10 Questions with Gary Laib
Gary Laib talks about the many transitions most creatives make to find what they love doing, and how sometimes it isn't what we expect when we begin the journey.
If you've ever moved cross country for your work, or taken a job that you then hated, switched careers completely, or are considering taking the plunge, this one is for you!
- We spoke for a long while about happiness and how humans need to experience some setbacks and challenges in order to recognize what we truly love doing. Can you share some of your challenges that felt awful at the time, but have led to a much happier life now?
Every so often, there comes an overwhelming feeling of dread when you wake up in the morning and realize you have to go to work. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the feeling of actually being sick. Sometimes you find yourself, somewhere between the first and second hour of your commute, with a full-on migraine, dreading the moment your foot crosses the threshold of the office and your day of hiding behind a smile and nodding dully in every meeting begins. This was my life. One I thought I wanted. It wasn’t until I began writing for myself that I discovered where my happiness actually was.
Everything I’ve gone through led me to this point. When I was in LA, I struggled constantly trying to find work. Once I had my first full-time job, I moved from one company to the next thinking “this one will be even better.” I had to be an art director to realize that it wasn’t for me. And I had to work for a large company to discover that I wasn’t mean to be there either. Each step in my journey brought a growing sense of realization that I was meant for something else. To see it all laid out in hindsight is really a remarkable feeling.
- Your personal journey to becoming an author has taken many years and brought you through many different professional roles. Can you talk about your journey from an unknown artist, to a salaried worker, to becoming an AD, and then deciding to freelance and write? How has all of it contributed to your sense of wellbeing and purpose today?
To avoid a much longer story, I’ll start from when I moved out to Los Angeles from Wisconsin. I had every intention of becoming an artist, actor, musician and magician, but after having lived in LA for only a few months, I soon realized that I just couldn’t afford to do all of it at the same time. The few things I knew I could do and had been doing since I was a child, were art and magic. The remainder of my time in LA saw me trying to improve my nominal skillset in art, begin a lifelong journey with Photoshop, and struggle to make ends meet as I sought out my first studio position.
The truth was I wasn’t actually good enough yet to be considered hirable. I struggled for years trying to catch up to many younger artists who were already much, much better than I was. The fact of the matter was, they had gone to art school and had skills drilled into their hands and brains while I was working on my own, learning from wherever and whoever I could. After six years of bouncing from one part-time job to the next and only rarely landing the coveted and much-revered freelance gig, I finally was given a chance in the San Francisco area. A friend had reached out to his friend essentially telling them “Get him out of LA and hire him.”
I considered myself lucky. I was brought on as a concept artist for a small mobile gaming studio called SGN and was given the opportunity to work on every new title they came up with. While most never saw the light of day, I was still getting paid to do what I loved. That only lasted nine months before a huge round of layoffs showed me the door to the unemployment office. However, the hard work that I had put into that company, along with the compassion of its CEO, helped me to find new employment with a few months.
Making Fun, another small but fierce mobile studio, brought me on as their lead artist (really, their ONLY artist, but wasn’t about to split hairs.) I was creating fantasy illustrations for a card game, designing bug creatures, creating characters for a Christmas themed game. It was amazing. After a few years, I became their art director which saw me in charge of a new card battle game. I worked with a team of freelancers and vendors to bring that game to life and had an amazing three-and-a-half-year run doing so. That was when the company was forced to drastically reduce its numbers to near zero. Once again, unemployment beckoned.
It was about four or five months of struggling before I landed another art director position at DeNA, the North American branch of a Japanese-owned parent company by the same name. When I took the position, I remember thinking “I’ve art directed before. I can do this! I mean, I’m directing another card battle game. How hard could it be?” The answer? Very. Soon after starting I found I was dropping balls that I didn’t even know I was supposed to be juggling. I had to wear so many hats, I needed another three heads just to fit them all. After far too long a time fighting to stay afloat, I found that being an art director was the last thing I wanted to do in life. I had spent so much time doing so many different jobs at DeNA, but actually creating art wasn’t one of them. I shifted my duties to that of a lead artist, and only a few months later, after a growing sense of unhappiness and discontent, I left. There were more politics involved than I’d care to discuss here, but in the end, I was far happier for it.
In 2014 or 15, I can’t remember which, I started working for another company, actually my favorite to date. The work wasn’t challenging, but the company itself was run amazingly and everyone was treated like an equal. It was during this time I began writing my first book, Roon & The White Raven.
After working for one final company as an in-house artist, I realized that I was slowly losing my creativity. I was spending more time in traffic just getting to work than I was actually drawing. After a heart-to-heart with my real boss (my beautiful wife), we decided I needed to quit altogether. I jumped without a net- no job prospects, no idea what was going to happen. I only had the unwavering belief that the universe was going to provide and provide it did. I started freelancing almost immediately. Freelancing offered me the opportunity to work full-time on my book while still being able to earn a steady paycheck. Since then, the paychecks come and go, but the joy I feel at being able to spend as much time as I want writing and illustrating my first book has been immeasurable. I’m able to roll out of bed, set my schedule and appointments, and sit at my own desk with a cup of coffee and just get to work.
