Friday, January 27, 2012
Pattie Kaiks and Self-Destruct Buttons
Growing up, most of my creative endeavors were pure rip-offs. Stevenson's Kidnapped inspired me to write some really hacked high seas adventure tales. I attempted a rendition of Watership Down except with kitties on a roadtrip. And cartoon-wise, I knelt at the altars of Charles Schulz, Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, and Pat Brady, and as I got older Kevin Maguire, Adam Hughes, Brooke McEldowney, Patrick McDonnell...it gets to be a pretty long list, actually, but if you look, you'll see them in there.
In the Arts (note the big "A" on that), you're supposed to study from others with the aim that eventually imitation will yield to talent and originality. Pattie Kaiks was my first attempt as a cartoonist to generate something entirely my own. Of course it was necessarily influenced by everything I'd ripped off and imitated before--you are your past as much as you are your present--but unlike everything I'd done before, I didn't "fall into" Pattie Kaiks. I designed her.
The opportunity fell from the sky a little--I'd been doing cartoons for some local papers and talking with my editor about applying to syndicates and trying to branch out with a comic strip. He suggested I develop one for his weekly paper, something that would be relevant to local and current events, and I sat down to build Pattie. Unlike my earlier work, this would be a comic strip of adults for adults! (That didn't quite stick because...well, because I was writing it, and as a friend of mine likes to point out, if the world were slightly more forgiving, my outfits would likely be a mix of primary colors--all three, every day, like a walking, living Legos set.) Kid stuff eventually sneaked in, but I did my best to keep the perspective focused on Pattie, a tea-drinking, single, childless, self-employed C.P.A. in the full bloom (and physical slide) of adulthood. I loved her instantly. She's a woman's woman, a worker, tenacious and unapologetic, both proud of and frustrated by her physicality that was (and is) so expressive and really fun to draw.
I submitted samples of Pattie for syndication and got a lot of positive feedback. But I got bogged down in other things (teaching and graduate school and the like), and I suffered from a rather crippling case of rejection-depression that made it difficult for me to see ways to address the criticism without overhauling everything and starting again from scratch. It's a stupid, useless, and totally derailing response to an editor's letter that essentially says, "I like you and I want to see more!" And it lasted just long enough for me to whip out the classic, "it's been too long, they'll have forgotten me," self-destruct button. I didn't re-apply. What a wuss.
Pattie would have some sharp things to say to me about that. You might glean from the bit above, the woman is no faint-hearted stranger to frustration. She has little tolerance for self-pity and none for failure rooted in giving up. And since going back and looking at my old submissions to syndicates, agents and publishers, I can see so much better now how to tackle many of the revision issues. At the time, hot off the frenzy of creating it in the first place, when I looked at something like Pattie Kaiks, I already saw the hundred incarnations it was before I inked it so changing one more thing seemed impossible. Skillful revision takes distance and perspective.
One of my screenwriting teachers was a strong advocate of the "put it in a drawer" technique. You write something that doesn't seem quite right, or even if it seems flawless, he advised we "put it in a drawer and forget about it." Well, I can't really do that. Put it in a drawer and obsess about it, done! Done all day! I've been developing a "put it in a drawer and make something else" technique, and I'm having rather profound success. Once you close that drawer, create something else, something totally unrelated. A key element here is you have to throw yourself into it with equal fervor for it to really work. If it's just an exercise, give yourself a time-limit, but I have to say devoting yourself utterly to creating even a reeking heap of not-at-all-useful can do wonders for divorcing you from your previous work and getting you the "fresh eyes" you need to see, and revise, clearly. The multitude of incarnations, left-overs from your first frenzied creative process, will pale before what's actually on the page and revision is possible again. If you consider every submission you send as a slightly modified "put it in a drawer" moment, you could be neck-deep in a new and even more exciting creative prospect when the rejections or calls for revision roll in, bracing you for the first, preparing you to work if it's the second.
As a friend and colleague reminded me just the other day, "This is the job." Being a creative professional beats you up and knocks you down and sometimes doesn't pay anything at all. But you get up and invest yourself and infuse your work with your best effort and genuine love in the hope others will recognize it and want more. I've developed some better tools since Pattie, skills Pattie would be proud of, to keep me from sinking in the tempestuous, subjective seas of creative work. My pity-parties now have strict curfews, and I keep a good number of drawers handy. Some stink. Some don't. That's the job.