[UPDATE: When the lads ended their podcast in 2015, they took their entire podcast site down almost immediately, so you can't listen to the episode any more. But all the other links should work.]
So this week I had a mini-reunion with Cort Webber and Bobby Roberts on their new podcast "Welcome To That Whole Thing." Great (and a little weird) to be back in that studio again a year-and-a-half after the end of "Cort and Fatboy."
The lads' assigned discussion topic was a big one: "creativity" -- how I work, along with any Deep Additional Thoughts we might have on the topic.
On the morning of the taping -- in an attempt to get my game face on and wrap my head around a concept I frankly found a little nebulous -- I sent Bobby an email that slapped together a few lessons I've learned (usually the hard way) about doing creative stuff -- particularly as it applies to writing/drawing and trying to get paid for it. We got to some of it on the show. An edited/expanded version of the whole email is after the jump. There will be no test later.
To: Bobby Roberts
From: Mike Russell
So this whole lofty "creativity" topic for our episode got me wondering if I even have organizing principles re: "being creative." Here's the best I could come up with. Got into some of this with Lucy Bellwood on Twitter last week. I don't want to come off on your show as some lame productivity guru -- I fail at "creativity" all the time, and frankly, got kind of a late start professionally -- but here you go. There's a lot of room for disagreement in this, and my opinions may change down the line.
(There is also probably some confusion in this email about "creativity" versus "creativity as career." I don't care.)
1. All energy is creative energy, and your store of it is totally finite, so use it wisely. This is the big organizing principle, and I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but bear with me. Anything that involves using your brain's processing power to make a decision followed by an action -- even if that action is just sitting on your ass and procrastinating -- is a creative act. If it impacts you and/or the world around you? It's creative.
When you realize this, you suddenly realize that sex, relationships (good and bad), worrying about money, taking your leisure, playing videogames, watching other people's stuff, your job, yardwork, being a critic, beating yourself up, looking at the Internet -- basically any sort of problem-solving, including "solving" the problem by deciding to put off solving the problem with procrastination -- uses creative energy that is finite.
And if you don't think your daily personal creative energy is finite, just read up on the evil sumbitch that is "decision fatigue." Scientists are quantifying the way too many [creative] decisions turn you into a steaming pile of bad judgment by day's end.
I gather there are all sorts of things you can do to hack your brain and increase/optimize your stores of that finite energy -- exercise, meditation, eliminating distractions, getting outside yourself, helping and getting help from others, drawing inspiration from communities, etc. But it's still finite, and I'm not getting into any Tony Robbins crap on your show. Also I'm terrible at it.
Mostly you should just get to work, immediately. Joss Whedon has some pretty good advice on this count.
2. Carve out the time to make stuff (and to think about making it). Very likely you need to schedule this time. John Cleese crushes it on this topic in his lecture on creativity. I also like what Stephen King has to say in "On Writing" about making time for work to simmer -- he puts his book drafts in a drawer and lets them sit for weeks before he revisits them. Lends perspective. (Of course he can afford to to that, can't he.)
3. Don't buy into the fallacy that your imagination is always more interesting than real life. Real life is weird. See that scene in "Crumb" where Crumb is drawing a bunch of urban power lines and says "You can't make this shit up."
4. Yes, we all love seeing [brand-name character] drawn as [incongruous other thing or brand] on Tumblr, but please also MAKE ORIGINAL STUFF.
5. Don't be embarrassed about learning/failing in public. You contribute to the larger "cultural conversation" at your own level, even if you can only play like three chords.
6. Plumb your own obsessive niche of interest and you may find fellow travelers. (See for example Kate Beaton and history, or Lucy Bellwood and comics about tall-ships, or you and movie-score remixes, Bobby.) If you're lucky you find a lot of fellow travellers. A variation on that whole "make the movie you want to see" or "make the comic you want to read" principle.
7. If you want to do this professionally or semi-professionally, get in the room. The old cliché that "relationships matter" happens to be entirely true. By which I mean, you can't just throw your stuff out there and hope someone will notice. You have to find the community of people doing what you want to do and you have to engage them. This means engaging them on social media, absolutely, but more important it means getting physically in the room and meeting them and being cool and polite and talking about a wide variety of stuff and not just relentlessly "pitching your stuff" like a jackass.
(Parenthetically for job-seekers: Pretty much every job I ever got in newspapers happened because I was working some other job in the actual physical office and someone quit or was fired, and the higher-ups still had a paper to get out and no time to headhunt, so they just looked around the room and said, "You! Russell. You're the editor now." Newsprint is shrinking, but I'm guessing the principle still applies, in lots of careers. Get in the room.)
