My Life As a Cartoonist: In Words

March 10th, 2011

In Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, an urban legend exists that I’ve been struck by lightning—twice. The truth is I have been hit by lighting, an incident I write about in my memoir, Inklings. But when I explain to friends and strangers alike that I’ve only been struck once, I often sense their disappointment. And who can blame them? After all, when your belief is that someone has survived two lightning strikes, anything less just isn’t as compelling.

I have no idea how this story morphed into what it has become. Still, as an editorial cartoonist, I’m used to misunderstandings, shrugging off the occasional assertion that I’m either a conservative or a liberal (I consider myself a passionate centrist, taking shots at both sides of the aisle). It’s understandable to see how such perceptions come about. Most of us are inundated with information; in our busy lives our subconscious selves package the world into this category or that, attempting to make order out of the chaos. I’m just as guilty. How often I have concluded whom the culprit is based on a newspaper headline only to read on, beyond the first few paragraphs, discovering that the story is far more complex than I first thought, discarding all my initial cartoon ideas.

So I guess it should have come as no surprise when a few readers came to my book expecting a graphic memoir. After all, it is the recollection of a cartoonist. And doesn’t the cover include a drawing by the author? What threw me was that a few readers seemed to have a difficult time reconciling that a cartoonist had disavowed drawings in favor of words. (Inklings does include a few sketches. More on that later).

Truth be told, it never occurred to me to go the graphic route.

On the surface, my reasons were simple. After nearly two decades as a full-time political cartoonist, I wanted to spread my wings. As much as I enjoy creating a daily editorial cartoon, let’s face it, the space can be limiting—cartoon word balloons with too many characters are unsightly and cumbersome. On average, readers spend roughly seven seconds with an editorial cartoon. Here’s the setup. Here’s the punch line. Bam. It’s over. How about a little time for exposition? Character development? Foreshadowing?

On the other hand, finding myself in the thick of things while on deadline, working closely with editorial page colleagues, has provided an invaluable education on the art of writing clearly. It is said that in good writing one must put every word on trial for its life. How often this principle has forced me to hold court at my ink-blotted drawing table—beyond passing judgment on various political figures—employing bottles of correction fluid and X-ACTO knives, smothering or flicking to the floor, superfluous words.

Aesthetic Madness

When I first tried my hand at creative nonfiction—over a dozen years ago—I was at once intimidated and excited for the possibilities that existed on all those blank pages. Even though I was writing on a computer, that’s how I saw it—a towering stack of paper reaching into space. There was no limit to what I could write, for a thousand pages if I wanted, going off on as many tangents as my brain would allow. And then some. Eventually, of course, I would discover that even in literary writing, one must limit one’s words, depending on the story at hand. Still, it was intoxicating to know that I could draft sentences more complex than any string of words I might put into a cartoon.

In some ways, I suppose, I also believed I had something to prove. Certainly, to those who knew me only as a cartoonist, to those in the newsroom, to readers of my cartoons, but especially to myself—that yes, I am capable of  “real” writing.

Most importantly, there was an aesthetic method to my madness. Ironic as it may sound, because I so wanted to create a book rich in visual landscapes, I realized that it was words that could deliver me, not drawings; I didn’t want my artwork getting in the way of the visual aspect of my story. Some of the strongest images in my mind have come not from viewing a painting in a museum, or from reading a cartoon in a newspaper, but from absorbing a story rich in description and detail. I not only see the image in my head, but I sense it, feel it, in my bones, on my skin. Whether we draw or not, I like to think that most of us have a vivid imagination, capable of filling in the blanks, consciously or unconsciously forming images in our heads.

As intimately as possible, I wanted to show readers what I had witnessed as a child, in the home where I grew up—a small working class bungalow near the packing houses of south Omaha—its rooms congested with the stacks of broken TVs my father repaired and sold from our front porch. Some TVs had been gutted, their veins and organs strewn about or jumbled in cardboard boxes. Others flickered and glowed, throwing strange shadows throughout our living and dining rooms. Wedged in among the TVs: my father’s drum kit where he occasionally smacked out his life’s frustrations in big band style, the cymbals hovering above the junk like flying saucers, shimmering and wavy from the light of the TVs. I wanted to show readers not just what I saw, but how it felt to be there, from my point of view, in the present tense, with all my senses.

