HOW TO DRAW AN EATING DISORDER

I finally, formally decided to start working on my (then untitled) book in 2009 as a college project. I wanted to find a way to commit myself to getting past the false starts, and aimed to produce something representative of my big idea that I could show to potential publishers.

Every time I’d started the project, I started differently. I used a different medium, represented the illness in a different way. I’d made ‘finished’ artwork in coloured pencil, gouache, ink, acrylic, pencil – each time certain that this was what the book would look like. When I started working on the project for real, I needed to commit to a consistent approach. Wisely, my tutors at college counselled me to let my choice of medium be guided by the content of the story.

I returned to the idea that the eating disorder was a monster, as I’d painted to try to explain it to my family when I was unwell. The original painting – now lost – showed a big green scaly dragon-thing exploding out of my head. I knew I wanted something a little bit more subtle…

LTMS sketches 1

Very quickly, the ‘monster’ became some kind of shadow, much more abstract in form, capturing more of what living with an eating disorder had felt like.

LTMS sketches 2

I also tried interpreting the feeling in colour using paint and mixed-media collage and, though I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome it really helped process my ideas. By trying this out, I knew I wanted something that was more visually simple and muted in colour. I went back to sketching, and the next thing that appeared on my paper was this:

LTMS sketch 3

After I’d drawn this image, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I knew it was right.

I scanned the image and manipulated it in photoshop, trying various approaches to colour and texture. In the end I grabbed a random scrap of grey collage paper lying about on my desk and dropped that in as a background. I really liked the effect, especially when I added a little semi-opaque white to define the figure. The only problem was the pesky piece of grey paper had a big crease down the middle …

…and so happened a very happy accident:

LTMS first image

The crease became a horizon line, and later on my panel borders, and this image became the first in the book.

FALSE STARTS

This week I received the lastest dummy book for Lighter Than My Shadow, and learned that it will be the longest graphic novel Jonathan Cape have published. Even knowing how long it took to draw those 507 pages, I was quite astonished by its ‘bigness.’

dummy book

I always knew the book would be big. I wanted it to be, because I loved reading comics that lasted me more than a few hours. But I also knew it had to be, because I wanted to dig really deep into the process of recovery, talk about all the stuff I’d found lacking in other books I’d read and tell the truth about how long it takes. But the idea was so big that I didn’t know where to start.

In 2006 I attended the very first graphic novel writing course run by The Arvon Foundation, taught by Bryan Talbot and Steve Marchant. This proved a turning point of sorts, and if you have a similarly big project that you’re struggling to get your head around, I can’t recommend these courses highly enough. With the support and enthusiasm of the tutors and other students (and in particular Bryan Talbot’s invaluable teaching) I began to take my idea seriously, and get something of a foothold on where to start.

And I did start. Over the three years following that course, I started work on the book maybe seven or eight times. Sometimes it was just a page of scribbled ideas and planning; other attempts included several pages of ‘finished’ artwork. But every time I would end up feeling overwhelmed, or frustrated by my ineptitude with the medium, or simply not ready to face the emotions the project was stirring up. I’d put my progress away in a box and forget about it. Until next time I started.

I lost count of how many times this happened, how many beginnings were abandoned. But the idea wouldn’t go away.

The idea wouldn't go away

Next week I’ll be sharing a series of posts about why the idea wouldn’t go away, and even when it felt overwhelming and too big to manage, I decided it was important to keep going.

BEFORE IT WAS A COMIC…

Lighter Than My Shadow was going to be a prose book.

I’d always enjoyed illustration, and indeed always wanted to be an illustrator. But I was one of those people who thought that books with pictures were for children, or perhaps for those who weren’t able to read ‘proper’ books (you can imagine what I thought about comics).

Until I stumbled upon the book that changed everything.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a picture book, but in its few short pages of sparse text and deeply allegorical images, it resonated more with my experience of mental illness than any prose book ever had. I’d never seen pictures so eloquent, nor found so few words to be so profound. There was something about the combination, the two working together…

I felt like I’d struck the most unique and exciting idea anyone had ever had, and a whole world had opened up to me. Books with pictures tackling serious subjects: imagine that! I enthusiastically told my friends that this book idea I’d been harping on about for years was going to have pictures, and be unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

Maus

…and so I read my first comic in 2005.

From there it was only a short step to discover a whole world of people telling serious stories with pictures. With every new book I read I was filled simultaneously with inspiration, and with crushing despair that I could never live up to the quality of storytelling these artists were achieving.

And yet, there were hundreds of books about eating disorders. If I was going to bother telling another story about anorexia, I wanted to do so in a way that might bring something different to the conversation. Though I lacked confidence in my skills as an illustrator, I was pretty sure I was a better artist than I was a writer.

The change was like flicking a switch. Once I discovered graphic novels existed, I knew that was how I needed to tell my story.

WHICH IS HARDER?

Which Is Harder?

Of course there is a large gap between deciding to write a book and actually writing one. There was a gap of years: it was 2001 when I first thought of making a book, 2009 when I formally started. Creatively it needn’t have taken that long, but there was also an emotional gap. In 2001 I was fully in the grips of an eating disorder, and couldn’t possibly write about recovery. As it turned out, getting better was not quite as straightforward as I’d planned or hoped for (afraid you’ll have to wait for the book for that bit of the story). On the way, I abandoned the book idea a number of times, for a number of reasons:

“Writing a book I such a cliché, I can’t believe I thought it was a good idea!”

“I’m so messed up, I can’t even do recovery right. Nobody’s going to find anything useful or interesting to read in how many times I did everything wrong.”

“I’m totally fine and sorted. I’ve moved on and closed the door. I need to just leave it all behind, pretend it never happened.”

After several variations on these themes, including a ceremonial burning of a stack of journals that would have been invaluable in writing the book, I came back to the idea. Perhaps, after all, I had something important to say. Perhaps I could say it better in pictures than words. By 2009, enough time had passed that I was steady enough in my recovery, and confident enough in my work as an illustrator that I felt ready to take the project on. I’m glad I waited. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for…