The Single Biggest Mistake of My Entire Creative Life
I am currently a novelist and a cartoonist, but before all that I was a stand-up comic. It was at the beginning of my comedy career that I made the single biggest mistake of my entire creative life.
No, it was not becoming a stand-up comic in the first place. (Though you could make that argument. Someday, have me tell you about the time I performed between rounds at a boxing match).
When I was a young comic trying to build up an act’s worth of material, I read any book or article I got my hands on that had anything to do with joke writing. One day I read that when Woody Allen was a stand-up, he wrote at least twenty jokes a day. I read that and thought, That’s fine for him. He’s a genius.
Having that thought, and believing it, was the biggest mistake of my creative life, possibly my entire life. By deciding that he could write twenty jokes a day because he was better than me, I also decided that I couldn’t, and even worse, gave myself permission not to even try. Instead, I bought into the idea that I could only write when I was feeling inspired.
I did write, and I came up with some material of which I am still quite proud, like my theory that Moby Dick was really about marriage. (The whale’s wearing white, and once Ahab’s lashed to it permanently, the whale gets rid of his friends and his boat!) Unfortunately, it took me forever to build up an act I was proud of, and once I had a joke that worked I was reluctant to replace it with something new. People who came to see me often got to where they could lip-synch my act, which is not as flattering for a comedian as it is for a band.
Eventually, I burned out on comedy. I still wanted a creative outlet, so I decided to try creating a comic strip. That’s when I started producing Basic Instructions.
The thing about a comic strip is that you have to produce it on a schedule. You can’t wait for inspiration. The word balloons must be filled. This time, I decided to actually try, instead of just deciding I wasn’t up to the challenge. As you may have guessed, I found that I could write on demand. I’m not saying that everything I write is brilliant, mind you, but in retrospect, neither did Woody Allen. I have certain standards, and if I don’t have any ideas that are up to those standards, I keep at it until I think of something else. Often, comics that I thought were only barely good enough to publish turn out to be reader favorites, which I find both encouraging and worrying.
When they saw my comic strip, almost all of my stand-up comic friends asked the same question: “How many of these do you think you’ll be able to do?”
So far, I’ve created over 900 installments of the comic, most of which are available in book form. Now I’ve also completed two novels, Off to Be the Wizard and Spell or High Water. I am finishing work on a third novel, which I hope to have out by the end of the year. People tell me they’re amazed by my output. That’s flattering, but I’m irritated that it took me so long to really get started.
The hero of my novels is a man in his early twenties who makes a lot of mistakes. That’s me writing what I know.