“I always understood that being both a parent and an artist is a tenuous balancing act, but that passion, dedication, perseverance, and a form of artistic single-mindedness are all keys to success.” ~Josh Neufeld, author of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon)
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment?
JN: I combine being a nonfiction cartoonist with being a stay-at-home dad. At the moment, I would say I spend 30% of my time parenting, 30% researching/writing/drawing, 15% teaching (at the college/graduate level.) — with 25% left over for other personal and family “life” stuff! The work/parenting ratio may change as my child is now entering middle school and gaining more independence — I expect to get more concentrated time at the computer/drawing table. I’m happy to keep my teaching load as it is — I have found that teaching, even more than parenting, takes me away from producing new work.
My wife and I have one daughter; she just recently turned eleven years old.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
JN: We live in Brooklyn, New York, in the Prospect Heights area. We have a fairly large two-bedroom apartment, which is great, but with two artists in the family — my wife is the novelist Sari Wilson — we barely have enough space for our two home-office/studios.
My schedule changes depending on the project, and what else is going on in our life as a family. There have been periods when my wife — who works as an editor three-to-four days a week — is the steady breadwinner, and my income as a freelancer is more sporadic. That’s when I often do the bulk of the parenting — getting our daughter to and from school, cooking meals, etc. There have been other times — like when I was a visiting professor at a local university — when I was making more money, but my teaching schedule was very regimented and I had to forego my own creative projects. But generally, on my freelance work days, I do reporting, writing, publicity/social media, etc. in the morning, and drawing in the afternoon (and evening, when I can stay up). I find it very difficult to draw productively before I’ve had lunch…
I create comic books, so I write in pictures — and draw with words. I’ve learned over the years that the uniqueness of the comics form is the dual experience of reading and seeing. But even though the experience of reading a comic is unified, when I create a comic I break my creative tasks down into two distinct parts: writer and artist. Both stages use different parts of my brain, and both allow me to edit and revise the work as it moves forward.
I begin by writing out the story in prose form, always with the goal of showing as much as possible through action and dialogue. I then break down the text into the key moments of narration that will become the individual comics panels. The final script includes short descriptive sentences of what’s going on in each panel — clues and directions to my “artist self” — and all character dialogue, narration or “voiceover” captions, and sound effects. It reads much like a screenplay.
Once the script is done, I step away from the computer and move to the drawing table. I lay out the script, breaking it down into thumbnail sketches, using minimal detail, just enough to block out word balloon and character placement. Through thumbnailing, I assess the story’s pace, check its momentum, and see how it flows from panel to panel and page to page. During this stage, I often find ways to condense elements, or, conversely, to flesh out certain scenes.
Next comes penciling, the most time-intensive part of the comics-making process. That’s when I scale up my thumbnails to full-size, drawing in the panel borders, characters, backgrounds, and lettering elements on tabloid-size paper. On a good day, I can pencil an entire detailed page from start to finish. Inking is the most fun of the part of process for me. It’s when the story finally comes into complete focus, as I shape the pencils into finished art. I love the physical act of inking: the gentle pressure of the brush on the page, and the endless tiny aesthetic choices that go into each stroke.
Not every cartoonist works the way I do; many have a much looser system, and some create their work completely organically, literally writing and drawing the story at the same time. And sometimes I too find ways to skip steps along the way. But this “two-headed monster” approach works for me, and helps me break down into manageable steps what can often seem a daunting task — translating the ineffable images in my head into distinct visual form.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
JN: Being a parent has brought so many joys and inspirations to my life, so it makes sense that those new experiences have been incorporated into my life as an artist. Because I’m a cartoonist, I’ve always been able to draw pictures for my daughter to entertain and amuse her, and it’s cool to see her occasionally try her hand at making comics too. As she’s gotten older, and has herself become an avid reader of prose and comics, she’s become more interested and impressed by the fact that her mother and I are both published authors. So it certainly provides an ego boost to have a “fan” of your work living right at home with you!
PP: What support/resources have you had access to?
JN: My best support is and always has been my wife. We’ve been together as a couple since we were in our early twenties and have seen each other’s work grow and evolve over many years (dare I say decades?). We each have our specialty but have each learned a lot from the other’s discipline. (For instance, at one point, Sari had a number of consecutive writing fellowships, one at Stanford and one in Provincetown, so I got the benefit of all the lessons she was learning through a form of creative osmosis.) Over the years we’ve grown even closer through our collaborations, both in fiction and nonfiction comics, and co-editing a book of flash fiction of prose and comics together (Flashed). I often say that the way I approach making nonfiction stories owes a lot to the craft of creative writing, and Sari claims that the pithiness and precision of writing for comics has aided her prose. As two working artists, we can always rely on our partner supporting the hours spent on our craft, even if the “payoff” feels like it is years away.
I also have to say that, as the child of a (now) successful artist who was a single mom, I always understood that being both a parent and an artist is a tenuous balancing act, but that passion, dedication, perseverance, and a form of artistic single-mindedness are all keys to success.
PP: What helps you achieve work-life balance?
