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Healthy Creative Living - An Interview with Ben Clanton

I've decided to conduct a series of interviews with some creative friends in order to shed more light on the topic of what it means to live a healthy creative life. My hope is that it will become a form of worker solidarity that helps creatives set firm boundaries around their time, safety, and long-term health.


Ben Clanton


"...It's that time of day when I'm supposed to go for a walk now regardless of what I'm working on, regardless of how well it seems to be going or how badly it seems to be going, and how much I want to push through. It's time for that break."


This week I had the pleasure of talking to author/illustrator Ben Clanton of Narwhal and Jelly fame! Ben and I became acquaintances while I worked at a local bookstore in Seattle. It was really kind of him to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about how to live a healthy creative life. Like many artists, there's a lot that goes into Ben's lively, cheerful work that maybe isn't so pretty to talk about. I really appreciated his honesty about his struggles with overworking himself and coming close to burnout. I hope our conversation will resonate with someone and challenge them to develop a healthier relationship with work.


 

Suzi

Hi Ben! Please tell the readers about yourself and what you make.


Ben

Sure. I'm Ben Clanton and my pronouns are he/him. And I make children's books ranging from picture books to early graphic novels. I write and illustrate them.


Suzi

Awesome. So, this might be kind of an obvious question, but do you consider your work full-time, part-time, hobby or do you find it another way?


Ben

It's full-time. Sometimes it's a little too full time and I guess as we'll discuss.


Suzi

So tell me about what a typical day can look like for you. Do you have a routine or do you just kind of take things day by day


Ben

I've kind of had to develop a routine. I don't love having a routine. I prefer to be a little looser, but it's not just me and my family. I've got three little kids, a soon-to-be six-year-old, soon-to-be-four-year-old, and a soon-to-be one-year-old. So that means we need routines because kids need routine.


And actually, it has helped me as well to manage my schedule better. A typical day is me being kind of the last one to wake up. That's around seven or so. Kiddos and I, and my wife start getting going for the day. They're usually out of the house around 8/8:30. And I do a little bit clean up, maybe get myself cleaned up too, and then go ahead and head down to a bit of work.


I tried to shake up where I'm working from. I've been using my iPad more recently so that I'm not just in one space all the time. But then I'll work for two to threeish hours or so. Take a little break. Usually to get something to eat as well as then either go for a walk or run or go play basketball and just shoot some hoops. And then head back to work for a couple of hours to three hours. That's about when my kids come home. And so I’ll help unload, make dinner, do bedtime routine, all that. And in the evening time, I'll usually work -it depends on how much I have to get done - but usually to around midnight or so.


Suzi

Do you know how many hours a week is typical for you to safely engage in your craft?


Ben

Oh, I used to not do very well with kind of glorifying the grind. I fell into that for quite a while. I was working a hundred-plus hours a week. Nowadays I probably work anywhere from like six to nine or ten hours on weekdays. And that feels good. It doesn't feel like too much.


Suzi

Are there physical health risks associated with your practice? And if so, what precautions do you take to minimize them?


Ben

Well, my office sure could use some work. I’ve been having more back pains recently. I'm saying I'm working two/three hours, but that's not one continuous amount. So I make sure to get up stretch a little bit and be more mindful of my body and how it's feeling, and if it's cramping up and stuff. I think this tends to be my tendency so it really takes a conscious effort not to power through whatever I'm trying to get done.


As far as physical stuff. Other than my back stuff and maybe some calluses growing on my hands -the potential of some future finger troubles as I get older -not too much. The mental health side is the bigger thing for me, but of course, physical health is very much tied to that.


Suzi

Have you never had any kind of injury, like tendonitis or anything like that?


Ben

I haven't had tendonitis. I've been pretty fortunate as far as avoiding any serious injuries that would make it difficult to work with and that my work would exacerbate. I’m aware of other people that's happened with so I feel pretty fortunate.


Suzi

Yeah. Hopefully, it won't ever happen! Do you have advice on how to set up a workspace that doesn't lead to injury?


Ben

It's an area I've less experience with. A standing desk is an idea I've been wanting to explore. I haven't done that yet. SoI can’t give my stamp of approval on that. But for me, one of the big changes has been not always being at my desk. Instead, I’ll take my iPad and allow my body to be in more comfortable positions and not just glued to my desk.


Suzi

That makes sense. Changing up what position your body is in. Are there any health aides you regularly use, like braces, ice packs, light-reflecting glasses, stuff like that?


