Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills is the book on creativity that we needed

Why my favorite creativity coach isn't a writer, but a cartoonist.

No one has done more for my creative practice in the last year and a half than Jessica Abel. A well-established cartoonist who has made a turn to blogging and writing about creativity, she has walked the walk (or swam the deep ocean, to stick with a metaphor more in line with her book’s title) in order to make creative living work for her. She has a fantastic blog on creativity going as well as the Out on the Wire podcast.

Now, Abel has a new book out, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. It’s her first venture into self-publishing books, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soon starts gracing must-reads alongside Steven Pressfield’s  The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles and Michael Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World as craft books you can return to again and again to get the messaging you need.

What do I mean by messaging?

Well, let me tell you a story. A year and a half ago I was indeed drowning under what Abel calls too much Idea Debt. Too many irons in the fire. I was struggling to reach anything to completion, and had accepted a life where I was simply chipping away at about half a dozen projects and never really bringing any of them to completion. Never in my life had I struggled with a lack of ideas. Indeed, I imagined a future in which I was the head of a creativity think tank where I had the ideas and someone else — preferably a team — would go out and execute them according to my vision.


Then came the blog post that changed it all for me: One Goal to Rule Them All.

Man, did this post have messaging. I should probably tattoo its simple wisdom on my forehead.

Have one creative project at a time.

Write down all of the creative projects you have going and the ones you want to do.

For me, the list looked like this:

Unfinished projects by Emily Grosvenor

Children’s picture book
Book-length memoir
Relaunch new blog and website connecting everything I do (you’re reading it!)
Decorate my entire house
Create an outdoor living space
Launch a writing workshop series in my rural town
Become an online instructor on memoir and personal essay
Set up speaking gigs on creativity, writing and crowd-funding

…I could go on.

The list had 25 projects on it.

So I wrote them all down and I picked the one I though was truly low-stakes but high yield. That was Tessalation!, my children’s picture book. I ended up crowd-funding it, hybrid-publishing it, and now I’m a speaker on Kickstarter and crowdfunding. One year later. And I am still working on my list, checking off big, dreamy things one at a time.

That idea — to work on one thing at a time — comes with a real exercise in self-belief. Do you believe enough in your ideas that you are willing to devote yourself 100% to them, at the opportunity cost of working on the other stuff later? I really had to ask myself that. Chipping on multiple projects falls into the safe, but low-yield “put your eggs into different baskets” approach.

So this wisdom encompasses just one chapter in Growing Gills, which takes a bigger picture view of creativity. It’s a book about prioritizing creative processes over all the other stuff that can get in the way of success, in pinpointing priorities in the creative life, in time management, and in taking the steps needed to bring big, beautiful projects to fruition.

Abel’s a fun guide through this process. She speaks from a place of experience and study, having slogged the slog for 20+ years. And though this book doesn’t really explore motherhood and creativity in any deep way, I especially appreciated her clear-sighted attitude about choices. She has tons of wonderful anecdotes and tips for making creative life work, even for families, especially those led by highly driven, creative women.

She’s the teacher I needed, and, as the old adage says, she showed up just when I was ready.

 I hope you find it as useful as I have. Growing Gills is free for one more day! What are your other favorite books on creative practice?

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