JN: Before becoming a parent, I had a tendency to work myself down to the bone, feeling like every spare second had to be used “productively.” And since Sari was also a creative, we would often spend evenings and even weekends working on our projects, instead of going outside or socializing with other people. But being a responsible parent requires finding a better work-life balance. There are times when you just have to put away the pencil and the brush, and pick up the frisbee or the box of Legos! And once I started appreciating that I could still be just as productive — in terms of good, useful pages — as a parent as I was before my daughter came along, I’ve found it much easier to find that “appropriate” balance.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
JN: Originally, the most challenging thing about being a creative parent was adjusting my routine to the needs of an infant. I had always been a late worker, sometimes feeling the most productive between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 or 2 in the morning. The flip side of that was I was a late riser, and could easily sleep until 9 or 10 in the morning. (Being a freelancer who mostly worked at home gave me that freedom.) So having a child made me totally change the creative routine, which for the most part I have been able to do. And on the occasions when my wife is getting up in the morning with our daughter, I can still pull late nights the evening before. But the challenge that goes hand-in-hand with that new schedule has been the knowledge that really at any moment my “creative flow” can be interrupted — whether it’s to pick up my daughter from school, to cook dinner, or to put her to bed. Those uninterrupted moments — or hours, preferably — of total immersion in a project are always when I produce the best work. So, as getting those immersive moments has become more challenging, there’s more pressure to really make them pay off.
PP: What do you struggle with??
JN: There’s a flip side to both my wife and I being creatives, which is that sometimes our needs as artists clash with our roles as parents. Sometimes we resort to horse-trading so that one or the other of us has the time we need to make our work — which means that the other one then picks up the bulk of the parenting. These tradeoffs can work out to both our satisfaction — or they can lead to resentments, and feelings one of us is abusing their claim of needing time for their work. It’s a constant tension — but one that my wife usually find a way to navigate successfully. Because we both have so much respect for the other’s practice, and have always been good communicators, we have developed methods (like monthly scheduled check-ins) that keep things on an even keel.
PP: What do you need?
JN: When I’m in the middle of a project — often the writing part more than even the drawing part — I desperately need those three-to-five hours of uninterrupted creative time. That’s the only way to merge my research, writing, and drawing together into successful creative work.
PP: What advice would you offer other parents who write?
JN: The most important thing is not to set up a dialectic in your mind that being a parent is an obstacle to being a creator. At some point in your life you made an active choice to be an artist; hopefully, you also made an active choice to be a parent. Therefore, those two jobs aren’t in opposition to each other. They are both part of who you are as a person. Remembering that is key — otherwise you go down the dark path of resenting your child (and/or your partner). So, don’t pretend that your creative life will be the same as it was before you became a parent; but that doesn’t mean you can’t still make fabulous work in the admittedly fewer hours you now have to work with.
PP: What do you wish you would have known in the beginning?
JN: It’s all about becoming more efficient with the time you have!
PP: How has parenting and writing changed as your children have grown?
JN: I can’t say it has changed all that much. Since my work is nonfiction, and I tend to focus on issues of social upheaval and/or technology, the changes in my work are usually more reflective of changes in the world around me more than my domestic life. I’ve tended to stay away from personal writing — or work related to parenting — because of a desperate desire to avoid sentimentality. But there have been times I’ve snuck my daughter (and her favorite stuffed animal) into the background of certain scenes in my comics! And, as she enters into the fraught world of technology, social media, etc., I can certainly imagine “using” her as my source into that ever-changing world in some future story. I also find myself more and more running ideas or even drawings by my daughter, as I respect her “eye” and creative feedback in a way similar to how my wife has helped me in those ways over the years. “Through the eyes of a child” indeed!
PP: What else would you like to add on this subject?
JN: One thing I often appreciate is that I came to parenting late, after I had already enjoyed a good ten-to-fifteen years as a published creator. I had all through my twenties and a good part of my thirties in which to work on my craft, develop my aesthetic, and find an audience — to discover my creative path. Ironically, however, it was only after my daughter was born that I began to really find widespread success. I’d like to think that the creative foment that produced my child leached out into my work as well. But I know that all those earlier, uninterrupted years, were vitally important to my ability to balance parenting and creating now…
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Josh Neufeld is a cartoonist known for his nonfiction narratives of political and social upheaval, told through the voices of witnesses. He is the writer/artist of the bestselling nonfiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon). In addition, he is the illustrator of the bestselling graphic nonfiction book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton). With his wife, the fiction writer Sari Wilson, Neufeld co-edited Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose (Pressgang). Neufeld has been a Knight-Wallace Fellow in journalism, an Atlantic Center for the Arts Master Artist, and a Xeric Award winner. His books have been translated into numerous languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.JoshComix.com
The Pen Parentis Research Project is a series of interviews with parent authors in order to learn how they manage time, publish, earn a living, nurture creative community, and care for their kids. Initiated by Mary Harpin in 2017, the project will culminate in a book with stories, data, and helpful information that other parent writers can apply to their own lives.