i need to take a stab at what i do not know

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”—Kurt Vonnegut

One thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as an artist: it’s the side projects that blow up.

By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just farting around. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.

Four years ago I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was a short story writer. I was trying to write stories. Then one day I took a Sharpie to a stack of newspapers. All the sudden I was a poet. Pretty soon a diversion—a side project—turned into my main thing (whether I wanted it to or not).

Had I been focused only on my goal of writing fiction, had I not allowed myself the room to experiment and take on a side project, I’d never be where I am now.

So the lesson is: take time for side projects. Take time to fart around.


Trying hard to solve that impossible problem? Hit the topless bar, take a warm shower, and sleep on it.

Three tips I gathered from Jonah Lehrer‘s great article in the July 28th New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunt,” all about “insight,” where our good ideas come from, when they come to us, and why.

The formula:

total immersion ? relaxing distraction = moment of insight

The insight process…is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-Beeman said, “The problem with the morning, though, is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.” He recommends that if we’re stuck on a difficult problem, it’s better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking while we’re still half asleep.

The mathematician Henri Poincaré had his “seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry…while he was boarding a bus.”

Poincaré insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good has been accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey”. The answer will arrive when you least expect it.

And let’s not forget Richard Feynman:

the Nobel Prize winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

The good stuff comes along when you’re not forcing it—what Lynda Barry and Donald Barthelme call “not-knowing.”

My “Eureka!” moments always come to me in the shower, which is why I keep a dry-erase marker in the bathroom.

When do y’all get your best ideas?


On inspiration:

[M]yths, fairy-tales and religious stories like the Bible…They are endlessly interpretable and adaptable. A bottomless source. They’re the template for pretty much all storytelling in the Western world. Whether by design or by stumbling onto them I think there is much to be gained from brushing up against them, borrowing, stealing, rewriting and quoting from them, whether subtly…or overtly…”

On not-knowing:

…when making comics is working, it really doesn’t feel like you are the one telling the story, it feels like the story already exists and you are just doing your best to get it down on paper. It’s like a very carefully attentive manufacturing process. So for the story to change would be like for someone who assembles calculators to start changing the calculators. They probably wouldn’t work.”

On art and religion:

All art comes from religion. From trying to understand and contend with the world.”

On the artist disguising himself in his work:

I’m happy to be back to my usual practice of heavily disguising my life in the stories I tell. Generally speaking, it’s still me in my other work, it’s just that I’m disguised as a bunch of little birds.”

Anders Nilsen – The Metabunker Interview pt. 4 of 4


Chris Ware’s Introduction to The Best American Comics 2007

…lately I find myself frequently torn between whether I’m really an artist or a writer. I was trained and educated as the former, encouraged into the world of paint-stained pants and a white-walled studio where wild, messy experiments precipitate the incubation of other visual ideas— though I’m just as happy to sit at a desk in clean trousers with a sharp pencil and work on a single story for four or five days in a quiet and deliberate manner. In short, I’m coming to believe that a cartoonist, unlike the general cliché, is almost—bear with me now—a sort of new species of creator, one who can lean just as easily toward a poetic, painterly, or writerly inclination, but one who thinks and expresses him- or herself primarily in pictures.

A lengthy interview with Anders Nilsen:

When I set out with a clear idea of what I want to do, it becomes super simplistic and neither illuminating to me nor the readers, so that doesn’t work. It sort of just happens by accident, really. I think it’s because I’m interested in these things, so when I draw the first panel, for me to draw the second panel it will have to have dealt with something. The biggest issue is how to get out of your own way, how to explore issues without forcing it, without forcing yourself to do it. If you do ten pages of comics that are just not interesting, you’ve just got to throw it away.


There are no mistakes.

I’ve been dicking around with India ink and a Japanese brush, and it’s been really difficult to get used to, so I made this sign to put up over my workspace to remind me to keep going. (It started out as a mistake — spilled ink!)

I like signs like this. I have a couple of them over my desk. One is the old Isak Dineson by way of Ray Carver quote, “Every day, without hope, without despair.” The other is Joyce’s “silence, exile, and cunning,” modified with the word “generosity.” (My old teacher gave me that one.) The third is “Apply Ass To Chair,” (also from my old teacher), but somehow that one got covered up with a James Kochalka comic. Oh well.

Anybody else out there have signs like this you put above your desk?

The one problem with signs is you have to mix them up: otherwise they become just like wallpaper, and lose their effect.

If you want to print out your own, here’s a nice big pdf of the sign above.



Somewhere in the past two months I’ve lost the joy of waking up in the morning, and, to paraphrase Donald Barthelme and Lynda Barry, not-knowing. Everything seems forced and planned, and spontaneity is dead, just like the work.

No more! I say. Time to get back to the good stuff. Time to play.

I pulled out my Good Books last night, my James Kochalka and my Lynda Barry, and afterwards just started doodling in my notebook, trying to get back to that state.

Then this morning, I was checking up on Lynda, and in addition to a new page from WHAT IT IS, I came across this magical artifact up for auction her ebay account:


That’s right! An original manuscript page of CRUDDY. As Lydna says, (and I know I’ve quoted this before):

I tried not to think about the book unless I was actually writing it and I tend to write in the first person, in the character of someone, and that someone was Roberta….My goal was to not think about things at all. To dream it out instead, trying very hard not to edit at all as I went. The first draft really took shape when I found that I needed to slow way down and distract myself at the same time so I used a paintbrush and Tuscan red watercolor and painted the manuscript on legal paper, trying to concentrate on the calligraphic aspect of writing rather than trying to craft beautiful sentences. I figured as long as the sentences looked beautiful, the rest would take care of itself. That draft was seven hundred pages long. I used a hairdryer when I got to the end of each page so I could stack them without smearing. I can do some pretty nice handwriting now. I tried to write it a word at a time like it was being dictated. Cruddy was the result.”

Genius. Check out her interview on Talk of the Nation.

Now back to work play!


A person may plan as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until the magician Circumstance steps in and takes the matter off his hands….Circumstance is powerful, but it cannot work alone; it has to have a partner. Its partner is man’s temperament–his natural disposition. His temperament is not his invention, it is born in him….A circumstance that will coerce one man will have no effect upon a man of a different temperament.

“[Take] poor Columbus. He elaborated a deep plan to find a new route to an old country. Circumstance revised his plan for him, and he found a new world. And he gets the credit of it to this day. He hadn’t anything to do with it.”

– Mark Twain, “The Turning-Point of My Life,” in WHAT IS MAN? AND OTHER ESSAYS