Ben

Yeah. So I guess that is a physical thing that I wasn't really thinking about. I get migraines. And I had considered doing the blue tint glasses. But color is a big part of what I'm doing and it does change the look of color a little bit. So I think I might eventually get a spare pair. And I can switch between those and my regular pair. But at this point, I haven't done anything as far as that goes.


Instead, if I'm looking at the screen a lot, I try to be proactive about looking away from the screen every like 20 minutes or so. I think the like rule of thumb is 20, 20, 20. You should try every 20 minutes to look 20 feet away and focus on a point for about 20 seconds. It's supposed to help reduce eyestrain and reduce the number of headaches. Another thing to try to reduce the headaches that I've been doing is putting a cold pack on my head. As they’re starting to come on.


Suzi

For the migraines, are there circumstances where you've noticed you're more likely to get one? Like if you're working a longer day or getting less sleep. Or is it just seemingly random?


Ben

Yeah, I've come to understand that there are certain things. So when I was traveling more before the pandemic, when I was on regular trips every month to go visit schools and libraries -the airplane was always difficult because of elevation headaches at the end. And I discovered that if I ate a salad, beforehand that made a big difference.


And there are other foods you're supposed to like avoid. Cheese, I believe is one you should avoid before a flight. It has to do with blood vessels and arteries and stuff. But yeah, barometric pressure is another thing for me. I try to watch barometric pressure because if it’s dropping that can cause headaches. And then screen time is another thing. The screen time is hard because a lot of my work is on a screen.


And then yeah, as you mentioned sleep of course. Which is something that I in the past have been always willing to sacrifice. And I can't say that I'm fully there yet in relishing my sleep. But I'm getting better and realizing how vital that is. Because for overall health sleep is a big deal.


Suzi

Well, thank you for being open about that. I appreciate that.

How do you guard your creative time from distractions like social media or, maybe people wanting to take your time for stuff like this, or doing school visits?


Ben

Yeah. I'm definitely one of those people that finds it hard to say no to things. So that takes practice. In an interview like this, I think this is a topic that has become increasingly important to me. Especially as I've had a number of close to burnout moments. So taking time for this seems important to me.

But it's hard because every school that sends an invitation I, of course, want to visit. But there just isn't enough time. So I set up how many within a month I can do and how many I can say yes to.


And then as far as social media and stuff, I don't know. I think probably a lot of the stuff that's been going on these past couple of years has made me just want to not be connected as much. I want to check in and be informed but, social media isn't always the best way to do that. So I still love to peruse Instagram and see the beautiful things people are making. But I tend to turn that stuff off and not look at it when it's time to make stuff.


Suzi

What are some things that you have had to let go of in order to live a healthier creative life? Whether that's distractions other hobbies, mindsets, maybe even relationships.


Ben

Goodness. I've had the tendency to sacrifice a number of things that maybe weren't the healthiest choices to sacrifice in order to have creative time and to be working. And so I think I've been trying to find a better balance. And in that better efficiency. So, as I've mentioned already a couple of times, I use an iPad and a program on there I use a lot now is Procreate. It's been amazing because I was so resistant to doing digital work. And yet whenever someone would see one of my books they'd be like, so it's this digital, is that traditional. And they wouldn't even know.


I thought why am I so fixated on making this in a particular way.? When the majority of my readers, don't care how I'm rendering it. They just care about the final result. How does it make them feel? Are they enjoying it? And I rarely in the end am like, oh, I love what I created. So who am I actually pleasing here by doing things a particular way? So allowing myself to work more digitally has actually been a game-changer.


The most recently published Narwhal and Jelly book

The book that I'm just completing now It's the seventh in this series called “Narwhal and Jelly”. And this book I'm finishing in about three months, whereas before it would've taken me five months. So I've shaved off a couple of months at a time and work. I guess if you're talking about the number of hours in the week, that’s probably even more significant because I'm working fewer hours.


Suzi

So letting go of the feeling that you have to do it the right way or the traditional way. It's okay to make it easier.


Ben

Yeah. Kind of sacrificing this glorification of doing things some particular way.


Suzi

So let's talk about the mental health side of creative work. Please share as much or as little as you like about your struggles or successes in maintaining your mental health in regard to your creative practice.


Ben

Yeah, so mental health, that's a big one for me. I've struggled with depression and anxiety throughout most of my life. And long hours with little sleep working on projects does not benefit that. And I think one other thing I used to sacrifice was time for working out. Forgetting to do even low-impact exercises like just going for a walk. If I was like on deadline, I'll be like, oh, I don't have time for that. And I think it made me actually less efficient as well. And to kind of illustrate that - a book that I was working on a couple of years ago. It was this a larger project with more pages than I'd done in a book previously. And I was really feeling the crunch of time on that. And so I took very few breaks outside of what I needed to take breaks for.


