Can You Quit Your Greatest Work?

How do you decide if it’s time to move on and take a risk?

After 14 years of drawing his daily autobiographical comic strip, cartoonist James Kochalka decided to stop.

This comic strip, “American Elf”, chronicled daily snippets of James’ life. He drew them diligently each day for 14 years, skipping only one day around the time his father died. Because of James’ ability and dedication, American Elf was recognized as an extraordinary work in comics, winning several prestigious awards over the years.

More importantly, he pioneered a whole new genre: journal comics.

“Now I didn’t invent autobiographical comics, but by combining autobiographical comics with the daily strip format, I was the first person to do that that I had ever heard of.”

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As a result, James Kochalka became one of the most prominent and prolific artists in the independent comics scene. He was even appointed as Cartoonist Laureate by the state of Vermont.

So why would he quit the masterpiece that he’s best known for?

Quitting Your Greatest Work

After drawing his daily life for all these years, James is looking forward to just living it:

“I think I’ve accomplished all I set out to do with [American Elf]. I showed how the rhythms of a human life play out over a decade and a half. I created a big, ambitious work of art that I think can stand toe to toe with any of the great works in the comics medium. Maybe the world at large will never agree. But stopping the strip gives the world a chance to pause and consider what I may have accomplished.

He also felt like the strip would naturally end at some point, either because of his death or some other event that could prevent him from illustrating. Rather than leaving it up to fate, James would rather end his masterpiece on his own terms. “It is so much better to make the decision now, when I have some control over it and I know what I’m doing,” he said.

The comic had consumed his life for 14 years – during camping trips and vacations, and even during illness – that he’s hardly had the opportunity to think about anything else.

But all these reasons didn’t make it easier for James to quit. In fact, he found it emotionally intense:

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“I cried a lot, multiple times, over the course of several months as I made the decision. It’s not easy to give up something that you know is your greatest work.”

This is the cost of being truly invested in your work. No matter how many good reasons you have for quitting, no matter how costly it is to keep going, when you are deeply invested in what you do, it’s very difficult to let go. Even if it’s necessary. Even if letting go means making room for new possibilities.

“Even if I never create anything as good as American Elf again, I’m excited to see what it is that I will create. I know it will be interesting, at least. Quitting American Elf is a bigger risk than continuing it, and when faced with an art-risk I like to take it.”

James might be an artist, but his sentiments and devotion to his work is something that’s all too present in the most passionate entrepreneurs.

When you’re making things for a living – whether it’s a work of art, a mobile app, or a business – the more successful and the more comfortable you get, the harder it becomes to take a risk. Everyone prepares you for the difficulties of starting and the long hard road to success. You expect failure. But very few of us know what to do after we’ve gotten past the hump.

What do you do when your art can financially support you and your family? How do you make decisions once your business takes off? Do you scale things to another level or do you keep things small and manageable?

What’s the next panel supposed to look like?

Like James has illustrated in his art and life, you won’t know until you get there.

And that’s okay.

It’s Not Just About the Project, It’s About the Impact

One benefit of finishing a masterpiece is that you can distance yourself from it for a bit and reflect on what you’ve accomplished – which is hard to do if you’re perpetually stuck in creation mode. Your craft might improve as a result, but as James explains it,  it’s hard to find the time and energy to process what you’re doing.

“I could have drawn American Elf forever because I was in the rhythm of it. And as long as I stayed in that rhythm, I could have done it forever. And in a way it was easy for me. It was hard, of course, as a physical task, doing it everyday. And sometimes it was hard emotionally to draw about things I didn’t want to draw about. But artistically, I guess it was easy because I had the format down. In fact, I was getting better and better at it. I think every year I got better at it. But stopping gives me a chance to really think about art, and really think about what I’m doing. I didn’t really have any time to think as long as I was still doing American Elf.”

And what has James really accomplished with American Elf? He’s affected and influenced many artists from all over the world. So when he announced that the strip was ending, many of these artists decided to show their gratitude and pain by drawing their own tribute strips:

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Tribute by Sam Spina

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Tribute by Lewis Trondheim

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Tribute by Alison Bechdel

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Tribute by Katy Ellis O’Brien

These tributes just show that when you create something, you’re making more than just a finished product. It’s true that sometimes masterpiece projects have to end – but the impact you’ve made through them is something that will never die.