Probably Nothing: not-your-average comic about cancer

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Matilda Tristram sent me her book, Probably Nothing: A Diary of not-your-average Nine Months, and it’s one of those books that begs to be finished in one sitting (I did it in two, but only because I had to tear myself away for something urgent – otherwise I could have chugged along without caring about the time!) It’s a graphic memoir that recounts her journey – from finding out she had cancer while she was pregnant at 17 weeks, to giving birth to James, and to the end of her chemotherapy. I loved it. It was honest, open, and incredibly real – I could imagine the things Matilda said in her head (you know, the things you wouldn’t say out loud!) I appreciated her humour and openess in expressing her thoughts, especially when she recounts her experience with people who mean well but could do better.

I had a chance to email her about the book, and I hope you enjoy reading the interview below!

Her book Probably Nothing is available on Amazon, and you can see the rest of her work on her website.

I love your book – your frankness and matter-of-factness of dealing with cancer AND being pregnant for the first time is just wow. Can you tell us why you decided to pen all your experience down, and how did it all begin?

Hello and thanks! I’m glad you liked it. There were several reasons; I’ve been writing stories and comics for years, for my job as a children’s author and for fun, writing about life is what I do and love.

I’d never made a diary comic because my day-to-day existence didn’t seem interesting enough, but suddenly it was. It was peculiar and morbidly fascinating (what my body was doing / the procedures I had to undergo), hilarious (how people reacted to my illness) and terrifying (the possibility that my son and I might not survive). That type of fear made ordinary things seem worth writing about. I wanted to record as much as possible in case I died and had to stop experiencing anything. My memories from the time are very clear, I can ‘see’ the wards and consulting rooms in perfect detail and remember exactly how people spoke and what they said. Scenes play over and over in my mind like frames from a storyboard so it was easy to draw.

1 month oldIt was also good to have something to do to at hospital, I was there three days a week for most of my treatment, which lasted for six months. It took my mind off the situation, while I was thinking about how to draw or word something I wasn’t thinking about how scared I was.

Penguin offered to publish the comic when I was about six months pregnant, almost halfway through the book. Until then I’d been putting it all online as I wrote it, to let friends and family know how we were doing without my having to have the same upsetting conversations again and again. Talking about it was difficult, but writing and drawing wasn’t at all.

Writing also meant I could gently criticise the way people talk about to ill people without having to confront anyone directly. I know people’s intentions are good, no one wants to do or say the wrong thing, but until you’ve had cancer or know someone who has, you might not realise that, for instance, talking about someone else you know who’s had cancer isn’t very helpful.

I found all the language of cancer, the ‘fighting talk’, hard to deal with too, and used the comic to question that. For example, people want to hear that you’re “thinking positive” when really you’re terrified. A popular belief is that if you think positive, you’re more likely to recover, which is complete nonsense and makes cancer patients feel guilty for worrying.

My diagnosis came quite late; the tumour was large and had started to spread. It was very difficult to get any doctors to take my symptoms seriously and my son and I very nearly died as a result. I wanted the comic to raise awareness so that the same mistakes could be avoided with other patients.

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Did you approach a publisher for the book, or did they come to you after you put your webcomics online?

After I put the comic online and then the Guardian newspaper approached me and asked to feature some pages in their magazine. I got a great response from that so approached a few publishers.

How has the response to your book been? Was it what you had expected it to be?

The response has been wonderful. The online comics and cancer communities were so encouraging while I was writing and having treatment, it was great to already have their support when the book came out.

When I read it now, I can’t believe how open I was about some things. I think at the time I felt like if everyone knew about what we were going through I wouldn’t feel so isolated in the experience. I always get emotional when people tell me that reading those really raw bits helped them through treatment or with caring for someone else.

Another response has been relief on finding that there are funny bits in the book. I suppose devastating things can also be very funny. The book is also about the rest of life as well as cancer; friendship, love, family and living in London so it’s not all heavy stuff.

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Now that your book is out and people have identified you as the lady who survived cancer while being pregnant – has this affected you in any way? Do you feel as though you’d like to move on, or are you keen to explore the topic of cancer further in your work?

I’m glad to be back at my old job teaching new students who don’t know anything about it, and working on new things that aren’t related to cancer at all.