So, what ended up happening is I became fixated on different things and tried to get it just right. So I liked to hand letter, a fair bit. And so the hand lettering for the cover, I ended up wasting a week on. I would spend an hour today but I spent a whole week and that's a week I could have gotten so much more done including exercise. But because I will allow my mind to go into this perfectionist mindset of -I've got to get this right and if it doesn't look this way then a feeling that I'm not worthy starts to seep in. And it can begin to spiral. I become less satisfied in my work, I work harder on it and I end up making poorer quality work as a result.


Suzi

Was there a turning point or a moment of realization where you realized -this isn't working for you anymore?


Ben

You know, there've been a number of turning points. Where I'll get back to a good point and then I stop practicing the things that I know help. I'll stop the routines that are set up. If I start forgoing exercise, if I start forgoing times for creative recharge, it starts spiraling down again. More recently though was this past fall. I once again had this moment going -this is not sustainable, look at what I'm doing. And that's when I made this big switch from the one way I had been working to working with less anxiety about how I had to create.


There's been a couple of times where I would have burned out if I had the choice to. I have a family of five here and there isn't that choice for me to be like, I'm going to quit what I'm doing. I need to make sure that everyone has the things that they need in my family. There've been a couple of books where yeah, I wasn't making healthy choices and I was feeling burnt out. I didn't feel like finishing the work and I was considering quitting and maybe finding a career that didn’t make me feel so much pressure.


It's a weird thing because it's such a fortunate job to have. I get to choose my own hours, I get to make things, I get to be creative. There are so many pluses. It's hard to imagine not wanting those things. But it's also putting a lot of yourself into what you put out into the world. And that can be a little bit scary. Particularly when not everyone's going to love what you put out. And the more you put it out there and the more people see it, the more people are willing to say they don't like it. And to vocalize things that can be hurtful.


Suzi

Yeah. Well, I really appreciate you sharing that because I think there is a perception that the artistic life is an easy one. Or that it's not really work. But it is. It's hard and exhausting and it is fun and joyous. But it's hard too.

How do you discern whether you should push through a feeling of creative fatigue or take a break?


A coloring page from Ben's website www.benclanton.com

Ben

I'm not sure I've worked that out. Recently I’ve been working on that better balance. I haven't felt the need to take longer reprieves or anything like that. But if I find myself retrying the same thing over and over again, that's usually a pretty good clue that I need to step away for a little bit. I'm bad at noticing and observing that, oh, I'm getting stuck on this. And so just setting up kind of that schedule as much as I don't like being stuck to a schedule. Of okay, it's that time of day when I'm supposed to go for a walk now regardless of what I'm working on, regardless of how well it seems to be going or how badly it seems to be going, and how much I want to push through. It's time for that break.


Suzi

So my question I have here is “What has been your progress in creating a work-life balance?”. But I feel like you've spoken on that already. So I wonder if you would just have any advice to who you were starting out. What's something you would want to tell that person?


Ben

Oh, goodness. I'm not sure if that person would listen. I don't know. I reflect on where I have been to where I am now. And I think it took going through that stuff to get here.

But I guess the thing I'd emphasize is the need to take time to exercise and do things that don't have anything to do with your work. And which are hopefully active things. But those are game-changer as far as when you actually are sitting and you do need to get stuff done. Cause you're going to be much better at getting it done if you do that.


Suzi

This is kind of an odd question, but sometimes people have interesting answers. Is there a spiritual aspect to your work? Like ritual, meditation, prayer, stuff like that?


Ben

Not really. I don't think of myself as a particularly spiritual person. Except there's a lot of Buddhism that does appeal to me. As far as right speech, right intent. Kind of looking at your motives for things too. But as far as taking moments to meditate and stuff, I guess my form of meditation is my walks. While I'm not sitting and paying attention to my breathing, I’m taking those moments to just allow myself to breathe some fresh air. Being outside and taking in the light and all of that. It does feel like a recharge moment.


Suzi

I like that. So lastly, what is your favorite thing about living a creative life?


Ben

My favorite thing?


Suzi

Or one of your top things.


Ben

One of my top things. I guess, there's just a sense of fulfillment when you make something that didn't exist before and wouldn’t have existed unless you'd taken that pen to paper. and. And making something that makes the world a little bit brighter, a little happier, a little more full.


Thank you to Ben again for taking the time for this interview! If you have little ones in your life be sure to put one of Ben's books into their hands. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for fun art and news about his upcoming books!

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