin, the challenges and self-doubt we encounter can often derail the best of intentions. But once we identify Resistance, and recognize it as part of the creative process, we become more empowered to meet our creative goals. 

rebelgeniusInto the Unknown: From Animation to Publishing

In December of 2014, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired. After more than a decade spent breathing life into the Avatar universe, I decided to step away from my nearly twenty-year career in animation and transition onto a new creative path, one that was unfamiliar and uncertain: I planned to write my first novel.

I already had the concept: art as magic. And I had ten years’ worth of notes, ideas, and character sketches to pull from. I planned to call on my own experience as an artist to tell a story in which a group of young artists would set off on a high-stakes adventure, confronting dangerous creatures and villains along the way. With my intention clear, I couldn’t wait to get started. I envisioned myself blissfully writing for hours, lost in this new fantastical world. Each morning, I fired up my computer, sipped my coffee, and sat down to write. But those blissful moments? They were elusive and impossible to sustain.

Instead, I found my breath shortening, my heartbeat quickening, and my body tensing. Rather than joy, I was met with its opposite: anxiety (and its cousin, overwhelming self-doubt). Why did I ever leave animation? I asked myself. Who was I to think I could write a book? My writing is awful, I told myself over and over. No one is going to want to read this crap.

Shaking Hands with Resistance

I’d felt that unease before, but because I was trying something new, the anxiety stabbed more sharply and forcefully. After reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I learned this feeling has a name: Resistance. It is the embodiment of all our anxieties and self-doubts. It’s the voice that insists we’re not good enough or smart enough or creative enough.

And that voice can be loud. At times, deafening.

But when I put a name to Resistance, I found I could lessen its power. I couldn’t make it go away entirely, and as it turned out, I didn’t want to. Resistance became an essential part of my creative process. Identifying it helped illuminate what would become the theme of my book: How through creative acts, we have the power to transform ourselves and society.

Rebel Genius as metaphor for the creative process

In the Renaissance-inspired world of Rebel Genius, we meet an aspiring artist named Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius — a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.

Giacomo is discovered by three other children who also have Geniuses and they bring him to a secret studio where he studies with an old, blind artist. Giacomo learns how to use his Genius to tap into the energy in the universe and manifest it into powerful, glowing shapes.

He also discovers he has a unique ability to access a potent creative source called the Wellspring. In Rebel Genius, the Wellspring is the primordial ooze of creation and the source of all that we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. When Giacomo accidentally opens it the first time, he is met with a maelstrom of foul odors, deafening booms, and freezing winds. Fearing its power, Giacomo steers clear of the Wellspring, though over the course of the book, he learns more about it and how to gain some control over it. Metaphorically, the Wellspring represents the creative process – a swirling cacophony of sound and color that an artist must learn to tame.

After realizing the scope of his talents, Giacomo has a unique insight into the location of the first of three Sacred Tools – powerful objects that have the potential to create or destroy. But when he is asked to go on this quest, Giacomo balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s inexperienced, unsure of himself, and full of anxiety.

Sound familiar?

Trust the process

Living a creative life means we will inevitably have to embrace uncertainty. When we embark on a new creative project (or a new adventure, like Giacomo), it is because we have a burning desire to know something or to discover something about ourselves and the world we live in. But when we set out, we have only a vague idea where we are headed. We may have a destination in mind, but achieving that goal can often feel daunting and overwhelming. Maybe it’s safer to sit out the journey, we tell ourselves.

And if we do muster up the courage to take those first steps on the creative path, you can be sure that Resistance will be lurking around every turn. It will try to frighten you away from your dreams. Giacomo faces vicious creatures and cunning villains on his adventure, which causes him to question himself and whether the goal he seeks is worth the cost. That’s his form of meeting Resistance.

For me, Resistance appeared with each sentence and at the start of every chapter. Some days I was able to fight past the Resistance and write pages I was satisfied with. Other times, Resistance won and I had to regroup and come back to fight it again the next day.

I realized there is no shortcut around the anxiety (believe me, I looked). Any time we forge into the unknown, it is impossible to predict what will happen, so there is bound to be fear. We have no idea if Resistance is going to trounce us, or we will subdue it. In order to continue creating, we have to trust that no matter how hard Resistance tries, it won’t prevail in the long run.

Finishing the book and seeing the first printed copy of it was a proud moment. I felt like I had weathered Resistance and won, or at least survived. But the war isn’t over. Rebel Genius is the first book in a series and a few weeks after completing it, I settled in to tackle the sequel. And sure enough, my old nemesis, Resistance, was waiting for me once again.

