Real Talk

Last Saturday, June 29, I participated in an event organized by my good friend Ella Lama, whom I met in 2014 through a common friend. Ella and I are both from the Philippines, and she, too, is an illustrator who has beginnings as a doodle and lettering artist. In 2016, Ella invited me to be a speaker in that year’s Real Talk Tambay held at Warehouse 8 in Makati, along with several other local artists. Nearly three years have passed since then, but fortunately, Ella decided to organize another session, albeit a little smaller, this time in Local Edition, where her first Real Talk Tambay was held.

Real Talk is an event where speakers talk about the creative life, and the struggles that come with it. A little over twenty participants signed up and showed up for its most recent run. Full house! Ella asked if I could talk about my journey from freelancing to having a day job and going back to freelancing again just recently. In this post, I would like to share some of the things I shared during my talk, and a little bit more.

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Ella gave me my topic about two weeks prior to the event, but it was only a couple of days before the day that I started working on my outline and slide, mostly because I wasn’t sure I had the right to talk about freelancing when I’m not actually working on any freelance projects at the moment. This was how I arrived at a decision to title my talk Unknown, which feels like my word this year.

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So much has happened in the first half of the year: I dared to embark on a self-exploration, triggered by a comment from a stranger on a Facebook group I’m part of, about how my post revealed I had self-sabotaging behaviors. This prompted me to read up on self-sabotage and to my discovery of the book The Healthy Mind Toolkit, which is a very helpful resource for people like me who exhibit such behaviors.

One of the things I realized was that I’ve spent the last twenty years being afraid⁠⁠—of failure, of success, of other people’s opinions, of rejection, and yes, of the unknown. When you live in fear, it’s like you’re in a house and outside it’s always dark and you can’t see anything, so the most logical thing to do is to stay inside. This house is the comfort zone. As Brene Brown said in her Netflix special Call to Courage (also mentioned in her book Daring Greatly), “For me, the fear of shame, the fear of criticism, was so great in my life, up until that point, just paralyzing, that I engineered smallness in my life.” That’s exactly how I felt when I started uncovering all the ways I have been sabotaging myself.

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I began my story in 2012, a year after I finished college, where I worked in what then was my dream job of teaching at a local state university in my home province of Pampanga. I quit that job when the semester ended, then moved back to Manila to work in quality assurance at a BPO. I spent about 10 months in that job, quitting prematurely after being sexually assaulted by a co-worker and being told by my other colleagues to keep silent about what happened, forget it, and move on. I did move on, but I did not shut up. I decided I was not going to be shamed into silence, so I still openly talk about that experience, my small way of showing other people, especially other women, that they should not be ashamed, that victims should neither be silenced nor blamed for what happened to them.

Prior to this, however, I was already thinking of quitting because I have then just fallen in love with drawing with pencils. It was also then that I discovered artists on Instagram, and upon seeing they were making art for a living, thought I’d try it out for myself. So packed up and left and went back our family home in Pampanga, where I stayed for another three years. It was also in 2013 that I started my Instagram account, @thepapercat, which was initially a mix of a personal and art account, but later on evolved to be something of an online portfolio.

In 2014, I started hand-lettering (although I’ve been doing it for a long time, really, from my high school name tags to my college planners, though they weren’t as artful), until I discovered calligraphy. Back then I also just got out of a brief, yet tumultuous relationship and needed a more productive way to move on than just crying over the breakup and hating on my ex. 😂

By 2015, I was teaching calligraphy workshops, and later on also taught watercolor workshops, after learning to use the medium. However, my self-sabotaging behaviors got the better of me, and by 2016, I accumulated a credit card debt that freelancing then alone couldn’t pay off, so I decided to get a day job at an Australian company in Makati and worked there as a trainer and assessor for a year before moving to another company to teach an IELTS preparation course at a recruitment agency. A year later, shortly after getting married, I was working elsewhere, in a job that paid much higher, which I honestly thought I would be with for a long time. However, it seemed the universe had other plans.

Just this April, I lost my first baby to an ectopic pregnancy. It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to go through and I wasn’t sure how to cope, so I asked my husband, A, if I could get myself an iPad Pro so I can draw in bed, because I could hardly move for the first two weeks following the surgery (my right fallopian tube ruptured and thus had to be removed). It was during my recovery that A asked if I still wanted to go back to work, which I talked about in a previous post.

