Friday, August 28, 2009

I Was A Graphics Whore

By Helen E. H. Madden


Growing up, I was one of those kids who had no idea what I wanted to be when I became an adult. I liked to read a lot, and would devour books by the truckload. I also liked to draw a lot. Yet despite being voted "most artistic" in my senior class, I had never had any formal art instruction.


(Oddly, I was also voted "worst dressed" by my senior class, but what the hell would those losers know?)


When it came time to head to college, my dad encouraged me to find a more lucrative major than art, which I had a vague idea might be fun to study. He swore I'd never be able to make a living as an artist, and I needed to study a more practical subject. I suppose I could have stamped my foot and thrown an all out rebellion over this, but given that Dad was paying for my school, at least the first two years, I had to go with the flow, so I chose to major in communications. Dad would have let me minor in art, but since I was going the ROTC route, I didn't have time to take art classes. ROTC had its own ideas of what I should be studying, and art never showed up on their list of requirements. As for English and creative writing? Well hell, I had passed my AP tests with flying colors so nobody, including me, saw any need for me to indulge in that subject.


The end result was that by the time I graduated (with honors) from college, I had a four-year degree in Broadcast Journalism, a commission in the U. S. Army, and even less idea of what I wanted to do with my life than I'd had before I entered college. I knew what I was going to do, of course. My commission as a lieutenant meant a few months active duty training in the technical branch I was assigned to (which turned out to be transportation; huzzah for trucks!), followed by assignment to an Army Reserves unit where I would most likely pay back my ROTC scholarship by serving as a platoon leader for a few years.


Oh, and I also knew I was going to marry my husband, even though he hadn't proposed yet. That and the Army were pretty certain things, but they were the only certain things I had. The rest of my life yawned before me like a giant empty chasm, and I had no idea how to fill it.


My husband had not been cursed with this lack of self-knowledge. He was a science guy, through and through, and he liked outer space and math. He knew what he was going to study well before he went into college, and what he wanted to do after he got out of college, and I gotta tell you, his plans went... well, according to plan. But see, my husband had a plan. I did not.


As a result, after college, I drifted. Still not knowing what I wanted to do, I headed back to school to get a masters of science in... Corporate and Professional Communication. Somewhere in there, I got married to my husband (I warned him it was gonna happen someday). My husband became my anchor in life as I continued to drift along, going from one thing to the next without any clear direction. From the time I graduated from college with my BA in broadcasting to the time my first child was born, I held the following odd jobs.



  • A cashier at a burger joint (hated it)

  • A graphic artist for a bankrupt t-shirt company (hated it)

  • A recruiter for the university I graduated from (hated it)

  • A graduate teaching assistant/graphic artist (hated it)

  • A cashier at an arts and crafts store (hated it with a passion)

  • An advertising sales rep for a small local newspaper (you better believe I hated that)

  • A contractor/graphic artist for the U. S. Air Force (hated it so much it drove my to seek out a psychotherapist to deal with my rage)


The only thing these jobs had in common was that I hated them. Many of them did have something to do with graphics, but very little to do with actual creativity and art. These were the jobs that made me feel like a graphics whore, where each crappy assignment felt like turning two-dollar tricks on the great street corner of life. The first of these graphics jobs, the t-shirt company, was a disaster from the start. They never bothered to tell me they were already bankrupt when they hired me. I found that out when my paychecks started bouncing. The arts and crafts store was like working in a gulag. I knew how to draw and paint, so the managed made me stock and clean the silk florals section and run the cash register while she chewed holes in my ass every time I was a penny off. The university graphics position wasn't too bad. I spent 20 hours a week drawing cartoons for a video the communications department was producing. I could lose myself in that kind of work... had it not been for the nut job professor I had to work with. I do believe micromanagement was his first, middle, and last name.


The last of the graphics jobs, as a contractor for the Air Force, should have been a god-send. I was expected to create illustrations for senior officer briefings, as well as artwork for posters, brochures, etc. Again, the kind of work I could lose myself in. It was a fairly high paying job, and the irony that I was suddenly making a living as an artist, something my dad swore would never be possible, was something I pointed out to Dad every time he asked about my work. I got to play with top notch computers and the latest graphics programs. I was expected to further my skills as an artist by taking classes, which my company paid for. I had insurance, I had a retirement plan, I had regular pay raises, I had bonuses...


And I had to fight to keep my job every year September rolled around.


Taking the contracting position, I found myself in the most cut-throat environment I have ever had the misfortune to experience. Every September, I had to justify my continued employment to the government, in triplicate. I had to document every milestone set and achieved, I had to demonstrate that my technical expertise was far superior to anyone else's. I had to write reams of documents explaining why, yet again, I was the woman for the job, and still continue to do my job while I was at it. It wasn't enough that I came in to work at 8AM each morning and usually didn't leave until 8PM each evening. It wasn't enough that I created entire briefings from scratch and repaired broken computers (a task that wasn't even in my job description). It wasn't enough that I worked weekends and never took vacation or sick leave. I still had to prove I was the chosen one, because there were plenty of other contracting companies that were always out there, circling like sharks in the water, waiting for me to stumble so they could take my job.


I worked as a contractor for four years, quickly becoming the lead contractor in my office. The last year, I worked 60-80 hours a week and got paid for only 40. I got yelled at for taking a vacation, and then yelled at again for coming in to work sick. Then one afternoon, during one of the most critical projects I was working on, one of my fellow contractors informed me that she had been offered a job by a competing company, who apparently believed they could oust my company from our contract if they could just lure her away.