This year, in particular, has been amazing. I’ve begun working on numerous projects with talented and passionate people. I’ve started writing a musical for Broadway with an amazing musician and friend, and my first book is nearly complete. I feel happier, healthier, and more energized towards life that I wonder why I didn’t quit my job sooner!
- Networking is so important. It’s true that our jobs, our relationships, and our joy are all delivered through the connections we build and maintain with others. Do you have any advice around building strong relationships?
It’s a complicated question that I can only try to boil down into a simple answer. What I would recommend is to focus on just being a genuine person/artist. Don’t try to impress people, don’t live thinking that you have to do a certain kind of art just to get noticed, and most importantly, don’t be a jerk. The art industry, despite its many branches, is not that large and being egotistical or difficult to work with will get you noticed in the wrong way. Instead, stay true to who you are as an artist and as a kind human being. It will take you much farther.
Additionally, try to avoid those people I just described. Unfortunately, bad eggs exist in every industry. They may not stand out at first but after a while, you’ll develop a filter that will sift through those people who are toxic to your life and career in the arts. People like that have a habit of dragging others down to their level and life is too short to waste time on them. Whoever wanders into your life and improves it- those are the people to keep hanging around.
- Let’s talk about the sacrifices we are willing to make to have our dreams play out in reality. From revisions on scripts and illustrations to choosing to do the laundry and make dinner so your commuting spouse doesn’t’ have to – how do you look at the choices you make on a daily basis, and what is the result that you are building?
I think it comes down to being able to prioritize what’s most important in the moment. Having a daily schedule is a good idea. It works for some people who have their own passion projects and/or work as freelancers to help balance their day-to-day. I’m less structured in my work. For me, just because it’s time to work on a specific thing doesn’t mean I’m going to be motivated to do it. I’ve spent my share of sleepless nights toiling away in front of the computer either writing or painting. I’ve felt that drive pushing at me to keep going- one more chapter, paint one more line- but it’s not always there and I don’t like to force it. There are times when the battery is low and the inspiration along with it. Being a creative is a sacrifice in itself as our minds tend never to shut off or slow down. Which of us hasn’t woken up from a deep sleep with a crazy new idea and just had to get started on it right then and there?
For me, life is about balance. Too often we artists tend to burn at both ends of the candle. We ignore the outside world, buckle down, and focus as hard as we can on whatever it is that drives us. But in doing so, we lose out on a lot that the outside world has to offer. I’ve learned over time that it’s okay to allow yourself a day off. It’s healthy, in fact. Giving yourself a day or two to just relax and not worry about work gives your battery a chance to recharge. The world has always been focused on “hard work = better life,” but the way I see it “Happy life = better life.” So, take that day trip, play that video game, sleep in every once in a while.
Don’t ignore the other people or avenues in your life. I find myself fortunate that I can be distracted for a short while just by shopping or cooking dinner for my wife. Being able to take care of the home front so she doesn’t have to worry about it makes me happy. Taking the odd break here and there makes me happy. Sleeping late, going to the gym, baking, reading- all of these make me happy. Again, “happy life = better life” so when I sit down in front of the computer to work, my battery is charged and I can better focus on the task at hand. Sacrifice is sometimes unavoidable, but a balance in life goes a lot further.
- Can you share with us the moment that you realized you’d rather be storytelling than art directing? How did you discover your passion for storytelling and writing?
I’ve actually touched on this briefly in the first question, but I’d been coming up with stories for years before I realized that it was what I wanted to do pursue as an actual career. As a concept artist, I do my best to tell the story of each character I create. As an illustrator it’s the exact same thing- tell the story in an image. I was working for a company called Blue Shell Games when my co-worker challenged me to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I had only some vague idea of a story floating around in my head that had begun forming after one illustration, in particular, crept onto my page. So, every night after work I would sit in front of my computer at home and write feverishly, the story spilling out onto my screen. I realized it was the only time that I felt truly happy. I had spent so long thinking that I needed to work in a studio to experience that level of happiness in my career, to build the reputation I wanted as an artist, but the truth smacking me in the face told another story.
Whenever I was at home I would work on my story. Once the first draft was finished, I started the long process of editing. Over the course of several months, I worked with a few people who are far more proficient at writing than I am. They helped me figure out not only what needed changing, but how to edit my work on my own. Round after round, edit after edit, illustration after illustration, the world began to take shape.
- Freelancing and working at home comes with benefits and drawbacks. How do you keep yourself motivated and on-task? And on the other hand, how do you keep yourself engaged in your life outside of work when your work is all around you?
Every day I have a mental tally of what needs to be done in order of importance. As long as I spend enough time working in order to get done what needs doing, I can ensure I have time enough for my own life outside of work. Working on Roon, however, I don’t actually count as work. It’s right up there with drawing, spending time with the family, playing games, etc... It’s just fun. But anything that needs to be done for someone else usually gets the highest priority in my day.