Although I’m not making more work about cancer, I am enjoying going to conferences and visiting medical schools, to see how comics could be used to improve diagnostic techniques and communication with patients.

What have you learned from this whole experience? Of having cancer, to beating it, to having James, and then this book?

I should have some righteous platitudes ready for this bit, but I can’t think of any! I loved life before I got ill and didn’t need to get cancer to ‘appreciate the small things’ etc… I’ve had a crash course in oncology and been amazed by what my body has endured, how it has healed, and by it’s ability to produce a healthy and happy son on top of everything else. Bodies are amazing.

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Can you give us a bit of advice on what’s the best thing we can do (or say) to people who have cancer, or are undergoing treatments for it? What’s the best thing someone has said to you or has done for you?

What I loved was when people did things without asking ‘is there anything I can do?’, like bringing dinner, tidying the flat, or dropping off something nice (and non-cancer-related). All the flowers got a bit overwhelming but one friend gave me a rubber peanut and a pencil case with my favourite type of pen in, which was lovely.

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You’re a teacher, animator, and writer – what advice do you have for artists who are trying to make their mark on the world?

Put it all online!

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Thanks so much Matilda!

Probably Nothing is available on Amazon, and I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself and/or loved ones who are going through health issues (minor or major) – it’s funny, touching, real (yes, I mentioned this several times already, I know) and best of all, uplifting.

About

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Welcome to Pikaland!

Hi there! My name is Amy Ng, the mayor here at Pikaland and if you’ve ever asked yourself the following questions:

  1. How can I become an illustrator?
  2. How did other artists & illustrators become so good at what they do?
  3. How do I learn to be more creative, and to be able to generate more ideas for my work?
  4. How do I earn a living as a creative person in the modern era?

… you’re in the right place.

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Here’s how Pikaland can help open your eyes to new possibilities in furthering your creative career: 

I believe that illustration (and art) involves more than just terms like editorials, advertising and work-for-hire. To become an illustrator in this day and age, it means more than ever that you’ll need to become adept at telling your own personal story.

But how do you do this? How can you run against the herd that’s telling you that it’s always been done this way – and that there’s no changing how things are?

You start small. Let an idea grow, little by little, and surround yourself with like-minded people.

Join the Pikaland tribe by subscribing to our weekly newsletter – where you’ll get ideas and thoughtful strategies from other artists who are making a name for themselves, and musings from my own unique experience as well – direct to your inbox. Because I know how busy life can get, think of this as your personal weekly reminder to slow down, sit back and to think of the bigger picture, instead of just focusing on checking off your packed to-do list.

I’ll save you time: I won’t be touching on techniques or small tactics to create the perfect paint texture. What I explore is ideas: how you can deliver them through your own story and how to communicate your ideas better.

All because I have a knack for breaking down patterns that I see in successful illustrators and artists – and the ability to be able to read stories from images. My belief is this: it doesn’t matter if an illustration is great on technique – if it lacks in substance, it loses out to the one that isn’t technically strong but has a great story. I’ll break things down for you into practical tips that you can start to incorporate into your work right now.

About Amy

I founded Pikaland in 2008, and I’m now spreading my ideas as an adjunct lecturer in a local art and design college in Malaysia, speaking and sparking thoughts on creativity, illustration and entrepreneurship.

talkI started this blog when I was curious about the world of illustration. Prior to that, I had no idea that a field like this existed. Sure, I loved drawing, but beyond that I had absolutely no idea how to begin. I was stumbling around, collecting links and images from others who inspired me; and I began to look deeper into the thought processes of each artist as I went over their portfolio and online shop.

So I took notes, and learned with fresh eyes. I taught myself how to identify patterns and styles – aesthetically and conceptually. I was just someone who wanted to know about illustration so much, and how I could break into the field. I decided that I didn’t need a degree to love illustration. I just went ahead and soaked up whatever information I could find on the subject. Business. Process. Creativity. Networking. Techniques. Storytelling. I soaked up everything.

Five years on, I’ve taken on several illustration commissions, and was also appointed a creative director for a regional agency – I had a client list that included Tesco and Marie Claire magazine. After the experience, I felt that I was a much happier person when I organize things instead of being the one who wielded the brush, so I concentrated taking on a managing and teaching role instead, which suited me to a tee.