I recall saying thank you to my co-worker for the heads up, and then walking into the ladies' room. The next thing I remember, I was lying on the floor, looking up at the ladies' room ceiling, and wondering how I had gotten there.


I had blacked out from stress. That day, I went home to my husband, my rock, my anchor, and told him I had to quit my job before it killed me, not after.


It took about a year to make that happen. The Hubster and I needed to be on solid financial footing, so we spent that year socking away my paychecks while learning how to live off of his. Three months out, I handed in my notice. I don't think I'd ever been so scared in my life. I walked out of my supervisor's office, shaking and ready to pass out. What had I done?! I was making 42 grand a year! I had benefits! Was I crazy?!


No, but I knew I would be if I didn't leave that job.


I left right before Christmas that year, and never came back. When New Year's hit, I was suddenly back in the same position of not knowing what I was going to do with my life. Except for one thing. I knew I wanted to have kids, and by that point Hubster and I knew it was going to take major medical intervention to make that happen.


Fast forward two years. I was massively pregnant, and I idled my days away on the couch, dabbling in freelance computer graphics and the occasional bit of writing. I had discovered somewhere in the midst of my many abysmal day jobs that I liked to write, sort of, so I had tried it off and on. I preferred to write science fiction and fantasy, but on a lark had written an erotica story and managed to sell it to PlayGirl. It was my first sale, and encouraged by it, I soon wrote and sold another erotica story to another venue. And after that...


Nothing. Nada. Zip. Bupkis.


I could accomplish amazing feats in any day job I had ever held, no matter how much I had hated the job. Yet now that I was truly free of the 9 to 5 world, I couldn't get much of anything done. I had scads of stories unfinished on my laptop, along with even more unfinished graphics projects. I had no motivation, no driving desire. Those last few weeks of my first pregnancy, I half-heartedly started an erotica novel that I knew I had no chance in hell of finishing, but you know, whatever. It wasn't like what I did mattered much. Then I went into the hospital early one morning for a C-section and everything changed.


Have you ever been in a car that went from 0 to 60 in five seconds flat? Have you ever been hit by a mac truck? Having my daughter was sort of like both experiences combined. I don't know why, but holding that tiny, screaming bundle in my arms inspired me to find a direction the way nothing else ever had. Suddenly, I HAD to write. HAD to. I would DIE if I didn't write. But I was a new mom struggling to learn how to breast feed her baby. When the hell was I going to write?


Well, obviously while breast feeding. I mean, after all, writing equals ass in chair, right? And since I was breast feeding for 45 minutes at a time, every two hours around the clock, I certainly had plenty of ass in chair time.


I've mentioned it here before. I have a giant 3-ring binder hidden away in my closet that is full of the world's worst erotica novel. That novel I believed I would never finish, is in there - a complete first draft. Most of it is utter crap written in indecipherable chicken scratch. But that notebook was the salvation of my sanity and the eventual enlightenment of my soul. That notebook got me into the habit of writing every day, to the point where I got cranky if I missed a day. I suddenly knew how to give myself goals and how to meet them. I learned how to juggle the demands of motherhood with the demands of writing. I finally grew up, and I knew what I wanted to be.


I eventually felt the same drive for creating art, and I plunged back into that with equal enthusiasm. Over the last six years, I have reached a point where I work 20-40 hours a week as a writer and artist, in addition to my non-stop job as Mom. I get little to no vacation, and gods forbid if I get sick. Do I make a lot of money at it? No, not really. I'm lucky if I break even on my expenses every year. But do I hate it, like I hated every other job I've ever held?


Do you even have to ask?

7 comments:

  1. Hi Helen,

    I'm in awe. Tremendous post.

    Ash

    ReplyDelete
  2. Um, yeah. What he said. You continue to amaze me, Helen. You rock!

    Jenna

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey, Helen,

    One of the great things about this blog is getting to know more about you guys. This post taught me a lot that I didn't know!

    I'd love to look at that first novel of yours sometime. Somehow I can't believe that it is as bad as you say. After all, YOU wrote it, and I love your writing.

    Hugs,
    Lisabet

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ashley and Jenna,

    You are the guys who rock. I'm just the one still trying to figure things out as I go along!

    Seriously, I'm grateful I figured out at some point what I finally wanted to do. And I'm very glad I get to work with such kind folks ;)

    Thank you for your kindness!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Lisabet,

    If I thought I had any hope of being able to read my own hand writing from those days, I might be tempted to pull that notebook out and post it, one drivel-filled chapter at a time, to a blog somewhere, so we could all have a laugh at it. I recall it as being torridly bad, much of it written while I was half-asleep or half-dead from taking care of my infant daughter.

    The important thing that came out of that notebook was the desire to continue to write and the discipline to do it on a daily basis. The addiction to writing, and the work accomplished to satisfy that addiction, is far more satisfying than any paycheck has ever been.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hey Helen,

    A lovely, inspiring post. I wonder what your life would have been like, the difference, if you'd done that rant when your father suggested you go into something more 'sensible' instead of art. It honestly, to me, sounds like you may have been just as scattered. You weren't ready for it. Your baby girl was the key. How very, very interesting.

    I am really enjoying this blog. I wasn't sure I would. Getting to learn about you all, how you tick and why, is pretty cool.

    Thanks so much for sharing this part of you.

    Hugs

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jude,

    I'm sure you're right. It took a long time for me to find a focus to my life, and how and why having a child focused my efforts instead of scattering them even more still confounds them. But that's what worked.

    I find it interesting as well to see what we learn about each other. I can't wait to learn more!

    ReplyDelete