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SCBWI-NYC Takeaway #1: Shaun Tan & The Importance of Maintaining A Bubble Of Delusion

For those who haven't yet heard the term, conference takeaways are generally regarded as insights or key points that someone who attends brings away from the event. It differs for everyone, based on their own level of experience and context. 

I'm going to be sharing some of my takeaways, starting with Shaun Tan.


I've long admired Shaun Tan's work. The quirky/dark have always had a strong appeal to me (see my Little Nightmares Flickr set from ten years ago as an example), and someday I'm going to write and illustrate a picture book in this style. My main challenge: to figure out a way of doing dark without overwhelming the book with too much dark, if that makes any sense. Having a good story is the most important, of course. I've been working on ideas for ages but haven't been happy with any of them yet. Someday, though. These Little Nightmare guys keep bugging me to find the right story for them.

But I digress.

One of my biggest takeaways from the conference was Shaun Tan's advice to artists about the necessity of creating a Bubble of Delusion in which they feel safe to experiment and create. This applies to writers just as much as illustrators, I believe. 


A few of Shaun Tan's thoughts on the Bubble Of Delusion:

(Please note that these are my notes taken during the Illustrators' Intensive, so are subject to interpretation/misinterpretation)

- Set up a safe space in which you feel positive about yourself and your work, and know that you will do great work.

- Surround yourself with encouraging people.

- Avoid negativity, and try to steer clear when you see it coming. Shaun says he doesn't read reviews. I don't think I'd have the willpower to avoid reading reviews completely, but I do what I can to keep from interacting with negative people. Sometimes it can't be helped, but I do what I can in the future to limit the interaction.


I've experienced this myself recently, though it was necessary bad stuff (like getting an injured limb re-broken so it could heal properly).Trying to work on anything creative, however, was like walking against a gale force wind…I could do it, but it was an effort rather than the fun it usually is. Not good.

What I'm Doing To Help Maintain My Own Bubble Of Delusion:

1. Doodling something purely for the fun of it every day, no matter how busy I am. I used to draw for fun all the time! I need start doing that again. I'll post some of these daily doodles online (on DebbieOhi.com), but some I won't…these drawings are for myself.

2. Write something purely for the fun of it every day, no matter how busy I am. I'm getting back to my private journal again, my equivalent of Morning Pages.

3. Do what I can to avoid industry angst. I love social media and online communities, but sometimes I let myself get too caught up in worrying about sales figures, publishing politics, conflicting advice, peer envy.

My advice to you all, especially those who are trying to find their own writing or illustration style: do what you can to create your own Bubble of Delusion. And then when you're doing something creative, STAY IN THE BUBBLE. It's impractical and inadvisable to stay in the Bubble all the time, of course -- we all need to deal with the other Stuff in life, plus the other Stuff helps to inspire and motivate us.

For me, one of the keys is staying off the Internet when I'm trying to create. What do you do to maintain your Bubble? Feel free to post below. 

For more info about Shaun Tan and his work, see his website.

For more info about the SCBWI, see the SCBWI website.

Reader Comments (12)

This is a lovely post. It's nice to know that everyone struggles with the same doubts and fears. My own personal fear is that everything has already been done. That I can't make my idea original enough. I let it paralyze me sometimes. That's something I need to work on and keep outside my bubble of delusion. =)

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Good ideas from both Shaun and you, Debbie. I don't draw, but I love the idea of doing something just for the fun of it, of eliminating the white noise of negativity. Great applications for writers, too.

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLoretta Ellsworth

Great advice! I took a lot away from Shaun Tan's address as well! I love your solutions for getting back into your bubble. It's been a while since I doodled & wrote for the sake of pleasure so I'm going to follow your lead: no matter how busy.... Where did we all get so side-tracked?


February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha Grenier

Laura: Oh, I go through the same fear as well! I've become convinced that pretty much story has already been told. The challenge is for us to each put our own spin on the story, to find a different way to tell the story.

February 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDebbie Ridpath Ohi

Loretta: Thanks -- and I agree, a lot about the Bubble Of Delusion idea applies to writers as well as artists!

February 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDebbie Ridpath Ohi

I've currently been struggling with taking time to create things just for me, instead of trying to make things that will please other people. Thank you for your reminder that not everything is meant to be shared. I hope that I remember to spend time in my own delusion bubble this week. Great post!

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley B Hays

Samantha: I think it's easy to get sidetracked. For me, I sometimes let the stress of the publication process make me forget about the core of what I love about writing and drawing. Going to try hard not to do that.

February 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDebbie Ridpath Ohi

Avoiding the negative is sometimes a challenge, especially if one grew up in a negative environment, and er, one's family members are actually negative forces. Then of course there is the battle within one's own brain – I suck, I'm a loser, I'll never do anything good again...that bubble was SO much easier to create when I was a little kid living in a total fantasy world.

Something else I've been doing more lately – I have stopped reading a lot of the news, and I avoid depressing negative movies. Also, I find interacting with children really lifts my creative spirits.

I loved Shaun Tan's talk, too. I found his ideas were the most helpful for me. (Mind you, even though Mo Willem's talk was much more cynical – "The glass if half full -- of POISON!" – he still made me laugh).

February 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpatricia

Thanks so much for this. It was a much needed shot in the arm. For so many years I was working on assignments and when the work dried up I was at a real loss as to what I wanted to do for me! Instead of getting into that bubble I tended to fret over what might be marketable. I am going to give myself permission to be that kid again, who used to spend hours alone just doodling and making up stories. If any of them are marketable, great...but if not, I know that at least my muse will be happy.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Hearn

Patricia: I totally agree re: whole avoiding negativity being more of a challenge for some than others, depending on one's own context.

I don't read a lot of news, either. Jeff & I gave up cable tv years ago, but still watch shows we like via rental/purchase etc. And I also avoid depressing negative movies.

What I find helps, too: avoiding negative people. Everyone feels down at some point, of course, & we all have our crabby moments. But I purposely avoid people who are consistently bitter, negative, mean & feel the need to tear down anything or anyone positive.

What inspires me: interacting with people who manage to maintain a benevolent universe premise despite badstuff in their lives. Like you -- you're one of the most positive people I know. :-)

February 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDebbie Ridpath Ohi

Diane: I'm glad my post helped. And I totally hear you. I think at every level of publication (whether pre-published or published), it's important to maintain the Bubble. I'm really finding it essential to help keep me grounded in what's most important, for my own creative sanity and so I don't lose touch with the little kid joy in drawing/writing...that's a great analogy, Diane. Thanks for posting!

February 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDebbie Ridpath Ohi

I agree, Debbie---staying OFF the internet is good for a LOT of reasons, not just creativity, but productivity! :D

June 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter:Donna

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