First Hand — How Disney supervising director Ben Juwono overcame his creative guilt
Ben Juwono is a supervising director at Disney Television Animation, currently working on Big Hero 6: The Series. Landing his big industry break in 2012, Ben accomplished what many dream of: he secured a creative job doing something he loved. But although he got to spend his days drawing, the pressure to maintain personal projects outside of work hours started to build – and creative guilt set in. Initially taking to Twitter to share his experience, here he tells us about some of the unprecedented challenges of having a creative job, and overcoming the pressure to be ‘creative’ all the time.
Part-time meant more time for personal work
Before I got into the animation industry I was a part-time college professor, and being part-time, I would have a lot of spare time to work on personal projects. I used to make my own comics and sell them at conventions. I used to organise and attend sketch jams, where my friends and I would sit around at Disneyland just drawing for fun. This was before I got a creative job.
Once I broke into the industry back in 2012, the amount of time I had to devote to my own projects became less and less. I eventually stopped making comics and selling at conventions, and I no longer had time to go to the sketch jams I used to enjoy.
Battling inner creative conflicts
Although I had this new full-time job, it created an internal conflict that turned into guilt, which I’ve now struggled with for the past few years. One part of me would scream, “You won’t improve as an artist if you don’t produce personal work”, while the other would argue, “So what? You produced personal work so you could get a creative job, and now you have it, so focus on keeping that job!”
I tried to force myself to draw for fun. But when I didn’t like what I produced, or the new personal projects I set for myself never made it past the ideas stage, it made me feel worse. If I wasn’t drawing, I’d feel guilty; but when I did draw, it didn’t bring me any joy. I had to wonder if there was something wrong with me – especially after seeing so many other artists on Twitter with personal projects. Was it just a slump? Or depression?
“If I wasn’t drawing, I’d feel guilty; but when I did draw, it didn’t bring me any joy.”
Value and validation can be found in lots of places
I felt ashamed because drawing and telling stories are what you are supposed to do as a story artist. It’s what you hear from more experienced professionals; we’ve all watched interviews where directors would talk about how a movie or TV show was born out of their intense desire to tell some kind of story. There’s this implication that if you're not doing that all the time – if you don’t have a similar ‘intense desire’ – you’re not being a good story artist.
But the irony is that this judgment actually comes from inside – it’s just us putting pressure on ourselves. Over time, I’ve grown a bit. I’m finding value in other things apart from drawing. Being an immigrant, I grew up with the mindset that I always had to work twice as hard to get half as far. I never felt like my work was enough, like I could have done more. It’s what kept me hungry and motivated; although there’s nothing competitive in my propensity to work hard – I'm not trying to one-up or outwork anyone – to others it might look like ‘workaholism.’
Less Therapy Tuesday and more just thinking out loud:— Ben Juwono (@e1n) June 25, 2019
I don't draw for fun anymore. I haven't been for a few years now. There's a part of me that has always felt guilty and ashamed about this because drawing and telling stories is supposed to be what you do as an artist.
But this past year, life has been so busy that I actually started to forget about the guilt. I got married, got attacked by a dog and had to spend a few months recovering, went on my honeymoon, and bought a house that needs a lot of work. My focus was thinly spread and yet the quality of creative work I was doing never dropped, even though it was no longer my sole focus. It made me realise that I don’t have to be drawing for fun to be happy, or to feel validated as an artist.
I’ve recently picked up gardening and it’s been a nice way to detach myself from work. It doesn’t improve my drawing skills, but I’m getting better at not killing my plants and making my backyard a nicer place. The various other interests I’ve picked up outside of work have replaced my hyper-focus on just being an artist. If you’re a babysitter and you have one baby to watch over, you’re going to put in a lot of love, sweat and tears into that one baby. But if you have multiple babies to watch over, that attention and energy has to be spread out, so they can all grow up well. The same goes for your interests.
“Being an immigrant, I grew up with the mindset that I always had to work twice as hard to get half as far.”
Your profession does not define you
In the animation industry, creating your own show is a lot of peoples’ dream, and you’re often encouraged to pitch your own shows. But to give something like that enough focus, you would either have to leave a job completely, or be a ‘weekend warrior’, working nights and weekends after a full 40-hour work week. If you’re one of the rare artists who enjoy nothing but art itself, then more power to you!
Know that at the end of the day, your profession does not define you. Of course you can be passionate about your craft, but remember that you also have the freedom to enjoy other things. The thing I’m learning to accept is that it’s okay to not have a personal art project. Checking on my plants and playing Pokémon is my personal project. And that’s okay. Who we are and what defines us changes. The sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can live a happier, guilt-free life where you can do amazing work without putting extra pressure on yourself.
When people ask me why I’m not pitching shows or making comics or going to sketch jams, I usually reply with “I’m tired” or “I’m too busy”. Moving forward I think I’ll reply with “I don’t feel the need to.” The bottom line is: If you really want it, you’ll make time for it – making excuses is probably an indication that you don’t actually want it. And guess what, it’s actually okay to not want something that other people want.