SCBWI Miami - First Books Panel




These are things I didn’t get to say, but they helped me along the way. My sixth grade teacher posted this quote on the board one day and I wrote it in my journal, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Hitch your wagon to a star.

-- from the Ralph Waldo Emerson essay “American Civilization”

It comes from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson about proximity to celebrity and wealth, but back then I didn’t know that and I interpreted it as setting your expectations for yourself very high. In my mind, always literal, I imagined someone hitching their wagon to a shooting star and being propelled into outer space, into a new orbit. Even if that humble wagon didn’t make it, at least at least it went far.

Close the taste gap.

This is one of those things that few people are born with, and the rest of us just have to learn to match our skill with our taste level… it just takes time, and practice, and work. (Just… I know, I know.)

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira Glass, 2009

In January I had the chance to take part in the SCBWI Miami conference as a First Books panelist as the illustrator for Boomer At Your Service. I had six minutes to speak, so I made a short speech on how to become an illustrator.

As promised, here is my speech for SCBWI Miami’s First Books Panel 2020

7 steps to becoming an illustrator

  1. Dream.
    Set goals for yourself that are high, and break them down into achievable chunks.

  2. Fight for that dream.
    MOSTLY defy perceived societal expectations of you... they (my Cuban mom and grandpa) mean well, but think art = poverty

  3. Do the Work.
    Level up your craft. How? Who are your favorite artists? What makes them special to you? Analyze this! Distill it, add your own ingredients, and create your own elixir of creativity.

    • Polish - through critique groups - Merritt Island critique group, online critique group, online courses

    • Reflect - retreats, journaling, revision, seeing alternative 

    • Get help from the pros - through conferences, editorial reviews, portfolio critiques, & mentors (WWTS with Brianne Farley, WNDB with Joyce)

  4. Rest.

    When you feel burnout approaching, do something different, and come back when you’re ready. Sometimes you come in sideways (after RISD... knitwear designer, illustrating knitting mags, etc)

  5. Be present.
    Live your life so you have something worthwhile to say.

  6. Be flexible.
    Be ready to take the turns that life presents. Be ready to respond to feedback and changes. Don’t lose the heart of your story, but be open to feedback. (2008 recession, left for Germany, loss, going broke again, flood, etc)

  7. Shine On.
    Share your work! Be vulnerable. Otherwise, no one will see you.

Update: February 26, 2020

I had the pleasure of sharing that stage with my friend Gladys who is next to me, but also Gail Shepherd, author of THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS who is pictured above next to Gladys. I ate dinner with her and found her to be so witty and insightful. She retired early from dinner with a big smile on her face. She was so happy about having her book published. I know she had a lot more to say, and I was shocked to hear yesterday that she passed away. I don’t know the details, but I’m reminded once more of what a short time we have here… to say what we have to say, and show our best to one another.


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