And that’s how I got here: to being a stay-at-home wife slash freelance artist and illustrator, which to me, feels like square one yet again.

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Just last week, I finished reading Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, the third in his series of books on the creative life, the first two being Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, which I loved, so I knew I had to read the third one as well. The above quote was from the first chapter of the book, and it resonated with me, because one of the things I realized in my own creative journey was how romanticized the art and creativity are in our society, when in fact, they are anything but romantic.

Working as a freelance artist is exactly that: work. While it is true that being able to make money off of something we love doing is ideal, it does not exempt us from the burdens of having any other job. I am grateful to have the privilege of having a husband who is supportive of my craft, who tells me he’d prefer it if I pursued creative endeavors more than anything else, but there are bills to pay and a life to live, so there is a need to work and make money. And in a world abundant with talent and creativity, how do I succeed?

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Over the last few years, I have grown more and more averse and a tad resentful of two ideas: passion and talent. Like art and creativity, I feel that they have been over-romanticized and glamorized. The pursuit of passion feels like a mission, to which there is, unfortunately, no promise of definite success. I do think people should do what gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment, something that feeds their soul and makes them feel more alive, but I also think this should be rooted in reality. The reality that we need to work to live, and that some of us are just not privileged enough to pursue our passions and turn them into our livelihood.

And as for talent, sure, some people are born with certain capabilities worthy of being called talent, but I believe we all are capable of many different things, some just happen to be worth more than others, and are therefore deemed worthy of recognition and acclaim. A talent, after all, is but a skill that one has mastered and has the ability to do extremely well it sets one apart from the rest of the crowd. My point is, talent is a gift, but it’s not rare, and definitely isn’t reserved for a select few. I think we have come to believe a myth about talent and creativity that discourages us from pursuing things as soon as we fail at our first few attempts at doing them.

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But rather than giving up and branding ourselves talentless, what we need is a determination to get good at what we want to do and bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be and the best way to achieve this is by focusing our energy on purposeful practice.

Allen Gannett talks about this in his book The Creative Curve, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to know what it takes to be commercially successful. In the book, he disputes the 10,000 hour rule of mastery, and says it’s not the amount time we put into practicing that determines how successful we become, but how we spend this time. Run a Google search on purposeful practice to learn more about it and how you can use it to improve on yourself, you’ll find thousands of articles have been written on the topic.

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Finally, a note on self-awareness. It was a thirst for better self-awareness that led me to try and discover the parts of myself despite the uncertainty and fear of finding something ugly. Self-sabotage, I learned, is rooted in low self-esteem, and learning this felt like a huge metaphorical bitchslap. I thought I have made strides in my journey towards self-love and I had plenty of confidence in myself, but it turns out the journey was far from over. I still have miles to go, and the path isn’t some clear-cut road I could easily navigate. No. Self-love is a mountain and I’m still just on its foot, meandering its woods, not knowing what monsters I might encounter and wondering to take them on in case they do appear.

Self-awareness is also what keeps us grounded. There is no becoming a better person until you know exactly the kind of person you are right now.

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I ended my talk with these simple reminders, so I’m leaving you with them, too. I believe we cannot be genuinely kind without being humble, and humility is something that I think the world can use more of. Success has a tendency to get into our heads, and when that happens, we forget the value of being humble. We turn into arrogant bastards that people, including ourselves, love to hate. And while, yes, haters gonna hate, knowing you are disliked can only bring forth unnecessary anxiety and stress. Unless you’re narcissistic, I suppose.

The live action remake of Disney’s Cinderella is to be thanked for the quote “Have courage and be kind,” but I opted for brave, because as Nelson Mandela once said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let your fears kick you out of the driver’s seat and take the wheel. And as Austin Kleon wrote in Keep Going, “Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.”

Thank you to everyone who participated in Real Talk Tambay and to Ella for spearheading the event and inviting me to be a speaker for the second time! Thank you, too, to Denver, Madz, and Airees for sharing their experiences and insights on what it’s like to be an artist and freelance creative in the Philippines. Sa uulitin!