The Unconscious Cartoonist

A drawing is limiting and can only be expected to work so hard. Besides, to have created a graphic memoir showing every scene from my point of view, as though my eyes were the lens of a movie camera, would have been tedious, visually speaking, for the reader. This approach would have prevented the reader from ever seeing me, only everyone and everything else in my path. Besides, I did want readers to visualize what I looked like, and everyone else in my book, in their own way, based on just enough details. This was more than respecting the bond between reader and author. I wanted this memoir, about a cartoonist’s life, to engage readers’ imaginations, and the visual parts of their brains. In other words, I wanted to connect with the readers’ unconscious cartoonist.

Generally, graphic memoirs don’t work this way. Yes, the narrative is written in first person, but the panels often include drawings of the narrator, usually shown from another point of view. In this way, graphic memoirs are like movies—perhaps more specifically, like foreign films with subtitles. We are then watching the narrator’s story unfold, from across the room, or from across the yard, or from high above, going back and forth, to the words, to the images, again to the words. We see the narrator’s expression, her every twitch. But we are not in it, inside the narrator’s head, feeling that twitch right along with her. There is space, air, between the reader, or at least the view of the “camera” in the panel, and the narrator. We, the reader, are out “here,” looking in on the storyteller.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite books are of the graphic variety, including Alison Bechdel’s touching Fun Home and certainly, Art Spiegelman’s work of genius, Maus. I can’t imagine either existing in any other form. The bluish-green images of young Alison and her family’s gothic house and its inhabitants are exquisitely rendered. And the stark black and white and horrific scenes depicted by Spiegelman are as compelling and moving as anything I’ve seen on celluloid (I’m also a fan of foreign films). I suppose one might argue that it is the very separation between the written word and the image that engages the reader, not to mention that the artist’s particular style can save plenty of words by evoking a mood by something as simple as color choice. And yes, to invoke a cliché, often, a picture can speak a thousand words, the drawings showing the details of a room, the expressions on a face without having to describe them in words (Conversely, sometimes a few sentences can do the job of a full page of drawings.)

Ultimately, I’m not saying one approach is superior to the other. It’s just that a graphic memoir wasn’t the right approach for me this time around, for this particular book.

Indeed, I’m not ruling out creating a graphic memoir in the future. For one thing, despite the rigors of deadlines, I enjoy drawing. Especially after the pencil sketch is finished and all that’s left is inking, when I can lose myself in the lines, daydreaming or meditating. It’s tempting to believe that a graphic memoir or graphic novel wouldn’t take as long to produce as a written narrative. I admit this is a delusion, a fallacy, especially for someone like me who is practically addicted to revising.

As I was writing Inklings, it didn’t occur to me to include drawings. It wasn’t until after I had completed a rough draft that the concept of including sketches within the text of the narrative suddenly made sense. I remember talking to my literary agent, Amy Moore-Benson, about the possibility of including a few drawings inside the pages. Amy was enthusiastic about the idea and this became part of the proposal she sent to Becky Saletan—at the time with Harcourt, and later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who acquired Inklings. Becky loved the idea of incorporating drawings within the text, images that wouldn’t appear predictably at, say, the start of each chapter, but rather, would be sprinkled throughout—little surprises. My words, therefore, would become the cake, a really good and tasty cake—the drawings, an occasional dollop of frosting. Soon I was clearing my desk of my laptop and putting on my illustrator’s hat, pen and paper at the ready, imagining I had just been handed someone else’s manuscript, rereading the pages with fresh eyes, taking notes as to what might make for an interesting sketch.

I knew right off that I would avoid showing myself and the other people who appear in my memoir; instead, I would focus on the objects that play a role in my story, objects that often carry a talisman quality. My father’s fedora, for example, makes an appearance during a pivotal scene. Also, my mother’s wigs on her Styrofoam heads. And a Dizzy Wizzy, a toy my father invented.

One incident I attempted to capture in ink, but eventually abandoned: the moment I was struck by lighting. I just couldn’t find an image that came close to expressing the piercing flash of light, the power and magnitude of that electrical charge that entered and exited my body, the instantaneous crack of thunder that rattled the earth when I was seventeen and watching an approaching storm.

Some things are better left written.

My Interview with Rachel Shukert

August 25th, 2010

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I rarely laugh out loud anymore. I mean, I often think things are funny, and can find great enjoyment in reading cartoons and humorous writing.  It’s just that, I don’t know, maybe I’m too busy analyzing why something is funny, studying the word choices, the timing.

That all changed during my recent trip to the Gulf Coast when I read Rachel Shukert’s new memoir, “Everything is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.” Page after page, Ms. Shukert’s writing took me by surprise. I found myself doing the unexpected, especially when on a crowded airplane: I let go, bursting into laughter.