Even though I usually put in a full day’s work, I can tell when my brain has had enough and just needs to relax. Taking frequent breaks, allowing yourself a few mental health days- these are all things that I couldn’t do when I worked in-house. There, you have to go through a pipeline of requesting time off and have it marked on the official calendar and then you have to work to gain those hours back. With my current work situation, I make my own hours and am accountable for the quality and timeliness of what I do. It’s my own reputation I’m dealing with so staying motivated to ensure that clients are happy helps to keep me centered. That said, one should always take time for themselves. Life is just too short!
- Having the chance to follow your heart and pursue your writing and illustration has come about in no small part because your wife has been able to provide some economic stability while you transition into the unknown. (My husband also has been my support that makes possible all my artistic pursuits.) Many artists experience similar circumstances. How did you handle the reality of paying bills, mortgages and running a household at the beginning of your career vs. where you are now? Do you feel you would have made different choices if you had been without your partner?
When I first started working in the industry (full time), I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to support both my wife and I while she worked hard towards her own personal goals. Her being able to support us for a short while was a huge relief, but I knew it wasn’t a long-lasting thing. When I went freelance, I made sure to take a few weeks for myself to recuperate and get some charge back in my batteries, so to speak. Even when I started doing paid work, I took it rather easy. After a while, I started finding more clients and realized the need for balance. As tempting as it was to just say “yes” to every job that came, I knew I wouldn’t be able to juggle it all on top of handling balancing the household stuff. Now, I have two steady clients that offer rewarding work that still allows me to keep on top of my writing and making sure dinner is ready when my wife gets home! I got very, very lucky!
- You mentioned that when you chose to quit your AD job, the world seemed to rush in and suddenly there were lots of opportunities to freelance, write, and play that hadn’t been there only weeks before. Why do you feel that is?
I think without the stress of a corporation looming over me, I was able to finally relax and give myself the chance to breathe. Once my head was clear I could focus a lot more clearly on what was important to me at the time. I forgave myself the days where I only wanted to play games or sit in a café and draw. I had to break out of that feeling that my boss was going to reprimand me for not doing my work. It was liberating. I was able to put out a lot of new creative energy into my own art, network freely when I was able, and I think that putting myself out there more- people picked up on that. One job I worked on came about because I had played this particular person’s game and loved it. All I did was send them a message on an art site to thank them for playing it. They turned around and offered me character design work for a new game they had in the works! A lot of the gigs I got came down to timing, luck, and ability. I also believe that part of an artist’s job is to network and not be afraid to reach out to people. You never know who might need an artist!
- Your illustrations feed your writing, and your writing feeds your illustrations. I also find that having a few different creative areas to play in helps keep things fresh and keeps the creative flow going. But even so, sometimes we run into a wall. How do you handle creative block?
Most times I handle blocks by not handling them! A lot of artists will fight through the block which works for them. For me, I know that the more a struggle to produce, the more frustrated I’ll become. I was told a few years ago that artist blocks can actually be a good thing. It tells you that your art brain has evolved, in a manner of speaking, and your art hand just needs time to catch up to it! I take those opportunities to relax. I’ll watch movies, TV, read books, look at art that I find inspiring, and not force myself to draw or paint. Oh, I’ll still try here and there, but there’s a feeling you get when you just know that you need to give yourself some time away. For me, not handling an art block is the best way to get through it.
- For those artists out there in the games industry working for hire or as an in-house artist, do you have any advice on sustaining their passion and joy? What would you advise somebody who wants to get their foot in the door?
I 100% believe that every artist needs a personal project, something they can pour their creative energy into that is solely for themselves. It can be healing and cathartic to come home and just create for your own sense of well-being. Many studio jobs can be fun and challenging, but sometimes can feel thankless, like one is just a small cog in a large machine. In my own experience, I’ve felt like I had no real voice or say in the production from time to time. (Not all the time, however!) If you love where you work and your creative energy goes entirely to the game you’re making, if you love your co-workers, and the atmosphere is perfect, then that’s amazing! Keep doing that and keep motivated! But, having something that’s just your own? That’s what I found kept me going. For those trying to break into the industry- TALK TO PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY! I know that sounds super basic, but look at those companies you want to work at. You can find the people that work there and ask if they’d be open to answering questions or providing feedback. Every artist started somewhere. I’ve found that most are willing to lend a hand when someone reaches out to them. Don’t focus only on the big-name artists either. A successful career in art doesn’t mean that you’ve become a world-famous artist. I, myself, have only a small footprint in the art world. Yet, I’ve been able to support my family and find work consistently for over a decade! You never know where a shiny pearl of wisdom will come from, so reach out to those who are already working and just ask!
- BONUS: We spoke about amazing opportunities existing for those who ask for them. What is one opportunity you are ready to ask for in your life, and what does it mean to you to take it?
Oof! That’s a big question! The most obvious answer for me would be to ask that my first novel be published! It would mean an entire shift in my life. My goals would change, and I would slowly drift out of the video game industry and into publishing. I would still be working from home, but I would only have to focus on my own creative endeavors. That’s the dream!
You can see more of Gary Laib's work at www.theroonseries.com and Artstation.