I teach others the way that I hope to be taught – and so a lot of my lessons are based on personal experience. A lot of it is how I approach problem solving via creative thinking – a skill that I feel is lacking today, because we’re too focused on everything else. We need to re-focus on the important bits.

Pikaland is a place where I experiment with my ideas, and where I can share the things I’ve learnt along the way.

If you’re interested to hear more from me, all you have to do is enter your email below and click “Subscribe”. No spam, ever.

3 harmful myths about self-promotion & why it’s time to do things differently

It’s been a week since I launched Work / Art / Play – an online class for artists and illustrators to help them find their footing in this big bad digital world; and the response has been amazing. I’ve gotten so many responses from artists and illustrators who took the time to send me an email, telling me how this has been what they’ve been looking for (and why the heck was I keeping it from them for so long!) So thank you readers – I’m touched beyond belief, and can’t wait to start!

One of the core messages in my upcoming class was that it’s time to do things differently. And that means it’s not just about up-ending the competition. It’s not about tweeting your fingers off every hour of everyday with news about that same new painting, or sending in that fourth application to an illustration annual. It’s more than that and I’m going to lay down 3 harmful myths about self-promotion and why it’s time you did things differently.

Myth #1: Social media is key to making sales, getting clients, etc!

No it’s not.

Tweeting about your offerings 24/7 into the wide open world is not going to cut it. You might trigger a response (if you’re lucky someone notable stumbles onto your tweet) but for the most part it’s like shouting into a barrel and hoping for a response. Social media is merely an amplifier for your marketing efforts and is a way to connect with others on an informal level; but it’s not the whole picture (unless it is, and if it is, then you’re in trouble).

Handy hint: Stop sending pitches through Twitter or Facebook – it’s unprofessional and lazy. Plus, it’s easily forgettable compared to an email.

Myth #2: Postcards: the more the better. I need a fancy logo and name card that people will remember before I promote myself.

This is a misguided effort at best, and a time-staller at worst. Sure, creating the best name card so that people will remember you is a noble effort – but ultimately people will remember the person, not a name on a card. Even if it was printed with gold leaf on a scratch-and-sniff card.

Handy hint: As long as your name card is legible and carries an example of your work or your message, it’s time to hustle!

Myth #3: Emails don’t cost a thing. I’m just going to send one to everyone I know with a blind carbon copy (Bcc).

Again. This is just lazy, and just like shooting fish in a barrel. Would you send out a mass cover letter and a generic resume in hopes of landing a job? If that’s what you’ve been doing (no, no, no) then it’s time you stopped and put a little more effort into putting yourself out there.

Handy hint: Use names if possible. Most of the time you can do a search and you’ll find the person you want to reach, and avoid the possibility of being binned.

The biggest takeaway from all this, is how artists and illustrators need to stop putting their hopes on others, and take concrete steps to claim responsibility for their actions. So many marketing strategies out there hinges on other people’s responses instead of how you can deliver your message and story better.

And how did I know all of this? Because I’ve been on the receiving end of the above strategies. Frankly, after 6 years and hundreds of emails, it’s getting a little ridiculous, to the point where it has become a personal pain point, rather than something to be tolerated. Things can be better. You can do better.

So if you think I’m going to be advocating that you send in more postcard mailings, or take a spread in that fifth illustration annual, or to put up your portfolio up on that illustration portfolio site – I’m not. These may work for some, but ultimately it leaves too much to chance. Remember, it’s not about out-doing your peers, it’s about doing things differently in order to succeed.

And this is just a small part of what I’ll be focusing on in Work / Art / Play. If you’ve been doing things the same way without much to show for it, do yourself a favor and check it out – it might just change the way you look at your work and your business. Enrollment ends on 8th September 2013, and class begins 16th September. 

SHARE WITH US:

Although I’ve laid out the points above, I know that there’s always an angle that I’m missing, an opinion that I’ve not heard. So I’m curious to hear from you – have you used the above strategies and has it worked for you? Tell me your findings in the comments below!

And if you haven’t signed up for the mailing list yet – do join in! You’ll get a weekly newsletter and special members-only updates with ideas, tips and advice on how to spread your wings no matter if you’re an artist or illustrator (or both!)

[Illustration by Susanne Low]


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