Obviously, "the room" can be a creative community and not a creative industry. But if you want to make money, you probably need to identify the town or place where the thing you want to do is actually being done for money, and then you probably need to go there, or at least visit, or at least find creative communities surrounding and feeding the industry in question. This was reinforced for me when I was working on that comic about cluster economic theory, which is the study of why industries crop up in certain places and tend to stubbornly remain there. If you want to do theater, go to a town with a thriving theater scene. If you want to make mainstream Hollywood movies, go to L.A. (You have other community options if you want to make indies.) If you want to be a sketch comic, go sign up for UCB classes now. The nationally professional creative industry in Portland is comics, because we have three international publishers here. I'd argue the TV shows that shoot in Portland are visiting armies that feed the filmmaking industry in L.A. (and largely cast out of L.A.).
In their book "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit," Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon write a funny and brutally honest guide to surviving the mainstream studio system, and they go off on this topic, right at the start:
YES -- you need to be in Hollywood, California if you're going to make even TINY piles of money writing movies.... until you're a huge success, you need to be in Los Angeles. Period.... If you're serious about screenwriting, you must be in Los Angeles, California. It is the world headquarters of the movie industry. (Outside of India, which is the REAL world headquarters of the movie industry.).... You need to have access to the studios all the time, and they need to have access to you. You HAVE to live in L.A. so that you can go to the studios and meet face-to-face. At any time.... You NEED TO BE AROUND the people who are making the decisions. You need to be on their radar. You need to be in L.A. You need to be there, doing punch-ups and round tables.... there's almost always a team of writers on call for movies that are in production.
Looking back I now realize I probably made this mistake, but I'm also not alone in having made it: If you want to pursue certain kinds of creative work professionally, you should probably consider leaving Portland at some point, however briefly, for a bigger city.
8. If you want to be creative professionally or semi-professionally, realize that success must be taken. Assume you will never be discovered. This isn't about being a supercompetitive dick; it just means you can't wait for anyone to realize you have something to offer. Just offer it. I had been running two community newspapers in the 1990s and wanted to break into arts writing, so I started posting online movie reviews, free of charge, for five-and-a-half years, until I built an audience and a couple of paying outlets noticed. (I do wonder if this plan would be tougher to execute today, in an era of far-more-competitive movie-blogger saturation.)
One of my favorite examples of this locally is "Trek in the Park." Adam Rosko and his crew just went and did their thing and explored their own obsession without waiting for permission from the established Portland theater scene -- and five years later they had national attention, something like 5,000 people in each audience, and "Portlandia" putting them in their skits. And a modest percentage of that audience will follow them into their original work.
9. Don't get into debt. Limits your options, handcuffs your career, sucks the life right out of you with worry. I lost what felt like ten years of my life to getting buried in credit cards like a jackass and having to basically dig myself out with a spoon on a community-newspaper income. It's one reason I didn't start building a professional track record as a writer and cartoonist until I was 30.
10. Get a technical foundation. (I'm writing this as sort of a three-chord cartoonist, but I'm working on it.)
11. If you want to break into an industry: Be an intern. See point 7 above.
12. Draw inspiration/influences from outside comics itself. Paul Pope really drove this home for me when I interviewed him a few years back. "I think that it's important for a well-educated, enlightened human being to have multiple interests," he said. "It's a real benefit to study physics and astronomy -- stuff that has nothing to do with comics, per se, but that makes you into a well-rounded individual. I would wish that for anybody, regardless of career choice. In my case, it's a benefit having gone to art school, because I was able to study Gothic architecture, the Renaissance.... That stuff kinds of sticks in you. Curiosity about life and history and culture benefits you as a human being -- and it allows you to approach your creative work from a more substantial point of view than if you're just trying to be the next John Byrne or something."
See also for example my "'Star Wars' probably shouldn't be your only cultural food" essay.
13. Study people.
14. You don't have to "feel it" while you're making it. Only the audience does. (This presumes you're in it for audience engagement. Not everyone is.) There's a great line in Mamet's book on acting "True and False" where he talks about how the actor doesn't have to feel the emotion he's portraying any more than a stage magician has to conjure actual supernatural powers. (I read that book while I was playing the shepherd in a Shakespeare play in PDX in 1998, immediately quit trying to "feel" anything and just walked to my mark and said my lines straight and plain, and the director came up to me that same night and complimented whatever work I'd done on my character. Big lesson.) Some of my most-complimented comics were made under horrifying all-nighter circumstances, or dashed off, or agonized over, or made under no particular circumstances at all. Readers don't care how you feel. They care how they feel.