Q. “Everything is Going to Be Great” is one of the funniest memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Although you live in New York, and most of your memoir is set in Europe, you grew up in Omaha which makes several cameos throughout your book. Do you think of yourself first as a New Yorker, or as an Omahan living in New York and traveling abroad?

Well, I was born and raised in Omaha, and moved to New York when I was 18.  I’ve been in New York for twelve years now.  So I’ve really lived in New York almost exactly the same amount of time that I really, lucidly remember living in Omaha, and maybe because of that, I think I’m sort of at a point where I think of myself as this sort of hybrid. The childhood and teenage side of me–which is still pretty dominant, I have to say–is from Omaha, but as an adult, I’m a New Yorker.  Maybe it’s a bit schizophrenic, but it’s not like they’re antithetical or anything.  The person I am today is very much of both places.  In conversation, I find myself referring to both places as “home.”  I don’t know if that will ever really change.

Screen shot 2010-08-24 at 8.04.51 AMIs there something about Midwestern sensibilities that lends itself to humorous writing?

I certainly don’t think everyone from the Midwest is funny–some of the most unfunny people in the world live right in Omaha, Nebraska, and I know because I’ve spent time in their administrative offices waiting while they called my mother–but I think if you’re humorously inclined, the culture gives you a good foundation.   Comedy is first and foremost about clarity, about the shock of having something described to you the way it actually is, instead of the way we’re societally trained to skirt around the truth.  And Midwesterners are pretty straightforward that way, pretty matter-of-fact.  We call things the way we see them, and that can actually be pretty subversive.  I also think Midwesterners are pretty hard to impress (which at times can be infuriating, for example, when they are your family members), but the flip side of that is that they don’t take themselves or anything else too seriously, which is essential for humor.  You have to have a certain kind of fearlessness to be funny.  You can’t allow yourself to be intimidated.  You’ve got to have a little of that pioneer spirit, maybe.

You left Omaha for NYU and eventually headed to Europe to pursue your dream of becoming an actress. How has acting, and theater, shaped your writing?

The first creative writing I ever did was for the theater.  In acting school, I started to get really bored of performing and hearing the same five scenes and monologues over and over again, so I started to write my own.  At first, I didn’t really even want anyone to know I’d written them.  If anyone asked I’d just say they were from some old, out-of-print print play I’d found someplace, but then people started to respond positively to them, and then I started writing whole plays, and it kind of snowballed into the strange little career you see before you today.  So everything goes back to that; if I had never been an actor, I’m not entirely sure I’d have found my way to writing, or it might have taken a lot longer to get here.  At the very least, it provided a really good map.


The training I received as an actor is still really evident, even intrinsic, to my writing process.  It’s a different medium of expression, but you use a lot of the same tools to create a character or a scene on the page as you do on the stage–a kind of emotional intelligence, being present in the moment, analyzing the dynamics of a scene or a conversation, figuring out what motivates people to behave as they do.  Memoir writing, especially I think, is very related to acting.  Actors are all obsessed with the sum of their personal experience, and it’s not just narcissism (or at least, not entirely.)  It’s actually really useful as an actor to be able to look analytically at things that happened to you and what they felt like, to really boil it down into very specific parts in order to access those feelings later.  The difference is that an actor physicalizes that information, while a writer verbalizes it, and a writer also has to shift the perspective outwards, to be able to retain that minute attention to detail but also look at the big picture.  Actually, that was always what I felt was my weakness as an actor, that I couldn’t stay focused enough, that my attention was always being drawn to other things–themes, ideas, the connectivity of the characters.  My perspective was too intellectualized to be effective; the performance would get bogged down in all these ideas.  And as a writer, that can be a great strength, although it’s still a delicate balance.  But they are definitely very overlapping talents.  A lot of actors are great writers, and a lot of writers can be pretty good actors.

I love that you tried to pass off as an old play something you had written. Can you recall any of that early work? Were any of those first monologues and plays autobiographical?

No, mostly they weren’t.  There was one where I was a feral orphan who was impregnated by a Tour de France rider who had lost his way in my forest home. That one eventually was incorporated into a play I wrote with my friend Neal, but I used it as an audition monologue for years, to almost universal bafflement.  And there was another one where I was this sort of bad seed figure skating champion from Switzerland, I think.  Then I eventually invented this character that was this incredibly elderly socialite with a string of disastrous marriages and a schizophrenic son.  I wrote lots and lots of monologues in her voice, which I eventually turned into one of the very first plays I ever wrote, called “Soiled Linens.”  I actually performed some of those monologues in Amsterdam, around the time when the book was set.  My dear friend directed them into a little twenty minute piece.  People seemed to respond pretty well, except part of the character’s voice was that she spoke very quickly, learned that when you’re performing for an audience whose first language isn’t English, even if they speak it well, you have to speak relatively slowly for them catch everything.