But this time, I’m more prepared for it. And even though my writing day is still fraught with self-doubt, I try not to let Resistance get the better of me. My intention is keep moving forwards on this new creative path. I’ll face Resistance whenever it appears and remind myself that the reason it’s there is because I’m venturing into new, creative territory.

And that is exactly where I want to be.


Creating “Geniuses” — my upcoming fantasy novel series

Giacomo press image

I’m thrilled to finally be able to announce what I’ve been working since Korra wrapped. I’m writing and illustrating a 3-book middle-grade series! The first book, Geniuses: The Creature and the Creator, will be published in Fall 2016 by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s.

Here’s the synopsis:

Set in a Renaissance-like fantasy world, Geniuses explores the concept of “art as magic,” where an artist’s creative genius is actually a living creature, a real-life muse that inspires and protects him or her. Because the leader of this world sees the Genius as a great and dangerous power, anyone with a Genius is captured, to ensure he or she doesn’t become a threat to society. Many have their Geniuses destroyed, and subsequently, become ghosts of their former selves, doomed to live a life without direction, inspiration, or original thought.

But a talented few are keeping their creativity and their Geniuses alive at a secret studio, where young artists like 12-year-old Giacomo learn how to harness their Genius’ power. But before Giacomo’s training is complete, he and his fellow students set off on a life-or-death quest to find the mythical Creator’s Compass before it falls into the hands of a rogue artist, who plans to use the Compass to destroy the world.

And here’s more backstory on the project:

The journey of creating the world of Geniuses has been a long and meandering one that began over ten years ago. And it all started with a single idea: Art as magic.

Little did I know these three little words would set me off on a quest to figure out how to tell an entertaining story that could express that concept. There were many false starts and wrong turns on the way to creating this book. More than once I gave up on it, abandoning what I had written to the recesses of my hard drive. But inevitably, a few months would pass and a new idea would spark my imagination, or a new angle on the story would present itself, and I’d dive back into the world.

One of those important sparks was when I learned about the origins of the word genius. In a book about Da Vinci, I discovered that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a genius wasn’t a person, but a spirit that protected and inspired artists. Ah ha! I thought, what if in my story, the artists had living muses? I immediately pictured them as winged bird creatures, rushed to my laptop, and continued to write.

But while that idea provided a lot of momentum, I still floundered. I was also more than a little busy with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, so any writing I did was either at night or on the weekends. In my mind, my story about artists and their Geniuses was a fun, personal side project that may or may not become publishable one day.

Then in 2014, as Korra was winding down, I began to think about what I really wanted to work on next, and it wasn’t another animated show. I challenged myself to finish the “art as magic” story I began so many years ago and find a publisher who could help me get it out into the world. So I’m thrilled to be working with editor Connie Hsu and the team at Roaring Brook.

The point of all this is to say that when I came up with this idea ten years ago, I didn’t think it would amount to anything, much less become a published book. But my Genius spirit prodded and inspired me to keep working on it, even when I thought the idea was worthless. I’m glad I listened to it and I hope the book inspires others to listen to their own creative muse, in whatever form that takes, and create what is meaningful to them.

Over the years working on Avatar and Korra, I’ve heard from and met so many wonderful fans who have shared how the Avatar universe inspired them to overcome a struggle in their life, to follow a dream, or achieve a long sought-after goal. I realized how transformative and impactful stories and characters can be in a young person’s life, and I hope to continue inspiring and entertaining people with this new world.

It’s also fun to draw again and I’m excited to illustrate the novel as well as write it. Done in a style of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, the illustrations will be images from the main character’s sketchbook, 12-year-old artist named Giacomo. During the last few years working on Korra, my time was spent working more on the writing side of production than the drawing side, so my sketching skills are a bit rusty. But I’m confident I can draw as good as a 12-year-old (albeit a really talented 12-year-old!)

Art has been the driving force through my whole life and career. I was drawing as far back as I can remember, and probably before that. And although I’m now known for my work in animation, my early artistic heroes were painters like Picasso, Dali, and Pollock.

In high school, as I became more serious about art, I hungered for stories about artists, but they were hard to come by. I read biographies of painters, but in the fictional realm, only The Fountainhead and My Name is Asher Lev provided stories in which the artist was the hero. My hope with the Geniuses series is to give kids the type of book my younger self would’ve loved growing up — a novel where artists are heroes, where creativity and inspiration can lead to a life-changing adventure, and where art is magic.


5 books to help you create a compelling story

For a long time, I never believed you could learn writing from a book. The writing process seemed too mysterious and magical to be captured and put down in words. But then I tried writing my own stories. I’d start off with what I thought was a killer few pages and then inevitably, I’d hit a wall. “So then what happens?” I wondered while banging my head against my desk. I started looking for some writing books, hoping to find some guidance.