15. People respond to ideas, not effort. A lesson underlined for me with "The Sabertooth Vampire." The first couple of strips were dashed off in a big hurry -- it was originally a one-off joke for my Twitter feed. (I take the drawing a bit more seriously now.) On the other hand I busted my ass on CulturePulp for eight years -- each non-fiction strip has about 30 hours of reporting, distillation, layout, drawing and tweaking behind it -- and got a less immediate audience response. I'm proud of both strips, but it was a reminder that audiences are drawn to stuff that provokes them, not to numbers of hours spent behind the scenes. (I've seen a lot of very talented people get bitter and frustrated over this, sometimes in public.)
I'm in a slightly sticky area here. I'm not saying craftsmanship doesn't matter. It absolutely does, and craft is one of the things that allows a work to endure past its initial splash and become "fine art" or a "classic." Ideally, craft and idea and emotion work in concert -- the effort backs the idea, basically. (See the whole notion of sprezzatura, or "concealed effort," which I'm told is a big philosophical touchstone at Pixar.) But I'll never forget something a pro-grade comics editor said to me while I was interviewing him for a magazine in the late '90s: "I'd rather read a well-written comic with terrible art than a terribly written comic with great art." I secretly felt like he was giving me permission to fail in public. So I did. It ruled.
16. Ability isn't enough. Actually finishing challenging tasks, especially when they're self-imposed, requires 1. ability, 2. will (i.e. the ability to give other distracting/social shit up to pursue the task), and 3. most unfairly, a manageable number of the real-life factors that are totally outside your control.
17. If creativity isn't getting you to your "pull your weight" number, consider getting a job until it does. You gotta pull your weight, and you gotta be honest with yourself about your stomach for the hustle. Hugh McLeod covers this wonderfully with his "Sex and Cash Theory." (In fact, his entire "How to Be Creative" series of posts is a provovative read.)
Some people -- including dear friends of mine -- are good enough, hard-working enough and savvy enough to hit their "pull your weight" income number through creative effort alone. It is astonishingly difficult these days, and if you don't believe me, read this. It's sadly representative.
Also, the "pull your weight" number is different for everyone. For kids and single twentysomethings, that number can be very, very low if you're clever. My number is higher. I'm a married, debt-free homeowner with a stepdaughter who got a late start professionally, I've been an empty-nester since I was 38, and barring disaster I am never ever getting back into debt, per point 9 above. In 2004 -- in my early 30s, which sort of pushes the envelope of "calculated risk" -- I jumped off the cliff and freelanced full-time as a writer/cartoonist for several years. Had to know what it was like or I was going to resent the rest of my life (and as Shawn Levy put it to me at the time, "Ten years from now, you want to be having this conversation in your early 40s?"). Then the economy collapsed and the internet atomized the industry and I saw the numbers going into the pit that Susie Cagle just wrote about so bluntly in her essay about what it's like to be a nationally celebrated journalist/illustrator who makes less than $20k a year and had to move back in with her parents. Brutal. I realized my skills were specific and sort of indie in nature (i.e., I was not going to immediately or easily become a person whose "pull your weight" number could be achieved through creative effort alone) and I was better at obsessing about the work than I was at the actual hustling-freelance-assignments-and-chasing-money part that surrounds the work. So I got a job. It's worked out very well. It took the pressure off my needing my writing and drawing to generate all my revenue -- which of course frees up my writing and drawing to be whatever the hell I want it to be.
Putting it another way: Bukowski kept his gig at the post office for longer than you think.
See also this takedown of "following your passion" or "doing what you love," which can be fraught with a sense of entitlement and privilege.
18. Audition more than once. Two of my regrets are not applying to USC Film School a second time while I was 19 and not auditioning for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art a second time in my 20s. The first audition is a failure because they're waiting to see if you audition a second time to prove you actually want it.
19. Last one: One of my first Oregonian assignments a decade ago was a Q&A with Viggo Mortensen. He was doing press for "Hidalgo" and said something that really stuck with me. He was still in the glare of "Lord of the Rings" fame but seemed to have his head screwed on straight about what it all meant.
Q. In a recent profile, you quote Kant: "Seek not the favor of the multitude." Have you reflected at all on the fact that, in pursuing your own muse, you've accidentally found the favor of the multitude?
A. Well, they'll move on to someone else soon enough. [laughs] As long as you don't hang your hat on it, then you're focusing on what you're supposed to be focusing on -- which is the work that you're fortunate to get, and the experiences of interacting with other people to do the job. What you learn. What you see. Where you go.
It's not gonna help you do a better job if you start buying into the windfall of the movie doing really well. I've worked in other movies where I've worked hard, and we thought we had a good movie, and it just hasn't struck a chord. That doesn’t invalidate the job you've done.
Anyway. That ought to be enough for the show. -- MR