When writing about your relationships with family and friends, and especially when documenting your personal mishaps, you certainly don’t hold back. Are there any boundaries for you, things that even you won’t write about?

I’m pretty careful writing about my husband.  I don’t write about certain things that have to do with him–his family, or things pertaining to his career, or our really intimate moments. I don’t feel like those are things I have jurisdiction over, so to speak. [pullquote]If writing a biography is like painting a portrait, then a memoir is like making a sculpture out of found objects…[/pullquote]When I do write about him, I usually let him read what I’ve written before it’s final.  Generally, he’s a pretty good sport, and I try to be fair.  If there’s something he has a problem with that I feel is really essential to what I’m trying to get across, I’ll make a case for it and he’s usually receptive to that.  But I try to pick my battles.  If changing a little throwaway detail makes him more comfortable, it’s worth it to me.  But I get final cut.

I also really try not to be cruel, or to pass judgment on other people about things that don’t concern me.  It’s not up to me to divulge my thoughts on why someone else’s relationship failed, or what kind of pornography they watch.  The only secrets I have a right to expose are my own.  I’m not writing exposés of people, or trying to humiliate them; I find that really distasteful.  If I do have something not so nice to say, I try very hard to change enough superficial details that the person won’t be recognizable to others, and if I’m a bit ruthless about something, I make sure I’m twice as critical of myself.  I have a real problem in memoir when authors are extremely critical of the people around them but don’t hold themselves to the same standard of accountability.  It makes for dishonest work that is insulting to the reader–it presumes they’ll just be still and believe what they’re told and won’t be able to see through it.

I have a few family members who have explicitly asked me never to pop up in one of my books.  They’re proud of me, they like my work, but they just don’t want to be a part of it.  They’re like the missing Osborne daughter, the one who didn’t want to be on the show.  I respect that, so I won’t write about them.  At least not until they’re dead.

Your memoir is not only humorous, but it’s poignant and touching. You also manage to write in a way that seamlessly weaves in details from the past without necessarily telling the story chronologically. It’s like magic. Do you have a general sense of what connections you will be making, what personal truths you will reveal, before you write or does the whole process happen organically?

The great challenge of memoir is assembling a compelling, meaningful narrative out of only things that actually happened to you.  You can embellish, you can tweak a detail here and there, but it’s mostly made out of finite parts that you somehow have to make dynamic.   If writing a biography is like painting a portrait, then a memoir is like making a sculpture out of found objects–you have all these things, and you have to order them in a way that transcends the sum of their parts and takes on a new meaning.  This is maybe kind of a cliched example, but I always think of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” sculpture–it’s a urinal, but it stops being just a urinal because of its context as art.  In memoir, a stupid thing that happened to you one time transforms into literature because you put it into its proper place.

When I started writing Everything Is Going To Be Great, I had an idea of the narrative arc of the story.  It’s takes place within a very contained period of time, and it’s a period that I always felt had a very clear beginning, middle and end.  At the time, I often felt like I was sort of living in a novel–since everything was new, which of course is the other meaning of “novel”–and so I wanted it to have a novelistic feeling, to make it more of a satisfying story than a disjointed series of events.  So I tried to make sure that the stories I chose served that purpose.

I remember reading something once about this guy who was a memory savant.  He literally, to the word, every conversation he had ever had, everything that had ever happened on every day, had total recall of his entire life. And I thought, that guy could never write anything, because if you don’t forget the unimportant stuff, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff?  Our most vivid memories, even the ones that seem trivial–a person we saw on a train platform, a red sweater we loved as a kid–are often the most compelling, in literature and in life.  They’re like ancient artifacts in a museum, they’re valuable simply because of the great mass of stuff, they survived.  Your own memory can be the greatest editor you ever have.

Regarding your memory as an editor, and with the assumption that you will write many more books in the future, do you ever find yourself trying to sort out the significant from the unimportant, in the heat of the moment?

Sometimes I have a moment where I think: “I am going to remember this forever.”  It’s something I’ve done since I was a little kid–make these little mental notes of something and file them away for later.  But I think most of its subconscious.  No memory is ever really lost forever.  You’ll find it when you need it.


Very impressive landing blurbs from both Gary Shteyngart and Diablo Cody. How did that happen?