There are thousands of writing manuals out there, each promising to teach you how to write novels, memoirs, or screenplays on the weekends, or during your lunch break, or while your stuck in traffic. There are a few gems out there, but a lot of it is garbage. The main problem with most writing books is they assume you already have your story all figured out and you just need a few pointers to get it down on paper. But this is never (or rarely) the case.

Our stories don’t come to us neatly packaged so that all we have to do is unwrap it and learn to put the right pieces in the right places. Stories are messy. They come to us in bits and pieces, all out of order. Sometimes we get an image, or a character idea, or we’re inspired by a fantasy world or particular time period. But how do you actually take all those disparate elements, all those little nuggets of inspiration, and weave them into a cohesive, entertaining, and enlightening story? There is no one way. No easy answer. But I found the following books smart and sage and they can help jumpstart that idea you’ve been thinking about or help you get over that story problem you haven’t been able to crack. Not every part of  these books resonated with me. The key is to take what works for you and leave the rest. I also find that the fundamentals are similar between books, the authors just have different ways at explaining the ideas.

I’m recommending these five books because they each guide you in creating a story from the ground up. They help you to make sure that the blueprint for your story is strong and sound. Or if you’re rewriting a story, they can help you more quickly hone in on what is working and what is missing in your story.

Cover of "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps ...

Cover via Amazon

Anatomy of Story by John Truby

While the focus of this book is screenwriting, the teachings can be easily translated to novels. His approach to story transcends the traditional (and oversimplified) three-act structure. Truby’s philosophy is about building a story from the inside out, in an organic way. He likens a story to all living things, in that it has several stages of growth (seven stages, to be exact), which make up the DNA of your story:

1. Weakness and need

2. Desire

3. Opponent

4. Plan

5. Battle

6. Self-revelation

7. New equilibrium

He believes all stories must have these seven elements in order to function, and he provides a ton of great examples of stories and why they work according to his story model. There are also several writing exercises that help you nail down your story as you develop it.

 Story Engineering

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Brooks’ approach to story is very pragmatic. He believes that story is engineered, like a building. You need to nail down the blueprint before you begin the time-consuming part of actually making the thing. His take on story is that there are Six Core Competencies, which are non-negotiable. If your story doesn’t have these, its foundation will be fundamentally unstable. These are:

1. Concept

2. Character

3. Theme

4. Structure

5. Scene execution

6. Writing voice

He goes into depth about each topic, why it’s important, and how to develop it. He also lays out a four-act structure that really resonated with me and helped me look at story structure in a different way.

Brooks also has a great blog that further expands on the topics in his book —

Wired for Story

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story is a unique book in that it is both a “how-to” and a scientific exploration into how story works on our brains, based on research in neuroscience. Our brains are hardwired to expect certain things from stories, and if that framework isn’t there, we will put the book down or turn off the movie.

In combination with any of these other books, it provides a great guidepost to developing your story and making sure it triggers the reader’s brain so the reader will want to keep turing the page. This book helped me realize how powerful storytelling can be — that the stories we write can literally change the way people think.

 Inside Story

Inside Story by Dara Marks

This book helps you get to the emotional heart of your story. Marks’ focuses on the character’s transformational arc through the story. The “challenge to grow and evolve as we face the trials in our life is referred to as the transformational arc of the character.” It’s a very psychological approach to building a story structure and plot. It shows how the character’s arc is the plot – the two are not separate. The transformational arc is “the second line of structure wrapped within the structure of the plot.”

Cover of "Stealing Fire from the Gods: A ...

Cover via Amazon

Stealing Fire From the Gods by James Bonnet

Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, this is the most myth-focused book of this bunch. It explores the reason why we have stories and their importance, while also providing guidance in creating your own stories. I love when he says that stories and the human mind are linked in a way that is deep and meaningful, and if you can tap into the power of great stories, you can tap into your full potential. I first read this book during the early days of developing Avatar and, looking back, I think it really helped me tap into the mythological aspects and archetypes of the story Bryan and I wanted to tell. If I had to recommend one of these books to start with, I’d pick this one.

The biggest takeaway from all these books is that while story is a mysterious beast, it can be tamed with the right techniques. And all the authors stress that these techniques aren’t “rules” that must be followed, but are ways to help you get at the heart of your story and what you want to say.

So while there is no magic bullet to creating a story, I think these books can help you get there a lot quicker, and with fewer false starts.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Dara Marks:

“What is needed in the way of writing tools are instruments of excavation that can unearth the bounty of self-knowledge that lies beneath the surface of our own stories… Technique… is only a device that can be used to help the artist maximize the communication of his or her own creative expression.”

Have any of you read these books and if so, have you found them helpful? Do you think writing can be learned from a book?

Violence and story, part 2

Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.