I’d been a huge fan of Gary’s, but I’d thought of a blurb from him as a total pipe dream–I didn’t know him, and I knew he was really busy with his own amazing new book.  But then we were both invited to be a part of this big event in San Francisco, and we really hit it off and he and my husband and my friend Jesse and I spent some pretty hilarious nights out on the town together, and he said to me once “I think your book is the only new one this year I haven’t given a blurb yet, I can’t believe it,” and I was like, “Please, be my guest!” So I gave him the book when we all got back in town and was so relieved that he didn’t immediately take back his offer to blurb it once he actually read it.

Diablo Cody was on my publisher’s dream list of blurbs, and of course, I was also a huge fan of her work as well.  I figured it was a long shot, but she’s actually a good friend of a friend of mine, so I asked my friend if she thought Diablo might be open to taking a look at the book, which she was!  She and I have emailed a bit, after she read the book, and she’s really such a lovely, generous person.  I’m so honored to have had the support of them both–it’s really like a dream.

Are you working on the screenplay version for either of your books?

I’m not exactly at liberty to say right now, but there has been quite a bit of interest in that direction.  So we’ll see!  I don’t want to jinx anything. : )

For those in the Omaha area, Ms. Shukert will be signing copies of Everything is Going to Be Great at Omaha’s only full-service indie bookstore, The Bookworm, Saturday, August 28, 2 p.m.

A portion of this interview previously appeared in The Omaha World-Herald.

Pub Day!

November 3rd, 2009

It’s weird. It sort of feels like Christmas came early. The golden leaves are falling like snow and my memoir, which I have worked on for many years, is now officially published. I am blessed to have such a great agent, Amy Moore-Benson, a wonderful publisher in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and my dear friends and family who have been so incredibly supportive.

And what about this website, huh? Is it not the best website you’ve ever visited? I wish I could take credit, but all the applause goes to the incredibly gifted folks at Omaha’s very own, What Cheer!

Arnold Roth’s Cartoon Blurb (Carb?)

October 15th, 2009

It’s not every day you get blurbed by a cartoonist/illustrator for The New Yorker. Better still–a blurb PLUS a cartoon! Here’s the drawing Roth included with his blurb. The lightning references a scene from Inklings.

Inklings Book Trailer

October 13th, 2009

Hey, everyone, here’s the new trailer for “Inklings”! We shot it a few Saturdays ago at the Omaha World-Herald. We picked a Saturday because I have sort of a loudish voice and figured I wouldn’t bother as many co-workers on a weekend.

I was really stressed out in the days before shooting–after all, I’m a cartoonist and my workspace tends to be, well, a mess. So I spent a couple of evenings cleaning and organizing. I unearthed some great stuff–my original copy of Rollo May’s “The Courage to Create,” for example.

Did I mention that we were shooting on one of the upper floors of my building and the exterior of the hermetically-sealed windows were filthy? I’m not kidding when I say that in the briefest of moments, the thought actually crossed my mind that maybe I could open them somehow! When I reminded myself that this was an impossible task, not to mention that I’m afraid of heights, I moved on to visualizing a giant rainstorm that would magically wash all the dirt away.

Realizing that there was nothing that could be done with the windows, I focused on sweeping away eraser dust, tossing dried-up pens, scrubbing counter tops, and recycling scraps of paper and old newspapers. My wife even came by to help polish the bookcases. I did leave all the ink blots on my drawing table–some things ARE sacred, after all.

Anyway, I soon realized that everything looked too clean and no longer looked like a cartoonists’ workspace anymore. Even I didn’t feel comfortable there.

Fortunately, I’m capable of making a mess pretty quickly, so by the time videographer, Scott Caplin, made his way to Omaha from Kansas City a few days later, the place was again starting to feel like home. Still, I was worried about the windows.

Except that Scott went with a tight shot anyway. And then I reminded myself that we were there to talk about my memoir, not to shoot an episode for HGTV.

Ironically, the window washers showed up yesterday, on a frigid and windy day in Omaha. It sort of freaked me out to be at my drawing table as the guy on the other side of the window was cleaning it. I wasn’t sure what to do. Make eye contact? Wave? Hold up a sign that read, “Thank you, but why weren’t you here a few weeks ago when I was shooting a video?”

But I digress.

A big thanks to Charles Halpin and Scott Caplin of Bookwrap Central for that terrific work!

Hope you like the video!

Drawing Words

August 30th, 2009

Sometimes I write. Sometimes I draw. And apparently, sometimes I write about drawing. Drumroll, please…my recent column about twenty year’s worth of deadlines at the Omaha World-Herald.